Working in the white space

Last year, a friend of mine was caught up in a corporate re-organization. The company president brought in a new guy to get costs under control and improve profits.

Let’s call my friend Lori and the new guy Len.

Len was a very bottom line kind of guy and he took his job seriously. He analyzed the process and the outputs of the company, and identified cost reductions targets.

He decided to cut down on waste by establishing a piecework system. His theory was that when people were paid a set amount for producing a particular product (or part of a product), they’d buckle down, stop wasting time, get more done, improve profitability (a curious Theory X notion, but we won’t go into that here.)

Len drew a little chart with each person’s “products” and allocated time/pay next to it. According to Len’s chart, some people where working 40 or more hours a week. Other people weren’t. Lori was one of the people who came up short.

“Prove to me you’re worth your salary,” Len said.

Lori called me.

Lori had specific responsibilities, which she performed well. She also made many less tangible contributions.

Lori is one of those people who works in the white space. A big part of her contribution will never show up on a functional org chart or a piece work chart like Lens.

Lori greases the skids… She smoothes ruffled feathers, brings people together …Things just seem to run more smoothly when she’s around.

We worked on a bunch of ways to explain the work she did and how she added value.

Well. Timothy Butler and James Waldroop have an article, Understanding “People” People, in the most recent HBR (June 2004) that explains the kind of work that people like Lori do. Butler and Waldroop researched it and found there are four dimensions of “white space” work, which they call “relational work” :

  • Influence – negotiation, persuasion
  • Interpersonal Facilitation – keeping people engaged
  • Relational Creativity – connecting with groups of people through visual and verbal imagery
  • Team Leadership – interacting and working through a group

    unfortunately, as Butler and Waldroop point out, “…much relational work, especially interpersonal facilitation, goes completely unnoticed….out of sight, out of the reward chain.”

    If you want to understand more about how “people” people work their magic, and maybe develop your own skills in that arena, check out the article. It’s available on-line to HBR subscribers… and may show up gratis at some point.

    Oh, and BTW, (this will come as a big surprise, I’m sure) B & W have this to say about science and technology managers, as a group (probably holds true through for non-managers as a group, too): “…managers in science and technology in our sample had a lower average score in the influence dimension than did business professionals as a whole. None of the other three relational dimensions is notably elevated for this group, either.” [sigh] We gotta work on this.

    And a post-script: Lori is still at the company. Len is gone.

    Update: The article I refer to is excerpted here.