Category Archives: Time Span

Management Myths and Time Span

In 2001, I stumbled over some startling research.  For two years, I privately shared this research with two of my executive peer groups, who encouraged me to take it on the road.  In 2003, I presented the first public workshop called Management Myths and Time Span to a group in Plymouth MN.  Ten years and 350 presentations later, this workshop makes it to my own hometown.

Here is the press going out.

Every CEO, executive and manager struggles with this hidden key to performance, find out why!  Do any of these apply to you?

[ ] A Project Manager Blows the Deadline?  Again?
And you have to call the customer to explain that the project will be late.  There is no reason for the delay, just an excuse.

[ ] Your Top Performer Got Promoted to Manager.  Now Failing.
She has been with the company for 12 years, promoted to a game-breaker role.  What happened?  She is loyal.  Everyone likes her.  She is floundering.

[ ] You Sent Him to Manager Training.  The Same Person Came Back.
Your high hopes for this young manager are dashed.  He showed such promise.  Or did he?

[ ] A manager got promoted to his level of incompetence, WHY?
Unlock and understand the Secret behind the Peter Principle.

November 20, 2013
Everglades University
Boca Raton, FL
Management Myths and Time Span
Reserve Now

On Wednesday, November 20, Tom Foster will present the 50 years of scientific findings of Elliott Jaques.  According to Foster, “This is the missing link to human capability. This missing link is based on a simple principle and touches every element of a manager’s work.”

Date – Wednesday, November 20, 2013
8:00 – Coffee
8:30 – Program begins
Noon – Adjourn

Reserve today $200 Only $99*
Seating is limited to 60 participants.
* Vistage/TEC Member guest discount

We select our top performer and promote them to the next level, introduce them to the team as their new leader, only to find them floundering and earning no respect.

In the hopes of filling a position in the corporate org chart, we diligently interview, do personality testing and check references. We hire the person with the best of intentions only to find them failing after a few short weeks.

You just promoted Sally — she is now in your office complaining that her new boss has his head in the clouds and is completely out of touch with the real problems facing the department. Ten minutes later, Sally’s boss, Joe, is in your office complaining about Sally, his new direct report, saying that she is totally incompetent and cannot see the big picture. What did we miss?

Tom Foster will present the research and statistically significant scientific findings of the late Elliott Jaques, the psychologist who discovered a correlation between workers across industries and their internal capability to handle different levels of work.

Particular areas that will be addressed are:

  • Most hiring managers underestimate the level of capability required for success in the role.
  • Personality conflicts in an organization are often smokescreens for a misalignment in structure.
  • Most CEOs mis-understand the true nature of executive work and often, are drawn into activity that pulls them away from higher-levels of work.
  • The flat organization is a misguided management fad — organizational hierarchy is essential and exists for very specific reasons.

Note: Participants may find it helpful to bring a current organization chart, starting with the CEO and driving down three levels.  And if they exist, a short paragraph description for the CEO role and each senior management position.

 Biography: Tom Foster works mostly with CEOs in executive peer groups.  He conducts classroom training for managers and supervisors in the areas of delegation, planning and communication skills. He spent 14 years in the television production industry and another 10 years with a large CPA firm. A Vistage Chair since 1995 and former trainer with Dale Carnegie Training, Tom holds a B.S. in radio-television-film and a master’s degree in communication, both from the University of Texas at Austin.

Reserve your space now.

Designed Around the Work

“I know you want me to be the nice guy,” Jim Dunbar pushed back, “that I would have a better organization if I wasn’t so hard on people, but at the end of the day, we have to get some work done around here.”

It stings against political correctness, but if you consider, for a moment, that statement is true, what changes?

What if, it is all about the work? What if the purpose of your organization is to actually get some work done, solve a problem, execute a solution? It’s not for every organization, only those with the intended purpose to get work done, complete a task, achieve a goal.

Some organizations are designed around other intentions, religious organizations, political organizations, educational organizations, collegial organizations, all with purpose, all with goals.

What if the purpose of your organization was to get some work done? What if your organization was designed around the work?

No Voodoo, No Amateur Psychology

“What is the Time Span capability required in my sales people?” Dennis asked.

“Sucker-punch question that will lead you down the wrong path,” I replied.

“Not sure I understand?” Dennis quizzed.

“Define the Level of Work, then ask if your salespeople are effective at that work.

“Not sure I understand the difference. Don’t we get to the same place?” Dennis pressed.

“I don’t think so,” I surmised. “Trying to determine the Time Span capability in a person prompts us to play amateur psychologist.”

