Tag Archives: levels of work

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.


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-

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.

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.”

Networks and Level of Work

In my last post, we started to look at the hallmarks of Agile through the lens of Levels of Work. We looked at North Star through three organizing documents, vision, mission and business model. Today, we move down the list.

  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.

Network of empowered teams
In a short post by Seth Godin, he chronicled the history of networks from crude computers, each requiring its own building, to those as big as refrigerators, then small enough to sit on a table, now carried in your pocket. Something else happened.

Godin says the first computers were good at two things, arithmetic and storing data. Then, computers got connected so they could share arithmetic and data. Godin described this as the computer meets the telephone, meets the fax machine, and the more people with fax machines, the more valuable the network. The third iteration included the disintermediation of both space and time. This was the death of geography. The current iteration, Godin calls the hive mind, the intersection of technology and agile networks (some of which may contain people).

The transparency afforded in current state technology distributes data and analysis to everyone who can understand it. Distance is dead. Real-time erases delay.

What impact does this have on decision making and problem solving? What decisions are now calculations (no longer a decision)? Who, in the organization, works on those problems and the new decisions we could not see before? How do we measure the size of those decisions? In the end, who is accountable for the output of those decisions?

Godin’s insight on the state of technology provides some clarity on our understanding of the state of the organization. Four issues, problem-solving, decision-making, accountability, authority. It depends on the Level of Work.

Bringing Value as a Manager

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

You described one role of a manager is to bring value to the decision making and problem solving of the team, collectively and individually. Let’s say I buy that. How does a manager do that? How does a manager bring that value?

The role of the manager is to bring value to the problem solving and decision making of the team. Easy to say, more difficult to do.

How does a manager bring that value?

I spend hundreds of hours each year coaching CEOs. You are not privileged to those 1-1 conversations, but can you imagine that I tell each of my clients how to run their business?

The answer is no, they wouldn’t listen to me anyway. So, how do I, or how does any manager bring value to that 1-1 conversation? When the level of work creeps up and there is uncertainty in decision making and problem solving, how does the manager bring value?

The most effective managers are not those who tell people what to do, but those who ask the most effective questions.

If There Were No Managers?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

You talked about the Peter Principle, how at some point everyone in a hierarchy gets promoted to their level of incompetence. I see this as a problem with hierarchy. Get rid of the hierarchy and let people settle in roles where they feel comfortable.

One reason you think the problem is hierarchy, you think it exists to create a reporting protocol. Here’s the bad news. You think you are a manager so people can report to you. Not true.

You are a manager to bring value to the decision making and problem solving of your team, collectively and individually. If there were no managers, there would be no one with the accountability to bring that value.

I hear people rail against hierarchy with tomes about self directed work groups and holocracy. Hierarchy exists for a very specific reason. When the level of work creeps up, hierarchy provides the structure to create that value stream, where managers bring value to the decision making and problem solving of the team.

Your Only Hope

“But how do you get out of the weeds?” Lawrence complained. “So much stuff hits my desk. I am constantly walking the floor. Everybody seems to have a problem for me to solve. All of a sudden, the day is over and I have done nothing. The next day, it starts all over.”

“Dig a little, beat back the alligators, dig a little more,” I said. “Understand that this is not a time-management problem. You cannot organize your way to greatness.

“This is the secret, the keys to the kingdom. Your only hope (in this case, hope is a strategy) is to improve your delegation skills. Delegation and training. The only thing that will keep a manager out of the weeds is to build a team to support the position. When a company gets big enough, it is called infrastructure. Without that support, there is no hope.

“Nothing great was ever created by individual achievement. You have to build a team to solve the problems you used to solve. You have to build a team to make the decisions you used to make.”