Tag Archives: accountability

How Many People Can One Person Manage?

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

How many people can a person effectively manage?

This is a great question.  As I travel around North America, I talk to hundreds of managers each year, there is always this question, stated in different ways.

  • How many people can one person effectively manage?
  • What is the appropriate span of control?
  • When does a manager get spread too thin?

To answer this question, we need to reframe the assumption.  It is not a matter of management or control, it is a matter of accountability.  Here is my reframed question -

  • How many people can one manager be accountable for?

This shifts our understanding of the role and helps us answer the question.  The magic maximum number is “about” 70.  But it depends.  It depends on the variability of the work.  If the work is very repetitive and work instructions seldom change, one manager can be accountable for a fairly large group.  If however, if the work changes from day to day, hour to hour, where work instructions must be adapted constantly from a set of guidelines, that number may drop to four.

Let’s take a military example.  One drill sergeant, in basic training, where work instructions are repetitive, may be accountable for the work output of a high number of raw recruits.  On the other hand, in a Navy Seal team, with specialized missions requiring high levels of judgment which may change minute to minute, one team leader may only be effectively accountable for five or six team members.

What is the level of work on your team, what is its variability, how much judgment is required related to work instructions, what is the risk of underperformance?  Those are the questions you have to answer first.

How to Hold Someone Accountable

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

I very much enjoy your blog and always find improvement opportunities within your messages.  As you point out rather frequently, holding the right people accoutable is crucial.  In that regard, I would like to ask, what different ways have you found effective in “holding people accountable” beyond expressing your dissatisfaction with their performance, formal performance improvement requirments (PIP)  or replacing them?  I would like to know what tools/techniques you recommend and believe most effective.

Here is my short list -

  • Raising my voice.
  • Repeated criticism.
  • Frequent complaining.
  • Public flogging.

The person who believes these methods effective is someone who has no children.  None of these work.  I spent several hours with one of my executive groups on this very issue and at the end of the day, here was our conclusion.  The only person who can truly hold me accountable is me.  All other forms of harassment are largely ineffective.  Self-accountability is the only path.

Yet, we still say that we have to hold someone accountable.  My definition of a manager is that person held accountable for the output of their team.  So I say it, too.

So, here’s a better list of conditions required for self-accountability.

  • Make the expectation (of output) clear.
  • Ensure the availability of required resources.
  • Validate the required skills and sufficient practice for the task.
  • Match the persons capability with the capability required for the task (measured in time span).
  • Ensure the person places a high value on the work (interest or passion for the work).
  • Ensure the person engages in reasonable behaviors required to complete the task.

If we still observe underperformance or misbehavior, we have to make a judgment as to the cause.  Then we have to make a judgment if this cause can be corrected.

The Role of the Manager’s Manager

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question - 
I have appointed a new manager to my team, so I am his manager.  I thought he would pick things up quicker, but he seems to be floundering.  I think he will make over time, but I wanted to know if I should send him to training, get him a book on management?

Response -
If you think this new manager will make it, over time, just needs a sprinkling of managerial pixie dust, then you will hate this response.  The most potent step you can take is for you, as his manager, to get directly involved.

Certainly, you could offload him into a leadership program, there are many good ones around.  You could purchase a management book for him to read, but both will pale in comparison to the direct influence you can have, as his manager.

Every employee is entitled to have an effective manager with the capability to bring value to their problem solving and decision making.  Your job, as his manager, is to bring that value.  Easy to say, hard to do.

And just to make sure I have your attention.  It is you as his manager, that I hold accountable for his output in the role.  You selected him, you on-boarded him, you control the environment he works in.  You are in control of his training.  You are in the position of coach.  You are the manager accountable for his output.

How Does Hierarchy Promote Cooperation?

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

I recently attended one of your Time Span workshops and want to know how hierarchy promotes cooperation?

The short answer is accountability.  Inherent in the structure of hierarchy is accountability.  Unfortunately, most managers misunderstand the purpose for hierarchy and where accountability is appropriately placed.

Most managers believe that hierarchy is a reporting structure.  Even our language misguides us.  ”Who is the new guy going to report to?”  This is not the central question.

The definition of a manager is, that person held accountable for the output of other people.  The question is not “who should the new guy report to?”  The central question is, which manager can be held accountable for the new guy’s output?”

When managers begin to understand accountability, the whole game changes.  Hierarchy provides us with a visual representation, of which manager is accountable for the output of the team.

When managers begin to understand that they are accountable for the output of their team, attitudes change and behavior changes.  Behaviors change from controlling and directing to supporting and coaching.  Every employee is entitled to have a competent manager with the time span capability to bring value to their problem solving and decision making.

