Tag Archives: structure

Setting Context

“One of my main responsibilities, as a manager, is to set the context for my team? What do you mean?” Paula asked. “I assume this is more than introducing each other.”

“It’s all about the work,” I replied. “Context starts with a clear understanding of the task at hand. What is the quantity, quality standard, necessary resources and the time frame. QQT/R.

“Next, is how that assigned task fits with the larger picture, that you, as a manager are accountable for. This provides the team with an understanding of just how big their role is, in the larger picture.

“Context also includes the work their teammates are doing, work that intersects with their work, work output they may be waiting for, work output they produce that someone else may be waiting for.

“Context answers the questions – How do I fit in? What is the importance of the work I am doing? What do others depend on me for? One of the primary accountabilities for every manager is to set context for the team.”

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?”

The Bloated Organization

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I grew up, as a manager in a small company. I just received an offer, which I accepted at a large company with over a thousand employees. As I look around, and I know this is a corporate structure, I feel a little lost. There are managers of this and that, directors, senior levels, junior levels. I got a copy of the org chart, looks like there are about eleven levels between the clerical team and the CEO. I have only been here for two weeks, but it looks like chaos. Even the meetings I attend seem misdirected. There is a formal agenda that gets blown through quickly, then there is a discussion (argument) that goes until the end of the meeting (always ends on time). Did I make a mistake? Should I have stayed at my old company? (Unfortunately, too late, they already filled my old position.)

Response:
At least they end their meetings on time.

I often get a call from a company like this, complaining of two things. They think they have a communication crisis or a personality conflict between two people. The company wants to know if I can arrive, do some personality profiling and conduct a communication seminar. Your description gives me better clues to what is really going on.

In most cases, I do not believe in communication breakdowns or personality conflicts. I believe there is a structural issue. Structure, organizational structure, is simply the way we define the working relationships between people. On paper, it looks like a chart, in real life, a messy chart.

The most important definition in working relationships is two related concepts, accountability and authority, one goes with the other. To be accountable for an output, I must have the authority to make a decision or solve a problem in the way I would have it solved. If I have the authority to make such a decision, I must also have the accountability that comes with it.

This basis for organizational structure, accountability and authority, also provides guidance for the number of management levels required. Without much more due diligence, my intuition tells me this organization needs no more than five levels, meaning it needs no more than five levels of accountability.

Organizations, like the one you described, get bloated because there is no framework for decision making or problem solving. Supervisors get promoted to manager because someone needed a raise and got a title instead. Or, someone got a raise and needed a title to go with it. Or, an underperforming team member needed more supervision, so they got a special manager to watch over them (instead of a demotion or termination). Organizations get bloated for all kinds of reasons. And, that bloating costs the company in decision friction and problem solving throughput.

But, you are in a situation you are stuck with, at least for now. And you are likely a junior manager with lots of accountability and little authority. Here is your first baby step. Get clear with your manager, in each key area of your role, what is the specific output and how often will that be reviewed. For each accountability, what is the authority you have to make a decision or solve a problem in the way you would have it solved. That will keep you from getting fired in the first 60 days.

Check back with me then and tell me what more you have learned.

Your Business Model and Constraints

Every business has a model, an internal structure that helps to understand the way it interacts with its market. Business Model Generation defines these elements –

  • Customer Segments
  • Value Proposition
  • Channels
  • Customer Relationships
  • Revenue Streams
  • Key Resources
  • Key Activities
  • Key Partnerships
  • Cost Structure

I suggest another element surfacing as the world comes back on line in this pandemic – constraint.

Every system (business) has a constraint. That constraint is connected to a-capacity-of-something. Initially, constraints show up as whack-a-moles and we arm ourselves with mallets to snuff them out. Eventually we understand that every system will always have a constraint, our job is to put the constraint where we want it (strategic constraint). Some constraints are internal to our business model, sometimes they are outside (external systems, like the market, regulation, finance, labor, technology).

Examine your business model and its constraints. Capacity may have shifted due to the pandemic, your constraint may have moved, your business model may be wobbly because something subtle (or not-so-subtle) has changed.

Looks Like a Personality Conflict

The situation may look like a personality conflict, but the symptom leads us astray. When two people are at cross-purposes, locked in disagreement, it is because we, as managers, created the conditions for the behavior we see.

Still looks like a personality conflict?

If you are in a place of worship, a temple, synagogue, sanctuary, are you likely to be loud and boisterous or quiet and reflective? If you are at a sporting event and your team just scored a goal, are you likely to be loud and boisterous or quiet and reflective? Your behavior in those two circumstances is quite different, but did your personality change?

