Hierarchy is Just a Shape

This is a series on Teal and Levels of Work. Here is the backstory for the series in case you are interested in the context. The purpose for the series is to explore the tenets of Teal through the lens of Levels of Work.

Let’s start with this emotionally charged word – hierarchy, which appears to be the (hier)arch-enemy of all things self-directed. Tom Collins posted a comment yesterday, “I’m intrigued by your hidden hierarchy tease.”

Here was the tease – Hierarchy still exists, but not where you may have historically found it. Even Laloux (Frederic Laloux) provides a hint, but then moves on, assuming to have dismissed the idea of hierarchy altogether. Yet, if you can postpone your dismissal, you will come to find insights that open doors that seemed shut.

Let me step back and approach, replacing the word hierarchy with organizational structure. You can structure the organization anyway you want, hierarchy is one way, there are others. Organizational structure is the way we define the working relationships between people. In Levels of Work, based on Requisite Organization, we see two kinds of working relationships, managerial and cross-functional, drawn on a piece of paper, it appears as a hierarchy.

This article by Richard Bartlett brilliantly sets the context – Hierarchy is just a shape. Bartlett often uses concentric circles to visually represent working relationships. It is a more pleasant affront to the senses to see amorous circles instead of a dominating pyramid. However, if you center yourself over the concentric circles as the tip of a cone, the friendly circles become an edge-less draconian pyramid. So, is it really that draconian?

Bartlett sees hierarchy purely “as a taxonomy, a way to map a system into nested relationships.”

Bartlett pulls from Jo Friedman in the Tyranny of Structurelessness – “there is no such thing as a structure-less group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed…”

So, why does hierarchy get such a bad name? It is the relentless connection of hierarchy with power. Hierarchy is not the problem, it is its single-minded connection to power. And, here is the tease – Laloux provides a hint – “Because there is no hierarchy (in Teal) of bosses over subordinates (power), space becomes available for other natural and spontaneous hierarchies to spring up – fluid hierarchies of recognition, influence and skill (sometimes referred to as ‘actualization hierarchies’ in place of traditional ‘dominator hierarchies.'”

How does Elliott’s research provide a lens to look through? Requisite Organization and Levels of Work is not a power based hierarchy, but one that acknowledges the complexity of problem solving and decision making faced by every organization in the pursuit of its mission and vision.

Put any group of people together, give them a problem to solve and they will self-organize into some sort of structure. They will define and normalize working relationships among them, some unspoken and informal, some formal and articulated.

Some structures work well, some are dysfunctional. As Laloux brilliantly points out in his progression of colors, the social bonds that hold those structures together change, from fear, to violence, conformity, achievement, pluralism and evolution. Hierarchy is a taxonomy to map a system into nested relationships of recognition, influence, skill and competence. Laloux had it right.

Elliott’s research describes functional organizations where hierarchy is based on the complexity of problem solving and decision making. It replaces power with accountability. Accountability requires authority (without authority, to make a decision or solve a problem, there can be no accountability). This is a natural hierarchy, that if you look closely, is described by Laloux in his progression of colors Magenta-Red-Amber-Orange-Green-Teal.

I have to break this up, or my head will hurt, but Laloux’s detailed description of hierarchy is in my path. With an understanding of Elliott’s Levels of Work, it becomes crystal.

Teal and Levels of Work

Followers of this blog know its underpinnings are in research conducted by Dr. Elliott Jaques from 1952 to the time of his death, March 8, 2003. From this period of 50 years, he published 23 books and countless articles under the moniker Requisite Organization related to his research on levels of work.

During that time into present day, there have been numerous trends in management, one specific track I plan to follow through a series of posts, is the interest in what began as Self-Directed Work Groups. The Self Directed Work Group was most notably practiced by Boeing and Motorola in the 1980s and sported the manager-less team governed by group decision making.

More recently, self-directed work groups have emerged under other naming conventions like Holocracy and Teal. Several years ago, I wrote a series in response to Holocratic methods, most notably practiced by Zappos, the shoe company under the direction of Tony Hsieh.

