Some time ago, Gordon had an interesting comment about a couple of posts (see “Getting Work Done at the Right Level” and “Ready, Fire, Aim”: Intuition, Analysis and Tacit vs. Explicit Knowledge). I wanted to finally get around to addressing some of his points.
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.
I work in software, where the divide between maintenance and development is very large. Maintenance tends to be a job that requires a shorter time horizon: it is not as complex as development. This may be intuitive, since maintenance deals with things that are and development deals with things that are not yet. And yet the two have competing goals, too. Maintenance wants stability and ease of repair. Development wants to do interesting new things and would prefer a regular upheaval so that they can work more.
But the point that even with similar time horizons, different goups within an organization may have competing goals is well taken.
As for the place to do HR within the organization, I’m not sure, either. I’m not an HR person. The point about hiring someone who can grow the function:
The candidate specification is for a man or woman in their thirties or forties operating at level 3 and with the capacity to grow into a level 4 in 3-5 years capable of handling the complexity of generally managing the human resources function as a peer to divisional unit managers across the system. This organic solution addresses the top priority training need in a specific way while providing a development path consistent with the changing needs of the company. [“Getting Work Done At The Right Level“, 3]
The dynamic nature of the system, which constantly shifts as existing staff grow in complexity and new staff are hired, means that solutions are not static.
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.
Trust is they key. But think about it from your own experience. Suppose you have five subordinates to whom you delegate tasks. One of them, Bill, strikes you as not being in the same league with the others. You will not trust him with the same tasks that you trust the others with. Even without trying him out, you may have a gut feeling that he won’t be able to do it. If he isn’t big enough for the task, if the task is larger than he is, you risk that he won’t even know that he needs to ask for help. He cannot see the full size of the task so he only sees the part he can. “I can do this,” he thinks, and then feels betrayed when you get upset.
And then there are people like me to whom it never occurs to ask for help, or that a superior would be there to provide assistance. That may be from years of working for the wrong people, but I was pretty much like this even as a kid. Although I tend not to think that about my own direct reports when I have them.
By “flexibility in the organizational culture” I think you mean that tasks may need to flow from some to others we understand that the scope is larger or smaller than we intitially believed. Sure. This becomes even more of an issue in unstable markets. I think that the fact that Elliott Jaques developed his ideas during an incredibly stable economic period (“it’s always growth!”) means something for interpretting his work. There just wasn’t as much of a need for the dynamic, ever fluid company as there is today. Not to say that his theories can’t still be used, but full implementation becomes more dynamic since the organization itself can’t sit still.
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.
Software is much the same way. At least some software. What Elliott Jaques & Co’s theories can do for you is give you an understanding how what will happen when you give a particular project or task to a particular person. Big Insurance Group (BIG) has a project to put in a Role-Based Access Control. If done perfectly, it’s a five-year project. I believe that it’s in year four or five now, with about another four to go and little chance of permanent success. The problem was that they couldn’t find someone to manage it, so they put on who they had. These people weren’t large enough to understand the whole project, and so things that will cause problems down the road weren’t ever looked at. These risks became issues that blew up and the project has almost been pulled twice, even after US$45M.
Glenn Mehltretter and I are writing up a brief article about one of his experiences in talent gearing after a merger. Some of the division heads were going to put some people in positions right below them, but these folks were a size too small. “Are you willing to do all the work at Level 3 that is part of these folks’ jobs?” he asked. They got the picture and looked for someone else.
You can, of course, accomplish massive things with low level people. It simply takes doing all of the work at all of the worklevels between you and them. Very simple. I will be overworked doing work that is “beneath me” and I’ll lose interest.
Image Credit: Roadside stand near Birmingham Alabama (1936). FSA photograph by Walker Evans. Via Library of Congress collection.