Your behavior changed because the context changed.

Change the context, behavior follows.

Structure is the way we define the working relationships between people in our organization. Culture is that unwritten set of rules that governs our required behaviors in the work that we do together. Structure is culture. Culture is context. Change the context, behavior follows.

Be careful how you define the working relationships in your organization. Structure creates the conditions for things that look like personality conflicts.
——
Change the context, behavior follows, first taught to me by Gustavo Grodnitzky.

Breakdown in Communication is Only the Symptom

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talk about how most problems are structural problems. I don’t get it. Our company has a communication problem. Because people don’t talk to each other, at the right time, balls get dropped. If we could just communicate better, things would go smoother.

Response:
You think you have a communication problem. And, you can have all the communication seminars you want, you will still have breakdowns in communication and balls will still get dropped.

You have a communication symptom of a structural problem. Structure is the defined accountability and authority in working relationships. You have a communication symptom because the working relationship between two people was never clearly defined.

As the manager, you know specific information should be communicated at a specific time, and you assume the two teammates will figure out what (needs to be communicated) and when. So, when that doesn’t happen, you think you have a communication problem. That is only the symptom.

The communication never happened, or didn’t happen at the right time, because, as the manager, you never required the information be passed on at a specific time. As the manager, you never defined the accountability in the working relationship, so the two teammates were left to twist in the wind.

You have a structural problem (defined accountability), with a communication symptom. Define the specific accountability and the communication symptom fixes itself.
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Not a Time Management Issue

“Yes, you could call it stress,” Daniele replied. “And it’s building. I seem to get farther behind and I can see there are things that need to be done, there is no way I will get to them.”

“What do you think is happening?” I asked.

“I get to work early to get a few minutes of peace and quiet. It’s usually my most productive hour of the day. But then, there is an email, or a note on my desk about a struggling project and boom, I am in the weeds again. I am not complaining about the work, but I feel the stress. I am torn between these urgent projects and the work I know I really need to be doing. It even affects my work-life balance. I feel like I need to come in to work two hours early.”

“Do you think you have a work-life balance problem?”

“Yes. My husband thinks so,” Daniele nodded.

“You know I am a structure guy. I don’t think you have a work-life balance problem, I think you have a structure issue. Why do you think you get pulled into the weeds and cannot get to the work you need to be doing as a manager?”

“My team has questions that have to be answered, problems that have to be solved and decisions that have to be made,” she described. “If I don’t spend that time, they just get stuck and don’t know what to do.”

“Your stress is only the symptom. It looks like a time management issue, but it’s not. It’s a structure issue.”

More Problems Than We Had Before

“Let’s look back at your org chart,” I suggested. “You have 110 employees and twelve layers of supervision and management. Two people quit yesterday, so your org chart is already out of date. What do you think you need to change?”

Sydney’s mood had turned from generous to perplexed. “Our intention was to make sure everyone had someone appropriate to report, and to make sure no manager was overburdened.”

“And you ended up with?” I pressed.

“And we ended up with people in positions, creating more problems than we had, before we announced this new reorganization,” Sydney explained.

“I want you to shift your approach to this problem. Instead of trying to figure out who should report to who, determine which manager is accountable for the output of which team. And for this exercise, I want you to reduce from 12 layers to four.”
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A friend of mine in Buffalo NY, Michael Cardus, published a short piece on the impact of role-crowding, too many layers. Take a look.

Too Many Layers

Sydney thought for a moment. “We just promoted Justin to Team Leader. The rest of the guys on the crew say he is breathing down their necks. He is obviously not ready to be a full supervisor, and we are losing his productivity as a machine operator.”

“And?” I prodded.

“And I really don’t know what to do,” Sydney replied.

“Let’s look again at your instructions to Justin. You said if a team member has a problem, help them solve it, if they have a question, answer it and make sure all the work gets done by the end of the day. And yet, you said he was not ready to be a supervisor? Sounds like you gave him supervisor tasks, but you already know he is struggling with those tasks.”

“Yes, but, if we are going to have the team report to Justin..” Sydney stopped. “So, I took my lead technician and tried to make him a supervisor, even though we already have a supervisor. It looked good on paper.”

“Actually, it didn’t look good on paper. You have 112 employees and twelve layers,” I observed.

“I know, I said 112,” Sydney explained. “Now it’s 110, two people quit this morning.”