Category Archives: Time Span

Level of Work of a Team Lead?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I run a private industrial disaster recovery business. We respond to natural disasters and clean up the mess. We are very hierarchical, but I am having difficulty understanding the level of work in the teams that we dispatch.

Is it possible to have a supervisor in stratum level one? For example, we deploy teams of three people consisting of two technicians and a team captain. The two technicians are obviously working at S-I, one or two day time span, while the team captain works on a day to week at the most. The team captain directs the activities of the two technicians, but is he their manager?

We have several three person teams supervised by a single Project Manager. The Project Manager role, for us, includes team member selection, coordination of support resources, equipment, machinery, consumables as well as training for technicians and team captains. Our Project Manager clearly works at S-II, 3-12 month time span.

My question is, what is the level of work for the Team Leader?


You describe a classic case of a First Line Manager Assistant (FLMA). Elliott was very specific about this role. You are correct that the role is an S-I role and illustrates that within a single stratum level of work, we have different levels of work, illustrated below –

S-II – Project Manager, supervision and coordination, manager of the entire S-I team.
S-I-Hi – Team Captain, directs on-site, assigns tasks, but is not the manager of the team.
S-I-Med – Technician, works under the on-site direction of the Team Leader
S-I-Lo – Technician trainee

This works for project teams, deployed field units, multi-shift operations where the S-II Project Manager or Supervisor is not physically present at all times. The First Line Manager Assistant (FLMA) has limited authority to direct activity and assign tasks within the larger authority of the S-II Supervisor. The FLMA has recommending authority for advancement and compensation, but those decisions remain with the S-II Supervisor.

States of Thinking – Parallel

From the Ask Tom mailbag – Part 4 of 4

Parallel State

  • S-I (1 day – 3 months) Declarative (Concrete)
  • S-II (3 months to 12 months) Cumulative (Concrete)
  • S-III (1 year to 2 years) Serial (Concrete)
  • S-IV (2 years to 5 years) Parallel (Concrete)

And then the serial thinker wakes up one morning to discover the predictable output of their genius system is impacted by the output of another system. To understand what is happening requires a parallel state of thinking.

Peter Senge, Fifth Discipline, explains how one reinforcing system can be impacted by a distinctly separate balancing system. The output of your sales system will eventually be impacted by the capacity of your fulfillment system.

Parallel thinking must consider the dependency, inter-dependency, contingency and bottle-necks that occur as multiple systems sit side by side. The goal at this parallel level of work is to integrate our multiple systems and sub-systems into a whole system. This requires optimizing the output of one system relative to the capacity of another system, and shaping the hand-off of work product from one system to the next system as work travels horizontally across the organization. To be effective at this level of work requires systems analysis, a parallel state of thinking. -Tom

States of Thinking – Serial

From the Ask Tom mailbag – Part 3 of 4

Serial State

  • S-I (1 day – 3 months) Declarative (Concrete)
  • S-II (3 months to 12 months) Cumulative (Concrete)
  • S-III (1 year to 2 years) Serial (Concrete)
  • S-IV (2 years to 5 years) Parallel (Concrete)

The cumulative thinker wakes up one morning and sees the world in a whole new way. Not only are things in the world connected, but there are cause-and-effect relationships between them.

If this is the case, then this must be the result.

One thing causes another thing to occur. This is the state of thinking required to be effective at creating single serial systems. There is end to end accountability for the effectiveness of the system at this level of work.

Decision making and problem solving not only requires an understanding of steps to be included, but the duration of each step, sequence of steps, which steps depend on other steps to be completed (dependent steps), which steps may be worked on simultaneously (concurrent steps), lead times for steps and critical path. Trouble-shooting (problem solving) is an analytic process (root cause or comparative analysis).

Serial thinking creates consistency and predictability in each system. And then the serial thinker wakes up one morning to discover the predictable output of their genius system is impacted by the output of another system. To understand what is happening requires a parallel state of thinking. -Tom

States of Thinking – Declarative

From the Ask Tom mailbag – Part 1 of 4.
Last week, you created a chart that appeared to break down various states of thinking related to levels of work. Your biggest distinction seemed to be from concrete (short time span) to conceptual (longer time span) levels of work. But you used specific labels to describe states of thinking at Strata Levels I-II-III-IV. Could you be more descriptive in these states.

  • S-I (1 day – 3 months) Declarative (Concrete)
  • S-II (3 months to 12 months) Cumulative (Concrete)
  • S-III (1 year to 2 years) Serial (Concrete)
  • S-IV (2 years to 5 years) Parallel (Concrete)

When I look at work, I look at two things, the way people make decisions and the way people solve problems. That’s work.

