Category Archives: Levels of Work

In the Open

“But won’t James feel uncomfortable, maybe distressed if he knows I am talking directly with his team members,” Brendon shifted in his chair.

“You and James are part of a team. As the manager-once-removed to James’ team, you expect James to talk to you about each team member and their career progress. James will notice things about his team that you won’t see. By the same token, James and the team have work to get done, so James, by design will focus on shorter term issues, while you focus on longer term issues. And, just as James is the coach for his team in their current roles, you are James’ coach for his current role. No one is talking behind anybody’s back. It’s all out in the open.”

“Shouldn’t HR do this instead?”

“Some companies think that,” I replied. “The problem is that HR is not in the accountability loop. As James is accountable for the output of his team, you, as James’ manager are accountable for James’ output. This chain of accountability puts you in the best position to have individual mentoring discussions with James’ team, and individual coaching discussions with James.”

Fulfillment or Frustration

“But, if I have discussions about career path with James’ team members, wouldn’t that undercut James’ authority with his team. Won’t it appear that I am going around his back?” Brendon was concerned.

“You might think that,” I replied. “On the other hand, if you set the context properly for the conversation, it is a reasonable explanation, that you are curious, and interested in them, as a person. While there is a well defined working relationship between the team member and James, there is an appropriate conversation, an appropriate relationship between the team member and you, as the manager-once-removed. It is not your purpose to coach them on productivity in their current role, but you want to talk about the future, their aspirations, their interests, their curiosities, their future role in the company. It’s a perfectly legitimate discussion that demonstrates the care of the company in the career paths of their team members. People feel fulfilled when they can see their future and opportunities to pursue it, and, they feel frustrated when they do not.”

Who Has the Larger Picture?

“I think we may have a problem with James,” Brendon started. “Turnover in his department.”

“And?” I asked.

“And, he says team members are quitting the company because of pay. We’ve had a competitive pay program that has worked for several years, with reasonable increases, but some of the numbers James is claiming don’t seem reasonable for the people he is losing.”

“So, you think the problem is with James?”

“It’s his department,” Brendon shrugged.

“Does James have the authority to offer pay increases beyond the thresholds in your comp program?”

“Well, no. But, whenever I hear it’s about the money, money is only part of it. I think it’s that some of our project managers just don’t see the longer term picture here that they are promised somewhere else. Pay may be part of it, but it’s their longer term career path.”

“And, you think James should be talking to his team about their longer term career path?” I prodded.

“Look, I know James has a lot on his plate. He’s in charge of all of our projects, they’re complicated with lots of moving parts, but he also has to pay attention to his team,” Brendon shook his head.

“So, James is in charge of complicated projects, coaching his team for faster throughput, maintaining quality standards, AND you want him to be a mentor?” I smiled. “What if you went to James’ team members, occasionally, and you talked to them about their career, challenge in the work, and what their professional life might look like in the future? With James’ full knowledge about that conversation?”

“Isn’t that James’ job?” Brendon questioned.

“Sounds like James has plenty on his plate dealing with what’s going on today, this week and this month. Besides you have a better perspective on the larger picture of the company, the larger picture of role opportunities, where lateral moves make sense, where promotion makes sense. On these longer timespan issues, I think you are in a better position to have that discussion. In a very real sense, as James’ manager, for James’ team, you are the manager-once-removed.”

Given the Circumstance

“You used the word reasonably several times, reasonably analytical, reasonably organized. In hiring, what do you mean reasonably?” Marlena asked.

“Most people have a reasonable range of behaviors,” I replied. “Most roles require a reasonable range of behaviors.”

“But, don’t we all have behavioral tendencies, where we would likely behave more one way than another?”

“Behavioral tendencies compared to what?” I prodded.

“Given a circumstance. Given a circumstance, we would likely behave more one way than another?” she asked again.

“You are absolutely correct, given a circumstance. Often our behavior or our behavioral tendencies depend on the circumstance.” I stopped to describe a series of questions. “Tell me about a time when you worked on a project that required attention to detail? What was the project? How long was the project? What was your role on the project? What was special about that project that required attention to detail? What were the details that required your attention? How did you track (pay attention) to those details? How many details? What was unusual about the details that required your attention?”

“So, don’t we want someone who is detail oriented, who has a general behavioral tendency toward details?” Marlena wanted to know.

“No, I want someone who specifically pays attention to detail when the circumstance (context) requires it. That’s why I always want to know – What’s the work? It’s all about the work.”

Project Work

“Who is Marie? And why is she managing only one person?” I asked.

Esmerelda was silent, then spoke. “Marie has been selected to be a manager, but needs some experience, so we gave her a person to manage.”

“And, the impact on your organization is that you added an unnecessary managerial layer. Did you give her a raise as well, did you give her the corner office?”

“Yes, we gave her a raise, and she didn’t get the corner office, but, she did get an office.”

“Like eating an hors d’oeuvre rack of soft cheese, then drinking a glass of ice water. Not good for the digestion,” I said.

“But Marie needs to learn how to be a manager,” Esmerelda protested.

“If she needs to learn, send her to training. Give her project work.”

“Like what?” Esmerelda pushed back.

“Like making a schedule, leading a small project. Give her something of short duration. If your promotion fails, what do you have on your hands, imagine chocolate dripping through my fingers. But, if you give her a project and she fails, you only have a failed project, and you, as her manager, can manage the risk in the project.”

