Category Archives: Decision Making

Accountability and Authority

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talk about setting context, that context is the crucible in which management behaviors exist. How do you more specifically define that context and where should managers begin?

Response:
Every role in an organization exists with other roles. Individual action, more specifically, individual accomplishment is a myth. No one is an island. Every organizational behavior affects another part of the organization. Context is the way we define those working relationships.

The two most critical elements to be defined in a working relationship are accountability and authority. To be effective in any role relationship requires that each person understands the accountability (output) and authority in that relationship.

In a given relationship between a manager and a team member, who has the authority to make a decision about the way a problem should be solved? If you suggested the manager, you would be correct.

But, might that lead to autocratic decision making, where a manager might run rough-shod over the team?

It might, were it not for a specific accountability. The manager has the authority to make the decision, but also the accountability to collect relevant data around that decision, which, in many cases will come directly from the team. Theoretical conditions must be matched with actual conditions. Theoretical materials must be matched with actual materials on hand, available consumables, machine uptime, even temperature and humidity. Along with every authority, must come accountability.

Editor’s note – this is not usually the case with a government oversight committee, who would like to think they have all the authority with no accountability. Every authority comes with accountability.

Source of Laziness

“I know you can tell that I’m upset,” Justin admitted. “It’s just that I am flabbergasted with my team.”

“You are right,” I replied. “Easy to tell you’re a bit off-center. Details?”

“They think they can get together and vote on policy all by themselves. They decided on a quality standard different than what we promised the customer. They decided our quality standards are too strict.”

“And?”

“So, now, our customer is our quality control department, not a good thing,” Justin shook his head. “I think they’re just a bunch of lazy guys trying to get away with sub-standard work. It’s a lousy personality trait that has infected the whole team.”

“So, you really think it’s personality, that they all have the same personality traits?” I asked.

Justin stopped. “I knew you were going to side with the team. You’re right, it is an overgeneralization that they all have the same personality.”

“And, you think personality has the ultimate impact on the way a person behaves?”

“If I were a psychologist, I would say yes.”

“But you’re not a psychologist, you are a manager. Think. If it is not personality, what could influence an entire team of people to act the same way?”

“I guess, because they all believe the same thing is true about the work,” Justin was searching for that factor common to the team.

“What is the same about the team, is that they all work in the same environment, an environment that you created, as the manager. If you want to change behavior, change the context.”

Inside the Function

“Take your most important internal function,” Pablo instructed. “In the beginning, likely will be operations. What is the work most closely related to producing the product or delivering the service? Especially in the beginning, that is mostly short-term work, 1 day to 3 months. Most production roles have a supervisor, with longer term goals and objectives, 3 months to 12 months. The supervisory role is to make sure production gets done, completely, on time, within spec.”

“So, every production person knows they have a supervisor?” I added.

“And, every supervisor knows they have a manager,” Pablo smiled. “This is the beginning of structure, nested goals and objectives related to successive roles (context), a production role, to a supervisory role to a managerial role.”

“The roles are distinguished by longer timespan goals and objectives?” I suggested.

“Yes, the roles are different in that way, but also in the way they relate to each other. Organizational structure begins with nested timespan goals, but also includes the way we define two things associated with those role relationships.”

“Accountability and authority?” I chimed in.

Pablo nodded. “In this working relationship between the team member and the supervisor, what is the accountability? What is the authority?”

My turn to show off. “The accountability on the part of the team member is to apply their full capability in pursuit of the goals and objectives agreed to by their supervisor, in short, to do their best. It is the accountability of the supervisor to create the working environment that makes those goals and objectives possible (probable). It is the accountability of the supervisor for output.”

“And, the authority?” Pablo prompted.

“The authority to make decisions and solve problems appropriate to the level of work in the task.”

All About the Work

“Brent, let me get this straight. You said that your salespeople may not be doing their best because they may not be interested in the work? Do your salespeople understand the work?”

“You’re right! Sometimes, it’s like they are brain dead. They are just mechanistic, going through the motions,” Brent described.

“So, they understand the prescribed duties, show up, make a presentation, ask for the order. But let me confirm, they may not understand the problems that must be solved or the decisions that must be made to create a successful sale?”

“Exactly, I mean we train them and train them again on the presentation, until they have it memorized, down cold, but you are right, that does not make a successful sale. The success of the sale depends much more on the questions they ask and the data they collect about the customer’s problem.”

“So, as the Sales Manager, do you sit with your team and talk about the problems that must be solved and the decisions that must be made during the sales call? That’s where the work is. That’s where the excitement is. That’s where the challenge is. If you are looking for interest from the salesperson, the connection is in the work, not the prescribed duties.”

A Sale That Sticks

“You are going to have to go slow, because I am still not getting it,” Brent shook his head.

“In order to close the sale by the end of the second sales call, what are the problems that must be solved and the decisions that must be made by the salesperson?” I repeated.

“Well, we know that to make a sale that sticks, that doesn’t get canceled or delayed, we have to collect certain information, then do some research and then present a case that is difficult to resist. Right now, it can’t even be, just a good deal. It has to be difficult to turn down.

“If the first meeting is going too fast or the data we collect is too superficial, we cannot do the analysis and we won’t be able to make an irresistible offer. The salesperson has to use judgment to determine if the information is right. It’s almost a gut decision.”

