Category Archives: Organization Structure

The Accountability Chart

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
For the past few years, I considered my company as a level V company. Your posts the past couple of weeks have made me question that position? I think I have organized the company, at least on paper as level V, but in reality, I may be wrong?

Response:
Most CEOs suffer from optimism. Optimism is required to forge a company against the odds, most startups fail in the first five years. And, those rose colored glasses cover the sins of organizational structure. We like to think our organizations are perfect renditions, we find the best in our people, sometimes ignoring deficiencies, both in structure and people.

An effective organization requires competence in leadership and management. Competence is a combination of Elliott’s four absolutes

  • Capability
  • Skill
  • Interest, passion
  • Required behaviors

Any element on the list can be a dealbreaker. We understand skills, interest and passion, we even understand required behaviors. It’s capability that often eludes us. I can train skills, I cannot train capability. Capability is born and revealed, naturally matures and is relatively predictable.

Your Organization on Paper
Elliott defined three versions of the org chart for his description of a Management Accountability Hierarchy (MAH), an accountability chart.

  • Manifest – the way we draw the org chart
  • Extant – the way the org chart really works
  • Requisite – the way the org chart should look using timespan and requisite principles

The org/accountability chart is an easy way to step through your optimistic thinking, to ground it in reality. An effective organization takes both a requisite structure, appropriately defined roles and competence in each role. Simple, right?

It is only the requisite accountability chart that considers the level of work required in each organizational function. With the level of work accurately identified, the managerial layers fall into place. And, that’s the structure part.

But, even a requisite structure will fail if not fielded with competent players in the right roles. A level V structure will fail lead by a CEO with capability at level III.

To the Next Level

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
As I talk with other CEO friends, they keep talking about taking their company to the next level or that they want to scale their companies larger. It sounds like they know what they are talking about. But do they? They are my friends, and I don’t want to disparage, but in many cases, I have my doubts.

Response:
No organization can ever grow larger than the CEO. If it does, the wheels will get wobbly and the organization will falter. The same is true as levels of work are built inside the organization. No level of work can exceed the capability of the manager. If it does, the wheels will get wobbly and the organization will falter. It doesn’t matter if the company is S-I, S-II, S-III, S-IV or S-V. Faltering can happen at any level.

Most who say they want to take their company, or department, or team to the next level has no clue what that means. Timespan and levels of work create the only framework that clearly identifies what that means.

Scalability doesn’t happen until S-IV, where multiple system integration occurs. Listen carefully to your friends, but judge not what they say, only judge what they do (or are capable of doing).

How Many Levels?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You recently described an organization as having five levels. You also said that some organizations don’t need five levels. I am trying to figure out how many levels our company needs?

Response:
Your question is similar to the manager’s span of control issue. The consultant’s answer, “it depends.” The number of levels in an organization depends on the complexity of the decisions and problems faced by the company’s mission. That’s why it is important to occasionally sit down and revisit the mission. We think of mission as “what the company does,” but it also includes which markets, geography of those markets, market segments, governing rules and regulations, availability of labor, incorporation of technology, availability of capital. All of these elements play in to the complexity of the organization.

The initial mission always exists in the individual eyes of the founder. In the beginning, that mission may be modest, simply to prove the concept is viable (minimum viability). With early success, the mission can grow, be redefined as the organization learns more about the environment it created. And we think, with more levels, the more success we see. That is not altogether true. You can have a successful organization at any level, with an appropriate number of managerial levels, even an organization with just one.

S-I (One level of work) – This is the sole practitioner, an individual technical contributor, whose mission is to solve a narrow market problem requiring only one mind, usually supported by technology. Successful sole practitioners could be an artist, writer, even a computer coder developing a single application to solve a market problem. A good living can be had by the savvy sole practitioner, though it is rare to reach any large scale by yourself. (Timespan 1 day – 3 months).

S-II (Two levels of work) – This is the sole practitioner who gathers surrounding assistance. There is too much work for one and that additional work is necessary to solve the problem. At this organizational level that additional work requires coordination for quantity output, at a given quality spec, according to a deadline time schedule (QQT). There is no system yet, because the quantity or complexity of work does not require it. This could be a entrepreneur with a small team. It could also be that the organization requires a system, but does not possess the internal capacity to develop that system. Many successful S-II organizations simply purchase their system from someone else, as a franchise or a license from a larger organization (who has a system for sale). (Timespan 3 months – 12 months).

