Interdependence is Transformation in Action

This article is co-authored by Bob Chapman & Larry Hoelscher

Think back over the last month. How many times have you heard any of the following statements or something close to it?

  • “We operate in silos, and that is blocking us from getting the needed improvement!”
  • “We are continually waiting on them to deliver … there is nothing we can do.”
  • “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”
  • “I need the organization to work together better.”

Can you see a theme present in all these statements? Even though action could be taken to improve performance in the business, it is somehow blocked. Absent that blockage, those speaking or thinking these statements would initiate the appropriate action.

So what is stopping them? Usually, the blockage occurs because others need to agree on the actions needed and take them. There is dependence on others to take action, and for whatever reason the desired action is not occurring. The people and groups with whom the dependency exists are either unaware of the desired action or have thus far been unable or unwilling to act.

Most business people do not like being dependent on anyone or anything. We like to think we are ‘captains of our own ship’ and free to act. Although this is a nice fantasy, it is not reality for most of us, as we are dependent on others for virtually everything we do.  And, in most cases, others are dependent on us for virtually everything they do.  In implementing large scale, transformative changes recognizing this is essential. We are dependent on others – transformational performance requires unique skills in interdependence.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines interdependency as “the fact or condition of depending each upon the other; mutual dependence”. Depend is a verb which means “to rest entirely on for what is needed”.

So, interdependence can be thought of as mutual reliance between two or more groups. Of course, there are varying degrees of interdependence.

“It is worth noting that in an interdependent relationship, participants may be emotionally, economically, ecologically and/or morally reliant on and responsible to each other.

A key takeaway is that in a relationship with interdependence, both parties are reliant on and responsible to each other.  In achieving transformational actions, the quality of this relationship must be exceptional. It should reflect ‘Being Accountable For’, ‘Reliant On’, and ‘Responsible To’ each other!

Needless to say, that level of accountability and responsibility in interdependency is not to be taken for granted. Instead it is created and sustained with much hard work. This hard work comes from inquiry into crucial questions:

  • What are we (am I) accountable for?
    • What we are looking for here is the outcome that is to be produced, rather than the process or the set of actions agreed to. Often, there is a lack of clarity on the specific outcome that is expected, while there is high visibility on the action plan prescribed.
  • On whom are we (am I) reliant?
    • The transformation we are seeking in this question is FROM “I can’t do it until they …” which equals victim, TO “I am relying on them” which can equal partnership, collaboration, working together, assistance … alliance or partnership.
    • This transformation changes the nature of the interactions among the various people/teams/groups/functions, so that we observe people pulling together to deliver the desired outcome.
  • To whom are we (am I) responsible?
    • Insights gained from this inquiry include ownership of our impact on others in the total organization, and consequences of this impact.

You may be thinking, “that is all well and good, but it does not happen in a complex, tough business such as mine”. Let’s look at a case example:

Case Example of Commercial Aviation

Commercial Aviation as an excellent example of a very complex and fast-moving system, with significant interdependencies.  With the aligned commitment of complete safety with zero accidents by everyone involved in this system, Commercial Aviation is one of the safest modes of transportation worldwide.

For illustrative purposes, take any one of the 8 groups of players in commercial aviation shown in the diagram below, and ask:  Regarding safety:

  • For what is this group accountable?
  • On whom is this group reliant?
  • To whom is this group responsible?


To illustrate how these interdependencies work, let’s look from the perspective of one of the bubbles (Flight Crew), with a focus on one member of the Flight Crew – The Pilot:

  1. Regarding safety, what is any pilot accountable for?
    • The pilot is accountable for the safety of the passengers and crew onboard, as well as the safety of the aircraft.
    • In addition, the pilot is also accountable for the safety of the system as a whole, by observing, assessing and communicating any issues that could be a safety risk, even though that safety risk may not pose any immediate threat to his/her aircraft.
  2. Regarding safety, who is any pilot reliant on?
    • The pilot is reliant on:
      1. All other members of the flight crew, for their management of the passengers and the interior of the aircraft.
      2. The passengers, for following any instructions from the flight crew given for their safety.
      3. The ground crew, for external checks to the aircraft, proper loading and unloading of baggage and cargo, for safe arrival into the gate, for safe departure from the gate into the taxi flow, etc. Around the gate, the ground crew serves as the pilot’s eyes behind and around the aircraft.
      4. Air traffic control, for slotting them into a position with all other aircraft in the area, for safe flights, takeoffs, and landings.
      5. Other aircraft, for communicating issues such as bad weather, changes in altitudes, etc – especially during flight.
      6. Maintenance, for making certain that the aircraft is maintained properly for safe flights, and for evaluating and correcting any technical issues when both on the ground and in the air.
      7. The pilot is also reliant on all of the other groups shown in the picture.
  1. Regarding safety, to whom is the pilot responsible?
    • The pilot is responsible to:
      1. The passengers for a safe flight.
      2. Air traffic control, for following instructions (altitude, direction, landing, taxiing, etc)
      3. Ground crew, for following their instructions on baggage, cargo, refueling, inspections, etc.
      4. Other aircraft, for alerting them with issues such as flight changes, altitude changes, up to date information regarding weather, etc.
      5. Maintenance, for alerting them to issues experienced with any component of the aircraft.
      6. The pilot is also responsible to all of the other groups shown in the picture.

Obviously, this is a very simplistic view of a complex system, but it does show the importance of the people in the system working in interdependent ways.  That is, they are accountable for safety, using appropriately all information from those on whom they are reliant, and they must be responsible to others who are counting on information from them to fulfill their roles in the system.  If any one member of any of the groups does not behave in an interdependent way, then bad things can happen.  Imagine the chaos at the very least, and danger in very real terms, if one pilot does not follow the instructions of flight control.

We could review members in all the bubbles shown in the picture.  In fact, it could be an interesting exercise by putting yourself in the shoes of anyone in any of the bubbles, and asking yourself: For what am I accountable, on whom am I reliant, and to whom am I responsible?  It can shed light on areas that need improvement, and specific things that can be done that will make a difference.  This examination is particularly enlightening when the same three questions of interdependence about any team, function, or part of an organization are honestly and thoroughly understood.

Bottom Line

Exceptional results occur when those involved in the business intendency are being accountable for, reliant on, and responsible to each other!  Working Interdependently is a crucial aspect of delivering outstanding results in systems that are getting more and more complex.

What interdependent relationships are currently hampering the performance of your business? What is possible for improving those relationships? The proper leadership to foster interdependence is critical.


If you want to learn more about what characteristics and roles leadership plays in the success of any organization, download our whitepaper: ‘Successful Strategic Execution Begins With Leaders’.

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