The Tripod of Work


The Tripod of Work emerged from listening to people at all levels of work, in diverse organisations and a variety of cultures, talk about the conditions in which they felt they could be most effective as individuals and working together in teams. The model rests on three observations about how and why people make organisations work.

First, each person needs to be able to exercise their own judgement in order to be able to feel that they have completed the work well, and it assumes that, generally speaking, they want to do it well. At the same time, it is also clear that organisations need to have decisions made by a blend of on-the-spot immediacy of contact with the customer/client and a considered perspective of the relevant context and how it is changing. The tripod reflects this tension in the balance between ‘tasking’ and ‘trusting’, as this provides the appropriate balance between review of the context and general purposes of the organisation and the local fit with its environment – ‘organisational judgement’ in decision-making.

Secondly, once tasks have been assigned and people entrusted to complete them, the organisation must ensure that its resources are used effectively, that its purposes are still relevant and that significant changes in the environment are responded to. The balance between ‘tasking’ and ‘tending’ provides continuous ‘review’ and thus continuous adaptation to, and with the environment.

Thirdly, everyone needs to be aware and to remain aware of the objectives of the organisation, how their part fits into that purpose and how they will be contributing as their part is played. They need to feel they belong to something that is worth belonging to. They need to be kept aware of the changing purposes and they need to understand what is regarded as important overall, because they need that knowledge if they are to exercise their judgement appropriately.

The Tripod

These observations are crystallised in the Tripod of Work:

The Optimal Tripod

Tasking ensures that each level of work adds value by defining the limits for judgement and agreeing criteria for review:

sharing intention
agreeing objectives
agreeing a completion time.
Trusting ensures robust decision-making at each level by:
entrusting people with the purposes of the organisation and
trusting them to use their judgement in forwarding the work for which they are accountable
evaluating and developing individual capabilities
making sure that no-one is either under- or overwhelmed by the challenges of their work.
Tending ensures that things keep working in the face of time, change and uncertainty, making sure that:
the work assigned is still relevant to the organisation – especially important in rapidly changing circumstances and when different cultures come together
processes and systems are monitored to ensure that resources are being used appropriately according to the current priorities
a sense of purpose and relevance for the work is communicated so that individuals have a context for their work, their initiatives and their judgement
procedures agreed beforehand that will be used if there are unresolved differences of view.
When tasking, trusting and tending are held in balance, there are three outcomes:

Tasking and trusting allow judgement to be exercised; tasking sets the limits, trusting encourages each person to use their judgement, and makes sure each is ‘in flow’ – neither under- nor overwhelmed by their responsibilities.

Tasking and tending ensure review: tasking prepares for review by establishing completion times, tending prepares for review by keeping systems, practices and people heading in the right direction at the right pace.

Trusting and tending ensure the coherence that people need to sustain their belief that the work is important. Trusting entrusts people with purposes, tending keeps that understanding alive through communication – the outcome is a shared, coherent understanding of purpose, so that every detail and decision is an expression of it.

Towards the Optimal

This all sounds like – and is – no more than common sense but it is far harder to achieve than we expect and often needs considerable change in philosophy, attitude and behaviour. A common starting point for these changes is the tripod for continuity.

i) The Tripod for Continuity

When an organisation has been operating in relatively stable conditions and has made the assumption that it can control the pace and nature of change in its environment, the Tripod takes a different form.

More often than not, such an organisation is supply driven. Its reputation depends on delivering security, reliability, safety and probity through management that supports loyalty, deduction and comprehensive record-keeping. These are usually achieved through supervision – clear instructions about what is to be done, deployment of staff in the light of their knowledge, skill and experience, and careful administration.

The Tripod for Continuity:

The Tripod for Continuity

In the Tripod for Continuity:

deduction – drawing conclusions from analysis and professional/technical knowledge and previous experience in order to manage deviations from stability tends to take precedence over judgement
coherence is less a shared, explicit purpose, more loyalty and dependency
review is recording – all the facts, figures, events
tasking is instructing and controlling limits on discretion to minimise risk and error
trusting is deploying people in the light of their knowledge and experience and occasionally asking them to use their judgement
tending is administering.
Many aspects of this way of working need to be preserved in the process of change to the optimal tripod. For example, concern for safety, respect for knowledge, skill and experience, loyalty.