Declarative State (I do declare!) describes the state of problem solving engaged in short time span problems. Something exists because it is declared to exist. In his most recent book, the Undoing Project, Michael Lewis describes the fallibility of such thinking, based on recency bias or vividness bias. Things get connected “just because.” There is an old wives tale that arthritis pain is connected to weather events. A study conducted by Amos Tversky, one of the subjects of Lewis’ book, demonstrates there is no statistical link between arthritis and the weather yet, “a single day of severe pain and extreme weather might sustain a lifetime of belief in a relation between them.”

Declarative State is a very disjunctive way of seeing the world. Connectivity is imagined, declared, without the requirement of supporting evidence. Given a problem to solve, a person engaged in a declarative state can see the problem, and can consider a small number of presented solutions. A declarative process would start with the most obvious, most convenient, most vivid, most imagined solution, without evidence of its probable effectiveness. Yet, if that solution does not immediately work, the declarative process simply moves to the next most obvious, most convenient, most vivid, most imagined solution. There is the old joke about looking for a set of dropped car keys, in the dark, down the street from the parked car. The person searches down the street, under the streetlight, because searching in the dark, next to the car is too difficult. This scientific process is known as trial and error.

And there are many problems that can be effectively and quickly solved through trial and error problem solving. And there are many people in S-I roles who can play through trial and error so quickly, their solutions appear astounding.

Until they wake up one morning and see the world in a whole new way, things are actually connected. They go from not being able to connect the dots to the next level state of thinking, cumulative. -Tom

When to Promote

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I have a technician in an S-I role, but he shows promise to be a supervisor. Shows promise, he’s not there yet. If I promote him, he will fail. Yet, he is clamoring to be promoted. If I promote him and he fails, he will likely quit OR I will have to fire him. What to do?

Your instincts are solid. I divide each stratum level of work into three parts (Lo-Med-Hi). For example, Lo-S-II would be an emerging supervisor, may not have earned the title of supervisor yet, but is still in the learning and testing phase.

Med S-II is someone with the competence to be effective in the supervisor role, certainly has the role title.

Hi-S-II is someone, extremely competent and a candidate for consideration at Lo-S-III (emerging manager).

So, Hi-S-I would be your best technician, could be called at “team lead.” If the S-II supervisor is out for the day, this guy is in charge. He will struggle in most areas as a supervisor, but given time (couple of years) he may grow and become more effective at Lo-S-II accountabilities.

Let’s take safety as a key result area (KRA), for example.
S-III designs a safety system.
S-II selects elements of the safety system to focus on each day, coached by S-III manager who designed the safety system.
Hi-S-I may deliver a 3-min safety talk to the team, on a topic selected and coached by the S-II supervisor from the S-III safety system. Hi-S-I would be the role model for the rest of the team to make sure they all go home with fingers and toes.

As time goes by, Lo-S-II projects are assigned to the Hi-S-I team member. This will give the Hi-S-I team member low-risk experience making S-II decisions and solving S-II problems. At some point, everyone will realize the Hi-S-I team member is effectively completing task assignments at S-II. That’s when the promotion happens, not a minute sooner. -Tom Foster

What Does It Take to Be President

I usually don’t talk about levels of work above S-VI, but today is inauguration day. A new president takes the oath of office and for the next four years, plays a role, making decisions and solving problems.

Levels of work were first explained to me in 2001. My teacher was Jerry Harvey, a colleague of Elliott’s. On this day, I imagine, Jerry is on some heavenly golf course, trying to make a side bet with Elliott about how things will turn out.

Jerry described the role of President of the United States (POTUS) as a Stratum VII role. We are talking about the role, not the person. Decisions made at this level of work will have 20-50 year impact, both good decisions and bad decisions.

The goals and objectives at this level of work have target completion times 20-50 years into the future. As Jerry put it, this is not a short game. Can you imagine putting the wheels in motion, to set out on a journey, the fruits of which we will not see for 20-50 years. And, yet the public expects the problems to be solved in the first 100 days.

The state of thinking required to be effective at S-VII is Serial (Conceptual). See the iterative chart below.

States of Thinking

  • S-I (1 day – 3 months) Declarative (Concrete)
  • S-II (3 months to 12 months) Cumulative (Concrete)
  • S-III (1 year to 2 years) Serial (Concrete)
  • S-IV (2 years to 5 years) Parallel (Concrete)
  • S-V (5 years to 10 years) Declarative (Conceptual)
  • S-VI (10 years to 20 years) Cumulative (Conceptual)
  • S-VII (20 years to 50 years) Serial (Conceptual)

Jerry described Bill Clinton as effective at S-VI for his first six years in office, effective at S-VII only during the last two years of his term. He joked about the year 2000 election, both Gore and Bush at S-V. That’s why we couldn’t tell the difference and the election ended in a stalemate, had to be decided by the Supreme Court.

I do not judge a person’s capability. I only judge the role. What is the work? What are the decisions to be made? What are the problems to be solved? Then, my question is simple, was the person effective? or not?

What is the level of work in your role? What are the decisions to be made? What are the problems to be solved? Are you effective in your role? -Tom Foster

Time Span of Intention

This week, I shared a planning document (you can download it below), with the headline, “What is your intention?”

