Category Archives: Timespan

Leveraging External Systems

“I am sick and tired of the government putting things in the way of our growth,” Rory said. “We’ve got a good business, but all the regulations are killing us.”

“Indeed. I see that,” I replied. “So, why did you decide that this was the business to be in?”

“Because we are good at it,” Rory beamed trying not to show too much pride.

“May I use some exaggeration?” I asked, then continued without waiting for a response. “If you were good at manufacturing music CDs with the highest quality, at an operating cost lower than any of your competitors, would you choose that as a business model?”

“Your example is absurd,” Rory smirked. “An operating cost lower that any competitor is ridiculous, there would be no competitors.”

“And, why is that?”

“Because nobody buys CDs anymore,” he explained. Then stopped. “I wouldn’t be in that business, it would be a poor choice.”

“Rory, the most strategic decision you make is to decide what business to be in. Your market, market demand is an external system in which you have little control. Government regulation is an external system over which you have little control. You are fighting the headwinds of your market, fighting the headwinds of regulation. Pick (or adapt) your business model that doesn’t fight these external systems, but takes advantage of them.”

Rolling Forward

Seventeen year’s ago, (Nov 2004) we began this writing sojourn. I want to thank you for taking a precious minute out of your day to observe those events around you, reflect on your impact and think about the next move you make.

Management Blog will be back next Monday. Don’t eat too much turkey. -Tom

What’s the Level of Work Required?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You say that management initiatives (like communication, efficiency, goal setting and teamwork) will flounder if laid on the wrong structure. How do you get your structure right?

Response:
Determine the number of layers (only minimum necessary).
Determine the functions required.
Inside each function, determine the level of work required.

You are the captain of your business model, you get to decide the level of work that is necessary. Think about core functions and support functions. Some functions will require more intensity than others, and some functions not at all.

  • Marketing – If your business model only requires a brochure type website that gets updated from time to time, you will likely outsource that project, and need only skeleton support in marketing. If your business model requires a sophisticated website that attracts customers who roll over into an online order, you may need Marketing at S-III.
  • Sales – If your business model is a telephone center receiving product orders from consumers, likely 2-4 minutes on the phone, you may only require order takers at S-I. If your sales cycle is longer, 3-4 months, you may need S-II account executives. If your sales cycle is longer than a year, you may need S-III.
  • Account Management or Project Management – The level of work you need will likely depend on the length of your project. Two to three weeks with very few moving parts may only require Hi-S-I. If your projects are 2-3 years in scope, you may need S-IV project management.
  • Operations – the level of work you need in Ops will need to consider the length of time the project is in direct service delivery or production, but must also account for the lead time on resources, mechanical maintenance, or special technical elements.
  • Quality Assurance or Quality Control – may require timespan consideration through the production cycle, but may also need to consider the length of warranty periods or product lifecycles.
  • Research and Development – in new product development cycles, level of work may easily require system work and root cause analysis at S-III. Sustaining engineering may only require S-II.
  • Logistics – may be just in time loading dock work at S-I, but may also include long term contracts with carriers at S-III.
  • Human Resources – level of work depends if you only need clerical filing of required forms, active recruiting from your labor system, or strategic recruiting in specialized technical fields.
  • Accounting and Finance – level of work will depend on the sophistication of your accounting requirements, simple bookkeeping to project costing, to credit facilities.

You get to decide the level of work required.

Define Your Functions

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You say that management initiatives (like communication, efficiency, goal setting and teamwork) will flounder if laid on the wrong structure. How do you get your structure right?

Response:
Determine the number of layers (only minimum necessary).
Determine the functions required, and the level of work required in each function.

You are the captain of your business model, you get to decide. Think about core functions and support functions. Some functions will require more intensity than others, and some functions not at all. Quicklist –

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Account Management or Project Management
  • Operations
  • Quality Assurance or Quality Control
  • Research and Development
  • Logistics
  • Human Resources
  • Accounting and Finance

Your business model will determine the functions you need and the level of work in each function. Often, your core functions are related to operations, and carry more robust levels of work. Your support functions are there to support the core – business development, marketing, human resources, finance and may not require a full complement of levels of work.

