Belgian royal conservatory's dome, interior with sun. (c) E. Forrest Christian

On Elliott Jaques’s Detractors

E. Forrest Christian requisite organization, Theory 27 Comments

UPDATED 2013 August: I was going to talk about this and realized that this needed a lot of cleaning up. I’m not sure this represents my current thinking but it’s still a pretty good summary of my understanding of things back then.

I have been reading some of the detractors of Elliott Jaques and his Stratified Systems Theory (SST) of Requisite Organizations. Many of them are proponents of Learning Organizations, the organizational systems theory of popularized by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline and The Dance of Change. I have to ask the question: has any of them ever actually read Elliott Jaques’s books? And why do proponents of Learning Organizations believe that Jaques writes so much hooey when Peter Senge himself calls his work a landmark and Art Kleiner (co-author of The Fifth Disciple Fieldbook) even wrote an article in strategy+business about Jaques.

I will be the first to admit that Jaques’s work is thick and difficult to plow through. There is no easy way into the SST, no popularization, no easy in. I ended up plowing through Executive Leadership, re-reading portions a few times. But that is no excuse for people who are supposed to help us organize our companies for success.

A good example of the nonsense comes from Amazon’s customer reviews. Bill Wilson wrote:

This all sounds great. Unfortunately, effectively managing cross-functional workflow in a requisite organization is extremely difficult and time-consuming. Since the attention of most people is on local optimization, and very few managers are up to the task of maintaining a global focus, functional-area hierarchies end up optimizing their local processes at the expense of global performance. Also, since this organization IS so enduring, it is extremely difficult to effect positive changes.

There are some interesting ideas in this book. However, the ultimate product is usually going to be an organization that self-reinforces suboptimal behavior. If you want a self-perpetuating organization rife with finger-pointing, political in-fighting, and deadlocked workflow… implement a requisite organization.

There is little I like worse than people saying that white is gray. And this reviewer does a good job of it. I have to wonder if he read Jaques or simply failed to understand him.

I might as well start popularizing Jaques’s theories so here’s a summary.

Elliott Jaques’s last name is pronounced “jacks”
And it’s spelled without a “c”. He comes from the UK Canada and spent time in the UK, and they are different over there. He was a psychoanalyst who grew into organizations.
Jaques wanted to eliminate suffering and psychological disorders.

He believed that bad organizations produced suffering. Since we spend most of our lives (in the West) in hierarchical organizations, they should help not hurt us.
Eliminating hierarchies is probably impossible
Hierarchies have been around since the dawn of civilization. [But not since homo sapiens appeared, because we weren’t hierarchical back then, unlike the other primates.] Anyone who wants to eliminate them will simply introduce a shadow organization with a hierarchy. If left to their own devices, humans will organize in hierarchies.
Jaques believes that people have different capabilities.
A part of this difference stems from how far into the future they can think, or how far into the future they can work without seeing the results of their work. This is referred to by Elliott Jaques as Time Span of Discretion (TSD) but a better term may be “time horizon”. [It’s not: it means something different.] I’ll be using “time horizon” because it doesn’t have to be capitalized.
Different jobs have different time horizons.
Elliott Jaques calls this the position’s Level of Work (LoW).
Time horizons Time Spans of Discretion (TSDs) correlate with complexity.
People with longer time horizons can keep more variables in their heads.
He believed that the time horizons quantum jumps rather than a smooth line.
TSDs were discontinuous [and at certain time points they broke into a new level]. They broke in the same places across cultures and nations. There seemed to be an evolutionary development, where time horizons broke into strata.
What’s felt as fair pay correlates with the job’s Timespan
The amount of money that you felt was fair for the work required of your position correlated with the time horizon of the job. Elliott Jaques called this Felt-Fair Pay and it has become a cornerstone of job pricing. The correlation is so strong that Kenneth Craddock, the author of the incredibly detailed bibliography on works by or related to Jaques the Glacier Management Method, Stratified Systems or Requisite Organization Theory said

But (Please!), those doing research on this theory do not need to replicate the time-span of discretion to felt-fair pay (TSD:FFP) correlation again. It has been done more than five times. This average on this correlation is +0.89. Q.E.D. Enough already!