Dennis mulled over the thought, so I continued.

“Identifying the Level of Work in the role is the work of a manager. Evaluating the effectiveness of the person we have assigned to this role is the work of a manager. There is no voodoo, no amateur psychology.”

Designing the Work

Chase left our conversation abruptly. Across the plant floor, he had spotted a problem and rushed to make a correction. He was apologetic on his return. “Sorry, but this is why I called you today. I feel like a two armed octopus. There are eight things that need to happen, but I can only work on two problems at a time. Things get out of control about fifteen minutes into the day. And they never stop. At the end of the day, I look at my boss’ list of projects and the important things never seem to get worked on. There is always a crisis.”

“Not really,” I said. “To me, your system is working exactly the way it is designed to work.”

Chase was puzzled. “What do you mean? It’s not working at all.”

“No, it is working exactly the way it is designed to work. The design of your day’s work is to drink coffee for the first fifteen minutes, then run around the floor solving urgent problems. At the end of each day, you check the list to make sure you didn’t do anything important.”

I paused. “Not a bad design. How’s that working for you?” Chase didn’t like what he was hearing.

“If you want to change your day, you have to change your design for the day. I see about four major design changes you might want to consider, but let’s start with just one. Don’t let anyone work during the first fifteen minutes of the day. Instead have a huddle meeting around the boss’ list of important projects. That one design change will be a good start.”

How is your day designed?

Interviewing for Potential

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Many proponents of Requisite Organization claim that a person needs to have work commensurate with their potential capability to be engaged and fulfilled at work. They claim that being required to work at a level of work that is below one’s potential capability can lead to high levels of stress and negatively affect a person’s health. Assuming this is true, how do you assess a person’s potential capability in an interview? If you ask questions about their past experience to assess the level of work they have done before this may not reflect their potential capability (because they may not have had the opportunity to do work commensurate with their potential capability before). Doesn’t this approach entail the risk of hiring someone who will be frustrated, stressed or bored by the level of work in the position?


You make it sound like working below one’s potential capability is devastating. Everyone works on Time Span task assignments all over the place. What is necessary is that a significant portion of one’s work be fully challenging. And understand that this is ALWAYS a moving target. People constantly grow and mature, we are constantly changing, our Time Span capability constantly increasing. Matching the Level of Work with capability is, as Elliott puts it, always a “work in progress.” So, we do the best we can. As managers, we do the best we can to make this match.

Conducting a candidate interview is likely the most difficult assessment challenge we face, as managers. In most managerial situations, we can observe behavior and output, we can have managerial conversations with our team members, we can ask very direct questions about problems that have to be solved and decisions that have to be made. It’s a walk in the park compared to the candidate interview.

Hiring Talent always carries risk. Making the wrong hire is expensive. It costs dollars, time, energy, morale. I will only make hiring decisions based on evidence of work output based on past experience. I will not speculate, I will not hope, I will not assume. I will only hire on evidence. This means I will restrict my questions to real situations that can be observed and verified.

Does that mean I might miss potential? Perhaps. But I don’t use the interview to assess potential capability. I use the interview to assess applied capability. I am not a clinical psychologist, I am not a soothsayer, I am not a fortune teller. I am a practitioner.

And, as a practitioner, here is one method to get an accurate picture of the prospective candidate.

I take the resume and work it chronologically. This means, I start at the back and work forward, because resumes are typically presented in reverse chronology. I have difficulty seeing patterns and progress in reverse, so I start young and work forward. This simple chronological method reveals natural progress of increasing capability as someone moves through their career. Gets me really close to their highest level of current applied capability.

I have some other thoughts about interviewing for potential capability, so let’s pick that up tomorrow.

A Plan is Not a Goal

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Background (Tom):
So, now we are left to think about your target completion time. If you truly believe that Stratum IV capability is required for success in this project, then I must assume the real “by when” of this goal is longer than you have stated. We need more data to see more clearly. Give us some more clues.

More Clues (Reader):
I have tried to tackle the clues, below, as a task assignment using CPQQRT (Context, Purpose, Quantity, Quality, Resources, Time) hopefully alluding to the longer term focus.

