Author Archives: Tom Foster

About Tom Foster

Tom Foster spends most of his time talking with managers and business owners. The conversations are about business lives and personal lives, goals, objectives and measuring performance. In short, transforming groups of people into teams working together. Sometimes we make great strides understanding this management stuff, other times it’s measured in very short inches. But in all of this conversation, there are things that we learn. This blog is that part of the conversation I can share. Often, the names are changed to protect the guilty, but this is real life inside of real companies.

The Question of Accountability

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.
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The next elephant in the room is the issue of accountability. If the hierarchical schema in Levels of Work (Requisite Organization) replaces power with accountability, then where does accountability lie in the schema of Teal?

There is an adage, if everyone is accountable, then no one is accountable. Sociologists describe this effect as diffusion of responsibility. Alex Lickerman describes “diffusion of responsibility manifests itself as the decreased responsibility each member feels to contribute and work hard towards accomplishing the task or goal. The diffusion of responsibility is present in almost all groups, but to varying degrees, and can be mitigated by reducing group size, defining clear expectations and increasing accountability.”

In Elliott’s world (Requisite Organization) accountability is clearly assigned to the manager. A manager is defined as that person held accountable for the output of the team. Note this is not a definition of power, but a definition of accountability.

In Teal, accountability is distributed to the group and the role of manager does not exist. By accounts, this arrangement works well with results even-steven or better than a team with a managerial leader held accountable for the output of the team.

I have little direct contact with organizations who adopt this approach (Teal), so my anecdotal observation is this – Teal probably works just fine, until it doesn’t. And, when it doesn’t, what are the circumstances or conditions that cause the mis-step? What can be done to get the team back in productive work toward the defined goal?

These musings alone beg more questions. Who defined the goal in the first place? Who floated the project to the group in the beginning? How did the group adopt or accept the project? This is not the invisible hand of Adam Smith. Some person started the organization. Some person defined the mission and vision of the organization. Some person provided guidance (for better or worse). At some point, there was a decision by some(one) person to make a move, commit resources, spend energy. This set of questions points to context. Who creates the context in which the team works?

The self-directed work group appears on stage, but who owns the stage. Are there invisibles in the background pulling the curtain, playing the music, fading the lights, advancing the payroll. And, when those things do not happen, what becomes of the stage-players?

Who is accountable for the output of this context – some(one), every(one) or no (one)?

For now, I will leave these as unanswered questions, no hurry. I am more interested in clarity than answers.

All Problems Are Not Created Equal

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.
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Humor me. To see Levels of Work (Requisite Organization), as a hierarchy based on problem solving complexity (rather than power), opens up a different texture of organizational structure. Let me quickly sport a reference chart below to demonstrate the discontinuous complexity underpinning Levels of Work. I assume you agree, some problems are more complex than others, all problems are not created equal.

Level-I (S-I) – Declarative problem solving. This is the world of opinion, without the necessity of supporting evidence. The world is the way it is, simply because it is declared to be so. Problem solving methodology at this level of work is trial and error. Trial and error is a valid problem solving method, it just has a high error rate in the face of increasing complexity. If S-I was a computer, its computer code would be the Boolean operator “or-or.” S-I is a disjunctive (disconnected) way of seeing the world.

Level-II (S-II) – Cumulative problem solving. If S-I struggles to connect the dots, S-II succeeds in making those connections. Cumulative means connection by successive addition. Problem solving occurs by connecting the pattern in a problem with a documented solution. Best-practices is an S-II problem solving method. If S-II was a computer, its computer code would be the Boolean operator “and-and.” S-II is a conjunctive (connected) way of seeing the world.

Level-III (S-III) – Serial problem solving. This is where Elliott observed the first instance of cause and effect. Problem solving occurs through a process of root cause analysis. If S-III was a computer, its computer code would be the Boolean operator “if-then,” cause and effect. This problem solving method is required in the construction of a system (sequence of steps in a process yielding consistent and predictable results, a critical path).

Level-IV (S-IV) – Parallel problem solving acknowledges the existence of multiple simultaneous systems that co-exist in proximity. In the same proximity, each critical path may not intersect, but each system’s capacity has an impact on neighboring systems. Problem solving multi-system impact requires systems analysis, specifically – capacity, constraints, delay and throughput. If S-IV was a computer, its computer code would be the Boolean operator “if-and-only-if, then.” This level of work manages problems with multiple simultaneous variables and increasing ambiguity of outcomes.

So, what does this problem-complexity have to do with Laloux and Teal?

You have to read carefully (Reinventing Organizations), but Laloux identifies these specific levels of problem solving quite clearly – Another cognitive breakthrough is the ability to reason in paradox, transcending the simple either-or with more complex both-and thinking.

As he describes the organizational period of magenta, he makes the following observation –
Cause and effect are poorly understood, and so the universe is full of spirits and magic.

Cause and effect finally comes of age in Laloux’s description – At the Conformist-Amber stage, reality is perceived through Newtonian eyes. Cause and effect are understood, people can grasp linear time (past, present, future) and project into the future. Laloux’s observation is quite consistent with the timespan schema in Levels of Work, that a measure of problem solving is based on a person’s capability to operate in the ambiguity of the future.

So, Laloux clearly observes problem solving through the first three Levels of Work, without realizing how close he came to solving the puzzle of hierarchy. These nested relationships** replace the power hierarchy with an accountability hierarchy. Indeed, Elliott described this organizational form with the acronym MAH (Management Accountability Hierarchy).

I think the issue of accountability will be next on our agenda.

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**Nested relationships was brilliantly described in this article by Richard Bartlett

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?”