Category Archives: Time Span

Critical, But Never Taught

Phillip didn’t have to be briefed on the difference between meetings that were important and meetings that were a waste of time.

At the same time, he was uncomfortable. “You know, we do a pretty good job of training people on the technical stuff we do, how we make things, how we deliver our services, but we don’t train on how to run a meeting.”

“I know. Interesting, isn’t it? One of the most important things a supervisor does and your company doesn’t spend any time teaching it.”

“Okay, I’ll bite. What do we need to do first?” asked Phillip.

Most Teams are Functional, Few are Accountable

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.
What’s the difference between a group of people, a team (functional team) and an accountable team? Give any group of people a problem to solve, a decision to make, a goal or objective and a dramatic transformation begins from a group to a team.

Think about any high performing team you were ever a member of, and think about these defining characteristics.

Characteristics of a Team (Functional)

  • Clear and agreed upon purpose.
  • Key measures that indicate if team is on track.
  • Competent system.
  • Competent people.
  • Shared fate (what happens to one happens to all).

Functional teams are found everywhere. What is the difference between a functional team and that rare accountable team?

An accountable team is a functional team that manages its own accountability.

Could this be the team dynamic that Laloux describes at Buurtzorg? My intuition tells me that Buurtzorg’s self-managed teams are one and the same as Jaques‘ accountable team. The dynamics in the design of Buurtzorg’s self-managed teams become clear in the light of Jaques’ accountability schema.

If we can temporarily set aside “who?” is accountable and focus only on how accountability is managed, we find alignment between Buurtzorg’s self-managed team and Jaques’ accountable team. And if there is alignment at the team level, could there also be alignment at the manager level, though Buurtzorg would declare there is no manager. I think I can put those two pieces together in my next post.
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Back to Hierarchy, For a Reason

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.
If the purpose of hierarchy is not a power-grab, then why does hierarchy naturally exist as organizations form?

I recently ran into this issue in an organization with nine levels of managers. Without a guidepost to levels of work, people got promoted by reason of longevity, title instead of pay-raise, geography, too many people under a current manager, favoritism, nepotism. Totally out of control. The solution to organizational complexity was to add more people, more titles, more layers.

When hierarchy is grounded in levels of work (not power and not in nonsense), those layers naturally appear in the context of problem solving and decision making. AND, when we can see the distinction in the level of problem solving and the level of decision making, who-becomes-whose-manager is now a matter of organization sustenance.

We have explored the structure at Buurtzorg over the past couple of weeks. As an example of Teal, captured in Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations, the who-becomes-whose-manager is left to circumstance, not clearly defined and when it happens, designed to be temporary.

In Requisite Organization, based Elliott Jaques‘ levels of work, the who-becomes-whose-manager is based on accountability. Indeed, Elliott describes Requisite Organization as a Managerial Accountability Hierarchy, “a system of roles in which an individual in a higher role (manager) is held accountable of the outputs of persons in immediately lower roles (team members) and can be called ‘to account’ for their actions.”

Elliott would describe the accountability for each manager, to bring value to the problem solving and decision making in the team. This is not a suggestion, this is a mandate, an accountability. Managers are required to bring value to the work of the team. This is not a power structure, but a value-stream.

I was reminded that Teal is not structure-less. While the nursing teams are well described by Laloux, the rest of the structure is not, so let me make some guesses.
S-II – nursing teams, accountable to deliver direct nursing services. (Longest goals and objectives 3-12 months.)
S-III – regional coaches and institutional facilitators, accountable to ensure nursing teams are working effectively in that delivery. (See prior post on Teal and Theory of Constraints. Longest goals and objectives 12-24 months.)
S-IV – integration executives accountable to ensure the output of nursing services works within the medical community and government ordinances for financial accommodation and payment. (Longest goals and objectives 2-5 years.)
S-V – would be Jos De Blok, the founder of Buurtzorg, accountable for enterprise design and value in the marketplace. (Longest goals and objectives 5-10 years.)