The need for the change arises when the organisation realises that many of the challenges it faces are not risks where the costs of various actions can be known with reasonable probability, but radical uncertainties where such probabilities cannot be known. It can feel like living in the ‘permanent white water (of) surprising, novel, obtrusive events (with) unknown causes, unknown remedies, unknown urgencies, unknown times to completion.’

One immediate consequence is the need for a different balance between deduction and judgement: people must have freedom within limits to use their discretion to make those decisions for which they, rather than the data, must take responsibility. And, if coherence is to be the touchstone for their judgement, the dependent aspects of loyalty must be minimised while loyalty is preserved.

In the course of the ‘journey’ from instructing, deploying and administering, to the ‘three Ts’ of the optimal tripod, it is important to be alert to:

the risk on the one hand of ‘handing-over’ work and, on the other, of enforcing limits
the fragility of trust and the ease with which it can fall into mis or distrust, even suspicion
the ease with which stepping back to give freedom to act can be experienced as neglect, and the swing back to ‘order’ as policing, even surveillance.
ii) The Diffuse Tripod
This is often the outcome of the first attempt to relax the perceived restrictions of the tripod for continuity, release creativity and allow people more freedom. All too soon, they begin to feel that there is no leadership – ‘we were like compass needles without a magnetic field’ – purposes are not shared and individuals act simply in their own interest.

The Diffuse Tripod:

The Diffuse Tripod

judgement is guesswork: links between handing over and mistrust lead to endless energy going into ‘second guessing’, in the hopes of hitting on what was wanted. People also waste energy wondering whether to go back to the source of the task and ask for more guidance. A confident person will not find it difficult to do this, but an unsure person may just go ahead hoping anxiously that what they are doing will be accepted.
coherence is anomie: links between mistrust and neglect lead to people wandering around not knowing where they are, where the work is or what they are expected to be doing.
review is ignorance: tenuous links between handing over and neglect, so that people and processes are ignored and the organisation as a whole is not able to learn from what has happened.
tasking is handing over: neither the task nor the limits are clear and there is no mention of a completion review time. Again there is no sharing of intention although there may be an assumption that it has, somehow, been understood.
trusting is mistrust: which can be experienced as over-trusting – leaving someone who is loyal and committed ‘out on a limb’.
tending is neglect: people feel unprotected from uncertainty, with neither their strengths nor their weaknesses appreciated.
iii) The Rigid Tripod

This tends to come about, either when an organisation has been protected from the rigours of its environment for some years and tries to cope with the first stage of exposure by tightening up on costs, systems, people, customer contacts, or when the diffuse tripod has become pervasive and there is a perceived need to ‘tighten things up’.

Eventually, the organisation can become so preoccupied with its internal life that it loses all capability to respond to challenges and changes in its environment. In stable conditions an organisation with a rigid tripod may keep going for years, but even moderately turbulent conditions will eventually lead to collapse.

The Rigid Tripod:

The Rigid Tripod

judgement is frustration: links between enforcing and distrust mean that people are hedged around with constraints, initiative and creativity are stifled.
coherence is alienation: links between distrust and policing make people literally ‘strangers’, who do not know what the purpose is and whether anything they do makes any contribution to it.
review is paralysis: links between enforcing and policing produce an enormous amount of information, endlessly gathered and analysed to the point where it has little or no meaning; no one knows what to do with the information and it has become a persecution both to collect and to have. Little or nothing can be learned, but chapter and verse can always be found for blaming anyone or everyone when things go wrong.
tasking is enforcing: the limits are set in concrete and there is too little space left for people to use their judgement. Instead of sharing intention, it is deliberately withheld.
trusting is distrust: which is usually experienced as both ‘binding’ the person to the organisation and withholding trust from them.
tending is policing: endless systems of control, of finances, information, people – bureaucracy at its most negative.
Extending the Tripod from within to outside the Organisation: Key Relationship Appreciation (KRA)

The Tripod of Work applies not only to the way people with different responsibilities relate to each other within an organisation, but also to working relationships with joint venture partners, local and national government agencies and institutions, contractors, suppliers, distributors – any party with whom there is a ‘shared destiny’.

Whether the shared destiny is sought or imposed, it draws attention to the work of creating and sustaining reciprocal rather than adversarial or dependent relationships, and to the costs of managing them. Relationships depend on generating and sustaining trust in an uncertain future. Building and sustaining trust is costly, not doing so leaves the organisation vulnerable to the commercial and legal costs of the breakdown of the relationship. The costs of transactions are often ignored in formal economic models, but are of great practical significance. They can be compared with friction in a physical system; trust is the lubricant. Promoting it is costly, lack of trust more costly still.

