Size of Task, Size of Role

“This timespan of intention,” Pablo continued, “turns out to be the missing element in measuring the size of a task, the size of a role and thinking about the capability of those we have employed to complete those tasks and play those roles.”

“Okay, but I intend to do a lot of things,” I countered. “Climb Mount Everest before I die, run a 4-minute mile. Just because I intend to do something does not define my capability to do it.”

“Indeed,” Pablo replied. “In addition to your imagination, you also have to observe your effectiveness in doing so. A manager can easily create a piece of paper that says 12 month goal calendar, with 12 months bolded at the top, but it does not make her effective in completing those goals. She also has to effectively execute.”

“So, we have the timespan of intention, and the timespan of effectiveness?” I asked.

“And, in management, we also have the timespan of discretion. Discretion is our authority to make a decision. Given a delegated task to complete, have we also been granted the authority to make necessary decisions? Within that delegated task, what is our timespan of discretion? Timespan is the metric for measuring accountability and authority and a team member’s effectiveness. Size of task, size of role, size of team member.”

Two Dimensions of Time

“Exactly what is timespan, and why does it have a bearing on human endeavor?” I asked.

“Not just human behavior, but all living things, though right now we are focused on humans, the humans that inhabit our companies,” Pablo started. “Think about this. We plan a project and imagine, using our best judgement that the project will be complete within a specified, reasonable amount of time. When the project is finally complete, we now have the actual time elapsed. You must admit, these are concerns for every manager – How long did we intend the project to take, how long did it actually take? Time takes on two dimensions – intentions and actual elapsed time.”

“Okay,” I responded. “So far, I am still you.”

“Most often, when we think about time, we only think about elapsed time. We think about chronos, the measure of elapsed time.”

“A chronometer, like a stopwatch,” I connected.

“A river flows from its source to the sea, governed by gravity, volume, physical obstructions, and the water traveled can be measured in time. Does the river have intentions?”

I took a breath. “No,” I said, wondering if this was a trick question.

“Of course not,” Pablo replied. “Inanimate objects have no intentions, they only have elapsed time, from the source to the sea. We can describe inanimate processes easily within four dimensions, three dimensions of space and one dimension of time, elapsed time. But humans, human behavior, human endeavors require five dimensions, three dimensions of space and two dimensions of time. Elapsed time and the time span of intention.”

The Best Measure of Performance

“We started this conversation trying to figure out the size of the role and the size of the person,” I clarified. “I think we have established that we can measure size of role with timespan. So how do we measure the size of person?”

“It’s a trick question,” Pablo immediately responded. “I don’t judge people, I only judge the work.”

“But, if we are trying to match the size of the role with the size of the person?”

My question was cut short. “We are misled when we try to judge the size of a person. People are too complicated, and besides, at the end of the day, does it matter? The only thing that matters, is the person effective in the work of the role? Think about it. We come up with all kinds of descriptors like foresight, agility, conscientiousness, tenacity, initiative, motivation, flexibility. We give these things a score. As if we can measure the absolute score of a human being? We say a person needs more of this and less of that. What does that have to do with work?”

“Let me change my question,” I recalibrated. “Instead of measuring the size of the person, how do we match the person with the complexity, with the level of work in the role?”

“Now, you have a case. In this discussion, the central question is, compared to what?” Pablo asserted.

“Okay, compared to what?” I parroted.

“You cannot measure the qualities of a person with some absolute number, because people change inside the context of the moment. Compared to what? Compared to the work in the role? I only care, can they do the work?” Pablo stopped, then picked up again. “The best measure of performance is performance.”

Complexity of the Problem

“I understand there is a difference in thinking-near-term vs thinking-long-term. Conceptually, I understand. How does that help us, as managers inside a company?” I asked.

“You are familiar with delegation?” Pablo asked, knowing the answer.

“Of course,” I replied.

“You say that so fast, I assume you do NOT understand delegation, except at its surface level,” Pablo stopped. “You understand delegation as a task assignment. What you delegate is not just the task, but the decision making and problem solving that goes with it. Inside any task assignment, as a manager, you must also understand the level of problem solving that goes with it.”

“Near-term vs long-term?” I confirmed.

“Yes, the timespan of the decision will accurately determine the level of problem solving required. If I delegate a step in a process that is due tomorrow, there are decisions that go with it, AND most of the variables are known. To meet a special order for a customer tomorrow, the team can work a little overtime with the materials at hand and we can meet the order. If we have another special order, how do we do that second order?” Pablo asked.

“The same way we did the first special order. Work a little more overtime,” I replied.

“But, what if we get 50 special orders?” Pablo challenged.

“Well, there isn’t enough overtime for 50 special orders, and if we focus on those, what happens to the regular orders that were already in process, it would play hell with our schedule,” I replied.

“You see, that is not such a simple problem. And, you immediately began to think about the impact in the future. Processing 50 special orders, with special setups, depleting our materials on hand, some of which have lead times, delaying our current scheduled commitments to customers with whom we have contracts, the timespan impact of the problem grows. I would submit to you, the complexity of the problem is not just more moving parts.”

“But this is not an unusual problem, companies face this all the time,” I said.

