Tag Archives: levels of work

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.

Structure and Creativity – Part II

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

This continues my response to the following question –

Question:
In your model, whose job is it to balance structure and innovation? (or structure that permits innovation?) How is this implemented? Is it a time span issue vs. a creativity/mindset issue? I worry about calcification and lean against structure which prevents innovation.

Response:
It is easy to fear organizational calcification. Much of management literature rails against terminology about command and control, even the subtle reporting relationship reeks iron fists and thumbs of oppression. This is why our understanding of functional organizational structure is so important. And important to you because of your interest, mandate that an organization be creative.

I define work narrowly looking at two things, decision making and problem solving. This discussion is to firmly attach creativity to decision making and problem solving, within the confines of a structure that eschews rigidity.

First, an exercise, in creativity. I ask a group of student within a 60-second period to name (write down) things that are round, as many as possible in 60-seconds. That’s the goal. You would assume those that name 30 are more creative than those that name six. I immediately get a question, “do you mean round and flat like a coin or round like a sphere?” I say, “there are no rules, no restrictions, it’s up to your own definition.” There is no structure to the exercise save the limit of time.

Inevitably, the clock winds down and most participants have a list of six to eight and most have a look of frustration on their face that they performed so dismally. I ask for sample responses –

  • ball
  • coin
  • planet
  • wheel
  • manhole cover
  • marble
  • watchface

Stop, time’s up!

Remember, the goal is to be as creative as possible and name as many as possible. I say, “ball. What about a tennis ball? A baseball? A basketball?”

“Wait, that’s cheating,” the group responds. I smile.

Here is the point. Instead of instructions where there is no structure, let me create a structure that guides you to be more creative.

Name as many coins that are round –

  • penny
  • nickel
  • dime
  • quarter
  • 50-cent piece
  • silver dollar
  • gold dubloon

Name as many planets that are round –

  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • Mars
  • Neptune
  • Uranus
  • Jupiter
  • Earth
  • Saturn

Name as many balls that are round –

  • tennis ball
  • baseball
  • basketball
  • bowling ball
  • golf ball
  • volleyball
  • cricket ball
  • soccer ball

The more structure in the assignment, the more creative, the more possibilities. This is a concept called idea fluency.

I need you to shift your understanding (not change, just shift) about organizational structure where we create working relationships between people where they engage in work using the fullest extent of their capability to make decisions and solve problems.

Elliott’s model helps us understand that there are different levels of decision making and different levels of problem solving. It is incumbent on every manager to understand those levels and engage the fullest capability of their team members in the work at hand.

Placing accountability for team output at the feet of the manager dramatically shifts managerial behavior to create more productive and creative working environments.

How to Diagnose Role Fit

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
How does management ability tie into different levels of work. I’m thinking about people who are good at building (S-III) systems (flowcharts, time studies, etc.) but who are miserable at managing the people side of the equation.

Response:
In the workshop you attended, you will recall Elliott’s Four Absolutes. Your question describes one dimension of success, likely two dimensions of underperformance (failure).

Four Absolutes

  • Capability (measured in timespan)
  • Skill (technical knowledge and practiced performance)
  • Interest, passion (value for the work)
  • Required behaviors (contracted behaviors, habits, culture)

A person may have the capability to be effective in the work of the role, but lack other characteristics (of equal importance).

Specifically, a person may have the capability to be effective at S-III system work, yet in a managerial role, may lack the management skills for other key areas (people related). A skill is anything that can be learned, anything that can be taught. For a manager, there is a specific set of skills related to communication, listening, delegation, decision making, team problem solving, planning, coaching, meetings.

For a manager to learn those teachable skills, they must also possess the interest and passion for that work. We have interest in and passion for that work on which we place a high value. A person who values self performance over team performance will suffer mightily as they realize there is no such thing as individual achievement.

There is no priority in the Four Absolutes, they are of equal importance.

Accountability and Authority

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 Hidden Hierarchy, took a close look at Buurtzorg, where nurses in self-managed groups of 10-12 make decisions related to intake, scheduling, planning, holiday and vacation coverage. These are all decisions well within the timespan capability of each team. This slice of the organization has clear accountability for those issues and with that accountability must come the authority to make those decisions.

