Handshakes and Anxiety

by | Jun 9, 2022 | Change, Ideas, Learning |


This post from Seth is brilliant. Especially the paragraphs on handshakes and anxiety. Coordination and consortiums is very difficult and the Handshake overhead helps explain why.

Handshake overhead is the result of the simple law of more people. n*(n – 1)/2. Two people need one handshake to be introduced. On the other hand, 9 people need 36 handshakes. More people involve more meetings, more approvals, more coordination.

Seth Godin

Seems quite basic, but let’s work it out. How many calls have you been on this week when introductions happen? Probably a few. How much time out of the meeting did it take? Now I work with 14 agencies regularly. If one person from each agency came to a meeting, I would need to greet 13 people (n-1). For everyone to greet (shake hands with) everyone else it would take 91 handshakes. That take a bit of time. And if each agency sent 2 people, 378 handshakes!!

In some of the Ukraine coordindation meetings, there are over 50 people involved. That’s 1225 handshakes for everyone to greet everyone. This never happens. It is too much. Even if each person were to introduce themselves in 30 seconds, it would take over 25 minutes!

Coordination 1:1 is relatively straightforward. The point of the handshake principle is that for every person added, the complexity is not just doubled, it grows exponentially.

Managerial Anxiety helps to highlight why change is so difficult.

Managerial anxiety is what happens when an operating bureaucracy comes to replace daring leadership. People get promoted because they’re good at their jobs, and innovation isn’t an opportunity, it’s a threat.

Seth Godin

At the beginning, there is chaos. Bureaucracy is welcomed as it helps provide structure to the chaos so the idea, the innovation, or the response can grow, function and be managed more easily. Those of us who are good at creating, maintaining, and even growing the structure (bureaucracy) are promoted. ‘This is how we do things around here.’ Over time the structure, the bureaucracy, the organisation becomes more important than the idea or purpose. And then, as Seth says, ‘nnovation isn’t an opportunity, it’s a threat.

Control becomes paramount. And we see this whenever new ideas or approaches are discussed in the aid world. Anxiety rises and good ideas are quickly shot down.

So what do we do? Seth proposes two options but also rightly says neither is obvious or easy. Most things worth doing rarely are. Choose anyway.

Photo by Cytonn Photography


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