Implied Work in Organization Transformation

  |  January 2, 2019

If you are familiar with the  Cube model of organization design, you know that Work Processes  is one of six elements of an organization that must all align with strategy if the organization is to attain its strategic goals successfully (the others being Structure and Governance, Information and Metrics, People and Rewards, Continuous Improvement, and Leadership and Culture.)

Like the sides of a Rubik’s cube, making changes in any one side will affect each of the others. The sequence with which one aligns a company around the Cube therefore matters. When doing alignment work with companies, we always begin with the Work side of the cube, because work processes lie at the heart of an organization’s ability to deliver value.

One aspect of work that organizations often don’t properly address is implied work: all those tasks that may not be specified or documented, but which must be done in order to deliver value. I have also heard this addressed as “white space risk”.

The Hidden Side of Work Processes

Implied work has interesting implications in an organization. Implied work happens organically as people learn through experience, and it requires people to draw upon their logic and critical thinking skills. Because it is by definition not codified or made explicit, it can easily get overlooked when it comes to assessing job performance.

Throughout my military career as a senior, active-duty officer, I learned to recognize the impact of missing significant performance goals and objectives due to a lack of understanding of implied work. Upon entering civilian life and working as an executive in corporate America, I found that here, too, it pays to make sure team members understand the implied tasks they are responsible for—especially during times of organization change.

While most strategic work and many essential work activities are documented and emphasized, implied tasks often go unaddressed due to time constraints and other reasons. There’s an assumption that they are just going to get done, but that isn’t always the case.

I witnessed a recent example of this when a leader outlined in grave detail the plans for a large business unit office move. Tasked to champion the move across multiple departments while minimizing company downtime, the leader developed a synchronization matrix, flow charts, organized a planning committee, and delegated numerous critical tasks to committee members to ensure a smooth transition. However, on day one of the move, chaos quickly ensued as it was discovered that no one coordinated for the water to be turned on in the new building. Electricity, internet, cubical space, monitors for the CRM, and even office signage was coordinated, but no running water!

Leadership Is Key

The antidote for this is leadership. At every level, those with experience, skills, and expertise need to take steps to ensure that implied work is executed as it should be. Making sure people understand what the end goals are as well as asking questions that encourage them to use their reasoning skills and experience to come up with appropriate solutions is the kind of hands-on leadership involvement that leads to good job performance.

One approach would be to go through and attempt to document all implied tasks, and train people on how to do them. However, this is not often an efficient solution, especially where work is shifting due to organization transformation efforts. Instead, we recommend the following approach in most situations:

  1. Clearly communicate the organization’s mission, vision, and strategy. That way, as people take on new tasks, they understand the vision for what needs to be accomplished, and they can apply their deductive reasoning skills to figure out the accompanying implied tasks.
  2. Follow up with people to be sure they understand the implied work they need to execute. It’s not always enough to simply assume that everyone is making the appropriate leaps of insight to solve their implied work challenges right away, even if they appear to understand the overall vision. Asking your team members specific questions about their implied work will help uncover and address any gaps in understanding, and ultimately improve job performance. 

Some questions to ask to help improve people’s awareness and understanding of implied tasks include:

  • Tell me what you envision as your implied tasks with this directive.
  • What are your constraints and limitations around this task?
  • What resources do you have to help you with it?
  • What ramifications may occur if the implied work you are responsible to deliver is not accomplished?
  • How do your implied tasks affect your ability to execute and follow through with your role in the overall intent of the strategy?

Questions like these help people think through and analyze what work needs to be done organically, and come up with efficient, relevant solutions. When you see them picking up things along the way that show they’ve thought of the secondary, tertiary, and follow-on effects, you know that their level of understanding is much deeper than just the rote ability to execute whatever specific action they may be asked to do. I learned this technique in the military and applied it with notable success both there and, later, in corporate America.

The Impact of Implied Work on Organization Performance

As an organization moves forward with change transformation, work processes get disrupted. It’s critical to keep in mind that for every specific, documented work process that gets changed or moved around, an unspecified amount of implied work exists that will also be disrupted because of the change.

Your team’s ability to successfully adapt implied work to these changes will have a direct impact on job performance—and ultimately on the success of the transformation. Clear communication around strategy and asking the right questions around implied work will help organization leaders ensure that all of the implied tasks that are so vital to keeping things going smoothly actually do get done timely and efficiently.

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