This past week, I was contacted by Bruce Peters, a Teal practitioner, who asked me to take a look at the Teal management approach through the lens of Elliott’s research, hence, this series on Teal and Levels of Work. My immediate response was that Teal probably works just fine, until it doesn’t. When it stops, what is the disconnect? And, how do you get it re-started and back on track. My approach will be to bring insights from levels of work that support various intentions and practices of Teal. We may still stumble across some philosophical disconnects, but let’s cross those roads when we have more context.

The cornerstone of Teal was documented in a book titled Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. Bruce became friends with Laloux several years ago and has been an ardent supporter of its tenets and practices. Bruce also comes from a longstanding background with Requisite Organization and levels of work, so this should make for an interesting discussion.

To summarize the lens of levels of work, in a paragraph, does a disservice to the profound comprehensive reach of Elliott’s research, AND still, it is important to lay some groundwork to set the context. I believe most would agree, that the purpose for every organization is to fulfill its mission (however defined) and that in doing so, the organization encounters problems that have to be solved and decisions that have to be made. Further, some problems are more complex than others, some decisions more complex than others. To understand levels of work is to embrace these distinctions in complexity, not all problems are created equal.

So, Elliott’s research, his findings, his understanding, embodied in levels of work, is based on problem solving and decision making. If we can understand levels of problem solving and decision making, we now have a basis to explore organizations and how they are structured. Without this understanding, organizations get structured in all kinds of wacky ways, some comical, some powerfully destructive.

Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations chronicles the cultural shifts of hierarchy across the ages contrasting organizational characteristics with emerging, then mainstream social characteristics. Laloux’s schema is descriptively brilliant, capturing the shift in social milieu in a pattern of color, finally arriving at Teal.

  • Organization Magenta (Magic) – tribal groups where power emerged from magic (nature and spirits) and those perceived closely aligned with magic (sorcerers, shaman) maintained power through fear of retribution from nature and spirits.
  • Organization Red (Impulsive) – magic disappeared, but the fear remained in a dangerous world where connection to an organization meant survival. Power consolidated with those groups (and leaders) with the fortitude of violence to enforce that power. Chiefdoms, proto-empires, street gangs and mafias. Slavery was an acceptable norm, provided safety within the context of violence. Emergence of the alpha wolf.
  • Organization Amber (Conformist) – hunter-gatherers turned to animal domestication and agriculture, allowing for more social stability, emergence of laws. Chiefdoms turned into states and civilization. Personal awareness emerges creating psychological safety in like groups. Like groups established the need for conformity and group norms. Stability provided longer term planning against future uncertainty.
  • Organization Orange (Achievement) – Personal awareness of an individual as part of a group, emerges from underneath the shroud of conformity in the form of individual achievement. Effectiveness, goals and outputs breakout from pre-existing rules. Dominance comes through achievement, reinforcing within norms (slavery is no longer acceptable), the 800 pound gorilla. Nike, Coca-Cola, Walmart consolidate power in an increasingly rigid caste system. Centralized control, economies of scale readily observable. Ambers’ command and control becomes Orange’s predict and control. Individual accountability emerges.
  • Organization Green (Pluralistic) – the Orange machine lives on, yet some organizations sense its unintended consequences relative to emerging social norms. Conscious Capitalism emerges seeking fairness, equality, harmony, community, cooperation and consensus. Green endeavors to break down caste distinctions, social classes, patriarchy. Statistical evidence emerges that Conscious Capitalism outperforms Orange in its own measures. Here are the first protestations against organizational hierarchy.
  • Organization Teal (Evolutionary) – this is where Laloux explains that hierarchy disappears and organizations become self-directed.

With this as a background, I will leave you with this thought – Hierarchy still exists, but not where you may have historically found it. Even Laloux provides a hint, but then moves on, assuming to have dismissed the idea of hierarchy altogether. Yet, if you can postpone your dismissal, you will come to find insights that open doors that seemed shut.

This is likely to be a lively conversation, and I invite comments. If you have never posted before, your comment will be held in a queue (to prevent spam). Once I have weeded out the spam, your comments will post in real time. If you receive this blog by email, you will have to click through to the blog site to see the comment threads. See you online.

By Design

“I keep telling my team that we need to be proactive,” Lonnie said. He wasn’t defensive, but you could tell he wasn’t having any fun.

