Stop Managing People requires a shift in focus. A shift in focus based in network theory where individuals and teams are linked or connected to each other in different ways. A shift in focus that emphasizes individual and team performance as a function of the quality of the connections between elements, not just the quality of the elements themselves. A shift in focus that can be summarized in the modified catch phrase from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign: “It’s the lines stupid!”

Network Connections

Networks come from the study of graphs in mathematics in which attention is given to the graphical arrangements of discrete elements and the specific connections between them. These discrete elements can include concepts (an abstract idea or generalization) such as freedom, integrity, or peace; social entities such as individuals, families, groups, projects, or organizations1; locations such as New York City, Paris, Italy, or North America; positions such as CEO, Senator, Vice President, or volunteer; physical objects such as computers, cars, buildings, or molecules; or some combination of these. Whatever the discrete elements involved, they are represented in a network diagram or graph as “nodes”, generally in the form of circles.

Elements form a network only if they are connected or linked to one another in some way. The specific connections that exist between the elements are referred to as “links” and are represented by lines. The existence of a line between two nodes in a network diagram indicates that there is some type of connection between them. If there is no line between nodes, they are not connected. In a network, a node cannot exist without being connected to at least one other node.

Tangible Connections.

In some cases, the connections are tangible connections that have a physical presence that is perceptible by touch or sight. Electrical cords connecting computers, ropes tying two climbers together, or a bridge connecting a city on one side of a river to the city on the other side are examples of tangible connections. Tangible connections, in the form of wires, are evident in the following picture:

A collection of tangible connections

Intangible Connections.

In other cases, the connections are intangible connections where there is no physical presence to the connection between nodes. For example, the connection of “trust” or “friend” between two people is intangible as is the connection “boss” between a manager and her direct reports. They are intangible connections because there is no physical nature to the connection that we can see or touch. We may infer an intangible connection from the way the people involved interact and from what they say to each other, but there is no perceptible physical thing between them that is the connection “trust”, “friend”, or “boss” itself. We cannot tell if you “trust” someone, or if they are a “friend”, or your “boss”, or some combination of these unless we are told. Intangible connections, therefore, are “invisible” and must be learned.

One way to appreciate intangible connections is to consider the group of people sitting around the table in the picture below. As new observers at the table, we would not know what intangible connections exist among the people: we cannot tell simply by looking at them. We can’t tell if someone is a boss or to whom, if any of them are friends (or enemies), or if any of them trust or distrust someone. We could only know any of intangible connections if we have been told prior to the meeting or if they tell us what connections exist. Now, if we observed the group interact for a while, we might speculate about, hypothesize, or infer what some of the intangible connections might be, but we would not see them and, unless and until they were confirmed, we wouldn’t know for sure. Unlike tangible connections between elements, intangible connections are social constructions that have no physical existence. Rather, they exist as a result of human interaction and agreement and, therefore, must be learned and remembered.

A group with intangible connections

The invisibility of intangible connections is a challenge for us because it is easy to see “nodes”, e.g., specific individuals and what they do and say, but not the intangible connections between them. As a result, people generally don’t look at the connections between nodes as a source of what does and doesn’t get done in organizations. Rather, they tend to look at the attributes, qualities, and characteristics of the entities themselves and engage with those to get things done, i.e., they try to manage the nodes.

Consider the situation where electrical installers receive work orders from engineers working with developers building new facilities such as shopping centers or office buildings. To provide developers with what they want, installers need work orders that are complete, accurate, and timely. When they aren’t, installations can be late, incomplete, and/or inaccurate. As might be expected, there are times when work orders have errors and the installations do not meet developer’s requirements. In response to these occurrences, the engineers blame the competence, commitment, and work ethic of the installers. The installers, for their part, blame the competence of the engineers insisting that they “don’t know how to do their jobs”. In this situation, the nodes focus on the qualities, attributes, and characteristics of the other node rather than considering that the connection between them, the work order, may be the culprit. As a result, they complain about each other and how “if they (the other node) would only change, things would be fine.”

Directed and Nondirected Connections

Directed connections indicate a) the direction in which some “thing”, such as a product, service, or communication, moves between two elements or b) the next step in a sequence of events or activities. The direction of movement or sequence is indicated by an arrow at the end of the connecting line(s). One headed arrows indicate things move or occur in only one direction, whereas, two headed arrows indicate they move or occur in two directions.  Examples of both types of directed connections are shown in the pictures below.

The Highway Department Decision Process provides an example of directed connections showing the sequence of events or actions in deciding about whether to build new highway lanes. In this example, no “thing” moves on the connections as the lines only indicate the next step in the decision sequence or process based on the results of a prior step.