A person’s time horizon should match that of the position he held.
A person who had a longer time horizon than his job would get bored. (I currently believe that you will also produce work that is not what your boss wants, since you will be looking out too far, perhaps even farther than your boss.) If you have a time horizon that is shorter than your job’s, you will not be able to succeed in that position even if you have succeeded in the past. You will micro-manage your subordinates and, in the long run, shrink the position down to something that fits within your time horizon.
Being in jobs with a time horizon that doesn’t your own produces suffering and illness.
Elliott Jaques believed that people are happiest when they are using their abilities to their fullest and can succeed in their work. Saying that everyone should want to “batter themselves” is arrogance on the part of people with longer time horizons.
A person’s time horizon increases at different rates for different people.
The difference between two people whose rates differ will be greater at sixty than at 20.
Personal time horizon is not a respecter of person but innate.
The time horizon of one’s mind at work does not correlate with education or race or socio-economic status. One of Jaques’s peeves was that society has been both missing out on potential and producing suffering by not allowing people of out-groups to fill positions that matched their time horizons.
Time horizon is only a part of the equation for success at a job.
You must also (1) want to do the job and (2) have the skills and knowledge necessary to do it. However, skills and knowledge can be gained through learning. Time horizon cannot, nor can the desire to do a job.
Just because a job is not a management job does not mean that it has a short time horizon.
Technical experts with long time horizons (think commodities traders or aeronautical engineers or designers or programmers) will have the same felt-fair pay issues of managers in jobs with matching time horizons and should be paid accordingly.
Jaques broke these quantum jumps into strata.
(I’ll fill in the strata breaks when Bob gives me back my Jaques collection.) [But I never did. Sorry.]
A “real boss” will be able to do work int the worklevel above you.
He must be one strata above you or you will not believe that he is your “true boss”. Your boss being within your strata, even with a slightly longer time horizon, will cause you nothing but misery.
When you jump from one strata to another, you change the way that you think.
This is a natural progression: you cannot make yourself jump to the next strata by “learning” to think differently, since it has to do with the amount of complexity that you can hold in your head. There are four meta-strata, which Jaques and Cason refer to as orders of mental complexity:

  • Universal, thinking about whole societies or worlds. This is the highest order of mental complexity and is only present in a very few. Great artists probably have this, as do big social thinkers. Think of concepts of concepts. I’m not sure I grok this order, but I reckon that it is like “squaring the cube” to get four dimensions.
  • Conceptual Abstract, using words to refer word, ideas to refer to ideas. The concept level is pretty high.
  • Classes, "using words as symbols to refer to concrete objects which are not present in the environment". (Brause 2000)
  • Specifics, where you think about concrete things
  • Specifics Explanatory Gesture, a simple mental complexity that most adults outgrow in childhood.
Each order is made up of four strata.
You progress through these four for each order of mental complexity:

  1. Declarative, where simply make assertions: “This is that”. You make a series of unrelated assertions to support your position: A,B,C, position.
  2. Cumulative Processing, where you make a set of related assertions, a series of "and" connections, all cumulating to support your position.
    A + B + C = position.
  3. Serial processing where you put together supports in your argument by saying A → B → C → my point. Linear arguments of cause-and-effect.
  4. Parallel processing, where you use interlinked serial arguments to support your position.
You can tell what strata someone is in by listening to how they talk about something that they care about.
This is how Alison Brause did her analysis of presidential elections and showed that the nominee with the most complexity won. Except in Bush v. Gore, where they were both equal.

Now I would like to add my own conclusions and speculations from reading Jaques in context of the Learning Organization writers (I don’t see a problem) and others.