Each level of work is defined by context in its decision making and problem solving. When this hierarchy occurs (naturally), it creates organizational sustenance, intentionally, with purpose.
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BAMS and Teal

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.
Buurtzorg works with self-managed teams at Level II (S-II). These teams of 10-12 nurses handle the intake, scheduling and administration of their own patient load of approximately 50 patients. There is no “visible” manager assigned to hold them “to account” for performance.

When things go well, things go well. When things go adequately, no one rocks the boat. But, when things don’t go well, the mettle of a team is tested. And, Buurtzorg expects the team to handle its own issues, without the oversight of a “visible” manager.

So, what is going on here? Let me introduce you to Wilfred Bion. Bion was a psychiatrist, working for the British Army during World War II. His mandate was to take shell-shocked soldiers (current day PTSD) and return them to the battlefield to re-engage in combat. His background and academic training were suited to the task, but Bion had a problem. There were too many soldiers in this condition, the numbers overwhelmed the hospital resources.

Bion made a decision. There were too many PTSD soldiers to deal with 1-1, so he invented something called group therapy. He did not invent group therapy because he thought it a good idea. He invented it, because he had no other choice.

Working with soldiers in groups, with the purpose of returning them to battle, Bion observed the way the group worked, their interactions, dependencies and behavior to face the issues that landed them in the psych ward in the first place. Bion noticed two distinct behavior patterns, when the group appeared to be in “work” mode and when the group avoided work, or appeared to be in “non-work” mode. The distinctions were quite clear –

Work Mode – Non-work Mode
Rational – Irrational
Scientific – Un-scientific
Cooperative – Collusive
Controlled – Uncontrolled
Conscious – Unconscious

Groups moved from one state to the other state at will. Bion described this state as the group’s Basic Assumption Mental State or BAMS. Groups would move from Work to BAMS and back again. The movement from Work to BAMS occurred easily (unconscious), but the move from BAMS to work required very specific conscious behavior.

Working at the hospital, Bion attended meetings with other staff physicians, nurses and administrative personnel. The purpose of the meetings was to work together to solve problems and make decisions. Bion thought it peculiar that the hospital doctors and nurses displayed the same group behavior as the patients.

As part of military rigor, Bion was also required to attend meetings with upper echelons of military rank, to discuss strategies of war and resources of personnel, those going into battle, those recovering to return to battle. In those meetings, Bion was awestruck to discover the same behavior in military ranks, as the behavior in hospital personnel, mirrored in the patients. If it weren’t for the uniforms, you could not tell the difference between the generals, the doctors and the patients.

These behaviors would be readily observable in the (S-II) manager-less nurse teams at Buurtzorg. Take this tough problem – a team member, who after many opportunities (chances) is simply not a fit for the team. The most important cultural issue for every team is “who gets to be a member of our team?” This is the classic (though contrived) premise of the tv series Survivor. Faced with this decision, the team will either go into work or non-work (BAMS). Remembering that BAMS is an unconscious process, most teams automatically go there, observable in Fight-Flight-Freeze-Appease. They fight about it, blame each other (and the computer system). They flee, avoid, talk about the problem only in private (gossip at the water cooler). They freeze, make no moves at all (which ratchets up the tension). They appease, make excuses and generally cover-up.

The major BAMS move however is toward dependence. Dependence occurs when the tension in the group becomes so uncomfortable that the group deposits the discomfort on a designated leader. This dependence begins a subtle seduction on the leader of the team. At Buurtzorg, without a designated manager, this may be a moving target, but a leader will emerge. Or the team will self-select a leader. This is a slippery slope as an archetypal response in the dependence cycle. BAMS is collusive and most managers, given the opportunity (for new-found power) afforded by the group, can hardly resist.

Unfortunately, BAMS (non-work) never solves the problem, and neither will this dependent relationship. The ONLY solution is when the leader (manager, coach) puts the issue quite squarely back on the team, in the midst of discomfort. Without a doubt, when the leader-manager-coach puts the issue back on the table, the team will panic.

“The reason for this meeting today is to discuss Fred’s underperformance in relationship to the performance standards set by the team. The decision we make today is whether Fred continues as a member of the team or if Fred’s membership on the team should be terminated.”

