Elsewhere

Getting To Trust: Better Swift Than Deep

Venessa Miemis is trying to get a group of ‘change agents’ to collaborate, and is finding it hard going:

Venessa Miemis, How Will We Collaborate if We Can’t Trust Each Other?

The next few years are going to be defined by a culture of learning and interactivity that involves more trust, and so naturally, more risk. If we’re going to go beyond just sharing links with each other to actually *helping* each other, working together, experimenting, prototyping, and adapting to changing circumstances, *we* have to first change in order to make that possible.

I’m in the process of experimenting with this firsthand, bringing people together into an online collaboratory space, and I’ll admit – it’s not easy. We’ve got a group of ‘change agents’ who want to do things together, to form ad-hoc teams around short-term projects, make something cool happen and improve our world and our lives — but how to begin?

Each of us is a free agent, delicately riding the edge of chaos and uncertainty as we try to pave our own path. Each of us likes the sound of a peer-to-peer culture, a transition from scarcity to abundance, a move from a transactional economy to a relational economy (ht jerry michalski), and a redefinition of value and wealth. Each of us sees the promise of a new way of working, living, and Being.

And yet there is still fear.

Are you gonna steal my idea? Are you gonna follow through with your commitments? Are you gonna take the credit? Am I gonna get screwed — yet again?

My question to you is: How do we transcend this, surrender, and take the next leap of faith?

(ponder it)

Assuming you are curious enough about the possibility to find out how it could work, what is the critical component that’ll inspire you to jump?

For me, it all comes down to trust.

Not just blind trust in everyone else, but trust in myself and a commitment to move past fear and into action. Lead by example and see who wants to come with me. Become aware of who I’m connected to and choosing carefully with whom I want to build things. Take small risks together so we can gain momentum. Start having some Collective Epic Wins.

I think Venessa is trying to do something that’s very hard: she’s trying to get a group to form a collective, with a shared set of principles and shared goals. And she’s right. To get there you have to build deep trust: a polite way to say that the folks in the collective have to sort out the politics involved. In general that can take months, even when the participants share a great deal in common in education, background, and temperament.

But why form a collective? As she points out, it’s risky. If you want to build things, you can define a small project to test some ideas, and form a Hollywood-style project team to accomplish it. Instead of trying to collaborate on a big, wholly integrated vision of the future — where everything has to be discussed and agreed on before the first thing gets done — just cooperate on something fast, small, and low risk.

The way of the future is cooperation, not collaboration.

Among other reasons cooperation merely requires swift trust, a well-researched human universal. People are capable in some circumstances of relaxing their general desire to establish deep trust — that time-consuming, political practice —and will simply adopt a role in a project, and suspend their disbelief about other’s motives, etc. This is a way to get folks to suspend their innate concerns about trust and control. In these contexts, people start with the presumption that the others in the project are professionals and that everyone will focus on doing their jobs as best as the can. A lot of communication is needed to keep it all working, but much less than in deep trust organizations, like the conventional enterprise.

This is how freelancers generally work, and it’s the way that cities work.

But Venessa and her friends are involved in forming a collective, and there is no short cut for them. They will need to build deep trust, and establish processes and practices, and politics to manage them.

My recommendation to Venessa was and still is to take the short cut, though. Define some constrained projects, with more modest goals and defined time frames, and work on them with a few others. It might lead to deep trust, but even if it doesn’t you can still be working, making headway, and maybe some money, too.

Me, I’m trying to work on a few interesting projects with some smart people, but I am not pushing them into one group and trying to create a way that all of us can be involved in everything. I’m going to work with Teresa DiCairano of Intervista on ‘ambient innovation’, which is our term for social, bottom-up innovation. I’m going to work with Claude Théoret of Nexalogy exploring the science underlying social networks, and trying to make that more accessible to the average person. And I am going to push ahead with my analysis in work media — the use of streaming social media tools in the enterprise — and I will be pulling a few others into that project with me, too. But these will be three discrete projects, with non-overlapping groups of participants. I am not making everything, everything.

I am trying to remain liquid, loosely connected to others, heading the same general direction. I am specifically not trying to solidify relationships — build deep trust — before getting something done with others.

