#546  Innovative Leader    Volume 11, Number 2          February 2002

Relationships and Innovation
by Roger Lewin, Ph.D. and Birute Regine, Ph.D.

Drs. Lewin and Regine founded Harvest Associates, Cambridge, Massachusetts, bringing the principles of complexity science to business management www.thesoulatwork.com .  They wrote Weaving Complexity & Business: Engaging the Soul at Work (Texere, London, England, 2001).  Copyright 2000 by Roger Lewin and Birute Regine.  Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. NY . 

Jeff (a pseudonym), a technically brilliant chief information officer, worked for a large company, and was considered to be among the best in the world.  He attracted many people who wanted to face the technical challenges along with him and develop their skills under his guidance.

Jeff put together a very skilled team for a major project—a dream team—and quickly got everyone working.  A year and a half later, all the members of his team resigned.  So Jeff assembled another team, and the same thing happened.  He would lose several people and bring new ones in until he basically had a brand-new team.  Jeff became confused about being a leader. 


What was the problem?  If we focus on relationships, the mystery resolves itself.  Knowing intellectually that relationship building is valuable, Jeff tried to develop team-building skills in a very mechanical way.  He had strategies for talking to people, engaging them, providing opportunities.  But he wasn’t really there; he was only going through the motions to reach certain ends.  He didn’t see genuine relationships as being very important or having much value—it was more an obligation and something he did initially for team building, because it was the thing to do.

Initially his strategies and skills worked.  But as soon as he got a team spirit going, he would think, “Great.  We’ve done the relationship, connection, feedback stuff.  Don’t need to do it for another year or so.  Now we can get to the real work.”  He, in a sense, devalued relationships by making nonrelational activities more important, by separating relationships from real work.

Since he didn’t value relationships in and of themselves, he was unwilling to give up something valuable in order to develop them—time.  He thought developing relationships was a waste of time.  This was due partly to the fact that he wasn’t really interested in people personally.  His agenda at meetings rarely included people as people, such as asking, “How are you doing?”  “How is the team getting along together?” and all those things that can build a sense of connection.  When he did ask someone how they were doing, it wasn’t a personal question.  He was asking them to tell him how business was.  By not being interested in people for themselves, Jeff disconnected himself from the team.

Because there were no relationships holding the team together, when they encountered a particularly stressful period, they had nothing to fall back on, nothing to hold on to.  And the team fell apart.

Jeff’s team members initially expected to find a community of relationships.  That’s not unreasonable given they were spending seventy hours a week with each other and were sacrificing a balance in their lives.  If they didn’t have much community in their work or their lives, then a significant portion of what made them human beings, what makes people feel good about themselves, was gone.  When all else is the same, and people don’t have the work relationships they want, it becomes a priority; thus, Jeff’s staff left.

Strategic Paradox

It’s not that Jeff himself may not have longed for connection and relationships—we all do; it’s our nature.  It’s how we grow and thrive.  For whatever reasons, Jeff had lost connection to that need in himself, and a result had developed a strategic paradox.  He tried to develop team relationships without being truly present.  Strategic paradoxes are interpersonal strategies people develop that prevent from occurring the very thing that the person needs in order to be successful and want to have as a human being.  These strategies paradoxically prevent genuine connections and relationships; that is, they maintain disconnected and superficial business-based relationships.

Some people maintain disconnected relationships for the sake of keeping a job, for the sake of keeping a customer, for the sake of getting a job done—all of which sounds laudable.  But these strategies work only for the short term.  They do not work in the interest of sustainability of work relationships with customers and co-workers, because connections are weak, as in Jeff’s case.  When push comes to shove, people move on rather than move together to take on the challenges. 

Within an organization, weak connections make for a poor flow of information.  Inadvertently these strategies, by leaders at any level, collude to preserve existing hierarchies, inequalities, and isolation, limiting feedback loops and thus adaptability.  Strategic paradox is like comedian Steve Wright put it—suffering from amnesia and déjà vu at the same time; that is, a feeling that you are forgetting the same thing over and over again—the need for connected and caring relationships.

Value of Small Actions

Relational practice starts with you and how you interact.  It’s committing to developing relational skills by attending to the quality of your exchange with people.  Being too busy is no excuse.  You cannot afford not to improve these skills.  It really doesn’t take a lot more of your time.  You already spend time interacting; it’s a question of how you spend that time and the quality of the exchange.  Isn’t it worth taking just a little bit longer to find out someone’s point of view you don’t understand, rather than summarily dismissing it as being off target?

It’s a practice of developing personal awareness through reflection and action—an awareness of our impact on others and their effect on us, and being aware of the quality of the relationship itself and taking responsibility for “it.”  If “it” doesn’t feel right, it needs to be addressed.  It’s seeing what you bring to relationships, what others bring, and being clear in representing yourself.  It’s avoiding knee-jerk reactions, and allowing time for reflection before action; that is, responding, which engages rather than alienates.  Change toward a more adaptive and humane workplace starts with each person willing to take an honest look at themselves and act accordingly.  But leaders must set the examples.

Small Stuff

A relational practice is a practice of small actions—the small things we say and do in our interactions that can engage or alienate, nourish or deplete.  We may strive for great things, but life consists of small things.  Cultivating relationships is a daily practice, something we ought to be working on most of the time.  And we can work on it while we’re busy at work.  It’s not about “building relationships,” because relationships aren’t structures that can be built and completed, and then left on their own.  Relationships  start with a connection that happens when people share a mutual interest in each other, and then they unfold and may develop, often in unexpected ways. 

Pay attention to the four A’s of relational practice:  be authentic, acknowledge others, be accountable, and be attentive.  Then enjoy watching dedication, creativity and innovation flourish. 

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