Many of these relationships start not from trust but from wariness and, again, there is a ‘journey’ of changing assumptions, attitudes and behaviour to build trust, accomplish mutual interests and control costs.

The starting point for this journey can be described as a tripod of wariness where:

vigilant trust is wariness
tasking is complete specifying
tending is contracting (a denial of the inevitable incompleteness of contracting)
coherence is opportunism
review is redress
judgement is reaction.

The Tripod of Wariness

Key Relationship Appreciation is based on the premise that mutual trust is of the essence in key relationships, that it is fragile and must be supported by tasking – clear agreement about what is to be done, by whom, with what and by when; and sustained by tending – continuous work to preserve trust and minimise the costs of running the relationship. These three ts allow clear recognition of mutuality of benefit – each party experiences sufficiency, feels they have had a fair share, and each can see when that mutuality no longer exists and it is time to bring the relationship to an end.

The Vigilant Tripod

Trust does not simply emerge in key relationships. There may be a history in an adversarial or dependent past; they may be completely new so that there is little or no shared experience; they may be between people from entirely different backgrounds. So trust is of the essence, cannot be taken for granted, and must be produced and fostered if reciprocity is to be sustained. This ‘vigilant trust’ allows people to define and experience trust in such a way that they can distinguish it from the distrust which is often the mark of adversarial relationships, and from the unquestioning faith of many dependent relationships. Vigilant trust keeps watch to:

support each party to the relationship as they use their judgement within the limits agreed to complete projects without interference but with accountability
make sure that neither party is understretched or overwhelmed by the complexities of the assignments.
Vigilant trust must be supported by tasking, which faces the key dilemma in any working relationship – opportunism; in their own interests each party seeks terms favourable to themselves and this can lead to diminishing trust, bargaining and heavy indirect costs. But if the mutuality principle is part of the context, it will counterbalance opportunism. As one CEO put it, ‘An opportunist signal is measured by the mutuality principle amplifies it and feeds it back against itself, so that the opportunist signal is nullified.’
Clear tasking is essential to accomplish the mutual interests of the relationship.


shares intention
agrees objectives, resources
anticipates transaction costs
evaluating the comparative costs of planning, adapting, and monitoring the work under alternative governance structures
establishing boundary conditions by agreeing three dimensions i) the quality and quantity of output; ii) the intended target completion time for the project; iii) resources – amount of time, budget, information, authority that will be made available for the particular project and/or for development
agreeing which of these is the most important, so that informed trade-offs can be made by both parties
specifying two of the dimensions, so that it is clear to all parties that going outside these limits means failure to deliver
scoping one dimension and one only: setting a range between two specified points, with one point within the range worth more than all the others. For example, an agreement that costs can range between $5,000 and $6,000, but that the closer to $5,000 the better; or, in an environmental audit, that pollution of a river should be reduced by between X and Y, the closer to X the better. Performance can then be judged on how close the parties come to the preferred point.
The second leg of support for vigilant trust is tending – the work that keeps things working and avoids the costs of breakdown of the relationship.

Tending includes:

establishing the tone of the relationship and making sure it is not violated
mutually agreeing the arrangements that will come into play if there are disputes and/or defaults
nurturing the relationship so that they are less likely to arise; ensuring fairness in resolving them if they do
putting and keeping in place the systems and processes needed to support the relationship
providing the information necessary to support decision-making.
A key relationship, in which trust has been supported by tasking and sustained by tending, will have three distinctive qualities:
the parties will share a coherent understanding of mutuality of benefit and of the purpose and direction of particular projects
they will feel ’empowered’ and will use their judgement in the service of the mutual interests of the relationship
there will be an in-built capacity to review performance and agree ways of remedying faults, defects, delays.
This is not simply an ideal, it is realisable. But realisation does require the initial clarification of tasking, which at first look can appear antipathetic to trusting, in that it seems to ‘dot every i and cross every t.’ Experience shows that the precision of specification and scoping is essential to move away from ‘wariness’, generate vigilant trust and protect against breakdown of the working relationship.

Realisation also needs the continuous, demanding work of tending. Like the work of maintaining a household, a garden or a friendship, tending is often neither noticed nor recognised until something goes wrong. Only then is it seen as essential.

© Gillian Stamp