I was introduced to the essential role of the integrator in graduate school, when I interviewed an advocate for the mentally ill. The interview was part of a student project on recidivism undertaken for a local foundation. Through the project, we had the opportunity to interact with a variety of people involved in the criminal justice and social support system, including managers in the city jail, inmates, lawyers, and advocates. What was so striking about the interview with the mental health advocate was the depth with which she knew her job and her clients, coupled with her ignorance of the roles and efforts of others working in the criminal justice system. Her client roster was huge and the pace of her work relentless…she wore sneakers so that she could literally run from her office to the court house. In that context, it should not have been surprising that her response to any question not directly related to her role was a blank stare. That stare spoke volumes and could roughly be translated as: “Seriously?! You think I have the time or energy to think about anything beyond my day-to-day?”
Integrators are rare, but essential.
I have spent more than a decade implementing strategies, processes and programs that cut across organizational functions, regions, and/or hierarchies. During that time, I’ve found that most people feel like the mental health advocate mentioned above. This isn’t a personal failing or weakness of professional character on their part, it’s just a reality. People aim to conserve their energy by focusing on activities with the highest reward, from their perspective. Understanding how to better work with others to create a common benefit isn’t usually seen as a high reward activity.
It is a rare individual who is interested in how her actions impact or contribute to those of others, and/or how her role fits into the larger scheme of things. However, understanding the required interconnections between roles and actions is the foundation on which successful implementation rests. This means, if you are part of an implementation effort, you need to be that rare individual who can fully understand both the parts and the whole. You and your implementation team need to truly understand the individual pieces that make up the system you are creating and to ensure that the system functions in a way that entices people to cooperate within it to create the outcomes you seek.
What is an integrator…and for that matter, what is integration?
You probably have some instinct about what integrators and integration are, but it’s worthwhile to spend a minute to explore the concepts a bit further.
In their book, Six Simple Rules, Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman dedicate an entire rule (number two!) to integrators and their role in bringing about cooperation. (1) They define an integrator in this way: “An integrator is an individual or work unit that fosters cooperation for the company’s benefit.” (2) They also offer a helpful clarification of the difference between coordination (instituting sequence and order), collaboration (people working in close proximity), and cooperation. Cooperation, they say, “...involves directly taking into account the needs of others in creating a joint group output.” (3) So defined, cooperation is exactly what you need to achieve to implement a well-functioning process, program and/or technology that cuts across boundaries within an organization.
The Merriam-Webster definition of integration is as follows: “To combine (two or more things) to form or create something.” This definition hints at two important points. First, integration is proactive. Integration joins disparate elements together upfront in order to produce something. Integration is not about working after the fact to knit things together through workarounds, or becoming the single connector or conduit that keeps things functioning. Second, the act of combining removes clear distinctions about which inputs produce which outputs. One of the reasons integration can be so hard to 'sell' in organizations, is that when it’s done well, it’s hard to say who should get the credit. It’s truly a joint effort. (4)
How do we make integration part of implementation?
If you are leading or part of an implementation team, it’s helpful to recognize that integration is part of your role. I have more than once during my career found myself wondering, “Why can’t these people just do this for themselves?” It’s likely because, as noted earlier, they can get along just fine without cooperating. As an integrator, you want to change that by making it imperative and rewarding for them to cooperate, at least within the bounds of the process, program or technology you are implementing.
Outlined below are some of the ways that implementers can act as integrators.
Don’t assume, ask. (Early and often.)
Implementers can easily fall into the trap of assuming without asking. They face time and energy constraints like anyone else. However, integrators know that’s never a good idea. Integration is not about short-term efficiency; it takes time and effort. However, integration pays off in the long-run because it results in more sustainable and effective implementation efforts.
In order to make integration part of your implementation, you’ll need to ask a lot of questions, of a lot of different people, in order to get worthwhile answers to inform your effort. It’s best to begin early. Integration is most effective when it starts during the design phase of whatever you’re implementing.