“So, tell me what happens?” I asked.

Lonnie shook his head. “It’s just day after day. The problems jump up. You know, it’s not like we don’t have a clue. We know what problems customers are going to have. Heck, we even know which customers are going to call us. We just don’t ever get ahead of the curve.”

“Lonnie, being reactive is easy. It doesn’t require any advance thinking, or planning, or anticipating. Being reactive just happens.

“Being proactive, however, requires an enormous amount of conscious thinking. It doesn’t just happen. You have to make it happen. You have to make it happen by design.

“At the beginning of the day, I want you to gather your team together. Show them a list of the work you are doing for the day and for which customers. Then ask these two questions.
–What could go wrong today?
–What can we do to prevent that from going wrong?”

Lonnie smiled. “That’s it?” he asked.

Listen to the Words

“Hey, how is it going?” I asked. It seemed an innocent question.

“Oh, man, it’s rough. Our biggest competitor just lured away our Project Manager. The price of raw materials is going through the roof. We had a glitch in our computer system last week. I don’t know. I guess things are okay,” replied Marshall.

I stopped in my tracks. On the surface, it seemed like small talk. An innocent question. A little commiserating.

But words mean something. You are what you think. The only way I can tell what you are thinking is to listen to the words that you use. How do you describe yourself? How do you describe what is happening around you?

You are what you think. What you say is who you are. But take it one step further.

What you say is who you will become. How you describe yourself is who you will become. How you describe the world around you, is the world you are destined to live in.

“Hey, how is it going?”

How will you respond?

Life is Wonderful, or Miserable

“I am a bit overwhelmed,” Nancy announced. “Since my promotion to manager, there is more to do and people are pulling me in too many directions. I am having trouble keeping up.”

“Do you think this situation will get better or worse?” I asked.

“It seems to get worse, day by day. I get in around 7:30 in the morning, been trying to leave for home each day by 6:30p. Too much to do.”

“So, stop doing,” I said. Nancy looked at me sideways. “The most important thing you can do is stop doing.”

“Then, what will happen with all the work?”

“If you don’t do the work, who will?”

Nancy searched for the answer. “If I don’t do the work, then my team will have to do the work. But, I don’t think they are capable of doing the work, that’s why I am the manager.”

“There is certainly managerial work for you to do, but most of the work that needs to be done should be done by your team. You will only find out if they are capable by testing them. With project work. And, if it turns out a team member does not have the capability, what should you do?”

“I either have to re-assign the work or do it myself,” Nancy replied.

“The most important job for every manager is to build the team. Do this well, and your life as a manager will be wonderful. Do this poorly, your life as a manager will be miserable and for a very long time.”

Huddle Meeting, Most Important Meal of the Day

“What’s the major benefit of a huddle meeting first thing in the morning?” I asked. The team looked around at each other to see who might jump in first.

“To share the plan for the day,” said Shirley.

“To make certain assignments,” chimed in Fernando.

“To schedule lunch,” smiled Paul. Everybody stifled a brief laugh.

“Lunch is important,” I said. “Now, most of you are too young to remember Woody Allen, but he said that 80 per cent of success is just showing up. One of the major benefits of a huddle meeting first thing in the morning is to firmly establish the starting point for the team.

“Lots of time can get wasted as people trickle in, fritter around, sharpen pencils (who uses pencils anymore?). But, if you have eight people on your team and you lose fifteen minutes, that’s two hours of production.

“A huddle meeting can start the day. Sharp and crisp. Five minutes. Let’s go. Hit it hard.”

Training Does Not Create Competence

The training wasn’t working, but Crystal was looking in the wrong place.

The skill was simple. Enter the data into the computer during the phone call, not after the call. The software was in place, the training program was clear, with exercises and interaction.

The problem wasn’t the training, the problem was AFTER the training. Once training was complete, the operators were literally abandoned. They were introduced to the skill, performed the skill two or three times during the training, but afterwards, NOTHING. Only one day later, all the operators abandoned the new process and were back to taking notes on paper during the call.

“Crystal, I want you to develop some practice sessions following the training. Create some scripts based on the ones used in training. Then have the operators practice, practice, practice.