“And, companies figure out the solution all the time. We can accurately measure the complexity of the problem by identifying the timespan impacts of each of the elements of the problem. The timespan impact of each element leads us to the complexity of the solution. Lead times of depleted materials is a clue. If the lead time is six weeks, we don’t have an immediate impact of one delayed order, we have a six week impact on all orders. We cannot solve this problem by working overtime.”

Accuracy of Timespan

“You see,” Pablo continued, “it’s the ‘by when’ that creates the complexity of any problem.”

“I’m listening,” I said.

“The further our intention is into the future, the more uncertainty, the more ambiguity creeps in. In spite of our best intentions, the future is without precision. My friend Murphy* has a law, with which, I am sure you are familiar. From one day to one week, one month, three months, a year, two years, five years, the longer the timespan, the more uncertain those future events. And, yet, in the face of that uncertainty, we have to make a decision today.”

“We were talking about the size of a role,” I tried to bring this discussion back on point.

“Indeed, some roles, production roles focus on today, tomorrow, this week. Supervisory, coordination roles focus on this week, this month, this quarter. Managerial roles focus on this quarter, this year into next year. Executive management roles focus on this year through five years. The CEO role looks out 5 years and beyond. Using timespan, we can accurately measure the size of the role.”

“And, we were talking about the size of a person,” I prompted.

“Most people are capable today, this week, maybe a month into the future. Meaning, they can perceive things around them and are competent at making near term decisions. As the timespan of the decision increases, some struggle. There is a big drop off at one year. Thinking out, and making effective decisions beyond one year into the future, well, far fewer people have capability at that level.”
—–

*Murphy’s law – anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Attributed to Capt. Edward A. Murphy, US Air Force, 1949.

The Timespan of Dry

“Most people are comfortable with short timespan decisions,” Pablo continued. “Most elements are tangible, known. We can observe, inspect, feel, touch each of the elements. The level of uncertainty, the level of ambiguity is low. And most people are comfortable.”

“I can see that,” I said.

“And, as the level of ambiguity grows, the timespan of the decision gets longer, some people struggle. Some people struggle to the point of paralysis.”

“I have seen that as well,” I replied.

“Look closely,” Pablo lowered his voice. “We can measure the ambiguity, measure the uncertainty of the decision by looking at timespan.”

“How so?” I asked. “How do we calibrate the timespan of a decision?”

“All we have to do is inspect the timespan of intention, it will tell us.”

“Timespan of intention? I am not sure I understand,” I said.

“What is our intention? What is our expectation? What do we want to happen? What is the goal? It is our intention that defines the timespan of the decision. It is our expectation. It is what we want to happen. It is the goal. Very simply, a goal is a ‘what’ by ‘when?’ Built into our intention is timespan.”

“Your example about the cloudy day and the umbrella?” I wanted to see the connection.

“If we want to avoid the possibility of rain today, we might carry an umbrella,” Pablo explained. “If we want to stay dry next week, we might acquire the habit of carrying an umbrella all the time. And, if we want to stay dry next month, while we sleep, we might build a house. And, if we want to stay dry next year, in the face of a hurricane, we better make a decision today to construct a building to withstand a windstorm. And, if we want to stay dry for the next five years in the face of multiple storms that might occur, we better create an enforceable building code rated for Cat 5. The timespan of our decision provides us with a calibrated measurement to indicate the complexity of that decision, in the face of uncertainty, in the face of ambiguity.”

The Measure of Complexity

“Would you agree,” Pablo asked, “there are some simple problems that most people can easily solve?”

I nodded, “yes.”

“And, would agree that as problems become more complex, some people struggle?”

Again, I nodded, “yes.”

“So, how do we measure the complexity of any decision, the complexity of any problem?”

“I suppose,” I started, “it would have to do with the number of variables in the decision, difficult enough for those variables we know about, even more so for those variables we do not know about.”

“And, how would you define a variable, start with one we know about,” Pablo prompted.

“A variable would be something we anticipate, and we don’t know for sure which way it’s going to go,” I replied.

“Like the weather,” Pablo stated. “We anticipate it is going to be cloudy, but we don’t know for sure if it is going to rain.”

“Yes,” I said, not sure where Pablo was taking me.

“And, how do you know it’s cloudy?” he asked.

“I looked outside, no sunshine. Observable, visual evidence, I can see it.”

“But, you don’t know if it is going to rain? Do you take an umbrella?”

“I suppose I might. A minor annoyance if it doesn’t rain, and a handy thing to have if it does,” I assumed it was a smart response.

“So, in the face of uncertainty, you make a decision based on something that is observable right now. Would you make the same decision a half-hour from now?” Pablo baited.

“It looks pretty cloudy, I believe a half-hour from now, I would still take an umbrella,” I hedged my bet.

“So, in a short timespan, you believe you have enough evidence, in spite of the uncertainty, to make a decision to take an umbrella?”

I nodded, “yes.”

“How about a week from now?” Pablo’s eyes shifted and he grinned.

“Well, who knows, a week from now if it will even be cloudy, much less rain?” I asked.

“So, one week from now is less certain than a half hour from now?”

Again, I nodded, “yes.”