Laloux describes the authority exists because there is no managerial hierarchy with oversight that might question or reverse a decision made collectively by the team. Elliott Jaques, in the schema of levels of work would describe the authority as “timespan of discretion.” Each team has full discretion to make decisions and solve problems related to tasks identified at that level of work. The authority doesn’t exist in the absence of management, the authority is expressly assigned to the team.

With authority must come accountability. Laloux describes the nursing teams as accountable for their own output, without managerial oversight. This appears to work well, until it doesn’t.

When, it doesn’t, there are “coaches.”

Elliott would always be looking for “who is the manager?” He would not be looking for the mandated manager, but the observable manager. Who is bringing value to the problem solving and decision making of the team? At Buurtzorg, there are coaches who provide facilitation along defined problem solving models (I am reminded of Eli Goldratt’s Conflict Resolution Cloud).

It is incumbent on the coach to set context (in the form of questions), seek clarity in the issue or problem and bring the team to its own resolution. I think we just found the manager.

In short, the founder of Buurtzorg, Jos de Blok, found a way to grow the organization by driving decisions down to the appropriate level of work, organizing small teams to do that work. The design is perfectly scale-able to the current tune of approximately 10,000 nurses.

There is a hierarchy, not a hierarchy of power, but a hierarchy of accountability.

The Question of Accountability

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.
——
The next elephant in the room is the issue of accountability. If the hierarchical schema in Levels of Work (Requisite Organization) replaces power with accountability, then where does accountability lie in the schema of Teal?

There is an adage, if everyone is accountable, then no one is accountable. Sociologists describe this effect as diffusion of responsibility. Alex Lickerman describes “diffusion of responsibility manifests itself as the decreased responsibility each member feels to contribute and work hard towards accomplishing the task or goal. The diffusion of responsibility is present in almost all groups, but to varying degrees, and can be mitigated by reducing group size, defining clear expectations and increasing accountability.”

In Elliott’s world (Requisite Organization) accountability is clearly assigned to the manager. A manager is defined as that person held accountable for the output of the team. Note this is not a definition of power, but a definition of accountability.

In Teal, accountability is distributed to the group and the role of manager does not exist. By accounts, this arrangement works well with results even-steven or better than a team with a managerial leader held accountable for the output of the team.

I have little direct contact with organizations who adopt this approach (Teal), so my anecdotal observation is this – Teal probably works just fine, until it doesn’t. And, when it doesn’t, what are the circumstances or conditions that cause the mis-step? What can be done to get the team back in productive work toward the defined goal?

These musings alone beg more questions. Who defined the goal in the first place? Who floated the project to the group in the beginning? How did the group adopt or accept the project? This is not the invisible hand of Adam Smith. Some person started the organization. Some person defined the mission and vision of the organization. Some person provided guidance (for better or worse). At some point, there was a decision by some(one) person to make a move, commit resources, spend energy. This set of questions points to context. Who creates the context in which the team works?

The self-directed work group appears on stage, but who owns the stage. Are there invisibles in the background pulling the curtain, playing the music, fading the lights, advancing the payroll. And, when those things do not happen, what becomes of the stage-players?

Who is accountable for the output of this context – some(one), every(one) or no (one)?

For now, I will leave these as unanswered questions, no hurry. I am more interested in clarity than answers.

All Problems Are Not Created Equal

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.
——
Humor me. To see Levels of Work (Requisite Organization), as a hierarchy based on problem solving complexity (rather than power), opens up a different texture of organizational structure. Let me quickly sport a reference chart below to demonstrate the discontinuous complexity underpinning Levels of Work. I assume you agree, some problems are more complex than others, all problems are not created equal.

Level-I (S-I) – Declarative problem solving. This is the world of opinion, without the necessity of supporting evidence. The world is the way it is, simply because it is declared to be so. Problem solving methodology at this level of work is trial and error. Trial and error is a valid problem solving method, it just has a high error rate in the face of increasing complexity. If S-I was a computer, its computer code would be the Boolean operator “or-or.” S-I is a disjunctive (disconnected) way of seeing the world.

Level-II (S-II) – Cumulative problem solving. If S-I struggles to connect the dots, S-II succeeds in making those connections. Cumulative means connection by successive addition. Problem solving occurs by connecting the pattern in a problem with a documented solution. Best-practices is an S-II problem solving method. If S-II was a computer, its computer code would be the Boolean operator “and-and.” S-II is a conjunctive (connected) way of seeing the world.