So, my general recommendation is that people should favor loose connectives — social networks with less tight ties — that rely only on swift trust. If and when you establish deep trust with individuals, perhaps during short-term, swift trust-based projects, then perhaps your can form a collective, where the principles shared common, long-term purpose.

But such collectives are not a higher form of human solidarity that we should aspire to, and are not what we have to build in order to get big things done. On the contrary. An increasing proportion of professional work is being performed by freelancers, who live in a short-term project based economy. Why should I have to agree on a long term strategic vision about the future of work media just to work with other researchers on the state of that industry, for example? Or to take the example of the city, all the stores on Main Street do not have to agree to not compete with each other, or to pool their profits, or even to paint their storefronts the same color.

The costs of deep trust are too high, in general, for what they return. This is one reason that work is changing so quickly. Companies are loosening their hold on employees, providing them more autonomy, relaxing the requirements for deep trust: becoming more like cities and less like traditional armies, with everyone is made to march in step, and pointed in the same direction, all the time.

The Rise Of Rōnin and The Liquid Economy

Sara Horowitz, the founder of the Freelancers Union (through which I get my health insurance, by the way), makes the case that we are moving into a new US economy where rōnin (or freelancers) are becoming a significant force:

Sara Horowitz, The Freelance Surge Is the Industrial Revolution of Our Time

Everywhere we look, we can see the U.S. workforce undergoing a massive change. No longer do we work at the same company for 25 years, waiting for the gold watch, expecting the benefits and security that come with full-time employment. We’re no longer simply lawyers, or photographers, or writers. Instead, we’re part-time lawyers-cum- amateur photographers who write on the side.

Today, careers consist of piecing together various types of work, juggling multiple clients, learning to be marketing and accounting experts, and creating offices in bedrooms/coffee shops/coworking spaces. Independent workers abound. We call them freelancers, contractors, sole proprietors, consultants, temps, and the self-employed.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, many of them love it.

This transition is nothing less than a revolution. We haven’t seen a shift in the workforce this significant in almost 100 years when we transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Now, employees are leaving the traditional workplace and opting to piece together a professional life on their own. 

The term ‘free lance’ was originally coined by Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819), to represent a mercenary warrior not sworn to any lord’s service (and not that the warrior’s efforts would be free of charge). In the 1860s its meaning became figurative.

I favor the term rōnin over freelancer, perhaps because it hasn’t been tinged with 100+ years of use in US economics. Perhaps more of a consideration for me is that the term rōnin literally means ‘wave man’, suggesting one who is operating in a more liquid, less solid, sort of connection to the world and others. And this explosive growth of rōnin workers started with the rise of the web, which has lowered the costs of independent work, on both sides, for both the rōnin and the companies that employ their efforts.

The government isn’t doing a good job of monitoring the rōnin side of the economy, according to Horowitz:

As of 2005, one-third of our workforce participated in this “freelance economy.” Data show that number has only increased over the past six years. Entrepreneurial activity in 2009 was at its highest level in 14 years, online freelance job postings skyrocketed in 2010, and companies are increasingly outsourcing work.

[…]

We don’t actually know the true composition of the new workforce. After 2005, the government stopped counting independent workers in a meaningful and accurate way. Studies have shown that the independent workforce has grown and changed significantly since then, but the government hasn’t substantiated those results with a new, official count.

I suggest that we are rapidly moving toward an economy where the majority of workers will be rōnin. Companies have increasingly small incentives to take on full-time workers for many of the functions in their business, and the secondary costs of full employment are not just the full benefits of long-term employees, but many others:

Increased Agility — A company that can react and quickly act to changing conditions has to possess a different sort of balance. One way is to find or train a company of quick change artists: inventive polymaths. Alternatively, a company can bring together short-term teams of specialists to attack new opportunities, and if they fail, they can do so quickly, at low cost, and simply disband the team.