Some of the questions integrators ask, include:
- Who (really) needs to be involved? Identify all the work roles or groups that are directly involved in the program, process, or technology that you are implementing. These are people that need to do something, not people who just have an opinion about your effort. These roles or groups may/may not neatly align with an organizational chart.
- What do they contribute? What do they receive? Processes, programs, and technologies run on inputs, which usually cost people something to provide. These inputs are used to produce outputs, which are a benefit to someone. Be clear about the inputs you truly need to produce the outcomes you seek. Identify how the inputs break down into specific contributions provided by each of the groups you identified, and which outputs are of use to which group.
- Confirm you have identified the best source for the inputs, based on their job function and capacity.
- Clarify the effort/cost they bear, from their perspective, to provide these inputs.
- Ensure they (and you!) understand the value of their contributions. Confirm that the value of the input is greater than the cost; confirm that all outputs are of substantive value to someone. If it's not, consider doing without them.
- Confirm that each group receives some tangible benefit for participation and that they recognize it as valuable. It’s not sustainable to ask people to bear costs without receiving any benefit.
- How might we make it simpler? Cooperation usually imposes a cost on individuals (or individual groups) in order to create a broadly shared benefit. That is not the most tantalizing scenario for the individual. Work to make cooperation more attractive by relentlessly asking how you can reduce the costs to provide inputs and/or make outputs of greater value.
- Be sure you understand, specifically, what people have to do to fulfill their role in the implementation effort.
- Be flexible and open to different ways of getting things done.
- Identify the frustrations and/or ‘wish lists’ of groups involved and commit to working with them to make changes that benefit them, without sacrificing the overall value created for the organization.
- Is the whole (still) greater than the sum of its parts? As an integrator, your job is to understand both the parts and the whole that they combine to create. It’s not enough to deeply understand each segment in isolation. You have to be able to bring them together into a coherent whole. Importantly, while balancing for value to individual groups, you also need to ensure that the overall effort produces the intended outcomes for the organization. This may require tradeoffs. When making tradeoffs, you are seeking a relative, not a perfect, balance. In most cases, organizational benefit should receive the greatest weight.
- What did we learn? Beyond the value you provide directly as an implementer (e.g., the process, program, or technology that you put in place), you can also contribute to organizational learning by summarizing what you learned as an integrator. People are often quite interested to learn about others in their organization, when they don’t have to invest too much effort to do it! Remember, as an integrator, you are a rare individual. Your knowledge will be useful to other implementation efforts, leaders and/or for cross-group learning.
It’s easier than you may think to become overly focused on one aspect of the integration equation — individuals, groups, or the organization as a whole. Be sure you understand your personal preference (parts or whole) and put in place safeguards to ensure you don't develop gaps in your integration effort. (Safeguards could include members of the team assigned to advocate for different perspectives, a simple checklist, etc.)
Borrow power when necessary.
Because an integrator is rare, she can be valuable. However, you should expect that people may be wary of you or resent you until they experience the benefits of this great, new thing you are implementing. The rewards may come to them only long after they’ve made their contribution. For this reason, at the outset of your effort, you may need to leverage the power of others in the organization, such as the initiative or program sponsor or pivotal managers, to reinforce the necessity of participation. (See my recent post on the role of sponsors for more on that topic.)
Always close the loop.
A relatively easy way to build long-term, organizational trust is by communicating. Be sure to close the loop with all groups involved in your implementation effort by providing evidence of tangible benefits produced, in terms that are meaningful to them. If you’ve integrated well, the benefits they receive should be obvious. However, it never hurts to reinforce the positive. Remember, people are busy with their day-to-day and are unlikely to put much effort into uncovering the benefits for themselves. So make it easy for them to see the value they have created and received through cooperation.
- For an introduction to the ideas outlined in Six Simple Rules, you may want to check out Yves Morieux’s TED Talk or related articles here or here.
- See Six Simple Rules, p. 55
- See Six Simple Rules, note 13, p. 199.
- Morieux and Tollman also discuss the proactive role of integrators and the difficulty of measuring cooperation. See Six Simple Rules, p. 57 and p. 81, respectively.