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Time Span of Discretion Matters, and not Complexity

E. Forrest Christian requisite organization, Theory 11 Comments

Time Span of Discretion is what determines the size of the role, and not some measure of “complexity”.

Harald Solaas, who wrote a comment to “Does Requisite Organization Really Work Over the Weekend?“, has written an article entitled “Why Is Requisite Organization (RO) Theory So Difficult to Understand?.” In it, he relates the following story about working with Elliot Jaques on a Requisite Organization project:

…Jaques absolutely rejected trying to establish the size of a role by looking at the problems its incumbent had to handle. I remember him once offering the example of a general manager’s role that had all the appearances of parallel processing (stratum IV), with accountability for the coordinated functioning of several departments, that had been measured as stratum III. I asked him, “You mean the incumbent was a serial processeor?” “Yes”, he replied.

This really surprised me.

I had theorized that time-span of discretion was a proxy for complexity, since decision points continue to branch out geometrically as time goes on. Paul M. Cashman and David Stroll make the same point in “Achieving sustainable complexity through information technology: theory and practice”, a 1986 ACM paper that used Jaques’s SST, apparently using data from an earlier project. They make a statement for “time-compression”, where executives reduced “the time-span to cope with the increased rate of change in their environment.”

Donald Brooks, a KPMG Canada partner and one-time Harding Consulting Group consultant, states something even more scandalous in “Today’s compensation systems: rewarding the wrong things,” a 1994 article in Canadian Manager:

Let me illustrate a source of confusion. A strategic planner may prepare a five-year plan; the target time to complete it is five months. The TSoD [time-span of discretion] is five months, not five years. Doing this is not as easy as it appears. I have discovered in many organizations claiming to have clear role accountabilities that the time dimensions of tasks are only implicitly understood. It takes some work to shift people to this concept. Once they do, they also begin to see how muddled many of their accountabilities really are.

Many studies confuse TSoD with planning horizons. My own experience is that TSoD accurately measures role complexity. For those who use it, TSoD performs better than job evaluation point factors and with greater mutual understanding and reliability.

Jaques made very clear that managers cannot delegate their planning activities. However, if we take the time-span of the planning activity and map it to a role, we have a very short time-span of discretion. You can create a five-year plan in much less than five years. Does this mean that the plan can be created by someone with a 3 month time horizon?

I had thought that certain IT projects, because of their inherent complexity, required longer time-span of discretion because they required a certain mode of thinking (parallel processing). We break up the project into small subprojects of interim deliverables that are run consecutively and not concurrently. Each subproject has its own project manager. My experience (and my gut) said that this didn’t work: you needed someone who was seeing the entire project.

According to Solaas, Jaques vehemently disagreed.

Saying that planning can be done by someone who cannot think out to see the entire plan is akin to saying that I can construct a write out a Stratum IX argument because the act of writing it only takes a couple of days. If I can’t think in that way, what does it matter how short the time span of the task is?

Perhaps I am misunderstanding time-span of discretion or Solaas’s and Brooks’s arguments. I can’t see how Brooks was saying anything other than what he was saying, though.

Image Credit: Advertisement illustration. Via Library of Congress collection.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts 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. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

Comments 11

  1. Manasclerk,

    Here is the subtlety. Watch the words role and task carefully.

    We can measure the complexity of a role using time span. However, we do not have a tool to measure the complexity of a task.

    In your example the time to plan the five year plan was 5 months. So the next question would be “who is accountable to deliver the 5 year plan results?” Since a manager cannot delegate his/her planning tasks the person owning the 5 year results, should also own the plan. So the 5 month tasks is not the longest task of that role. Therefore it is not the time span of that role.

    Second point, one role can hold accountability for facilitating the planning process, and not hold accountability for delivery of the planned results from that planning process. If this is the case, you still must ask if the planning tasks is the longest task for that role.

    Think of it this way: for a multi task role (a role that requires juggling many tasks at the same time) when you discover the longest task, you discover the time over which one must exercise discretion to keep all tasks in the multi task package moving and on time. So time span -of discretion- measures the horizon over which integration and action must take place to perform that role.

