Category Archives: Accountability

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.

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.

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.”

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?

Need a Heads Up

Frieda was frustrated. “I sit in a department managers meeting and get called on the carpet for an assignment that I knew nothing about. One of the other managers pulled an end-around and took a project directly to one of my staff members. I am not a mind-reader, how am I supposed to follow-up on a project I know nothing about. I told everyone in the staff meeting that if they want work done in my department, they have to work through me.” Frieda stopped. Calmed a bit. “That didn’t go over real well. Now everyone thinks I am a prima donna.”

“Do you think the other department managers are being malicious?” I asked.

“No, things are just busy. I think they just wanted to get their project done.”

“So, in busy companies, this kind of thing happens. We simply need to get work done and sometimes you may be out of pocket and one of your team members becomes convenient for the project. Don’t take it personally. The question for you is –How can you, as the manager, find out about these projects so you can schedule them appropriately?

“Do you have a weekly staff meeting in your department?”

“Of course, that is when we sit down and take a look at all the projects in-house, get a status report and talk about production issues.” Frieda was firm in her response.

“So, I want you to add an agenda item. –What are the projects that have been assigned that we don’t know about? This is actually pretty easy. These would be projects that your team is working on that are not on the project list. The purpose is to capture the project information so your team can respond appropriately. You get back in control and your fellow department managers see you as cooperative and helpful. AND, with your fellow managers, you can ask for an email heads up about the project, so you can make sure appropriate resources are deployed and that the due date has been effectively communicated and on your master schedule.”

What If You Never Came Back?

“I called my office to see how the meeting went, and found out, just because I was out of town, they decided not to have the meeting. There were important items on the agenda, but they cancelled the meeting.” Bob had just returned from three days on the West Coast.

“What if you never came back?” I asked.

“What do you mean, if I never came back?” Bob replied.

“What if you decided to move to Montana and manufacture dental floss? What would your team do without you? How would they have their meeting?”

“Well, I guess, they would pick someone to lead the meeting and carry on.”

“Look, this is a regular meeting, right? Happens every week? Agenda very similar from one week to the next? It’s an important meeting, but the structure doesn’t change much.”

“You are right,” confirmed Bob.

“Pick your next strongest person, tell them to prepare the agenda for next week. Tell them they are going to lead the next meeting.”

“But, I will be at the next meeting.”

“Exactly, but you will become a participant. If you want your meetings to occur while you are out of town, you have to start identifying the leadership while you are in town. Each week, pick a new person to lead. Publish a rotation schedule. You will still be there to prompt and assist, AND you will test their leadership in a safe environment.”

Playing Catch

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In other words, plan, organize and catch employees doing things right?

Response:
Accurate AND easy to miss the point. Catching people doing things right requires planning and organization. I don’t want to simply catch them as if it were an accident.

I want to catch them as if I am “playing catch.” I want to be at the ready, glove in hand, waiting, anticipating AND even if the ball is off target, make every effort to field the throw. Yes, I want to catch them doing things right.

I have my uniform on, hands on my knees. Poised to move right or left. As a manager, I am ready. Play ball.

Span of Accountability (Control)

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I’ve been following your blog since you spoke at an event at our office in 2015. I see a lot of posts discussing timespan and organizational structures. What’s your view of “span of control” as it relates to organizational structures? The military has a 3-5 subordinate unit rule of thumb which makes sense for matters of life and death. Yet, I’ve seen organizations with people managing 20+ direct reports. This seems to be on the other end of spectrum and untenable not just from a managerial perspective but from a human/leadership perspective as well. Your thoughts?

Response:
I am not a military expert, so I am not certain of military rules of thumb related to span of control. Any readers familiar can jump in the comments.

Before I leap in, however, I want to re-frame the question. It is not a matter of management or control (even span of control), it is a matter of accountability. Here is my re-framed question – How many people can one manager be accountable for?

Elliott acknowledged a concept know as the Mutual Recognition Unit (MRU) which addressed your question. How many people can a single manager have on the team and remain an effective manager?

It depends. The maximum number Elliott placed was around 70. Beyond 70, it is likely the manager would begin to lose effectiveness. You have to remember the primary function of a manager is to bring value to the team’s problem solving and decision making. I can already see your skepticism through my internet connection.

For a manager to be effective with a team of 70, the work must be repetitive with low variability. The higher the variability in the work, the fewer allowable on the team.

Take a high-volume call center where customer support representatives respond to the same phone calls day after day. One supervisor may attend to teams as large as 70 before losing track.

Take a US Navy Seal team. How many on the team? I am thinking six. Why? Because the work is always variable with high levels of risk. One manager to a team of six.

So, it’s your organization. How do you assess the level of variability in the work? How much is repetitive? How much risk if the team gets it wrong? These questions will guide you to your answer.