“Is it possible to measure the uncertainty of any decision using timespan?” Pablo stopped and rested.

Based on Objective Measures

“But, if a forklift driver has enough experience on the resume, and properly answers a few questions, isn’t that enough for the manager to make the right hiring decision?” I asked.

“One would think,” Pablo replied. “But, it begs the age-old question, ‘How big is the role? And, how big is the person?’ Two questions, pretty simple.”

“I am following you, but, I don’t think it is as simple as you say. Or else, we would have figured it out by now.”

“Often, it is because we are looking, desperately so, in the wrong places. We think if we can simply understand human behavior, it will all fall into place. So, we try to measure human behavior. If you ask any CEO their biggest challenge, it is almost always, right people, right seats. Even psychologists struggle with measuring human behavior. They arrive at psychometric assessments with some statistical repeatability that they call reliable. The problem is, just because I can demonstrate repeatability in one measured system does not mean it is causative or a predictive indicator for something else. Where the art of engineering is built on objective measures of physics, and medicine is built on objective measures in anatomy, physiology and bio-chemistry, the art of management is, for the most part, built on alchemy, which is of little use in predicting decision making and problem solving.”

“Objective measures, in the art of management? Predictive in decision making and problem solving?” I repeated the statement as a question.

Pablo nodded. “Let me give you three buckets of water, one iced-cold, one room temperature and one heated, but not boiling. Put your right hand in the heated bucket and your left hand in the iced-cold bucket. After a moment, remove your right hand and place it in the room temperature bucket. Is the water warm or cold?”

“It will appear cold, because of the change in temperature,” I replied.

“Now, take your left hand from the iced-cold bucket and place it in the room temperature bucket. Is the water warm or cold?”

“To my left hand, it will appear warm, while my right hand in the same bucket will feel cold.”

“Well, which is it?” Pablo asked. “Warm or cold?”

“It depends on the context,” I nodded.

“Change the context, behavior follows,” Pablo smiled. And waited. “And if I placed a thermometer in the room temperature water and said, ‘your experience of the water, whether warm or cold is of little consequence, the water is 75 degrees.’

“Now, we have an objective measure upon which we can all agree, no matter if it feels warm or cold, the water is 75 degrees. What does that have to do with management?” I wanted to know.

“Even more important,” Pablo replied, “what would an objective measure have to do with the art of decision making and problem solving? How big is the role, how big is the person?

Decisions at Every Level of Work

“You said that if the manager is held accountable for the output of the team, the manager might take better care in selection?” I asked.

Pablo nodded. “It does no good to bring someone on board without the capability for the work, only to later blame that person for underperformance.”

“If that is the case,” I picked up the unspoken question, “then why do managers struggle finding the right fit for the role.”

“They struggle,” Pablo replied, “because they rarely sit down and figure out the work. Most managers see work as a series of task assignments. Do this, do that. No more. Following the task assignment, the manager often asks, ‘So, do you know what to do?'”

“And?”

“You see, it slips by so easily. That question barely begs understanding. The question from the manager should more properly be, ‘In completing this task assignment, what decisions will you have to make? What problems will you have to solve?’ Most managers miss that completely.”

“But, if the team member knows what to do, what decisions are left?”

“See, even you, my most aware friend, have overlooked discretion built into the work. There is always appropriate decision making at every level of work. Take a fork lift driver, and a pallet to be moved from point A to point B,” Pablo laid out.

“I got it.”

“Do you?” Pablo pushed back. “What decisions are to be made by the forklift driver?”

“It’s obvious,” I said. “Am I moving the right pallet to where it needs to be placed?”

“You’re right, that is the obvious question,” Pablo started. “And, let’s look at some other questions, any one of which could create failure.

  • How heavy is the pallet?
  • Is the pallet properly balanced?
  • Is my forklift rated to handle the weight of the load?
  • Will the size of the pallet, plus a safety buffer, clear the designated pathway to location B?
  • Are there unanticipated obstacles that might temporarily be blocking the pathway?
  • Are there any over height restrictions to the movement?
  • Will this move require flag walkers during movement?
  • Is the forklift in operating order?
  • Are all safety signals, warning lights and sounds operating?
  • Am I wearing appropriate PPE during the move?
  • Is the designated point B a permanent location within a specified perimeter? Or a temporary staging area that must be flagged for safety?”

“Okay, okay,” I laughed. “I get it.”

“Most managers rarely sit down and figure it out,” Pablo was adamant. “What’s the work? What decisions have to be made? What problems have to be solved?”

Changing Behavior

“The manager may be accountable for output, but, what if the behavior of the team member is not productive and needs to be changed?” I asked.

“It often happens,” Pablo replied. “The path is not to change the behavior of the team member, but to build the system that creates the behavior necessary for productivity.”

“So, you are implying that you can change a person’s behavior?”

“Absolutely, change the context, change the system and behavior follows.”

“If we subscribe to this thinking, what should we expect?” I wanted to know.

“This understanding breathes life into the organization. Managers are now expected to anticipate, have alternate plans, in short, be prepared to respond to variable conditions. This, instead of watching over shoulders, micro-managing and blaming the team.”