  2. Post

    Thanks for the distinction. I still think that there is an emergent quality (if that’s the word I want) of humans in groups that RO describes. The “phyla” of the strata make sense when taken naturally. I think that the difference between accountability and task is where I’m going wrong.

    That raises another question about planning: I recall an old study done by Daniel Isenberg where he found that execs tended to plan earlier and more intuitively than the control group (students, I think). If I remember correctly, he said that execs would plan as they went along, more or less. I think he’s missing something here about having general ideas about what the problems of the future are, the issues that can arise if I pursue this course of action vs. that one. I wonder if managers at the right CIP for their role (I got that right, right?) actually create less formal plans farther out into the future. I wonder if this has to do with the idea of setting context out. I can’t imagine that Matsushita’s 200-year plan for his company is all that detailed.

    Last, I think that you are saying that a role’s TSD is determined not by what the tasks in it but by the results for which it is accountable. True? If so, what do you do with the barely accountable roles that are so prevalent in the StrII and III role in large corporations (100,000+)?

    I’m still confused about Solaas’s comments that describing SST in terms of mental processes is not correct. (“Why RO…”, pp. 7 first paragraph) This is obviously true since it isn’t that your boss can think farther out than you, since that would mean that a 2-yr time horizon could be managed by a 3 year, which doesn’t work since the 3-year isn’t in the next Strata. But it’s also obviously true that mental processes describe it (à la Human Capability).

    Also, I accept Harald’s statement that RO is about hard data, but I’m not seeing a whole lot of hard data in the literature. It seems that most of it is based on someone saying “I did this at this firm and got these results” but no summary of results or rigorous statistical analysis. I’m used to anthro-style descriptions but I wouldn’t mind some real numbers. Know of any?

    [I really should have created three different posts on this, but I’m at a client site this week and L came with.]

  3. How could a role have responsibility for facilitating the planning process yet not for delivery of the plan? Why would you want that?

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    Short and tall of it: it doesn’t.

    I’m not sure that their conclusions are necessarily required by their data. They discovered correlation but causality may be different.

    There are several evolutionary biologists who are erguing that people considered attractive have better genes. What we are seeing as attractive is simply recognition of a better genetic makeup. I don’t know what “better genes” means, though.

    Also, people who are more successful may be more attractive than they would have been had they experienced failure. Since smiling, happy people are more attractive, this might also be a link.

    On heavier women being more likely to be unemployed, well, I can think of a host of intervening variables on that one. However, once it becomes true to most people (“fat women can’ hold jobs”) then it will self-reinforce.

    I have always wondered why tall people are more successful on average. However, it seems that physically disadvantaged men are more likely to be conquerors. They wouldn’t be drawn to popularity fields such as politics but would succeed in business arenas or other areas where hard work and ruthless desire to win can help. Can’t say about women, but I’d like to test this.

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    It’s interesting that in interviews with women who did not go with Bundy, the only reason for not doing it was that it didn’t “feel” right. If they were guys they would have said that they had a “gut feeling” that something was amiss. Apparently we humans are wired to detect liars, even skillfull psychotic sociopaths like Bundy.

    I wonder if we haven’t been wired to expect beautiful people to be in charge somehow. It can’t just be television because the rules have applied historically. And the same exceptions in Great Men seems to also be prevalent.

  7. We’ve been groomed by TV to believe heroes are good looking and the evil people are ugly. That’s why so many women were dupped by Ted Bundy. Such a nice looking guy couldn’t be a serial killer, right? Oh, your car broke down? Sure Ted, I’ll give you a ride.

  8. A friend used to call this the “big man” theory. All you had to do was be big and imposing and you automatically got respect. Has to be some primal fear/alpha male thing going on there. Of course, in my experience, the big thing separating effective leaders from the pack is simply confidence. Maybe being physically able to knock everyone else around on the playground leads to more confident adults.

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