Elliott Jaques wasn’t a management writer.
Jaques’s work does not have any ties with other management writers because he was, at heart, not a management writer. He was a psychiatrist (psychoanalytical) and has many ties with other psychological and psychiatric researchers. For example, Human Capability: A Study of Individual Potential and Its Application shows how Jaques and Cason’s model of strata of mental complexity matches Piaget’s findings of development in childhood. I do agree that this lack of ties to others’ works needs rectifying.
Mental complexity has very little to do with what we measure on intelligence tests.
Al Gore is a smart guy. He is not a very complex mind. Smart, but not complex. Most of us would assume that they went together, but they do not. You can measure what Americans call "smart" by IQ tests. "Smart" can be improved by education and training. Complexity appears to be an innate process that is not affected by education or experience. You may have a person with a longer time horizon (higher Level of Capability) who lacks the education to perform the job. Jaques believes that IQ or "smart" is mostly socially determined. Out-groups, such as African-Americans, can be called "not smart" because they lack the education to perform intelligence tests. "Complexity" cannot be gained through education. You can make it more useful but you can’t improve it. Nor can you speed up the jump from one strata to another. If companies could, they would; they can’t, so they don’t.
I had a hard time with this initially since I thought it made no sense.
[Of course, there’s also my original post after finding out about Elliot Jaques’s theories.] A key for me was a statement James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA. In The Double Helix, he makes a statement to the effect that most scientists aren’t very smart. He obviously does not mean “smart” as I used it above. He means that they lack complexity. Very few scientists could see what he thought was obvious: that DNA was the “it”. Smart and complexity can go together but don’t have to. Al Gore is smart but he is not very interesting because he isn’t very complex. George Bush, Jr. is smart but he is not very interesting, either, for the same reason. Now that I hang out with professors on a regular basis (L has a PhD and taught at a couple before “retiring”), I can honestly say that there is a difference between smart and complex.
Bad job fit leads to social problems
I believe that putting people into positions in organizations where their time horizon does not match that of their jobs is a major cause of learned helplessness in society, and thereby depression.
Requisite Organization works in the New Economy
I have read that Jaques’s theories fall apart with activities of the new economy like programming. Obviously, these were written before the dotcom bust when twenty-somethings were running companies that had a paper value of hundreds of millions. Reality has returned and corrections made. As a worked in the new economy since 1994 (I wrote my first commercial ecommerce website in late 1994, before Netscape or Internet Explorer), I have not seen any evidence that the time horizon strata no longer hold. Indeed, most of what I have seen simply shows that most Organizational Design and HR staff have absolutely no idea what developers do. They therefore cannot put together the time horizons for their work. I believe that this is simply a problem of them catching up with us. Programmers create hierarchies in the form of pecking orders faster than hens do. I don’t know if I have ever worked in an environment elsewhere that had anywhere near the stratification and each of us knew exactly where everyone else sat in the pecking order. One of the great injustices is in the poor pay of many developers who must have long time horizons to do their jobs properly.
Jaques’s theories do not tell you how to behave within any organization
Even Requisite ones organized according to his ideas. It deals with structure and says that if you require a 2-year person to try to complete a 5-year task, you are setting that person up for not only misery but failure.
Most of the people who have a beef about Jaques have not read his work.
The others mischaracterize it. Of course, Jaques was not a great writer and makes it hard to understand what he is saying. But no more than reading the latest perl books. I will admit that some of the criticisms are justified and Jaques’s work has holes. Most critics don’t seem to get to them. I think that they are just mad because if they believed the results of his work, they would have to give up a lot of what they do for a living.

That’s my look at Jaques tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll summarize the meaning of life and end by creating it myself in a jar on my kitchen counter.

Belgian royal conservatory’s dome, interior with sun. © E. Forrest Christian

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Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps individuals and companies find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants, both as individuals and as leaders of organizations at least as diverse. [contact]