S-III (Three levels of work) – But even a small franchisee, with one or two stores, who wants to increase to three or four stores, eventually requires an internal system. At three to four stores, an additional level of work appears. It is interesting that one of the larger franchisors, Chick-fil-a only allows one store per franchise. This may be an unconscious realization that the capability of their franchisees is limited to S-II. The hallmark of an S-III organization is a single serial system (single critical path). This is often an artisan craftsman, a subcontractor on a larger project. (Timespan 1 – 2 years).

S-IV (Four levels of work) – Consists of multiple parallel systems that have to be integrated together. S-III as a single serial system is limited in its growth. For an S-III company to scale, it requires the coordination of multiple systems. From its core production system, the S-IV organization also has to coordinate material purchasing, equipment procurement and maintenance, personnel recruiting and training, marketing campaigns, sales efforts, legal review, project management, quality control, sustaining engineering, R&D, human resources and accounting.

S-V (Five levels of work) – This is the enterprise in the marketplace. And, the marketplace is not just about customers. Marketplace includes regulation, labor, finance, technology, competition, logistics, supply chain. This is still within the Small to Medium Enterprise (SME) but also extends to larger organizations.

An organization can be successful at any level, it is governed by the level of their mission.

Maximum Number of Team Members

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I read with interest your response on the number of levels in an organization. It sounds good, but as the organization grows, we need more and more managers. It is difficult for a single manager to handle more than 6-7 people on the team. With more managers, don’t we end up needing more layers.

Response:
I would first challenge your assumption on the maximum number of team members for whom a manager is accountable. Your number of 6-7 has no basis in theory or fact. Elliott was often asked this question, let me whisper his number, 70. It is likely that a single manager will begin to struggle when the number of team members reaches 70.

I know the blood just drained out of your face, so as your brain is restoring its circulation, let me explain. The maximum number of team members a manager can effectively be accountable for depends, not on an arbitrary number like 6 or 7, but, rather on the variability in the work.

Large call centers may easily have 70 people on the floor at any one time, with a single supervisor. How can a single supervisor be accountable for the output of 70 people? Look at what those people do. Most of the time, those call center team members do the same work day after day, there is little variability.

How many people on a Navy Seal Team? I would guess six. Why such a small team? The variability of the work is high. The number of people a single manager can be accountable for depends on the work.

Without a frame of reference, organizations do get bloated. I once worked with a company with 12 layers, but only needed 5. Levels of work creates the frame within which we can determine not only who should be whose manager, but how many managers are at the same level. The objective measurement of timespan takes out the guesswork and bias that inevitably creeps in. About once a year, you should round up your managers for a calibration meeting to make sure the bloat is not settling in.

Art Form or Detective Work?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Love it – the four levels of thinking directly related to the flow of inputs, manner and tempo. This helps so much in understanding an additional vector of complexity, in addition to future ambiguity (as measured by timespan).

Is there a measure that is commonly used and can be attributed to positions in a Requisite Organization design? Can we measure the amount of activity needed in each/any of the four levels to know what type of sophistication a) the org needs at that level and b) that a candidate has? Or is it intuitive only (we sense it and we know it when we see it)?

Can you use this to help bring clarity to the org chart?

Response:
Some would say that identifying capability is an art form, know it when we see it. My take is that it’s more detective work, assembling clues within a framework. The brilliant insight in the question is the focus. Typically, in an attempt to identify capability, we focus on the person. More brilliant, in the question, the focus is on the work, flow of inputs, manner and tempo.

I don’t judge people, I’m not very good at it. But, I DO judge the work. My calibration of level of work always ends with timespan, but at first blush, timespan might mislead, I need other clues, and then timespan falls in place. If all projects are one-week projects and we have twenty of them, it might seem the timespan is one week. But, to handle twenty simultaneous projects, the start time and the stop time begins much earlier and ends much later than the one-week project.

Before the projects start, we have to examine, in all the projects, what is the same? Can we apply the same solution to identical problems? In all the projects, what is different that requires a unique solution? What is our capacity to handle twenty simultaneous projects? Do we need two project managers or four project managers? If we only have two PMs and need four, where will we find two more? What steps in the project can be started immediately? What steps can be done at the same time? What steps must be done sequentially? When we start to answer those questions, we find the timespan is much more than one week?