The leader’s role is very simple – outlast the panic. Any issue that affects the team, the effectiveness of the team, must be dealt with by the team. Staying in “work” mode can only happen as a conscious decision to do so. That is the role of the leader. This has little to do with power, more to do with “work.”

At Buurtzorg, teams that recognize they are in BAMS can reach out for a coach. The structure at Buurtzorg defines this relationship with strict parameters to prevent group dependence. Laloux describes, “If teams get stuck, they can ask for external facilitation at any time, either from a regional coach or from the pool of facilitators of the institute.” Again, I think we found the manager.

In Requisite Organization, Elliott Jaques would describe this identical scenario, AND have a designated role of MANAGER. The manager would be in touch with the team sufficiently to recognize the team going into BAMS, to put real issues squarely on the table for the team to grapple with. High performing teams are those that are comfortable with discomfort and run toward (not away from) tough problems. The function of the manager is to keep the team in “work” mode.

It might be construed that Teal and Requisite Organization are identical, except for their terminology. I think not. The distinction is stark, has to do with hierarchy, which should be worthy of discussion in my next post.

Behaviorists Without Children

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.
My last post on Accountability and Authority kicked up a question. Here’s the context. Buurtzorg works with self-managed teams at Level II (S-II). These teams of 10-12 nurses handle the intake, scheduling and administration of their own patient load of approximately 50 patients. There is no “visible” manager assigned to hold them accountable. Here is the question –
Can a person (or a role) hold themselves accountable?
Can a person (or a role) hold another person accountable?

Before I mince words, what is the purpose of accountability? Is it to give someone, with the authority of oversight, the power to scold an under-performer against the wall? Oh…so momentarily satisfying, but what’s the point?

The only people, who think that anger and yelling has an impact, are behaviorists who have no children. If you have children, you know it is futile to raise your voice, repeat your guidance (if I told you once, I told you a thousand times).

The point of accountability is to assess effectiveness toward the goal and re-direct new energy to get back on track.

In the face of under-performance, the point is to fix it.

The only person who can hold you accountable is YOU. Invite and give permission to others to examine and challenge your commitments, AND understand that you are the only one who can keep those commitments. The only accountability is self-accountability.

We cannot hold people accountable, we can only hold people “to account.”

This is not a nuance of language. Holding others accountable is a myth. We cannot hold others accountable. We can only examine and challenge commitments. We can only hold people “to account,” to themselves for the commitments they make with themselves.

This accountability conversation (constructive criticism, reprimand, coaching) about commitments is necessary because the easiest commitments to break are those we make with ourselves that no one knows about. Praise in public, coach in public. Any issue that impacts the team needs to be handled by the team.

Would Buurzorg call this self management?

The accountability conversation, by the team, with the team, is pure Wilfred Bion. With this post as a prelude, perhaps we should look at Bion’s Experiences in Groups next. It might give us an insight about the team accountability dynamics inside Buurtzog.
Wilfred Bion was part of the collective clan around Elliott Jaques during his tenure with the Glacier Metals Company, London, England, circa 1950’s.

Endorphins in the Brain

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

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.

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?

Bottom Up or Top Down?


There are a number of management moves (Agile being one) that demands bottom up orientation. I say yes. There are other management moves that that demand top down. Yes. How to reconcile the inevitable conflict?

The problem with those who would argue that top down is bad, they ignore the reason for higher levels of work and misconstrue the reason that management exists in the first place. Those who would argue against top down believe it is for control. It’s not.

The reason for top down, is context, not control.

It’s not about reporting. The fact is, we report to lots of people in the organization. I always ask, who has direct reports? All managers raise their hands. I have to deliver the bad news – you are not a manager so people can report to you.

It’s not about control, it’s about context.

Managerial roles exist to create context. That context is based on timespan. It is the role of the supervisor to think beyond what has to be done today, this week, this month. What is today’s work in the context of this week, this month?

It is the role of the manager to think beyond what has to be done this quarter, this year. What is today’s work in the context of this quarter, this year?

It’s not about control, it’s about context.

What is VUCA?