The purpose of hierarchy is to create that value stream, where managers, one stratum above (in capability) bring value to the problem solving and decision making of their team members.  For ultimately, it is the manager who is accountable for their output.

Why Do People Bring Their Personal Lives to Work?

“Why do people bring their personal lives to work?” Denise complained.  ”I’m losing productivity.  Eight people on my team, one is out with a sick child, and one was late because his car broke down.  As the manager, I am held accountable for today’s lack of productivity, but it’s not my fault.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes, and you are partly to blame.  You say the manager is accountable for the output of the team.  You assume that each person on my team is doing their best and, as the manager, I am accountable.  Well, I feel like my feet are being held to the fire for the lack of productivity, but it’s not my fault that somebody’s kid got sick.”

“I agree.  It’s not your fault that somebody’s kid got sick.  You are not held accountable because someone was late.  You are, however, held accountable for today’s production.  You are the manager, THINK.”

“I think I am being blamed for something that is not my fault,” Denise pushed back.

“Looking at the production schedule, there are ten orders that have to be completed and pushed out the door.  You are the manager.  What are you going to do about that?” I insisted.

Denise took a big breath.  She wanted sympathy, but was getting no warm and fuzzies.  Finally she spoke.  ”There are two people on another crew that I could probably borrow for two hours.  They are cross-trained.  That will catch us up most of the way.  But there is one order that won’t make it today.  I know the customer and I know the project.  I can call and see if we can delay delivery for one day.”

“You are the manager.  Do you have the authority to make those decisions?”

“Yes.  I do,” Denise clarified.

“So stop feeling sorry for yourself.  You are not accountable for someone getting sick, but you are accountable for today’s production.”

The Problem with Matrix Management

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Our company has a Matrix management structure within a functional structure.  Each department is struggling with execution and achieving target results partially due to resource alignment challenges associated with the functional and matrix organization structure. 

Matrix structures were created, with the best of intention, to resolve priority conflicts.  A team member who is temporarily assigned or part time assigned to a project team has a new built-in conflict.  “Who is my manager?”

Do I take direction from my manager or my project leader?  And when there is conflict between those directions, who wins?

And that is how matrix management was born.  Unfortunately, the end result simply codifies the existence of the team member’s (now) two managers without identifying who the real manager is.  Further, it does little to bring clarity to the project leader’s authority when there are conflicts.  The team member is simply stuck.

Again, the intention to invent Matrix was pure, to identify managerial authority and project leader authority related to the same team member.  Mixed results emerged.  Luckily, projects have limited duration and so the undecided conflicts eventually go away.  Some declared that Matrix was effective and then made the fatal mistake.  The fatal mistake was thinking that Matrix should then be applied to the entire enterprise.

Matrix operates under the false assumption that a team member can have two (or more) managers.  Matrix does little to identify the managerial authorities or the limited cross functional authorities required by a project leader.

This perspective was clearly identified by Elliott Jaques in his research on time-span. The prescription is to dismantle Matrix, establish clear accountability in your managerial relationships and structure cross-functional working relationships for the following roles -

  • Project leader
  • Auditor
  • Monitor
  • Coordinating relationship
  • Service getting relationship
  • Collateral relationship
  • Advisory relationship

These cross functional working relationships accurately identify the limited accountability and limited authority required to successfully move work horizontally through the organization.

If you would like a pdf about cross-functional working relationships, titled “Get Rid of Your Dotted Lines,” just Ask Tom.


The Big Question No One Ever Asks

“So, what do you think made the difference?” I asked.  Julia was debriefing her meeting with the team.

“The team is really a good team,” Julia began, “but they were allowed to create an environment where they had no personal responsibility in the outcomes of their department.  Ultimately, I am accountable for the output of the team, but I cannot do the work alone.  My effectiveness, as a manager, is judged by my ability to get the team working together, solving problems and making decisions.”

“But, what made the difference?” I repeated.

“The difference was shifting the environment where they could confront the real issues facing the team.  Their previous manager had allowed them to blame machines and circumstances.  Like co-dependents, the manager fed the team and the team fed the manager.  I had to interrupt the cycle.  I had to give them permission to ask and answer the big question that no one ever asks.”

“And, that question would be?”

“How have I contributed to the problem?” she replied.