Level-III (S-III) – Serial problem solving. This is where Elliott observed the first instance of cause and effect. Problem solving occurs through a process of root cause analysis. If S-III was a computer, its computer code would be the Boolean operator “if-then,” cause and effect. This problem solving method is required in the construction of a system (sequence of steps in a process yielding consistent and predictable results, a critical path).

Level-IV (S-IV) – Parallel problem solving acknowledges the existence of multiple simultaneous systems that co-exist in proximity. In the same proximity, each critical path may not intersect, but each system’s capacity has an impact on neighboring systems. Problem solving multi-system impact requires systems analysis, specifically – capacity, constraints, delay and throughput. If S-IV was a computer, its computer code would be the Boolean operator “if-and-only-if, then.” This level of work manages problems with multiple simultaneous variables and increasing ambiguity of outcomes.

So, what does this problem-complexity have to do with Laloux and Teal?

You have to read carefully (Reinventing Organizations), but Laloux identifies these specific levels of problem solving quite clearly – Another cognitive breakthrough is the ability to reason in paradox, transcending the simple either-or with more complex both-and thinking.

As he describes the organizational period of magenta, he makes the following observation –
Cause and effect are poorly understood, and so the universe is full of spirits and magic.

Cause and effect finally comes of age in Laloux’s description – At the Conformist-Amber stage, reality is perceived through Newtonian eyes. Cause and effect are understood, people can grasp linear time (past, present, future) and project into the future. Laloux’s observation is quite consistent with the timespan schema in Levels of Work, that a measure of problem solving is based on a person’s capability to operate in the ambiguity of the future.

So, Laloux clearly observes problem solving through the first three Levels of Work, without realizing how close he came to solving the puzzle of hierarchy. These nested relationships** replace the power hierarchy with an accountability hierarchy. Indeed, Elliott described this organizational form with the acronym MAH (Management Accountability Hierarchy).

I think the issue of accountability will be next on our agenda.

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**Nested relationships was brilliantly described in this article by Richard Bartlett

What is VUCA?

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

VUCA

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.

How Many Layers Do You Need?

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

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

Response:
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.

Next Gen Technology

Looking at Agile through the lens of Levels of Work. Today, we move down the list to next gen technology.

  1. North star embodied across the organization.
  2. Network of empowered teams.
  3. Rapid decision making and learning cycles.
  4. Dynamic people model that ignites passion.
  5. Next generation enabling technology.

Next generation enabling technology
Technology will replace many roles, AND it will drive the necessity for higher levels of work to design, configure and implement technology. When is the current technology obsolete? When is next gen mature enough to rely on? We always overestimate what we can do this year, and underestimate what we can do in ten years.

This technology transformation allows for more transparency in core operational and support functions, more rapid project deployment requiring the use of cross functional teams. The easy problems will be solved by technology and will create the necessity for more functional integration. Core functions and support functions will still exist, but the organization can now focus in functional integration (don’t get rid of your silos, integrate them). This integration will focus on functional capacity and the balance of those capacities between functions. It will also require the inspection of each function’s output used by related functions. Some of that output will be accelerated through the use of technology. Data will be collected in real time and routed democratically through the organization.

This is not subtle stuff and the organization will look different.

People Model

We continue to step our way through a short list of identified hallmarks of Agile through the lens of Levels of Work. Today, we move down the list to the people model.

  1. North star embodied across the organization.
  2. Network of empowered teams.
  3. Rapid decision making and learning cycles.
  4. Dynamic people model that ignites passion.
  5. Next generation enabling technology.

Dynamic people model
Levels of work identifies a robust framework where each role is defined by its level of decision making and problem solving. Effective decision making and problem solving at each level of work requires a concomitant level of cognitive capability.

In the transformation from analog to digital, there will be obsolete roles no longer needed and new roles created. As new roles are created, the organization has to identify the level of work in the new role and the corresponding cognitive capacity of the candidates for those roles. When people are challenged to work at or near their highest level of capability, in work they value, there is no need for motivational speakers to raise morale.

Most analog organizations define managerial roles as reporting relationships. In a digital organization, managerial roles shift from reporting relationships to a value stream, where managers are required to bring value to the problem solving and decision making of the team. This process brings alive the concept of “servant leadership.”