Category Archives: Levels of Work

A Slow Nuanced Dance

“Fixing accountability is the first step to creating a context of trust,” Pablo shifted. “When accountability is not clearly defined, or placed at the wrong level, mistrust begins a slow nuanced dance, often imperceptible. But it’s there. People begin to feel insecure about their own jobs, not sure where this career may or may not be taking them, squabbles emerge about equitable pay, stress among working relationships and blaming behavior.”

“Sounds like a bit of insecurity?” I ask. “Isn’t that why we do psychometric testing, to weed those people out?”

“People behave as people behave, in the context of their surroundings,” Pablo chuckled. “We think the success of a managerial system depends of the psychology of its individuals, when its success depends more on its design. Change the context, behavior follows. Go into a church or synagogue and you will see people sitting quietly, barely speaking. Does that mean they are all introverts and poor communicators? Go to a soccer stadium where a goal has just been scored and you will see people screaming, jumping up and down. Does that mean they are all extroverts with a boisterous personality. It’s all about context.”

Pablo stopped before he finished. “Fixing accountability is the first step to creating a context of trust.”

A Well Argued Decision

“Let’s take meetings,” Pablo suggested. “Lots of managers AND their teams work hard to gain concensus, avoid conflict, at times even attempt to make decisions democratically.”

“I have seen that,” I said.

“And that manager of the team, also has a manager, let’s call that role, the manager-once-removed, the manager’s manager,” Pablo described the setup. “If the team and their manager engage in democratic decision making and make a bone-headed decision, who does the manager-once-removed hold accountable?”

Manager-Once-Removed (MOR)
————————-
Manager
————————-
Team

“Well, I assume it would be the whole team, manager included,” I observed.

“Who is the manager-once-removed going to call into the office to discuss this bone-headed decision, the whole team? If we are going to call in the whole team, what do we need the manager for?”

“I’m listening,” I said.

“And, what of the dynamics in the decision meeting? If the decision is to be democratic, then team members will lobby their own agendas, sometimes hidden politics emerge to gain support from other members, perhaps a little arm-twisting. The manager almost becomes a bystander. And, yet, at the end of the day, it is the manager called to account for the bone-headed decision.”

“And?” I asked.

“It is only when the manager becomes accountable for the decision, that we can make headway,” Pablo described. “Team members now show up to provide feedback and support to the manager, who will make and be accountable for the decision. The team will play devil’s advocate, argue this position or that position, in short, create conflict. The point of the meeting is not to manage conflict, but create it, for the benefit of the decision. Don’t manage conflict, manage agreement.”

“And, the benefit?”

“A well argued decision,” Pablo said. “This only happens when we understand the working relationship between the team and the manager, with the manager accountable for the output of the team.”

Carrots and Sticks

“People have a fair, intuitive sense of their own capability,” Pablo continued. “And, they yearn for opportunity to exercise their full potential. To do otherwise causes people to wilt. A great deal of a person’s self-esteem, even identity comes from the value they see in the work that they do.”

“So, the system in which they work has impact on how they behave?” I floated.

“It’s not just the system, it’s what people believe about the system. What we believe, our assumptions, the way we see the world is what drives our behavior. Look, the real question is, if we believe that people want to fully participate at their highest level of capability, spread their wings toward independence, that they do not need a carrot and stick to get on with their work, then what kind of managerial system would we create?”

“This sounds a bit idealistic, don’t you think?” I countered.

“Not at all,” Pablo replied. “This is about hard nosed work. Making decisions and solving problems, tough decisions and difficult problems.”

The Accountability of the CEO

“You survived,” I said. “I mean, your company survived.”

“We did okay,” Pablo replied. “We were essential, so we never had to shut down. Had to change a few things in the physical layout, and we had some outbreaks. We did okay.”

“Most important lesson, for you, as the CEO?” I asked.

“The most important lesson is the security the company provided to everyone who works here,” he said.

“Security? This was hardly a time of security.”

“I think it is important to understand how deeply our company affects the lives of people who work here. It impacts not only their economic lives, but their social lives. It impacts their self-esteem, and what they achieve in life.

“I remember, a year ago, when COVID was least understood,” Pablo continued. “I announced in an all-company meeting, that every one of their jobs was secure. I was out on a bit of a limb, because, by a whim of government, we were essential. You see, I know every team member goes home each and every day with either a feeling of frustration, or a feeling of satisfaction, depending on how the day went. They either feel secure or insecure, as a result of the managerial systems we have in place. We either build trust and security or mistrust and insecurity. That’s my job.”

Tell or Ask?

“I think, when I tell people what to do, acting like a big shot, that does not create trust,” Nathan started. “In fact, I don’t even have to act like a big shot to be perceived as a big shot.”

“Why do you think that?” I asked.

“It seems that no matter how tactful I am, or how I sugarcoat it, when I tell people what to do, I sound like a critical parent.”

“That is quite a discovery,” I remarked. “So, how do you tell people what to do, without sounding like a critical parent?”

“I don’t think I can. I can’t tell them, they have to tell me.”

I knew Nathan was on the right path, just curious if he was putting it all together. “What do you mean?”

Nathan thought for a bit. “Instead of telling my team member what to do, I should ask them how they intend to accomplish the task at hand. Instead of me telling, I want them telling.”

Nathan waited for my response, but he didn’t get the advice he was looking for. “So, let’s go try it out,” I said.

Before Anything Else

Nathan waited for me in my favorite place, the coffee room. “What are we going to talk about today?” I asked.