What is Accountability?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talked about structure being the way we define working relationships related to accountability and authority. What is accountability? measuring expectations or consequences that can come with results?

Response:
Accountability is an agreed upon output for which we are held to account. It contains four parts –

  • Quantity of something, could be a quantity of one or quantity of many.
  • Quality standard, must meet some qualitative standard or measurement.
  • Time, either a specific deadline or a specified evaluation period.
  • Resources, within a set of limited resources or constraints.

The output must be agreed upon. I like formal agreement on important accountabilities, even signatures on a contract. For which we are held to account. Not for which we are held accountable, because I cannot hold anyone accountable for anything. But I can hold someone to account, meaning the person holds themselves accountable for the agreed upon output. I like the accounting part to be held in a regularly scheduled 1-1 meeting with the person’s manager.

Here is what it sounds like in a role description’s key area.

Prior to the end of (period), a report will be published counting all of the finished goods that meet our quality standards, including the quantity of rejected goods, within the constraints of our assembly line. That report will be reviewed monthly in a regularly scheduled 1-1 meeting with (role’s) manager.

Prior to the end of the project timeline, a report will be compiled and published of each of the project’s components related to the standards specified by the architect and its inspection (sign off) by the building inspector. That project report will be reviewed three times during the project, after mobilization, midway (50 percent) and post punch-list in a regularly scheduled project review meeting with the (role’s) manager.

Competitive Recon

“I can’t believe they matched our pricing,” Sarah said. “We have taken great pains to reduce our cost structure, so we can offer a low price without cutting our margins. I know our competitor isn’t willing to make the changes we have made, so they must be trying to buy the business. They probably don’t even know they are losing money.”

“Why don’t you call and tell them,” I asked.

Sarah laughed. “If they are losing money, why should we tell them?”

“And what if they are not losing money? What if, while you were cutting your costs in one way, they were cutting costs in a different way? So, you both show up at the same price point?”

“Impossible,” she replied.

“Two questions,” I said. “How are you going to find out? And, when you do find out, what are you going to do about it?”

Tactical vs Strategic

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You seem to challenge the name of our annual planning exercise that we call Strategic Planning. We are clear that exercise is conducted away from the office, off-site, so we are not dragged into the minutiae of the day to day. We do our best to be strategic.

Response:
One reason I know that most Strategic Planning Meetings are not strategic is by a quick examination of the action item list that emerges from the meeting. Rarely is there a single action, goal, objective with a due date further out than 12 months. There is nothing wrong with tactical plans, we need them, but don’t mistake a strategic session just because that is what it’s called.

Looking at Elliott’s framework –

  • S-I – 1 day to 3 months – Tactical
  • S-II – 3 months to 12 months – Tactical
  • S-III – 12 months to 24 months – Tactical
  • S-IV – 2 years to 5 years – Transition from Tactical to Strategic
  • S-V – 5 years to 10 years – Strategic

Some would push back that there is no point in planning 5 years out because so much will change by the time we get there. Exactly.

Tactical planning is short term (up to two years) where things are knowable and we can call them by name. Strategic planning is long term where things are NOT knowable, where there is uncertainty and ambiguity. Yet, in the face of that uncertainty, we still have to make a decision today. Foolhardy to make a tactical move without a longer term strategy.

The biggest problem is in the language of strategy. When things are uncertain and ambiguous, we can only speak in terms of concepts. And, we don’t practice speaking conceptually very often. Most CEOs and managers, given a problem to solve, want to fix it. Fixing is tactical, so before we even have the conversation, we have to rethink the discussion.

Five years from now, we will have customers, we just might not know who they are. We will have facilities, but perhaps not our current facilities. We will have employees, but we don’t know who they are, how many or what they may be doing. We still have to think about markets, infrastructure and human capital even when we don’t know what that might look like in the future. Four years from now, your five year plan will be your one year plan.

Timespan of Intention

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Sometimes, I question my assessment of a team member’s capability. At times, I am delightfully surprised, other times, disappointed.