Highway Department Decision Process showing decision sequence

In the second example (below), the directed connections in the value stream map show both the direction in which “weekly orders” move from production control to suppliers and “monthly orders” move from customers to production control. These orders are communications that move from one entity to another. This map also shows the sequence in which items that fulfill customer orders move from the receipt of materials from suppliers, through processes A, B, and C, to the shipping of the finished items to customers. The specific “things” (i.e., products, services, or communications) that move between processes A, B, and C are not identified.

Value Stream Map showing sequence and direction of movement

Nondirected connections between elements which are indicated by a line with no arrow heads on it, indicating that there is a connection, but that there is nothing that moves on that connection or that there is no sequence to follow. Organization charts, such as the one pictured below, show the hierarchy of authority where authority connections between positions are nondirected connections. Social networks, such as the one illustrated below, also use nondirected connections. Nondirected connections tell us that entities are connected in some way, but that nothing moves on that connection. If we are interested in what moves between entities, then we will want to pay attention to directed connections.

Connection Strength and Quality

Connections can vary in their strength and quality. Social network theorists talk about whether a connection, also referred to as a “tie”, is weak or strong. We are all familiar with weak or poor connections when it comes to cell phones or the internet. A weak phone connection makes it difficult for the parties to hear each other. A weak or poor internet connection reduces the speed with which documents can be sent or received, material streamed, or searches conducted what comes through is choppy, incomplete, or unclear.

The strength/quality of a connection, therefore, determines how reliable the performance of the parties involved is. Where connections are weak/poor, performance will be unreliable with work being incomplete, inaccurate, or late. Where connections are strong/excellent, performance will be reliable and work will be complete, accurate, and on time. Strong, high-quality connections are required for reliable task accomplishment.

There are two factors that contribute to the strength/quality of connections. The first is whether the connection is designed appropriately and the second is whether the connection is maintained. As with electrical systems, if the connections are inappropriately wired, the performance of the electrical system is compromised. Similarly, if electrical systems are not appropriately maintained, connections can become corroded, as in the pictures below, reducing the integrity and performance of the system.

The same is true with the performance of organization networks. If the connections are inappropriate for what is to be accomplished, are inappropriately designed, or are not appropriately maintained, then the performance of the network is compromised and will be diminished regardless of how capable and competent the nodes in the network. The challenge is that we cannot see intangible connections and do not really think of them as a point of leverage in improving individual, team, and organization performance. Rather, we tend to focus on the entities involved, i.e., the nodes, in the belief that if we can get them to change their behavior, everything will work appropriately. That is why we “manage people”, which, from a network perspective, is more accurately described as “managing nodes”. Unfortunately focusing on the nodes ignores the connections which are key to node performance..

A Shift in Focus: “It’s the lines, stupid!”

“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase coined by James Carville in 1992, when he was advising Bill Clinton in his successful run for the White House. In 1992, the US was experiencing an economic recession and the incumbent president, George HW Bush, was perceived as out of touch with the needs of ordinary Americans. Carville told campaign staffers to hammer on the importance of the economy at every chance they got – he even went so far as to hang a sign in campaign headquarters reading, in part, “the economy, stupid.” The phrase became a mantra for the Clinton campaign and served to highlight the focus on one key issue. We are appropriating a version of this saying to focus attention on the connections between elements in a network, particularly the deliverable connections. (https://politicaldictionary.com/words/its-the-economy-stupid/)

Ok, so what does all this have to do with Stop Managing People? In networks, the performance and viability of a node depends on the strength and quality of its connections with other nodes. Whether we are talking about a node that is an individual, a team, a project, or even a process, network theory indicates that the node’s performance depends on its connections with other nodes. If the connections are weak and poor because they are impaired, restricted, or damaged in anyway, then the performance of the node will also be impaired or restricted, regardless of how capable, competent, or motivated the node may be! Network theory encourages us to shift our primary focus from the quality and characteristics of the node itself to the strength and quality of the connections between the nodes. Said differently, network theory tells us that “it’s the lines, stupid!” and that by focusing on the strength and quality of connections, it is possible to increase the performance of a node and the network(s) in which it is embedded.

This is not to say that the qualities and characteristics of the node are irrelevant. They are very relevant. You need the nodes to be capable. However, as network theory shows, no matter how capable a node is, if it does not reliably receive what it needs from other nodes, it’s performance will suffer. An example of this can be found in numerous places. During the Covid19 pandemic of 2020-2022, a supply chain crisis meant organizations could not get the resources they needed to produce and deliver their products and services. At the end of 2021, a nationwide shortage of cream cheese resulting from unprecedented demand and supply chain issues caused New York City bagel shops to struggle to find ways to meet demand. According to the New York Times, dairy manufacturers and suppliers were simply unable to fill orders. As a result, the owner of a bagel shop in Lower Manhattan was told none of his order for 800 pounds of cream cheese would be delivered. In the face of this shortage, Kraft offered to reimburse customers up to $20 on a holiday desert of their choice to replace homemade cheesecakes that called for Philadelphia Cream Cheese, a Kraft-owned Brand. Bagel shops and other customers were unable to perform at their normal level not because they were incompetent, incapable, uncommitted, or even unmotivated, but because they were unable to get the cream cheese they needed from their suppliers: their connections where impaired or disrupted.