“You said we were going to talk about the Prime Directive,” Nathan responded.

“Which is what?”

“My role, as a manager is to add value to the decision making and problem solving of my team members.”

“And you were going to bring me a list of ways you could do that.”

“Indeed,” Nathan announced, proudly producing a single sheet with several items on it.

“So, look down your list and pick the top three items that make sense to do first,” I directed.

Nathan was proud of his list, but he had not considered that some things made sense to do before other things. Finally, he spoke. “Well, I have twelve things on my list, but the thing I need to do first isn’t on here.”

“Which is?”

“I think before I do anything, I have to create a sense of trust. In fact, without a sense of trust, none of the things on the list are possible.”

“In your meetings, you invited Rachel, Edward and Billy to run certain parts. Does that create trust or distrust?”

“Well, trust,” blurted Nathan.

“So, you have already started to build the trust that is required to be effective. What’s next?”

A Manager’s Focus

Nathan survived his next meeting. No one walked out. It was a productive ten minutes. Maybe his team was going to give him a chance.

“Now what?” he asked.

“Prime Directive,” I stated flatly.

“Prime Directive?”

“Bring value to the decision making and problem solving of each team member.”

Nathan’s face became a jigsaw puzzle. “What does that mean?” he asked.

“Look, Nathan, there are a number of things that are required of an effective manager. Some things you do will work against you. Some things will work for you. Remember the Prime Directive.”

I detected a glimmer of understanding in Nathan’s eyes.

“You are a new Manager. You were a successful supervisor, but your focus needs to be different, now. Over the next 24 hours, I want you to make a list of what you think your role is, related to the Prime Directive.”

Bright and Shiny

“What do you mean, make mental sense of the noise?” I asked.

“When you are working on 20 simultaneous project,” Andrew continued, “each project screams for attention. The urgency of the minute details leaps out and hijacks your brain. It is easy to get wrapped around the axle and lose focus on the other 19 projects that also have to be done.”

“So, what’s the strategy?”

“You always have to look at the context. The project and its project manager look only at the context of the project. I have to look at the context of all the projects together, including projects that haven’t started. It’s a longer timespan of focus. And, only with that longer timespan of focus can I anticipate the resources necessary, now and in the future, for all the minute details that have to be resolved.”

“So?”

“So, looking inside a single project is very noisy. I can’t ignore the noise, but I can’t let it consume me, prevent me from seeing the patterns inside the entire portfolio of projects. The noise is bright and shiny, easily grabs your attention. I have to see the larger context.”

Am I Capable?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have been an avid reader of Jaques’ books for quite some time, and I have a question: most of what you say is to help managers and HR workers to find and hire the correct people.

But what about someone who is creating a company (my case)? How can I accurately measure my own capability, and, therefore, structure my company correctly so that its complexity doesn’t surpass my own level of thinking, while also hiring subordinates exactly one stratum below, in the case of the first hire(s)?

I would be very much interested since I’m having a hard time to be objective trying to evaluate myself.

Response:
How does the song go? “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”

First, your interest in assessing your own cognitive capacity will almost always lead you astray. Don’t attempt to assess yourself, assess the work.

Second, a start-up organization has a different focus than other, more mature organizations. There are so many missing pieces and fewer resources to work with. The start-up has a quick timeline to death.

So, my first question is always, what’s the work? As you describe the work, what is the decision making and problem solving necessary? More specifically, what is the level of decision making and level of problem solving required to make a go as a start-up?

Here are some other necessary questions for your start-up.

  • What is the (market) problem you are trying to solve?
  • Does your product or service solve that market problem?
  • Can you price your product or service high enough to allow for a profit?
  • Is your market big enough to provide enough volume for your product or service? Is your market big enough for a business or just big enough for a hobby?

The first focus for every start-up is sales. Can you get your product or service into the market place and please find a customer to buy it?

In the beginning, the level of problem solving is very tactical. Can you make it and will someone buy it? That’s about it. That is why there are so many budding entrepreneurs out there. That is also why so many fail. They cannot get their company to the next level of problem solving.

Once you have a sustained momentum of sales, the next level is all about process. You see, if you can create a sustained momentum of revenue, you will also create competitors. The next level is about process. Can you produce your product or service faster, better, cheaper than your competitor? This is a different level of decision making, a different level of problem solving. It is precisely this level that washes out most start-ups.

So, focus on the work. Do you have the (cognitive) capability to effectively make the decisions and solve the problems that are necessary at the level of work in your organization? Stay out of your own head and focus on the work.

BTW, we have only described the first two levels, there are more.

Not a Matter of Skill

“I don’t understand why John doesn’t do better,” Marissa complained. “I constantly have to give him critical feedback, and I know he doesn’t like it, I can see it in his face. If he would only pay attention to the problems right in front of him, I wouldn’t have to correct him.”

“What do you think the problem is?” I asked.

“Well, he got promoted to be a supervisor because he was a great team leader, best machine operator we have. All he has to do now, is make out the work schedule for the department, order materials and supplies, schedule preventive maintenance on the machines, keep overtime in check, how hard could it be?”

“What do you think the problem is? Where does he struggle?”

“He struggles with all of it,” Marissa replied. “And his attitude is in the dumper, he mopes around all day because he thinks I yelled at him for doing such a crappy job.”

“What does he do well?”

“That’s part of the problem. We had a machine go down yesterday and he spent the entire afternoon tearing it apart and putting it back together. All the while, we don’t have next week’s schedule and we are almost out of materials. I had to put in a rush order so we can keep production online next week.”

“So, who promoted him?”