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.”

Accurate Measure of a Decision

“So you are suggesting that managerial layers in an organization rests on the two ideas of accountability and authority?” I restated as a question.

“I am not suggesting,” Pablo replied. “To do otherwise creates the organizational dysfunction we so often see.”

“And you are connecting timespan to those two ideas, accountability and authority?”

“Timespan is like the discovery of the thermometer. Our ability to accurately measure temperature led to the precision of melting points, the beginning of chemistry, as a science. Timespan is the beginning of management, as a science. Our ability to accurately measure accountability and authority provides us a precise method of organizing structure.”

“Structure being, the way we define the working relationships between people?” I added.

Pablo looked at me carefully, then clarified. “Structure being the way we define accountability and authority, the working relationships between roles. Timespan works to define those two things.

  • A supervisor (S-II) is accountable for the output of the team for timespans ranging from one day to three months, with the longest authority for decision making at 12 months.
  • A manager (S-III) is accountable for the output of the supervisory team for timespans up to 12 months, with the longest authority for decision making at 24 months or two years.
  • An executive manager (S-IV) is accountable for the output of the managerial team for timespans up to 2 years, with the longest authority for decision making at 5 years.
  • The CEO (S-V) of a single business unit is accountable for the output of the executive management team up to 5 years, with the longest authority for decision making at 10 years.

“Ten years?” I wondered.

“Unless it is a larger organization,” Pablo continued.

  • The CEO (S-VI) of a multiple business unit (holding) company is accountable for the output of the single business unit CEO up to ten years, with the longest authority for decision making at 20 years.

“And?” I nodded.

Pablo smiled. “You’re playing in the major league, my friend?”

  • The CEO (S-VII) of a multiple business unit conglomerate is accountable for the output of the holding company CEO up to 20 years, with the longest authority for decision making at 50 years.

“And, what kind of company might that be?” I wanted to know.

“Those would be the largest of global companies, Apple, Halliburton, Microsoft and government entities, US, China, Russia.” Pablo sighed. “Those are the organizations whose decisions will impact lives for the next 50 years, maybe more.”

Like a Horse and Carriage

“We have to put leadership back in the hands of CEOs and their managers,” Pablo said. “Relying on control systems to manage our companies misleads us into the false sense that we actually have control.”

“You mean we don’t,” I stopped. “You mean we don’t have control?”

“Not over the things that really matter,” Pablo replied. “We don’t have control over our markets. We don’t have control over social trends, stock prices, pilot error. We only have the illusion of control. When we run our companies solely by its Key Performance Indicators, we remove discretionary judgement in the face of uncontrollable things. We have to put leadership back in the hands of CEOs and their managers.”

“By doing what?” I asked.

“By taking advantage of decision making and judgement at all managerial levels. The future is uncertain, ambiguous. Decisions made in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity are not calculated algorithms. If they were, we could let computers rule the world.

“We are back to two words,” Pablo continued, “accountability and authority.”

“Those are the two defined elements in structure,” I connected.

“Only when we vest decision making authority in the role of the CEO and the roles of managers, do we take advantage of their capability to do so. And only when we do that, can we truly hold them accountable for the results (output) of their teams.”

“I’m going to push back,” I countered. “I think most CEOs assume decision making authority at the highest level.”

“Some do,” Pablo agreed. “But, many run the company by the numbers, or offload accountability to their executive team, attempting to engage in democratic decision making. Then, wonder why the direction of the company goes off balance. We typically place accountability one level-of-work too low in the organization. Accountability and authority go together, you can’t have one without the other.

“Except in government,” Pablo smiled. “I always find it amusing, a government oversight committee, thinks it has all the authority without any accountability. If you have the authority, you have to have the accountability that goes with it.”

Fear, the Loss of Control

“And, if the CEO feels that the CEO role is to be the glue that holds this house of straw together,” Pablo continued, “there is an associated, frightening feeling that the CEO is losing control. The CEO applies more glue. We see the invention of control systems, so the CEO can see more clearly that things are falling apart. These control systems remove the need for managers to make decisions, the decisions are made for them, they no longer are required to use discretionary judgement.”

“These control systems look like what?” I asked.

Pablo smiled. “In simple form, the manager does something that is detected by a control system (KPI), the indicator is reported (KPI report) to the CEO related to underperformance, so the CEO can chastise (motivational intervention) the manager for not being smart enough, not fast enough or paying too little attention to quality. The CEO applies more glue in an attempt to regain control.”

“I think we are up to three layers of glue,” I observed.

“Glue, band-aids, temporary fixes, or even more dysfunctional changes in the structure, creating an increasing fugue in the way people work together.” Pablo stopped. “Timespan is the framework where all of this becomes clear. What looks like a communication breakdown, or a personality conflict reveals itself as an accountability and authority issue. Structure is where we place accountability and where we release authority to make decisions and solve problems.”

“And, what of the control system?” I asked.

“The CEO conversation is not, can’t you work harder, but, in the work in your role, what are the decisions you have to make, what are the problems you have to solve? This is the essence of managerial judgement that leads to managerial effectiveness. CEO effectiveness rarely requires massive applications of glue. This is a design problem, not a performance problem.”

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.”