Laying out the org chart, I generally use a pre-cursor document (spreadsheet) that has columns for each function on a team, or columns for each team in a department, or columns for each department in the organization. The rows in the spreadsheet designate level of work. If you would like a copy, just drop me an email. I use this spreadsheet to clearly identify the level of work before I translate the structure into an org chart.

How Many Organizational Layers?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
When you talk about context, organizational context, I assume you mean organizational structure. We have team members and supervisors, managers and executive managers. How many layers should we have? Is it best to have fewer layers, a flat organization or more layers?

Response:
As any good consultant knows, it depends. First, an organization should have no more organizational layers than is necessary, so, it depends on what is necessary. And what is necessary depends on the complexity of the problems to be solved and the decisions to be made to effectively deliver the product or service to the customer.

I watch organizations blow up into morbid obesity because they have no framework on which to base that decision – how many layers? And, who should be who’s manager? How many team members can a manager manage? What do we expect from this manager vs that manager?

Timespan.
What is the timespan of the decisions to be made and the problems to be solved? Think about this pattern –

  • 1 day to 3 months – Level I
  • 3 months to 12 months – Level II
  • 12 months to 24 months – Level III
  • 2 years to 5 years – Level IV
  • 5 years to 10 years – Level V

That’s how many layers you need, and only as many as you need. But, now you have a framework in which to make that decision.

Most entrepreneurs stay within the first two levels, with goals and objectives that rarely extend beyond 12 months. Those with aspirations for larger organizations, with higher revenues, more market clout, have to consider the impact of decisions and problems that extend two years and beyond.

There is a subtle seduction that occurs, however. Any entrepreneur with the intent to take their company to the next level, must first achieve mastery at their current level while sowing the seeds of problems for the next level.

Constructed, Tested, Adopted

“Easy to answer the negative, more difficult to answer the positive,” I repeated. “In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

“I remember reading something from a long time ago, about a company that had something called skunkworks,” Susan was thinking. “It was still inside the company, not really a secret, but hidden away somewhere.”

Lockheed Martin, America’s first jet fighter,” I explained. “Why do you think it was hidden away, not a secret, but out of sight?”

“They were probably experimenting with things where they did not know the outcome and the probability of failure was high. My guess is that, when there were failures, no one knew about it, so nobody got fired.”

“Exactly, the probability of failure was high, so the skunkworks were separated from operations, there was no real impact, no downside consequences. So, if the probability of failure was high, why did the company tolerate it?”

Now, Susan smiled. “Because the possibility of upside was substantial. And, they had to work all the kinks out of the ideas. There were likely failures along the way, but the company minimized the risk while they were making headway.”

I repeated my question, “In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

What’s Stopping Innovation?

Susan looked down, her face long in frustration.

“You look at creative ideas,” I said. “I look at context. I have to acknowledge your frustration at the lack of progress in your journey of innovation. Let me re-frame my observations with a forward looking question. In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

“I am not sure where you are going with this,” Susan responded.

“Let’s assume your creative ideas have merit. What conditions exist in your company that resist the construction, testing and adoption of new ideas?”

“Now, that’s an easy question to answer,” Susan chuckled through her frustration. “There is a long list –

  • We already tried that before and it didn’t work?
  • It’s too expensive.
  • It will take too long.
  • The last person with an idea like that got fired.
  • We are headed in exactly the opposite direction and we have too much sunk costs to change direction now, even though what we are doing isn’t working.

“Nice list,” I smiled. “It’s always easy to answer the negative, now let’s answer the positive. In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

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.”

The Framework of Structure

“Organizational structure based on the timespan of related goals and objectives?” I repeated, as a question. “Has to be more complex that that.”

“Of course. Organizational structure is complex,” Pablo replied. “But, that is where is starts, looking at the level of work, goals and objectives.”

“A bit overwhelming,” I surmised. “Still looks like a large kettle of fish.”

Pablo nodded in agreement. “After the vision and mission, the founder must examine the internal functions required to kickstart the company. And, remember, this is an infant company, so there aren’t that many internal functions. Producing the product, delivering the service, finding a customer willing to pay and a way to deposit the money into the bank. That’s it, in the beginning.”

“So, in the beginning, following the vision and mission, I have to define the first functions required to produce the product or service. And in each function, determine the goals and objectives?”

“And, the ‘by-when’ of each goal will tell you the level of work required. That is the beginning of structure.”