“And you are going to have to take off your training hat and put on your coaching hat. Your training is only intended to get this process started. Before you let them go, you have to bring them to a level of competence. Competence comes through practice and coaching. Training comes before the behavior. Coaching comes after the behavior.”

Not a Training Problem

“Take a look at this training program,” said Crystal. “We have been over it a hundred times, tweaked it here and there, but quite frankly, it’s not working.”

“What happens when you do the training?” I asked.

“Everyone seems upbeat, like they understand. We even do classroom exercises, but it doesn’t seem to stick. Two weeks later, they are back to doing it the old way, with all kinds of excuses.”

“How much coaching do you do after the initial training?”

“Well, anyone who seems to be having trouble, we write them up and they go back to the next training.” Crystal was visibly upset as she described what happens next. “Sooner, or later, they all get written up and so they all end up back in the training. We put this software in place eight months ago and they still write the orders on paper and put the information into the computer later. Sometimes the paper gets lost or it takes a day or two to catch up. We want real-time order entry, but we are nowhere close.”

“So, there is no real coaching except for sending people back to the beginning?”

“Yes, and every time we go round, the push-back gets stronger. They seem to hate the training,” Crystal said, shaking her head.

“I don’t think this is a training problem. And, if it’s not a training problem, what do you think the problem is?”

Endorphins in the Brain

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Do you think the time span for an individual changes depending on their passion for the task they are working on? I observe some employees who seem to have a hard time effectively planning some specific shorter time span tasks (1-2 weeks out), while at the same time they are able to effectively plan out personal “work” over a year in advance. I have observed this with more than one employee and was curious if you had contemplated this or come across research related to this.

Response:
There is a distinct difference between maximum capability and applied capability. Maximum capability is the stuff that we, as managers, cannot see…but it’s there.

Applied capability is the stuff that we CAN see. Applied capability is observable, there is evidence of output. The longest time span tasks are most observable based on these conditions –

  • The team member has the necessary skills (technical knowledge and practiced performance).
  • The team member has interest or passion for the work.
  • The task or behavior is consistent within the context (culture) of the work environment.

So, it’s that second condition you are asking about. Interest or passion drives focus, attention and duration. Applied capability (what you see) gets pushed further out whenever there is interest around the work.

So, what you are seeing is an attitude (lack of interest) related to shorter term tasks. Your role, as a manager, is to tie things together, make the connection between interest and the task. Sometimes it is not intrinsic interest, but connected interest. I may not have interest in the project, but certainly have interest in the reward of the project that allows my to purchase the boat (home, car, lifestyle) of my dreams. Connect the work with interest, you will see higher applied capability.

But, here is the hat trick (three goals in a single game). Intrinsic reward comes from challenging work. Any work. Successful completion of challenging work creates endorphins in the brain. There is some work that is simply not challenging, yet has to be done. It is likely that work is a candidate for delegation. You are the manager. What is your role in accurately assigning challenging work and coaching people through work they should delegate to other team members?

How to Describe Work

We were kicking around the new role description for a Project Manager. Howard held a copy of the current description. Current should be taken with a grain of salt. It was created five years ago and was little more than a starting place.

“Okay,” I began. “It says here that one of the responsibilities is scheduling.
-The Project Manager is in charge of scheduling materials, equipment and personnel for the project.-

“Remember our two questions? How well should it be done and by when?” I paused. The looks around the table were puzzled. I would have to dig deeper.

“Is part of scheduling actually publishing a written schedule?” I asked, finally getting nods of agreement.

“How far in advance should the schedule go?”

Matthew raised his hand. “At least a week.” He looked around to see if he was right. No one challenged him.

“Okay, by when should this schedule be published?”

Henry jumped in first. “By Friday, the week before, so on Monday, we know what is going on.”

“What time on Friday?”

“By 5:00 o’clock.” Henry replied.

I smiled. “Why not give yourself some time on Friday to review the Project Manager’s schedule to make sure it will fly?” Henry thought a minute, then slowly his head nodded.

“By Friday at noon, the Project Manager will publish a written schedule detailing the materials, equipment and personnel requirements for each day of the following week.”

“Is that better than the Project Manager is in charge of scheduling?”