Swift Trust — Companies can avoid the high and seemingly inescapable costs of internal politics with permanent employees struggling for power and autonomy as soon as a hierarchy is created. Networked rōnin operate completely differently. Neil Perkin recently wrote about this is in The Rise Of Talent Networks:

Corporate down-sizing and technology have combined to create an influx of highly talented individuals into the market with the ready means to turn that talent into real value. There have always been freelancers of-course, but this is talent that is equipped with cheap, effective, readily available yet potentially transformational tools and technologies, and connected to inspiration, to opportunity, and to each other, like never before. It’s a world powered by ideas, enthusiasm, and know-how. But it is also a world powered by collaboration, supported by increasing numbers of co-working spaces and a whole raft of ‘unconference’ style meet-ups, events, and hack days that are both the originator for and a catalyst of innovation. The difference is that the number of people working in this way, equipped with the enterprise tools to enable it, means that perhaps for the first time, the possibility of a real ecosystem of talent networks operating at some scale has suddenly become viable.

Networks, whether of individuals or small firms, are naturally extremely efficient. You can select and partner with some of the best talent in the industry. You make use of the talent you need when you need it. And you don’t have to pay an overhead when you don’t. You benefit from a broad talent pool that brings diversity of thinking and ideas, yet is unencumbered by corporate habit or channeled thinking. And there are numerous pieces of research that prove the value of skill diversity in innovation.

Large organisations have a tendency to pull people into a vortex of internal focus. The smart ones are beginning to recognise that more flexible structures that allow them to interact with, learn from, and work with this external pool of talent will give them genuine competitive advantage. The smartest are structuring their businesses to be agile and flexible enough to allow collaboration of this kind to not be the exception, but the norm.

Impermanent teams operate as well as they do because of a well-researched — and profoundly important — social phenomenon, called swift trust, first detailed by Debra Meyerson and colleagues (see Swift Trust and Temporary Groups).

I’ve written about this recently, building on Myerson’s explanation, that impermanent teams can come together and accomplish projects with the least amount of politics, because a/ the participants are all aware that the project is of limited duration, b/ the team members are able to assume functional roles based on their previous experience with a minimum — or zero — training, c/ the project is based on distributed, complex, non-trivial tasks that require deep expertise, and ongoing coordination or work activities, and d/ people can suspend their need to build deep trust because it is a project comprised of other rōnin.

Stowe Boyd, The Meaning Of Work, Connectives, And Swift Trust

These techniques that resemble deep trust, but are lighter-weight and faster to adopt, can be used to quickly get down to business in an ad hoc team, and focus on doing what is needed to get done; instead of getting bogged down in actual trust development, which can take weeks or months to build.

I believe that swift trust is becoming the default for creative work, and that we are all increasingly operating as if every activity we are involved in is impermanent. Increasingly, at least for most creatives, that is the case anyway. But some people, like me, are intentionally adopting the ad hoc project team as the form factor for all creative work.

Partly this is to take advantage of swift trust — where deep trust activities are deferred or completely put aside — and the team members operate in a social demilitarized zone, putting aside long-term obligations and politically-negotiated power arrangements. Instead, we join such teams and rapidly assume the role that fits us, people interact based on the nature of the roles that all members play. We suspend our disbelief and agree to trust within the confines of the groups narrowly defined goals.

And just as important, as a consequence of deferring the complex and involved discussions of personal purpose, every ad hoc team member can cast the project in terms of how it lines up with their personal meaning for work. The members do not need to collectively agree to a single shared reason for existence. That is shelved, since the team members will be going forward on their own life paths, as soon as the project is completed.

This last point is where the liquid economy is most central to the discussion. The rōnin does not have to be 100% committed to the long-range strategic plans of the company behind a short-term project: his goals are his own. The company and the rōnin are just walking down this next few miles of road together, and after that, they will part ways.

The rōnin is perfecting her art, pursuing a muse, developing a long-range scheme for a better bank, pruning ax, or sailboat, while working for companies in completely different lines of business.

And this non-convergence, this lack of long-term collective agreement, is not a detriment: it is in fact the reason that the friction in short-term projects is so low. Because the participants are only cooperating as short-term ‘connectives’ — when considered in any timeframe larger than the duration of the project — they avoid the social inertia of forming long-term ‘collectives’ (as styled by @shiftctrlesc). The externalities of deep, long-term social integration are avoided, or at least dramatically decreased.

