Polarity of intention, structure, and capacity

I keep coming back to the post from last year, where I tried to write down my understanding of the distinction between organizational states of consistency, cohesion, and coherence. It’s been a generative framing for many conversations. The thing that kept bugging me was that I laid the states out as a progression of sorts, from disorganized to coherent. A colleague insightfully pointed out that one could have coherent user experience even if it’s not consistent. This spurred an exploration into key ingredients of the state, which I present here for your perusal.

I already suggested before that the key attribute of coherence is the presence of intention. If we imagine an organization with strong intention about what it wants to accomplish, we can see how coherence will naturally emerge within it. Strong intention usually comes across as people roughly knowing where their organization is aiming and how their contributions fit into the picture. Weak intention will have a vibe of unmooredness, usually unsurmountable coordination headwinds. Both might have clearly stated missions, though in the former case, the missions will feel actionable and inspiring, and in the latter more like cartoonish slogans.

However, it didn’t occur to me until recently that cohesion also has a key attribute: structure. I am using the word “structure” in Peter Senge’s sense, as a broad descriptor for all things that comprise a functioning organization: the reporting hierarchies, the roles, the processes that make it go, and the culture that binds it all together. It’s this structure that makes the various bits and pieces that an organization produces cohesive. A team with strong structure will have the necessary means to coordinate cohesiveness of the outcomes, whereas weak structures will typically suffer from a “thousand flower bloom” phenomenon that ends in poor cohesiveness.

A similarly recent thought led to this notion that consistency’s key attribute is capacity. To define it a bit more, it’s not just the ability of doing something, but also the skill and the practice that accompanies it. It is fairly evident that the team’s consistency of product outcomes is only possible when they have enough skill and practice to apply it. If an organization’s capacity is low, its output will be at best random, occasionally striking gold – definitionally inconsistent. A high-capacity team will not have such issues. Usually, when I hear “engineering excellence,” the word “consistency” pops right next to it.

So I wonder if the three states – consistency, cohesion, and coherence – emerge from the mix of these key ingredients: capacity, structure, and intention. Though it seems like there’s a tension between them. It’s not like I can just will my product to be coherent if all I have is intention. Without capacity and structure, it’s just a bunch of grand ideas. Similarly, having the capacity is awesome, but if it’s capacity alone, the outcomes will feel like random noise. And finally, if all I have is structure, it’s an aimless zombie. I would guess that more likely, having all three ingredients, but favoring one or the other is what leads organizations toward their predestined states.

The presence of such trilemma indicates that there might not be a favored state, a static resolution of the tension. Instead, a team will likely find itself leaning from one corner of the triangle to another, experiencing a want of one of the two other states when it gets too zealous about one particular ingredient. Over-focusing on capacity brings a deficit of coherence and cohesion. Being too into structure diminishes coherence and consistency, and finally, pushing too hard on intention saps consistency and cohesion. And if polarities are hard, can you imagine navigating a three-body-problem equivalent of a polarity?

By the way, I don’t know if there’s a word for this polarity with three extremes. Is that still a trilemma?

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