There is term used in the vernacular of Agile that describes the challenge of every organization.


It’s an acronym for the world in which we live. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. VUCA. Without any further definition, Agile offers many good ideas in dealing with that world.

Acknowledging that we live in this VUCA world, can we do more than spitball solutions?

And, that is where Timespan comes in. Most people clearly understand there are some problems more complex than others, some decisions more complex than others. There are different levels of VUCA. Timespan gives us insight into those levels.
S-I – (0-3 months) – trial and error problem solving
S-II – (3-12 months) – best practice and SOP problem solving
S-III – (12-24 months) – root cause analysis
S-IV – (24-60 months) – systems (multi-system) analysis

When the Deepwater Horizon blew up in 2010, the world looked, aghast, at a terrible environmental accident. I watched the coverage, the cameras on the ocean floor in real time and the engineers struggling with the problem. They tried this, they tried that. They tried the blowout preventer, that didn’t work. They tried the blind shear ram, that didn’t work. They were in a mode of trial and error problem solving. Why?

The engineers were not trying to solve a three year problem. No one said, “guys, let’s go back to the drawing board and over the next three years, let’s develop a better oil well so this never happens again.”

They said, “guys, we have to solve the problem today. We don’t have time to design the real solution. Figure out a way to cap it!”

Our understanding of timespan gives us insight in the levels of VUCA, and the level of problem solving required to make sure Deepwater Horizon doesn’t happen again.

Levels of Work and Morale

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Let’s say I buy this stuff about levels of work. What will it help me do as a manager? What results should I see?

Immediately, as a manager, understanding levels of work will assist you in figuring out what you can delegate and what you have to self perform. As you look at task assignments, understanding levels of work will help you understand who to delegate work to.

Here is the immediate impact, you can make sure there is enough challenge in the work for your team to feel engaged at the highest level, stretched to their maximum capability. When people find challenge in their work, using their full attention and competence, what happens to job satisfaction?

There is no managerial trick. As a manager, you do not have to become a motivational speaker. It’s all about the work. Match the level of work in the role with the capability of the person. Maybe it is a little like magic.

How Many Layers Do You Need?

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

In your review of the tenets of Agile, you missed a glaring one, a flat organizational structure.

How many layers do you need? As organizations grow and mature, increase in headcount, I see the construction of too many layers. In an effort to create a flat organizational structure, I see too few layers.

Most organizations follow a military protocol and misunderstand layers as reporting relationships. When I ask any group of managers if they have direct reports, they all raise their hand. I have to remind them they are not managers so people can report to them.

In the struggle to create “reporting,” too many layers emerge. The decision of who reports to whom gets made based on seniority, age, political pressure, personality. None of these are good reasons for “reporting” and eventually create organizational friction.

Every organization faces different problems to solve and has different decisions to make. Some problems and decisions are more complex than others. It is problem solving and decision making that demands layers (contexts). We can measure the complexity of the problem or decision by defining its context. That metric is timespan.

Looking at context, most problems and decisions for a small to medium enterprise (SME) fall into five levels. If we organize around the decisions and problems, we come up with a natural order of layers, not too many and not too few.

  • S-I – decisions and problems at hand, where variables are known, concrete, tangible.
  • S-II – decisions and problems of intention, related to quantity, quality and time. This is the land of supervision and coordination. These are short term variables (up to 12 months).
  • S-III – decisions and problems related to variables that fall along one specific critical path, or system. Intentions for system output are consistency and predictability. Goals and objectives up to 24 months.
  • S-IV – decisions and problems related to the existence of multiple systems (multiple critical paths) that must be integrated for total system throughput. Goals and objectives up to 60 months.
  • S-V – decisions and problems related to the enterprise in the context of its market (external system). Goals and objectives range from 5 years to 10 years.

It’s all about context related to decision making and problem solving. What is the level of decision making, what is the level of problem solving required? As the organization grows, it must meet those decisions and problems with the people who have the capability to make those decisions and solve those problems. The people in those positions must be able to bring value to the decision making and problem solving of the team one level of work below. And, that’s how many layers you need.