Tag Archives: work

What is Work?

“Max, I know how you feel about your team’s attitude toward work. You believe they only show up for the paycheck. You believe, as a manager, you have to incentivise them above their normal pay, with a bonus or spiff to get them to pay attention, or otherwise engage in discretionary effort. Your belief is in line with many employee studies that say most are NOT engaged with their work. So, let’s not talk about your team. Let’s talk about you.”

“Alright, I’m game. But, understand that I am here for the money, too,” Max clarified.

“Yes, you are right, we do have to pay competitive. More importantly, we have to get money off the table. As long as people focus on money, or, because of their circumstance, have to focus on money, employee engagement will be fleeting, at best.”

“Okay, but understand that I am still here for the money.”

“Are you really? I could show you a number of ways that you could make a great deal more money than you are making right, now,” I teased.

“I am all ears,” Max replied.

“If you were willing to sell marijuana, which is now legal in some states, you would make more money than you are currently making.” I stopped to gauge his reaction to this unusual suggestion.

“Yeah, but.”

“But, what?” I interrupted. “You see, it’s not all about the money. People, even you, want work where you can make a contribution to something larger than you. You want work where you can bring your full capability, spread your wings AND receive fair compensation for that work. You want work where your contribution is recognized as important, work that does NOT need a carrot-or-stick for you to get on with that work.”

Max was quiet. He was thinking.

“Max, you are the manager of your team. You get to design that team, select that team and create the environment that team works in. As the manager, you DECIDE the culture of that team. What will be your foundation? Will it be built around spiffs, or accomplishment? I have never known a person to be more competent in their role because they were paid a bonus.”

The Reactor Doesn’t Melt Down and Nobody Dies

“I don’t know why my team is behaving this way,” Riley complained. “I know we drive our people hard, and I know we expect a lot from them, but they knew that when they signed up for the job. We are a very intense organization.”

“How are they behaving?” I wanted to know.

“You can see them dragging into a meeting. Smiles are few and far between. It’s like they need a vacation really bad. Bordering on burn-out. I know we expect them to be responsive on their smart-phones, even after hours, but we are in the service business. We don’t know when our customers are going to call, or some project is going to go sideways.”

“So, in addition to working a normal day-shift, they are on-call after hours?”

Riley nodded. “Yes, but they get on-call pay, even if nothing happens. And we rotate that, so it’s not like it’s every day.”

“So, what is causing the fatigue,” I asked.

“I don’t know. It’s just that we are intense. If we relax, details get missed. And, missed details can turn into real problems. We have to keep our guard up.”

“And, if you keep your guard up and no details are missed, what happens?”

Riley had to stop and think. “Nothing special. Things go smooth, no one panics, but it’s not like we win the Super Bowl.”

“When your team does a really good job, it’s nothing special. So, who appreciates it, when they do a really good job?”

“No one really,” Riley admitted. “A really good job just means that no one is upset, mostly the customer.”

“Kind of like running a nuclear power plant,” I said. “If we do our job well, everyone gets electricity, the reactor doesn’t melt down and nobody dies.”

Cross Functional Working Relationship – Auditor


“We have some contractual commitments still in force,” Javier explained. “While we may renegotiate some of these obligations, until then, we have to abide by the contract. In some cases, I enlisted people to review the way we shut down some of the routes and gates. If we are about to do something that will put us in default, they have the authority to delay or stop what we are doing?”

“So, are they prescribing things for people to do, as a project leader?” Catherine asked.

“No,” Javier replied. “They are there to observe and review, but they have the specific authority to delay or stop anything that jeopardizes the project.” Javier thought for a moment. “An auditor is like a safety director. The safety director doesn’t tell people what to do, or give people task assignments. But, if someone is engaged in an unsafe work practice, the safety director has the authority to delay or stop the unsafe work practice, even though they are not anyone’s manager.”

“Okay, I get it,” Catherine agreed.

Excerpt from Outbound Air, Levels of Work in Organizational Structure, soon to be released in softcover and for Kindle.

Can He Do the Work?

“The profile on this candidate is outstanding,” Rory explained. “It will take a special person to fill this role, and by golly, I think we have found the right person.”

“The profile is outstanding compared to what?” I asked.

Rory looked askance. “What do you mean?”

“It’s nice that he has a personality, but can this candidate do the work?” I pressed.