This is where the social liquidity comes from. People avoid the costs of developing deep trust, and the tiered social ties that necessarily grow from that. Instead of organizing our work, communications, and social ties around slow-forming, slow-changing, and inflexible crystalline work matrices, the liquid economy is based on an increasingly quick-forming, quick-changing, and flexible liquid medium for work, based on streaming social communication models, and a hybrid sociality where an increasing proportion of connections are short-term and reliant on swift trust.

This is a form of superlinearity for business to aspire to, where doubling the amount of work performed — and revenue received — grows at a better than linear rate. And it’s clear that liquid work — given a population of rōnin capable of making it all work — surpasses the productivity of solid work. That’s why a million individual decisions — of rōnin and their handlers with businesses — are trending toward a liquid economy: it’s more productive and less restrictive.

[This is one of the major themes of the book I have been researching this year, soon to be a Kickstarter project: ‘Liquid City: A liquid, not a solid; a city, not an army’.]

The Meaning Of Work, Connectives, And Swift Trust

I attended a truly great presentation earlier this week, where Simon Sinek spoke. Sinek is the author of Start With Why, and he gave a casual, rambling, and still deeply inspiring talk about, among other things, how hard it is for businesses to be purpose driven. I won’t steal too much of his pitch, except to restate some of his themes.

Traditionally, businesses that are great to work for are centered on ‘why’ — their reason to exist — which makes the how and what — processes and products — easier to figure out, makes them make sense. And working in such companies makes people happy. In fact,  companies that have forgotten — or never had — a reason to exist other to make money or to employ the founders are not great places to work, and aside from the basics of getting a paycheck, don’t make their employees happy.

But what about freelancers, or teams that come together for a given project and then disband? How does freelance work line up with finding what I call ‘the meaning of work’, the purpose behind the time and effort we pour into our work lives.

Speaking personally, I am a long-time freelancer, and I work with a wide variety of clients. But I am motivated to find meaning for my actions through work (as well as extra-work activities), and I select projects based on how they line up with my abiding motivations.

For example, I am a strong advocate for the use of social tools, and the thinking behind that is deeply grounded in the belief that creating more social connection is a positive benefit to all those that participate, and that social tools are the best hope we have to change the world, and steer it away from destructive political, financial, and economic systems.

So for me, working with a start up that is developing a social calendering app, for example, is not just work. It’s not just making bricks. it’s part of my calling. I am focused on the outcome, the social revolution, that has at least 10 or 20 more years to run. I am involved in building a new platform for society that will last a thousand years.

But I am still involved in many projects, and so are many other people, who are pursuing their own ends, perhaps ends that are unrelated to mine.

So this begs the question: Can individuals — including people working in companies — come together on ad hoc projects, projects of limited duration, and still be aligned with their meaning for work?

I read an instructive piece recently, that touches on this:

Neil Perkin, The Rise Of Talent Networks

When a new agency called Co: launched this month in New York, a lot of people in the industry seemed to sit up and take notice. The reason had less to do with the fact that four senior execs had left their jobs at JWT, BBH, Wolff Olins to venture out on their own, and more to do with the fact that Co: seemed like a start-up with a difference. The name deliberately evokes their business model of co-creation, collaboration and co-venturing, of a small, agile organisational hub that works with and draws from a list of 40 agencies, businesses and consultancies that are specialists in particular services ranging from digital marketing, to PR, Social Media, Design, technology, gaming, events and media. There’s even a venture capitalist firm amongst the network.

Part of the reason that this is so interesting is that it is symptomatic of a broader trend - the rise of talent networks. In the case of Co:, the founders describe the agency as a ‘brand studio’, likening it to a movie studio that pulls in talent to work on specific projects, facilitates a good result, and provides the environment and the infrastructure for effective collaboration. One of the founders, quoted in the New York Times, talked about how “teams are formed around individual client needs, and when those needs are satisfied, the team is dispersed”.

