My Pilates teacher kept a life size model of the human skeleton in her studio. The eagle-eyed amongst us noted it was a male skeleton. Mentioning that almost guaranteed her telling us that some of England’s best performing rugby players did Pilates, as it helped built flexibility and balance, and helped prevent injuries.
In Pilates practice it becomes clear quickly that while the spine is heavily deployed in the exercises, what restricts people’s range of movements often is their hip flexors, hamstrings, and sundry tendons and ligaments.
In other words, the role of the connective tissue only becomes clear when it does not “deliver”. Most other times we just take it for granted.
In my role as a board director, I think about connective tissue often. Not the sinew and tendon kind, but their organisational and people analogues.
Connective tissue is less about what needs doing but about how it gets done — and it goes beyond process and policy which could be likened to the skeleton. We needn’t wait for something to stop delivering or functioning, to understand its existence or importance.
From my experience so far on boards as well as from working with a variety of organisations in exec roles and in advisory capacity, I have identified some types of connective tissue that those of us serving on boards would benefit from understanding.
The social capital in an organisation is vital in providing operational resilience of the kind that may not be easy to document in business continuity plans. As I have written before and as we all learnt when forced to go virtual at the start of the Covid19 pandemic, things kept working — although only the most humble of leaders recognised, leave alone rewarded, those whose social capital was vital in ensuring that things did not grind to a halt.
The tacit knowledge and experience residing in the brains of expert and experienced employees is another vital kind of connective tissue in an organisation. Pending its elusive bottling, it is humbling to remember that an estimated 80% of the world’s knowledge is currently tacit or unstructured. Puts into perspective the data obsession that many leaders have when they are dealing with just 20% of what is shaping decisions in business! Cassandra’s Paradox if we ever saw one.
Informal engagement opportunities — or the watercooler moments as they are called — are crucial to an organisation’s functioning. They allow a grapevine to operate, informal information channels to function, and both cohesion and gossip to proliferate. These watercooler moments are being cited by those advocating a return to the office after the pandemic made it clear to many that working remotely was not just possible but also welcome as the preferred way of working.
Which brings us to the question: why and how to understand the connective tissue of an organisation?
Board directors meet but a few times a year. This means regardless of how solid and deep their questioning and knowledge is, boards always operate in an environment of information asymmetry that naturally favours exec teams steeped in the day to day operating of the business. The connective tissue of the specific organisations we oversee helps fill gaps, somewhat balancing that asymmetry.
An important thing would be to understand the value chain of the organisation thoroughly. This is often not as easy as it sounds. Since many board directors come to serve on boards after fairly narrowly focused functional exec roles, that functional lens is often their primary lens. It is worth stepping out of that comfort zone and smudge one’s lens a bit to understand the totality and the specificity of an organisation’s context. And with respect, I will also add it does not matter how many similar organisations you have seen before. Each organisation is indeed unique in its connective tissue and needs to be understood afresh.
Induction of new directors — who have the advantage of bringing fresh eyes to things albeit to be deployed with caution — is a helpful formal tool although some organisations use it better than others. Adjacent to that is the adequacy (or not) of formal governance mechanisms, the form and remit of committees, the reports of committees to the main board, and formal meetings. They all help to understand the answer, to the question that King and Kay suggest in their book Radical Uncertainty (to be reviewed): what is going on here?
And although informal channels are prone to capture and should be used with caution, they are an important way to understand an organisation’s connective tissue.
The Supremes reminded us “You can’t hurry love”, and in a similar vein, the understanding of the connective tissue of an organisation cannot be hurried or bottled for quick consumption. The nature of the time-limited terms of board directors is such that by the time you have fully understood an organisation, it is time to move on — the essence of not becoming embedded or part of the furniture, and of retaining independence. So every director has to start afresh on their own journey, especially as the organisations we serve also constantly evolve over the time we have served them.
What does it take for a professional – whether exec or board director — to understand this connective tissue?
I have reflected on this question a lot. And several conversations with senior board directors and chairs have only confirmed what I often say about boards: governance is a contact sport. And nowhere is the connective tissue noticed more for its role and effectiveness than in a sport (or exercise) situation. In this contact sport, we learn, do our jobs, reflect, hopefully get better, learn again. Sometimes at speed, sometimes at leisure. Lather, rinse, repeat.
This ability to grasp at the connective tissue and learn constantly goes beyond skills and qualifications. Or as I say alliteratively for ease of recall, it is more about credibility than credentials, even more so about qualities that are challenging to investigate in a board interview. The more structured and formal the interview situation and the less cookie-cutter a prospective director’s CV, the less likely it is that the hiring panel can be confident that they have probed and understood the prospective director’s mental models, unique approaches and strengths, and perspectives (this is perhaps for another monograph some day although you can take a quick look at my super-revealing interview question here).
Other than being imaginative and bien dans sa peau, being effective at understanding the connective tissue requires a high degree of abstract intelligence, sharp self-awareness especially of the gaps in one’s understanding (which can inform the needs for continual learning as well as for seeking support from peers or mentors), and comfort with the cracks in one’s conceptualisation of the organisation. To cite the lyrical great Leonard Cohen: There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.
It takes recognising with humility that as directors, we are all works-in-progress, never perfect.
After all if we are finished, we are also likely dead in which case not sure this monograph is of much use!
In BAU, a deep understanding of the connective tissue of an organisation enables creative thinking and capturing of opportunities, and also provides the chance to recognise and reward those who provision the connective tissue vital to the organisation.
In crises however, the connective tissue comes to the fore. When we seek to resolve challenges, often pressed by paucity of time, sensitive to possible existential and reputational risks, concerned about confidentiality and duty of care and ethical responsibilities, we really find out who has which of the answers we seek and how swiftly we can get to the bottom of understanding what is going on here.
It is vital to draw lessons from both BAU and from crises to note the connective tissue, and this is why good boards take regular reflection time to ask whether they are fit for purpose.
(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or Temple Bar Investment Trust or London Metropolitan University or Harmony Energy Income Trust, where I serve as a non-exec director, and chair various committees at the time of writing.)