“Well, the profile says he is suited for this kind of work. Besides, everyone on the hiring team has interviewed him and they really like him,” Rory defended.

“It’s nice that he is a likeable person, but can this candidate do the work?”

“His resume attracted our attention. It says that he has experience in our field and he answered all of our technical questions. He really speaks our language.”

I let Rory squirm for a minute. He had already made his decision, and was waiting to see if I would support it. Without asking any hard questions. “Rory, this role is for a VP of Operations. It’s nice that he understands the technology, but can this candidate do the work of an Ops VP?”

“I don’t know where you are going with this?” Rory shook his head. “I was hoping you would get on board with this guy.”

“It doesn’t matter whether I get on board. Can he do the work? It’s a big role, integrating your sales, your sales forecast with production. You have six month lead time raw materials, tooling that changes, building to stock, assembling to order, staging, logistics. This guy will be coordinating teams of people in meetings, resolving communication paths, working on bottlenecks, manicuring system constraints. It’s nice that he understands the technical mechanics of your product, but can he do the work of an Ops VP?”

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.”

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.

What is Work?

“What’s the Level of Work?” I asked.

Arianne puzzled her face. “We’re looking at two roles. One is a finish carpenter and the other is a machine operator. The carpenter is finishing wood products within one sixteenth of an inch. The machine operator is working to tolerances of four decimal places. I would say the machine operator role is a higher level of work, it’s more precise.”

“Is it a higher level?” I insisted.

Arianne paused, “I guess I am just thinking out loud. I don’t know.”

“As a manager, working with a team member, after you have provided work instructions, what is the most valuable thing to talk about?”

“Working through things that aren’t in the instructions,” Arianne was quick to respond. “Talking about the problems that might occur, and the decisions that might pop up.”

“And that’s how I measure the Level of Work. What are the problems to be solved and the decisions to be made? These require judgment on the part of the team member, and that’s where the complexity of the work is revealed. The machine operator may be working to four decimal places, but the machine is making the cuts according to a computer program. The finish carpenter, working to one-sixteenth of an inch is taking manual measurements and constantly using judgment. The likelihood of field adjustments and variance in materials is high.

“Working with my team, the most important discussion is -what decisions do you have to make in the course of your work. What problems do you have to solve?”

Group Accountability?

“At first, this group dynamics stuff looked interesting, you know, everyone together under a team incentive bonus. It sounded exciting in the seminar, but in real life, this is painful,” Naomi explained. “The worst part, is we’re not getting any work done.”

“So, who is accountable?” I asked.

“I think everyone has to take a small part of the responsibility for the team not cooperating,” Naomi replied.

“No, I don’t mean who is responsible for the mess. I mean, who is accountable for the goal?” I insisted.

“The goal? We’re not even talking about the goal. We are just talking about cooperating better together, as a team.”

“Perhaps, that’s the problem,” I suggested. “You are spending so much time trying to cooperate as a group, that you forgot, we are trying to get some work done around here.

“Is it possible,” I continued, “that you have been misdirected to think more about shared fate and group dynamics than you have about your team. A team is not a group. A group may be bound together by shared fate, but a team is bound together by a goal. Stop thinking about group dynamics and start thinking about the goal. That’s why we are here in the first place.”

Leader or Manager? Argument Continues

From the Ask Tom mailbag – from a new subscriber in Brazil.

Your blog is fantastic! I´d like to know, what´s your opinion about the difference between managers and leaders?

I usually avoid this discussion. It’s an important question, but usually draws all kinds of fire that is counter-productive. Let’s see if I can make a go of it without getting my underwear wrapped around the axle.

A manager is a role, an organizational role, with specific authority and accountability. A manager is that person, in the organization, who is held accountable for the output of other people. It is a very specific role in an organization designed to accomplish work.

Leadership is a necessary trait of an effective manager.

We often, in casual conversation refer to leadership roles, but in that sense, it carries only vague (generic) accountability and authority. And leadership, as a trait, may be found in other roles outside the role of a manager. In addition to managerial leadership, there is also political leadership, parental leadership, spiritual leadership, scientific leadership, academic leadership. These are all roles in groups organized for purposes other than work.

So, a manager is a very specific role, with defined accountability and authority, in an organization whose purpose is work. Leadership is a necessary trait.

Referring to a leadership role, a leader has undefined accountability and authority and may exist in many types of groups, organized for different purposes.