Relentless digitisation and the recession have combined to create an environment in which the value of much of what we have known is depreciating, and which increasingly requires a culture and a pace of innovation that is consistent with start-ups. Organisational value is shifting from protecting knowledge assets, to encouraging knowledge flow. In ‘We Think’, Charles Leadbetter said: “In the past you were what you owned. Now you are what you share.”. New models are springing up that follow a philosophy where access trumps ownership. Assets are increasingly about relationships.

[…]

Corporate down-sizing and technology have combined to create an influx of highly talented individuals into the market with the ready means to turn that talent into real value. There have always been freelancers of-course, but this is talent that is equipped with cheap, effective, readily available yet potentially transformational tools and technologies, and connected to inspiration, to opportunity, and to each other, like never before. It’s a world powered by ideas, enthusiasm, and know-how. But it is also a world powered by collaboration, supported by increasing numbers of co-working spaces and a whole raft of ‘unconference’ style meet-ups, events, and hack days that are both the originator for and a catalyst of innovation. The difference is that the number of people working in this way, equipped with the enterprise tools to enable it, means that perhaps for the first time, the possibility of a real ecosystem of talent networks operating at some scale has suddenly become viable.

Networks, whether of individuals or small firms, are naturally extremely efficient. You can select and partner with some of the best talent in the industry. You make use of the talent you need when you need it. And you don’t have to pay an overhead when you don’t. You benefit from a broad talent pool that brings diversity of thinking and ideas, yet is unencumbered by corporate habit or channeled thinking. And there are numerous pieces of research that prove the value of skill diversity in innovation.

Large organisations have a tendency to pull people into a vortex of internal focus. The smart ones are beginning to recognise that more flexible structures that allow them to interact with, learn from, and work with this external pool of talent will give them genuine competitive advantage. The smartest are structuring their businesses to be agile and flexible enough to allow collaboration of this kind to not be the exception, but the norm.

Impermanent teams operate as well as they do because of a well-researched social phenomenon, called swift trust:

Debra Meyerson, et al, Swift Trust and Temporary Groups

As an organizational form, temporary groups turn upside down traditional notions of organizing. Temporary groups often work on tasks with a high degree of complexity, yet they lack the formal structures that facilitate coordination and control (Thompson, I967). They depend on an elaborate body of collective knowledge and diverse skills, yet individuals have little time to sort out who knows precisely what. They often entail high-risk and high-stake outcomes, yet they seem to lack the normative structures and institutional safeguards that minimize the likelihood of things going wrong. Moreover, there isn’t time to engage in the usual forms of confidence-building activities that contribute to the development and maintenance of trust in more traditional enduring forms of organization. In these respects, temporary groups challenge our conventional understandings regarding the necessary or sufficient antecedents of effective organization.

These observations come together in a fascinating puzzle. Temporary systems exhibit behavior that presupposes trust, yet traditional sources of trust — familiarity, shared experience, reciprocal disclosure, threats and deterrents, fulfilled promises, and demonstrations of nonexploitation of vulnerability — are not obvious in such systems. ln this respect, temporary systems act as if trust were present, but their histories seem to preclude its development.

In the following discussion we argue that one way to resolve this puzzle is to look more closely at the properties of trust and of temporary systems. A closer look suggests that temporary groups and organizations are tied together by trust. but it is a form of trust that has some unusual properties. In other words, we propose that the trust that occurs in temporary systems is not simply conventional trust scaled down to brief encounters among small groups of strangers. There is some of that. But as we will show, the trust that unfolds in temporary systems is more accurately portrayed as a unique form of collective perception and relating that is capable of managing issues of vulnerability, uncertainty, risk, and expectations. These four issues become relevant immediately, as soon as the temporary system begins to form. We argue that all four issues can be managed by variations in trusting behavior, and if they are not managed, participants act more like a permanent crowd than a temporary system. It is the configuration of these variations in behavior that accounts for the unique form that trust assumes in temporary systems, a form that we call swift trust.


