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TBM 235: Forms & Shadows
Prepare for some post-break philosophizing…
Consider twelve related frames we might use to think about a team or company:
Goals and strategies
Activities and behaviors
(There are more, but twelve is enough for now.)
Team A. Imagine a healthy product team with a solid strategy, customer access, the ability to release independently, a lot of autonomy, actionable goals, and a clear sense of how their work contributes to sustainable, differentiated growth.
Team B: Picture an overburdened product team lacking a coherent strategy, direct customer access, and dependent on other groups for releases. They operate with minimal autonomy, have vague and always shifting objectives, and struggle to understand how their efforts align with the company's broader vision or contribute to its sustainable growth.
Going back to our frames, these two teams might look like this:
Team A doesn't need to do as much frame-switching when they have a conversation. Not because the frames don't exist. But rather because the frames are coherent with each other. When they say "our product," it will match their independently releasable codebase. When they talk about their customers, it will match their goals, their budget, their behaviors, and their incentives. Strategy and structure are aligned.
Team B is likelier to expend energy rapidly shifting and translating between frames. "Why are we doing this again?" "How does this map to our goals?" "Who knows about that?" "Who owns that service?" “Why don’t the priorities mean anything?” “Why did we keep saying X, but doing Y?” Hop, hop, and hop.
To make this more real in the product world, when doing North Star Workshops, you notice the difference between companies that have good team-value fit and those that don't. I always stress, "Start with value and customers first," but it can be very hard to implement this way of working when it clashes with the org chart.
There are many ways to think of this: harmony, orthogonality, coupling, cohesion, "world of Forms" vs. shadows (Plato), Yin and Yang.
Both teams are "complex" but in different ways:
Team A is the local. They move through their environment and the frames in their environment with ease. The maze of streets is their playground, and the culture and language are their own. They understand the rhythm, the shortcuts, the unwritten rules. Team A might not view their world as "complex"—" things are simple, they just work!" For the locals, the city isn't a puzzle to be solved or managed; it's simply home.
Team B is the perpetual visitor. Every exchange is a hurdle—street signs, menus, directions, and cultural cues cause dissonance. There's cognitive friction at every turn. This constant context-switching between their native understanding and the city's unfamiliar systems makes every task exhausting. Team B might imagine themselves as "battling complexity."
Team A: adaptive, emergent, self-organized, resilient, abundant feedback loops
Team B: entanglement, brittleness, wicked problems, noise over signal, stifled emergence, reduced adaptability
But what if something happens to Team A? What if product-market fit slips, the macroeconomic climate changes, a new leader joins with different priorities, or a competitor releases a game-changing update? Their situation isn't as fractured as Team B, but they must try to navigate the dissonance and gradually bring this back together.
In many ways, this oscillation underpins growth and evolution amidst changing conditions. It's like wanderlust—the feeling that things aren't right and the urge to explore to become whole again.
What options does Team B have to make things better?
Team B can institutionalize the incoherence, add some lightweight scaffolding to "pull" things towards an attractor, or keep things fairly static, try the "bright spot" approach, and see what happens.
My preference here is the temporary scaffolding. You need attractors, but you also need to respect the high cognitive load and install temporary interfaces. The trouble with interfaces, of course, is that they become institutionalized (which probably explains why, once they commit to all the pomp and circumstance, very few companies let go of SaFE).
The important thing here is that we navigate lots of very valid "frames" in our daily work. When things are coherent, you need to jump around less. From the outside, Team A can look disorganized and "running too loose." But they aren't. They are "the locals" operating in their city. When you're the local, you don't carry around a map, do status updates daily, set goals for every shopping trip, and write everything down.
Suppose you are in a Team B situation. Hopefully, this might explain the cognitive load and context switching you are experiencing, as well as things like priorities not driving decisions, decision drift, etc.
To fix things you will need to cohere the frames….
A big thanks to Daniel Schmidt, the founder of DoubleLoop. He's always up for my weird thoughts on the mess and listened to me for an hour blabbing about this today. His product helps create coherence.
Break recap! I finally was able to travel with my son to see his grandmother! Priceless…