How to Define Dotted Line Working Relationships

“The manager is accountable for the results of the team member, I totally get this,” Ed agreed. “But, I have a manager in charge of new product development, that includes new product planning, market research, prototyping, product testing, re-engineering based on feedback. He is also in charge of the product launch before he hands the product over to production and sustaining engineering. He uses all kinds of resources for that, from marketing to engineering. How does the accountability work here?”

“Project teams happen all the time,” I replied. “Projects often require a multitude of expert talent from across the organization. But what you describe is not a special circumstance. You describe the normal workflow of every organization. Most organization charts are ordered top to bottom, with managerial layers to fix accountability in each of the disciplines. It is very orderly but workflow doesn’t happen up and down through managerial layers. Workflow happens horizontally across the organization. Tell me how things work around here.”

Ed cleared his throat as he began his description, “A customer project is surfaced through marketing, negotiated through sales, turned over to engineering for project specifications and design, pushed into operations for production, delivered to logistics for installation, inspected by quality assurance and maintained through warranty and customer service. You are right, work happens horizontally. So, how does accountability work horizontally?”

“Have you ever looked at an org chart and seen dotted lines between people from different departments?”

Ed nodded. “Yes, you said to get rid of our dotted lines. You said dotted lines create ambiguity and that ambiguity kills accountability. Isn’t that what we are talking about?”

“Yep,” I confessed. “I lied. I don’t really want you to get rid of your dotted lines, I want you clearly define the specific accountability and authority that goes along with those horizontal working relationships. These horizontal working relationships are normal and frequent, but most of the time they are undefined. Undefined working relationships leave people to make up their own rules and that’s where the accountability trouble begins.”

“So, what about my manager who borrows engineers to build prototypes for new product development?”

“Your manager who borrows, not just engineers, but marketing and product testing people, is a classic example of a project leader. The project leader borrows people either on a part-time basis or a full-time basis for a limited duration of time. If the project leader used the engineer on a permanent full-time basis, then that would properly be a managerial relationship.”

“So, the part-time status or the full-time limited duration status changes things?” Ed wanted to know.

“Yes, the project leader, in a cross functional working relationship, borrows team members from other disciplines. The project leader must arrange with the engineer’s manager for that working arrangement. Now, here is a question. Who is accountable for the quality of the engineer’s output on the project?”

Ed had been around me too long. “If the project leader is in a cross functional relationship with the engineer, the engineer’s manager is still accountable for engineer’s output, no matter what project he is working on.”

“True,” I acknowledged. “So, what if the engineer underperforms on the project? What does the project leader do?”

Ed thought for a minute. “The project leader goes to the engineer’s manager and describes the underperformance. Because the engineering manager controls engineering resources, the engineering manager can add another engineer to the project, or replace the engineer on the project, depending on the context of all engineering support required in the company.”

I nodded my agreement. “This is a very thoughtful and respectful working relationship between the project leader and the engineering manager. The project leader is requesting and receiving a service from the engineering manager.”

Cross-funtional Working Relationships
Service Getting

Who to Hold Accountable?

“You are not a manager so people can report to you,” I announced. The class stood still. “You are a manager to bring value to the problem solving and decision making of your team.”

Slowly, a hand went up in the back of the room. “But how will they know who to report to?” A murmur of chuckles circulated.

“Look,” I started. “When you have a new employee, you think the most important question is, who are they going to report to? That is not the central question. The central question is, which manager will be accountable for their output?”

“Accountable?” came the question from the back of the room.

“I know it’s a foreign concept,” I smiled. “Yes, a manager is that person in the organization held accountable for the output of other people.”

“But if my team member screws up, it’s not my fault?” the back of the room voice defended.

I shook my head. “It’s not a matter of fault. I hold you, as the manager, accountable for the output of your team members. Most organizations get this wrong and that is where the trouble starts.”

How to Connect Values to Behaviors

“It’s a good list,” said Miguel. The list had emerged from a values exercise the week before. After an extensive word pairing process, some heavy lobbying, push back, protest and negotiation, this was the list that made it.

“So, now you have a list,” I said. “What do you do with it?” Miguel’s eyes brightened, then his brow furrowed.

“I’m not sure. I guess we could print it out on fancy paper, frame it and put it on the wall next to the Mission Statement.”

I stared straight at Miguel. “Dude, you are going to have to do better than that.”

Miguel nodded in agreement.

“Get your team back together and take this to the next step. If you want to create a positive culture, you have to live by your values. Everything you do as a company should support these values. You have to identify the stories, the examples and the people. Then you have to amplify them. You have to amplify them in meetings, newsletters, memos and emails.

“Get your team together and figure it out. In what way can we communicate our values and the behaviors connected to those values to every person in the company. Frequently.”