[…]

The characteristics of temporary systems, which have potential relevance
for the formation of trust, include the following:

  1. Participants with diverse skills are assembled by a contractor to enact expertise they already possess.
  2. Participants have limited history of working together.
  3. Participants have limited prospects of working together again in the future.
  4. Participants often are part of limited labor pools and overlapping networks.
  5. Tasks are often complex and involve interdependent work.
  6. Tasks have a deadline.
  7. Assigned tasks are non-routine and not well understood.
  8. Assigned tasks are consequential.
  9. Continuous interrelating is required to produce an outcome.

To convert the individual expertise of strangers into interdependent work, when the nature of that interrelating and work is not obvious, people must reduce their uncertainty about one another through operations that resemble trust. Interdependent strangers faced with a deadline also face the need to handle issues of vulnerability and risk among themselves.

These techniques that resemble deep trust, but are lighter-weight and faster to adopt, can be used to quickly get down to business in an ad hoc team, and focus on doing what is needed to get done; instead of getting bogged down in actual trust development, which can take weeks or months to build.

I believe, along with Neil Perkin and the unnamed founder of Co:, that swift trust is becoming the default for creative work, and that we are all increasingly operating as if every activity we are involved in is impermanent. Increasingly, at least for most creatives, that is the case anyway. But some people, like the founders of Co: and me, are intentionally adopting the ad hoc project team as the form factor for all creative work.

Partly this is to take advantage of swift trust — where deep trust activities are deferred or completely put aside — and the team members operate in a social demilitarized zone, putting aside long-term obligations and politically-negotiated power arrangements. Instead, we join such teams and rapidly assume the role that fits us, people interact based on the nature of the roles that all members play. We suspend our disbelief and agree to trust within the confines of the groups narrowly defined goals.

And just as important, as a consequence of deferring the complex and involved discussions of personal purpose, every ad hoc team member can cast the project in terms of how it lines up with their personal meaning for work. The members do not need to collectively agree to a single shared reason for existence. That is shelved, since the team members will be going forward on their own life paths, as soon as the project is completed.

This reminds me of the recent discussion about cooperation and collaboration, and a great distinction between collaboratives and cooperatives by @shiftctrlesc:

cloudhead, Cooperation versus Collaboration

We often use these words interchangeably, but they represent fundamentally different ways of contributing to a group and each comes with its own dynamics and power structures that shape groups in different ways…

When collaborating, people work together (co-labor) on a single shared goal.
Like an orchestra which follows a script everyone has agreed upon and each musician plays their part not for its own sake but to help make something bigger.

When cooperating, people perform together (co-operate) while working on selfish yet common goals.
The logic here is “If you help me I’ll help you” and it allows for the spontaneous kind of participation that fuels peer-to-peer systems and distributed networks. If an orchestra is the sound of collaboration, then a drum circle is the sound of cooperation. 

For centuries collaboration has powered most of our society’s institutions.
This is true of everything from our schools to our governments where we have worked together through consensus to build systems of increasing complexity.

But today, cooperation is fuelling most of the disruptive innovations of our time.
In virtually every aspect of our culture, the old guard is being replaced by cooperative, self organizing, distributed systems.

Collectives collaborate. 
Collectives are part of the machinery of the previous era. They give priority to the group over the individual and encourage members to adopt a joint identity that unites them around their shared goal. 

Connectives cooperate.
A connective doesn’t give priority to the group or the individual but instead supports and encourages both simultaneously. There’s no shared sense of identity in a connective because each member is busy pursuing their own goals.

Collectives are breeding grounds for hierarchies and power struggles.
Even with the best intentions, collaboration often encourages pyramids of power and authority. The higher up the pyramid you are in a collective, the more freedom you have to carve out your own individual identity and direct the group’s efforts towards your own goals. The conductor is famous while the tuba player remains unknown. But if the tuba player gets up to leave someone needs to step in to replace her.

Connectives are self-organizing and self-sustaining.
No master architect, conductor, or blueprint is needed. You can join or leave a drum circle at any time and the beat goes on with or without you.

I would perhaps restate that When cooperating, people perform together (co-operate) while working on selfish yet not-conflicting goals. If I decide to accept a project with a new client, I don’t have to sign up to the motivations of their five-year plan, I just have to confirm that their five-year plan — if successful — would counter the basic tenets of the beliefs that form the foundation of my meaning for work. That’s what makes our association a connective, as @shiftctrlesc styles them.