  • Task: Develop a comprehensive plan to ensure the pool of labour we draw our staff from continues to provide the capability we need.
  • Context: Our current labour pool is shrinking. Baby boomers are retiring, competitors using the same labour pool, increased community expectations around diversity hires.
  • Purpose: Without the labour, our operations will grind to a halt, or become nonviable due to increasing labour costs.
  • Quality/Quantity: A comprehensive plan – ie One that contains clear actions across a timeline extending out a further 12 months. This needs to also tie into our 5 year plan + take into account the expected changes in our industry and society over the next decade. I expect the plan to include the development of the labour pool through schools, universities and other external means, which by implication requires connecting with people in those institutions as well as various government departments. I would also expect you to conduct some external research into best-practice, population economics, intended changes in legislation.
  • Resources: You personally develop the plan and you make decisions on what to include/exclude. You may make use of a researcher/assistant to gather and interpret data as necessary. You have full access to anyone in the business, especially the senior leadership team.
  • Timeline: The plan is due by end Feb 2013. You will be expected to present it to the Executive Leadership Team and handle any questions from that team.

Is the capability required to complete this task assignment S-II, indicated by the six month Time Span of the Target Completion Time? Or is the capability required higher than S-II indicated by the likely State of Thinking (Declarative, Cumulative, Serial or Parallel)?

As I read your narrative, it becomes clear that this is a writing assignment to produce a written document. It appears that actual execution is NOT part of this task. But what is the goal?

If the goal is to simply write a document, collecting all these elements together into a coherent narrative, then I lean toward S-II, Cumulative processing. But I don’t think that’s the goal. A plan is not a goal. A plan is a tool, the design phase of a longer task assignment, and will require a higher level of capability.

The goal is actually to execute the work designed in this document, to create a labor (American spelling) pool in the face of shifting labor pool obstacles. I believe the document is the work design step in a much longer task assignment.

Given the challenges faced, what is a reasonable amount of time you (as the manager) would give someone to create this stable, predictable and available labor pool? You already stated that “clear actions extending out further than 12 months, expected changes in our industry and society over the next decade” would be a required element of this design. I suspect that a reasonable amount of time is 2-5 years plus, easily extending this task assignment to S-IV Parallel processing.

An example. In South Florida, we are seeing a modest and slow recovery in the commercial construction sector. And we are hiring. However, our pool of unskilled labor disappeared during the recession. Many returned to their home countries, others found work in other sectors. Available workers do not possess the skills required to complete the available work.

This is a tough problem, even beyond the scope of a single company. Contractor associations and trade groups are attempting to grapple with the same issues you describe. This will be a long term challenge, not solved within two years. It will require the development of skills training programs, recruiting unskilled workers into those training programs, creating conditions for workers to return from foreign countries. This is clearly a 2-5 year problem, will require a minimum of S-IV Parallel processing.

A Complex System in Real Time

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Say someone is working on implementing a new system. The person creates a plan, checks that it integrates with other plans, looks cross functionally, deals with all the stakeholders. Based on complexity, I would guess this Level of Work is Stratum IV, as it includes multiple paths with parallel processing, but the project deadline is 6 months. The thinking needs to be long term (2-5 years out), but the actual activity (project deadline) occurs in the short term (6 months).

To calibrate the Level of Work, do you use the actual project delivery dates (S-II) or the intent (S-IV)?

This is not a simple question? Several things to look at.

Let’s examine the word complexity. There are two kinds. The first kind of complexity is the complexity of detail. This complexity is the world of engineering, lots of complicated elements and moving parts. Detailed complexity is the stuff of software programs, managing millions of bits of data in real time. This complexity is important to acknowledge and consider but is NOT the complexity related to Time Span.

Complexity related to Time Span is that complexity created by the Uncertainty of the Future. The longer the target completion time, the more likely something will come in sideways to screw things up. The shorter the target completion time, the less likely something will come in sideways and screw things up.

Take a teenager driving an automobile. There is actual execution of multiple systems and sub-systems, integrated in the act of driving the car. There are mechanical systems operated with pedals and steering, a system of traffic signals and signs, a system of policies and guidelines, a system of traffic flow and variable speed, communication with other drivers via turn-signals and brake lights, a navigation system (GPS), a communication system (hands free, of course, and no texting), all seamlessly executed while sipping an early morning coffee and chomping a fine cinnamon bagel. Flawless integration which could be characterized by S-IV capability, and we would be wrong.

Many teenagers are highly competent at driving automobiles, playing video games, shooting, editing and posting to Facebook, all executing multiple systems and sub-systems, but that is just detail. That’s why Time Span becomes such a critical factor in understanding the Level of Work. It’s not the complexity of detail. It is the complexity of Uncertainty that defines the Level of Work.

