Monday, July 9, 2012

Cohesion, Coherence, Clarity, and Connectedness


I've always been a bit of a stickler for language. Not quite so much as Humpty Dumpty, who says to Alice during her adventures in Wonderland (a place with disturbing similarities to the 9 to 5 worlds that some of us inhabit): "When I use a word... it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." For me, words are nuanced, and specific - not used as a device of control but for the purpose of communicating new ideas by connecting them to things that people already understand.

Having said that, please know that I'm not upset when people use 'cohesion' when they are talking about 'coherence'. It's only in the interest of clarity that I'm even mentioning it.

Cohesion is the state of sticking together. On a team, cohesion accurately describes the traditional sense of everyone doing the same thing at the same time. (No I will not say "hold hands and sing Kumbaya," but if you thought of that, you've got the idea.) That kind of cohesion worked best back when there was one boss and he (it was almost always 'he') made all the decisions, and large numbers of people were actually doing the same thing.

On many modern teams, teammates are far less likely to be doing the same thing; and even less likely to be working in the same building, or state, or country. In the future of work, cohesion - marching in lockstep - will be of less and less value. Team members will need to be able to handle the stress that comes with collaborating through distance, ambiguity, and continuous change. What they will need is Coherence.

Coherence is physical. It's a term used in signal processing, which involves a lot of equations. (Once upon a time, I wanted to become a theoretical mathematician. I like the elegance of equations, but I fear that the vast majority of you may not, so there won't be any here.) Think of what it's like when you have bad phone connection, causing noise and distortion of the sound. That signal has low coherence, so it's easy to recognize that coherent sound is highly desirable.

Lasers emerged when scientists learned how to generate a coherent beam of light, and lasers are now used in electronics, entertainment, medicine, and communications. The laser that's used for surgery allows the surgeon to pinpoint, with extreme precision, the place that gets cut. If you ever need eye surgery, you'll appreciate this, because it makes for relatively pain-free recovery.

Did you know that a beam of laser light, projected from Earth to the Moon - a quarter of a million miles away - will light an area only a mile and a quarter in diameter. Compare that with a normal flashlight beam, which begins to dissipate mere inches from the source.

When I use the term coherence to describe how people 'team', I'm talking about the same phenomenon. When people operate coherently, they have 'clean' relationships with the others on their team. If needed, they can all take on different jobs within the team, moving to more leadership if that's their specialty, and hanging back to let others step up when it's the right time. The clarity and intensity that accompany the state of Coherence is what keeps people attracted to, and connected to, their team - no matter where in the world they may be.

Now what does all this have to do with connectedness?

It turns out that a lot of our daily work, and a lot of the 'content' that happens in the course of organizational activity, is subject to the influence of nodes in the social network - and in particular, the high-level nodes known as 'hubs.' They're the people who seem to know everyone, and through whom a lot of communication passes.

When social nodes are Coherent, they are free of noise and distortion. The signal that enters them is pretty much the same as the one that emerges. But a message can change when it passes through a less Coherent node. The result could be a simple misunderstanding, a significant error, or a layer of political intrigue. Either way, the network maintains connectedness, but a Coherent network is one that will nurture people, amplify performance, and maintain the integrity of the organization and its vision.

So let's strive for the clarity and connectedness that comes with Coherence. Beyond that, cohesion is optional.