Generally, people building social tools or trying to apply them are advocates for the same things I am: they want, at the least, to make work better for the folks doing it, and they believe, at least to some degree, that social tools can help.

On the other hand, I can’t cooperate with groups who’s long term goals are contrary with mine. For example, I would have a hard time consulting to the Tea Party, or a repressive government.

And the same principles apply to others, with the consequence that you can become deeply unhappy as a freelancer by working with companies that have antithetical purposes to yours. If you believe, for example, that building a strong community in your hometown is a central tenet of your worldview, it would be difficult to work for a company that was shutting down its facilities in your town and outsourcing the work to South America or Asia. However, if you are a Chilean eager to attract foreign currency to your country to build strong communities there, you might be fine working with that same company.

As swift trust and ad hoc project teams become the dominant form factor for working over the next few years, we will see the transformation of large businesses away from monolithic power and belief systems, to something much more of a mosiac. In  this not-too-distant future businesses may principally be organized around helping every employee find and achieve their personal meaning for work, instead of trying to indoctrinate workers to a corporate agenda.

Almost paradoxically, our longest-range personal goals may be best advanced by working in a succession of short-term, apparently unrelated projects, cooperating with others meandering in the same general direction as us, instead of joining a tightly-knit group with tightly-defined shared purpose. Living and working in loose and open connectives, not tight and closed collectives; like a city, not an army.

Swift Trust

Debra Meyerson and other colleagues developed the concept of swift trust in the mid-90s, through observation of temporary work teams, such as those used in Hollywood for movie production. They discovered that the conditions surrounding temporary work teams foster the fast bonding of groups around the task based on the specifics of how groups coalesce around the project work to be done, and the suspension of mistrust.

I’ve pulled out a longish sample from Swift Trust and Temporary Groups, here, as a placeholder. I will be returning to this material for some in depth posts, but this is fundamental to my ongoing research agenda on The Social World.

As an organizational form, temporary groups turn upside down traditional notions of organizing. Temporary groups often work on tasks with a high degree of complexity, yet they lack the formal structures that facilitate coordination and control (Thompson, I967). They depend on an elaborate body of collective knowledge and diverse skills, yet individuals have little time to sort out who knows precisely what. They often entail high-risk and high-stake outcomes, yet they seem to lack the normative structures and institutional safeguards that minimize the likelihood of things going wrong. Moreover, there isn’t time to engage in the usual forms of confidence-building activities that contribute to the development and maintenance of trust in more traditional enduring forms of organization. In these respects, temporary groups challenge our conventional understandings regarding the necessary or sufficient antecedents of effective organization.

These observations come together in a fascinating puzzle. Temporary systems exhibit behavior that presupposes trust, yet traditional sources of trust — familiarity, shared experience, reciprocal disclosure, threats and deterrents, fulfilled promises, and demonstrations of nonexploitation of vulnerability — are not obvious in such systems. ln this respect, temporary systems act as if trust were present, but their histories seem to preclude its development.

In the following discussion we argue that one way to resolve this puzzle is to look more closely at the properties of trust and of temporary systems. A closer look suggests that temporary groups and organizations are tied together by trust. but it is a form of trust that has some unusual properties. In other words, we propose that the trust that occurs in temporary systems is not simply conventional trust scaled down to brief encounters among small groups of strangers. There is some of that. But as we will show, the trust that unfolds in temporary systems is more accurately portrayed as a unique form of collective perception and relating that is capable of managing issues of vulnerability, uncertainty, risk, and expectations. These four issues become relevant immediately, as soon as the temporary system begins to form. We argue that all four issues can be managed by variations in trusting behavior, and if they are not managed, participants act more like a permanent crowd than a temporary system. It is the configuration of these variations in behavior that accounts for the unique form that tnrst assumes in temporary systems, a form that we call swift trust.