“So, the work of the salesperson is using discretion to judge the pace and quality of data collected in the first sales call?” I confirmed.

“Absolutely, the customer, in the first three minutes will tell you how this sale is going down, if you listen.”

What Are the Decisions?

“You mean they might not be doing their best, because they are not interested in the work?” Brent repeated.

“So, tell me what is it, about the work, that is not interesting?” I asked.

“Look, we are in sales. This is a struggling economy, supply chain issues. It’s easy to not get excited.”

“You are not answering the question. Tell me about the work,” I insisted.

“We show up to an appointment, make a presentation and ask for the business.”

“That’s a good start,” I nodded. “Those are the prescribed duties. Now tell me about the decisions your salespeople have to make when they are on these appointments.”

“I don’t understand,” Brent furrowed his brow.

“I think that’s the disconnect. You are right. Showing up and making a presentation is not very interesting. Of course, that is what you have trained them to do, but that is not the work of a salesperson.”

Who Has the Authority?

“I have to change. Me?” Vicki asked, not sure if she could believe her ears.

“I am going to hold you accountable for the results of your team,” I said. “What do you have to change?”

Vicki was not pleased. “Well, if you are going to hold me accountable for the results,” she stopped. “I have to pay attention.”

“Yes, you do. As a Manager, what do you have to pay attention to?”

“I may have to be more hands on,” Vicki replied.

“Yes,” I nodded.

“I mean if someone is out sick and you are still going to hold me accountable for the results of the team, then I might have to fill in.”

Only in an emergency. You are a Manager. I expect you to drive a forklift only in an emergency. Come on. You deal with statistical fluctuations of many elements all the time. What are you going to do?”

“Okay, so we are talking about cross training, maybe borrowing a member of another team, considering overtime. You know, 30 is really an arbitrary number. If we were short one day, we can likely make that up over the next couple of days, as long as there were no late ships.”

“I want you to think carefully. Are any of those decisions, cross-training, borrowing a member of another team or using overtime, within the authority of your team members? Can any one of them make those decisions?”

“No.” Vicki shook her head slowly.

“And yet, those are the decisions that produce the results. That’s why I hold you, as the Manager, accountable. What else has to change?”

In the Weeds

“So, timespan helps us understand the dysfunction of having a manager who is too close, who struggles to bring value to the problem solving and decision making of the team?” I clarified.

“Too close, and also too far,” Pablo replied.

“How so?” I asked.

“You have had the experience of a manager who breathes down your neck, but have you also had the experience of team members too far away?” Pablo wanted to know.

“You mean, where a team member is more than one stratum level below?”

“Yes,” Pablo nodded. “And, how did that feel?”

“As a manager in that situation, frustrating,” I replied. “As a manager, I was dragged into the weeds, solving problems that should have been taken care of without me.”

“Timespan helps us determine, not only whether a person should be selected for a role, but how to accurately design the working relationships between those roles.”

“Like giving a person a more correct title?” I asked.

“Not at all, companies use job title all over the place. I don’t care about titles. When we accurately design working relationships, I care more about defining, in that relationship, what is the accountability and what is the authority?”

“Authority?”

“Authority to make decisions and solve problems the way I would have them solved.”

Accurate Measure of Capability

“To do otherwise, to create an org structure, working relationships based on something besides timespan, creates dysfunction within an organization?” I asked.

“One doesn’t have to work in a company for very long to have the following experience,” Pablo explained. “As a team member, have you ever had a manager who micro-managed your every step, who was always breathing down your neck?”

I nodded, “Yes.”

“And what did you think of that working relationship?” Pablo wanted to know.

“At first, mildly annoying, frustrating, then intolerable. A personality quirk,” I surmised.

“Rarely,” Pablo chuckled. “At your level-of-work, you were vested with an undefined timespan of discretion, decision making? Am I right?”

Another affirmative, “Yes.”

“And, because your authority to make a decision was not defined, your manager presumed to make your decisions for you. A micro-manager. In fact, and this goes all the way to the CEO, your manager did not trust you to make the decisions appropriate for your role, appropriate for your level-of-work.”

“And, accordingly, my manager was accountable for my output, so was accountable for my decisions, hence the distrust of my decisions,” I flatly stated.

“Without timespan,” Pablo said, “your manager had no defined criteria related to decision making appropriate to your role, appropriate to your level of work. But, with timespan, your manager has a very clear understanding of decision making appropriate to your level of work. With this understanding, those decisions delegated to you and those decisions reserved for your manager become clear. Your experience was not a personality quirk, it was ambiguity related to decision making and problem solving.”

“But, what if my manager still didn’t trust me to make the right decision,” I countered. “After all, my manager is accountable for my output.”

“That’s where timespan changes the game. Instead of an ambiguous level of distrust, your manager now has a clear idea of the authority required to be effective in your role.”

“Okay, my manager has a clear idea of the authority required, but still distrusts me.”

“Then, how did you end up in the role in the first place?” Pablo asked. “If your manager is accountable for your output, and knows precisely the timespan of discretion, it is incumbent on your manager to hire a person who has the capability, necessary experience and skill to make those decisions. Timespan becomes an accurate measure of decision making.”

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