In medicine, one method used for eliminating some types of tumors is to starve them by cutting off their blood supply. Blood vessels (which are tangible connections) feed the tumor and by eliminating these connections, the viability of the tumor is disrupted and it dies.

The military use of the siege is another example. An ancient technique, the purpose of a siege is to cut off all the supply connections of the entity under siege, thereby reducing the entity’s viability and defensive properties so that it will surrender.

Finally, you have probably had the experience of making a cell phone call or being on a zoom conference when a “bad connection” occurs and the call is dropped or the conference goes off line. And, the disruption in your performance occurs regardless of what you do, how good your equipment is, or how upset you get. The reality is, in a network, what happens with the connections – “the lines” – has everything to do with your performance and the performance of other nodes. When the connections are strong, you get the things you need when you need them and you can proceed with your work. However, when the connections are weak, they you don’t get what you need when you need it and your work, and your performance, is disrupted.

Now, none of these examples is likely very surprising to you. We all know that connections matter and that if something happens to them, it can have a negative impact on us. Unfortunately, most people don’t manage that way. Rather, they operate and manage as if the productive properties of entities (e.g., individuals, teams, projects) is entirely a function of their personal qualities, characteristics, and attributes. What this means is that when the performance of an element is lacking in some respect, we look to see what is “going on with them” in the belief that their performance is entirely about them. This is like believing that when the internet goes down, the problem is with your computer.

What makes things different in a network is that: “…the essential productive properties of a node (i.e., team, group or organization) does not arise from the node itself, but from its productive connections between it and other nodes.” If a node’s productive connections with other nodes are weak, or in poor condition because they are not well designed and maintained, then the node will be less productive no matter how motivated, committed, or competent it is.

Perhaps you have seen this in your own work if your job performance has ever been inhibited by the failure of others to provide you with the things you need when you need them. You know, when others are late, or the work they give you is incomplete or inaccurate and you either must invest in fixing it or delay completing it at some cost to you and your reputation. Even worst, you probably even know who is most likely to be create these problems for you even though you have tried numerous times to get them to change their behavior. In some cases, these issues may continue even though you are their boss.

Your productivity, and the productivity of every other node in an organization depends on the quality of productive connections with others: “it’s the lines, stupid!”                                         

Now, I am not saying that personal qualities, characteristics, and attributes are of no consequence – they are. You cannot put just anyone in an operating room with a top tier surgery team and expect them to succeed. But neither can you put a top tier surgeon in a team with poor productive connections and expect them to succeed. You need both, but in networks the connections are the primary focus. Yet, in contemporary management in which we “manage people”, the focus is not on the connections, it’s on the nodes in the belief that if we can change the node that will take care of everything. How often have you heard someone say something to the effect that “If they were better organized, they would not be late getting things to me”.

Since most connections in organizations are intangible, they are invisible to us so we don’t even know to consider them. Perhaps the closest we get to considering any kind of connection is when we recognize that some nodes don’t “like” other nodes or that they don’t have authority. But even then, we attempt to deal with it by getting those involved to change their behavior rather than address a poor or weak connection. This belief that performance is all based in the nodes is evident in such statements as “if we just had the right people”, or “we need people who are more accountable”, and “we need better leadership that will inspire people to work”. All of these statements reflect a focus on and belief in that it is the quality, characteristics, and attributes of the node that determines performance. Changing nodes, however, does not mean connections will also change or change in the way that is needed to ensure the necessary and appropriate performance.

Summary

Within a network, discrete elements are connected to other discrete elements through directed (arrows) or nondirected (lines with no arrows) tangible (physical) or intangible (invisible nonphysical) connections. Directed connections indicate that there is a sequence to follow or that something moves between elements. Nondirected connections indicate there is no sequence or that nothing moves. Tangible connections mean there is something physical that connects elements, whereas, with intangible connections there is nothing physical connecting the elements. Finally, connections can vary in their quality (high/low) or strength (strong/weak) with high quality or strong connections being more capable of supporting elements than low quality or weak connections. If we are interested in performance and accomplishment, then we will be interested in high quality or strong directed connections since it is these that will make it possible for the elements involved to perform and accomplish.