Response:
Timespan assessment of capability is a manager’s judgement. There are clues, but most of the time, managers look in the wrong places. Here is the text from my slide defining Timespan.
Timespan is the length of time a person can effectively work into the future, without direction, using their own discretionary judgement, to achieve a specific goal.

Effectiveness is not a metric, it’s a judgement. Often, goals are stated to allow for some measurement at the end of the day. The problem with the metric, it does not take into account the unanticipated obstacles that get in the way. A sales metric of 100 units does not take into account the stiff competition from a company with superior technology, economic contraction in the marketplace or a new government regulation the influences a reluctant market. Often a successful sale has more to do with the company’s reputation in the market, than the direct effort of a salesperson. The goal (metric) is one important data point in the judgement of effectiveness, but it is not the only data point.

Self-initiated action. Part of effectiveness is to determine, who is doing the problem solving and decision making? Most people can follow a system, but it takes a higher level of capability to create the system.

Discretion is decision making. A decision is not a calculation, it is a judgement. If decisions were calculations, then computers could make all decisions. Many human based decisions are now better calculated with computers (AI), because computers can detect data faster, with more precision. But, a decision is a judgement, a judgement in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity. The longer the timespan of the decision, the more uncertainty exists.

All action is goal directed. Timespan of discretion relates to the decisions that must be made in the pursuit of the goal. Timespan of intention is related to the direction of that behavior. Elliott Jaques was quite interested in that fifth dimension of human behavior, the timespan of intention. All behavior is goal directed behavior.

Measuring Complexity

Lester had just returned, “That’s it boss, all done, what’s next?”

And with those innocent words, Lester has just defined the time-span for that specific task. Why is the time-span of a task so critical to the definition of that task? It is an attribute often overlooked. Time, hey, it takes what it takes.

For simple tasks, that take less than a day, or even 2-3 days, the importance of time-span is not so critical, but extend the time-span of a task (or a role) out to a week, out to a month, out to three months, and the dynamics become interesting.

What differences are there between a task that takes 3 days to complete and a task that takes 3 months to complete? In one word, predictability. Most of the elements required to complete a 3 day task are known, very specific, very concrete. Some of the elements required to complete a 3 month task may be unknown or may change prior to the completion of the task. This predictability (or unpredictability) is what makes one task more complex than another. “Yeah, so what’s the big deal about that?”

The “big deal” is that time-span, as an indicator for complexity, can become a discrete unit of measure for the complexity of any task. How complex is a task? If you can describe the time-span of the task, you have just described the complexity of the task. The importance of this measurement is that time-span can be described very specifically. I may not know how to specifically measure the “complexity” of a task or project, but using time-span, I can nail it to the wall: This project has a three-month time span with a deadline of February 15.

Questions:

  • If I can measure the complexity of a project using time-span, can I select a Project Manager using time-span?
  • If I can determine the maximum time-span of a person, can I determine suitability for a role in our company?
  • Can I test a person on the basis of time-span , as they grow and mature, to determine capability for more responsibility?

Hint: the answer is yes.

Overwhelmed Behaviors

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

What happens when you realize you were given a promotion and not able to live up to the capabilities? Do you admit it to your superiors? Do you keep it to yourself and risk failure?

Response:

There are many ways to survive in a position that’s over your head, but in the end, it’s only survival. Not a way to live.

I often ask managers, “How do you know, what behavior do you observe when a person is in over their head? Where the Time Span for the position is longer than the Time Span of the person?”

The descriptions come back.

  • They feel overwhelmed.
  • They cover things up.
  • They cut off communication.
  • Their projects are always late.
  • I can’t ever find them.
  • They always blame someone else.
  • They have all the excuses.
  • They never accept responsibility.

So, the short answer is yes. When you realize you are in over your head, go back to your boss. Explain the difficulties you are having. Ask for help. If it is a matter of capability (Time Span), no amount of training, no amount of hand holding will help. It is possible that you may grow into the position, but it’s more likely a matter of years, not weeks that allows for the required maturity (increase in Time Span).

This doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means you were placed in a position where you cannot be effective. Yet!