In that thirty minute (target completion time) drive to work, it is unlikely that the mechanical systems will change their function. Gas pedals make the car go faster, brake pedals slow the car. Green lights turn yellow and then turn red (not necessarily in Switzerland). It is unlikely that, during the thirty minute commute, new traffic laws will be passed by your state legislature, that your turn signals will fail or that your GPS will take you to a false destination (well, not most of the time). Yes, it is a complicated set of multiple systems, but it is a very certain set of systems.

So, while we must acknowledge and consider the complexity of detail, it is not our only clue to the Level of Work. The strongest clues are related to the target completion time, or Time Span of the task.

So, now we are left to think about your target completion time. Your example is generic, and though you have given us much to think about, we need more data to determine whether the project deadline of 6 months is really the goal. If you truly believe that Stratum IV capability is required for success in this project, then I must assume the real “by when” of this goal is longer than you have stated. We need more data to see more clearly. Give us some more clues.

Without a Deadline

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

What happens if someone isn’t focused on a timeline? We have a number of people who need to be strategic and who need to maintain a number of balls (projects) in the air, but those projects tend to focus on a “perfect outcome” without a time-frame.

One of the biggest mistakes managers make, is assigning tasks without a deadline. Lots of chocolate messes start out this way. All projects have a deadline, whether stated or not.

  • The manager thinks “by Friday,” the team member thinks by “next month.”
  • The manager thinks this task has priority over all other tasks. The team member thinks this task has second priority over all other tasks.
  • The manager expects to see a draft plan by Friday. The team member hasn’t heard from the manager by Thursday, so stops working on the task, thinking it is no longer important.

A task (goal, objective, project) is not a “WHAT.” It’s a “WHAT, BY WHEN.”

What do I Listen For? In the Interview?

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

It was a pleasure meeting you last Thursday and even more so, hearing your ideas. Much of what you discuss is very similar to my own beliefs, but it was very instructive to hear them so clearly explained and validated. Taking the ideas from theory to practice, how do you use the diagnostic interview to hire someone who may have worked in a completely different field, or even not really worked before?

The critical role requirements in higher stratum roles depend less on technical skills and more on managerial skills. In large part, managerial skills transfer well from one business model to another.

In any interview, I am specifically listening for the candidate’s description of the work. In that description, I am listening for the Level of Work. Specifically –

  • Elapsed time – related to the Time Span of Projects. What was the length of their longest project?
  • The Story – beginning, middle and end. Where does the story of their work begin and where does the story of their work end?
  • Level of Work – specifically –
    • Individual direct output (S-I)
    • Coordination of many elements, including the supervision of outputs of others (S-II)
    • Creation of single serial systems, work flows for efficiency, consistency and predictability (S-III)
    • Integration of multiple systems and sub-systems (S-IV)

While I am listening for clues about the Level of Work, I am also evaluating effectiveness, based on the candidates description related to the Level of Work. This is where the assessment of a candidate from a different field will require additional judgment on the part of the interviewer. Here are some questions behind the questions –

  • How well do the behaviors described in the candidates field translate to our critical role requirements?
  • How effective will this candidate be in adapting habits and behaviors from their former work to our work?
  • How effective will this candidate be in learning new skills identified in our critical role requirements?

Where the candidate has NO work experience, just coming out of school, I will still ask questions related to circumstances where the candidate was making decisions and solving problems. How did they organize their schoolwork? Extracurricular activities? Volunteer work? There is always something that will reveal Applied Capability, suitability for a role.

Pay Banding

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Yesterday, you talked about compensation and referred to pay bands. I think I know about pay banding, so how does that relate to Levels of Work?

Levels of Work, as described by Elliott Jaques in Requisite Organization, provides a logical framework for pay banding. Here’s the framework.

Stratum V roles (Longest Time Span tasks ranging from 5 years to 10 years)
Stratum IV roles (Longest Time Span tasks ranging from 2 years to 5 years)
Stratum III roles (Longest Time Span tasks ranging from 1 year to 2 years)
Stratum II roles (Longest Time Span tasks ranging from 3 months to 1 year)
Stratum I roles (Longest Time Span tasks ranging from 1 day to 3 months)

Pay Banding, as a concept, slices each Stratum range into six segments (or eight segments, or four segments, but I like six). Entry level pay in each Stratum role would define starting pay for that Level of Work. Six segments up the Time Span range in that Stratum would define the highest pay for that Level of Work.

Pay banding provides a structure to design predictable Fair Compensation inside each Stratum, leaving the Team Member’s Manager and Manager-Once-Removed (MOR) discretionary latitude to make compensation decisions inside defined guidelines.