[…]

The characteristics of temporary systems, which have potential relevance
for the formation of trust, include the following:

  1. Participants with diverse skills are assembled by a contractor to enact expertise they already possess.
  2. Participants have limited history of working together.
  3. Participants have limited prospects of working together again in the future.
  4. Participants often are part of limited labor pools and overlapping networks.
  5. Tasks are often complex and involve interdependent work.
  6. Tasks have a deadline.
  7. Assigned tasks are non-routine and not well understood.
  8. Assigned tasks are consequential.
  9. Continuous interrelating is required to produce an outcome.

To convert the individual expertise of strangers into interdependent work, when the nature of that interrelating and work is not obvious, people must reduce their uncertainty about one another through operations that resemble trust. Interdependent strangers faced with a deadline also face the need to handle issues of vulnerability and risk among themselves.

[…]

An inquiry into swift trust in temporary systems starts with propositions such as the following ones, which restate themes introduced earlier:

Proposition 1 . The smaller the labor pool or network from which personnel in a temporary system are drawn, the more vulnerable the people who are drawn; the stronger the grounds for not expecting harmful behavior, the more rapidly will trust develop among people. The presumption here is that people in a small labor pool have a higher chance of interacting with one another again in the future. which means their reputations as competent or incompetent people whom others can trust or distrust will follow them and shape these future contacts. Reputations are implicitly threatened in any given project to the extent that chances of future interaction increase. ln Axelrodian (Axelrod, l984) terms, the “shadow ofthe future looms larger” in such groups. However, people in overlapping networks or networks of weak ties may face more reputational vulnerability because a damaged reputation would disseminate across a wider group of people.

Proposition 2. Role-based interaction leads to more rapid development of trust than does person-based interaction. This presumes that role expectations tend to be more stable, less capricious, more standardized, and delined more in terms of tasks and specialties. all of which diminish the anticipation of ill will and help reinforce and sharpen expectations.

Proposition 3. Inconsistent role behavior and “blurring” of roles will lead to a slower build of trust. This presumes that role blurring heightens uncertainty. People who exhibit inconsistent role behavior raise questions about what they will do with whatever is entrusted to them. Attempts to answer these questions slow the development of trust.

Proposition 4. People under time pressure in temporary systems make greater use of category-driven information prosessing, emphasizing speed and confirmation rather than evidence-driven information processing that is focused on accuracy. The presumption here is that interpersonal perception in temporary systems is subject to the same patterns in a speed-accuracy nadeoff as is perception in other kinds of systems. The time-limited nature of a temporary system tends to be reflected in perceputal tradeoffs that favor speed.

Proposition 5. Category-driven information processing in temporary systems is dontinated by institutional categories that are made salient by the context in which the systems form. The presumption here is categories imported to accelerate interpersonal perception disproportionately reflect local organizational culture, industry recipes, and cultural identity-based stereotypes. These categories affect expectations of goodwill or ill will and encourage swift trust or swift distrust. In some cases, tust may develop even more swiftly when imported categories also produce behavioral confirmation.

When this happens, not only do perceivers look for data that confirm their initial categorization, but their behavior itself increases the livelihood that the target will behave in the manner anticipated. This combination of selective perception and behavioral confirmation produces data relevant to trust more quickly, which means trust itself is enacted sooner.

Proposition 6. Greater reliance on categorgrdriven information processing in temporary systems, with its attendant pressure for confirmation, leads to a faster reduction of the uncertainty associated with trust but to a higher risk that subsequent action will disconfirm the trust and produce damage. The presumption here is that swift trust, especially in response to category-driven perception, overlooks a great deal. Although these oversights leave room for behavioral confirmation and self-fulfilling prophesies, they also allow for actions that disrupt trust (Zucker, 1986. p. 59) and for errors in misplaced trust.

Proposition 7. Swift trust is more likely at moderate levels of interdependence than at either higher or lower levels. The presumption here is that moderate interdependence creates moderate vulnerability, which can he handled with the moderately strong expectations of good will that flow from placement of a trustee in a salient institutional category. People who fit salient categories are to be trusted more so as the degree of trust needed is modest.

At higher levels of interdependence, conformity of action with expectations formed on general categories alone is too little data for too high stakes. This combination represents a greater amount of perceived vulnerability than the data can address. Trust will be shaky rather than solid, slow rather than swift, and actions will be tentative rather than firm.

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