The challenge of coherence

Part of my work involves spotting challenges across teams within Google. Over time, I’ve learned to notice different kinds. Sometimes they are engineering challenges, sometimes they are product or leadership challenges. I even learned to recognize UX and UXR challenges. Once spotted, each of these has a decent chance of being addressed: there are experts who built careers around overcoming these kinds of challenges. Recently, there’s a different kind of challenge that has been intriguing me. I call this kind the challenge of coherence.

The challenge of coherence emerges when it’s clear that all parties involved in the project are doing their best to get their bits right, yet the total outcome isn’t greater than the sum of these bits. I call this phenomenon “the confetti of innovation:” everyone does amazing work and the end result is quite sparkly, but has little lasting progress toward the intended mission. Everybody stands around, covered in shiny bits, wondering what happened.

My experience with challenges of coherence is mostly with large organizations, though I believe that all teams face them. If a few friends try to build something, but have different ideas on what this “something” is, they will experience the challenge of coherence. At a small scale, the solution looks fairly straightforward: establish a shared understanding (a leadership challenge) of what is being built (a product challenge) and how (an engineering and/or UX challenge). As the scale grows, the complexity of the challenge of coherence does as well. With more layers of organizational indirection, there are more opportunities for hidden misalignment and fractal-like divergence of what is “shared understanding” in name only. People genuinely feel like they are leading, engineering, or managing products in the right way and giving it their best, and are frustrated to see just more confetti pop out at the end.

My intuition is that the challenge of coherence is a different beast than any of the other kinds of challenges that I am already familiar with. Recognizing and facing this challenge requires a different kind of thinking, a way of seeing at a larger scale and beyond conventional horizons — yet at the same time, working in the moment, sensing tensions and forces at play. It’s about having a kind of fluidity that allows recognizing the multiplicity of perspectives and not getting overly attached to any of them — yet at the same time, not getting lost among them and retaining a sense of direction. The challenge of coherence requires a sort of patient strategic gardening, the gentle bending of arcs of multiple projects toward a common outcome. Learning to do that well is one of the most rewarding experiences for me these days.

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