Elliott closed his last book with this notion of intention, in a drawing he described as, the most important illustration of his book, the Axis of Intention.

Planning is simply the documentation of your intention.

We have two dimensions of time, the past and the future, separated by the nanosecond of the present. Events that occur are measurable by a stopwatch. The melting point (time to melt) of a metal at a given temperature is predictable, can be scientifically documented. It is known, concrete, tangible.

In life, the Axis of Achievement (the past) is overlaid by the Axis of Intention (the future). What is your intention? What is the time span of your intention?

I get pushback on planning.

  • We don’t have time.
  • Actual results never meet the plan.
  • We might be held accountable for what we said.

We don’t have time to plan. Then what is the time span of your intention, that you don’t have time to consider your intention?
Actual results never meet the plan. Of course not, but actual results are shaped by the axis of your intention.
We might be held accountable for what we said. Accountability is output. Accountability is the reconciliation between these two dimensions of time –
The past, axis of achievement.
The future, axis of intention.

The linchpin is this understanding of time span. What is the time span of your intention? That is what will shape your world. -Tom

You can download the planning document here. 2017 Planning Template

Levels of Work and Appropriate Decision Making

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

In your workshop today, you asked two questions –

  • What have been your growing pains (as an organization)?
  • What has to change going forward?

It occurred to me, the reason our company is stuck, is that decision making always gets pushed to the CEO. In our executive team meeting, whenever there is a decision to be made, even seemingly routine decisions, I see heads go down, deference to the CEO. We all wait, unable to make a move until she speaks.

Dependency is the collusion required to institutionalize parenting and patriarchy. It’s a two-way street. Given the opportunity for the CEO to play God, it is very difficult to resist. Allowing someone else (the CEO) to make the decision lets the executive management team off the hook of accountability. It is a perfect collusion.

Allowed to persist, the executive management team is crippled from making ANY decision, especially those they should be making. When all decision making streams through the desk of the CEO, speed slows down and accountability is concentrated.

When you understand levels of work, you are suddenly able to determine what decisions are appropriately delegated and who to delegate them to. There is appropriate decision making at every level of work.

When the decision emerges in the executive management team, ask these two questions –

  • What is the appropriate level of work to make this decision?
  • Who, at that level of work, will be accountable for the consequences of that decision?


The Value of One Year into the Future

“Why is it important for a Manager to think one year into the future?” I asked.

Melanie had finally opened her mind to discovery. “If I had been thinking out a year, I could have had conversations with my supervisors a long time before they quit. I would have known what changes to make to keep them challenged. I didn’t think they would be interested in learning new things and stepping into more difficult projects.”

“So, if I asked you, as a Manager, to take a single piece of paper and chart out your team members, think about their capabilities and interests, and develop a one year plan for each one, could you do it?”

“Well, yes, but I would probably have to talk to each person, to make sure I was on target, it’s going to take some time,” Melanie replied.

“So, what do you have to do that is more important?” -Tom

Level of Work Required in a Sales Role

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

We need to hire someone in a sales role. You said in your workshop that we need to identify the level of work. What’s the level of work in a sales role?

The consultant’s answer is always, it depends.

But, it depends on something very specific. The level of work will depend of the length of your sales cycle.

Level I – Time-span (1 day – 3 months)
Short sales cycles can be effectively maintained by trained order takers. Level I sales roles can be found in catalogue call centers, counter sales and sales oriented customer service centers.

Level II – Time-span (3 – 12 months)
Sales work at Level II is found in longer sales cycle projects, where building relationships is important. This sales work consists of prospecting for new customers, qualifying prospective customers, gathering customer needs according to a checklist, matching products to customer needs, making presentations, negotiating and closing the sale. On the customer side, the counterpart to Level II sales work would be the purchasing agent.

Level III – Time-span (1 – 2 years)
Decisions in business to business purchases often require additional input. While the buying criteria for most purchasing agents is price, the Level III buyer, sometimes a specifying engineer, is more concerned about function. Interacting with a Level III buyer may require the capability of a Level III sales person, a product engineer. Sales work at this level is more concerned with needs analysis, product match and application. Sales functions like prospecting may be delegated to sales team members at Level II.

Level IV – Time-span (2-5 years)
Occasionally the buying decision involves product functionality that integrates with other systems that exist in the customer organization. The Level II purchasing agent is concerned about price. The Level III specifying engineer is concerned about function. The Level IV buyer is concerned about how the product or service will integrate with other systems in the company. Sales cycles greater than two years may require Level IV capability to understand the complexities of how the product or service integrates into customer systems. A primary accountability for this level of work in the selling company will be feedback loops into research and product or service development. Examples of Level IV sales roles exist in pharmaceuticals, automobile components, electronic components, large scale construction projects, international logistics, financial instruments and insurance products. -Tom