“Getting Work Done at the Right Level”

E. Forrest Christian Managing, Reviews - Articles 3 Comments

Getting Work Done at the Right Level: Why Hierarchy is Important” by Ken Shepard and Don Fowke. An introductory discussion of levels of organization. I’ve always wondered what Ken Shepard looks like.

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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 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 3

  1. When complex work is assigned to lower levels, as indicated within the article, the work simply does not get done. The complexity of the problem needs to be matched with the capability of the individual and reduced in complexity as it is assigned to match the capability of individuals and roles to which it is being delegated. With an appreciation of stratified systems theory we can understand that the system intends to reduce the complexity of work in its assignment to subordinates as it is delegated. When the manager simply delegates the task in its full complexity, in essence regurgitating the task, not only are we assigning work to the wrong level but we are also adding to the complexity of all of the work the individual has. For example, if I have tasks that are delegated to me in complexity that is compatible with my capability and my manager in addition to this assigns work to me that is too complex not only will this assignment not make the required progress but it will also become an impediment to work that has been delegated with the complexity properly reduced. The former is a distraction and confuses efficient execution of the latter. Without the distinction of levels of work and complexity of mental processing we can be lead to the false assumption that each individual subordinate to us is capable of dealing with the same complexity that we can manage. Similarly, the risk exists that we might be inclined to simply pass on a task to our subordinate that was too complex even for us to complete as the manager rather than request that it be reduced to something meaningful for us, for we understand that our own manager requires the execution of this task and even if we do not fully understand it we certainly need to ensure that it gets executed.

  2. I’m reading this just after reading your “Ready, Fire, Aim…” post, and just wondering “how do you tell what level certain tasks need to be done? Surely no matter how clever you are, there has to be some of that kind of iteration, especially in borderline cases. You don’t always know whether you can do something challenging until you try. Some of us would get bored if not challenged. Is the appropriate time scale of something really that obvious when you first look at it? The development/maintenance divide in most software shops suggests that different parts of the same organisation can have quite different views as to what is of long-term importance. Or indeed the discussion in the PDF about what level HR should happen at in a medium-large organisation, which my employer seems to be struggling with at the moment.

    On the other hand, getting it wrong implies that the possibility that the subordinate will be unable to do the task given, and will either do it badly, or at least not anticipate the longer term issues; or they will give up.

    What happens then? Here, it seems to me that the character of the manager and his/her ability to coach comes in. Trust is also an issue. If A delegates something to B, he trusts that B will be willing and able to do it, or ask for help rather than muddle on until it is too late. B trusts that if he asks for help, he will get it, rather than being fired for not being good enough.

    So a flexibility in organisational culture and a willingness to absorb a certain amount of failure from this iteration seems to me important.

    This may not be an issue in an organisation with stable tasks, but I work for a growing Engineering consultancy and both the projects and the time scales of projects change from project to project, and often people are given work because there is nobody else free to do it, which can be good or bad depending on the circumstances…

    Keep up the interesting writing, by the way.
    -G

  3. The comments are insightful and agreed that individuals wish to be assigned work that is compatible with their capability. The assigned work when too complex provides the risk of stifling the indivdual and has him or her fixed on the notion that he or she is inadequate versus the work is too complex given my capability. This is cruel. Agreed however that we should assume risk and stretch individuals and create a culture that accepts some failure in order to grow the organization’s capability. It sounds risky to be indiscriminately assigning work without considering its complexity simply because there is no one else available. Consider however that all of this would best occur where the organization understood the concepts and the theory such that when failure occurred there is an acknowledgement that distinguishes the systems failures versus simply assigning the blame to the individual to whom the task was assigned whether he or she was capable, in the first instance, of handling it or not.

Tell Forrest how wrong he is: