Conductor checks his watch to find out how much time remains at the Bloomington, Illinois, stop on the Turboliner run between St. Louis, Missouri, and Chicago. Photo by Charles O'Rear for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (1970). (NARA record: 3403717)

It’s About Time, Underachievers!

E. Forrest Christian elliott jaques, requisite organization, Underachievers 2 Comments

When last we left them, the three union men Glacier Metal Company managers had burst upon Elliott Jaques with the brilliant solution that had come to them while drinking: the reason why some people got paid more than others had to do with how long it took to get paid. My fictionalization aside, what made this any more brilliant than the last idea I had for solving the company’s problems whilst out with the lads?

It hinges on something that they said. Because they were wrong, just brilliantly wrong. And the solution that their wrongness led directly to will show you how someone as qualified as Byron could get stuck in a dead-end government job.

The hinge that these non-manager, non-academics discovered was time.

Get it?

No? Read on. You will.

So what does time have to do with how much you get paid? Or with how Byron could get stuck in a deadend job?

It turns out that work comes in different sizes.

You’ll start scoffing at some of the stuff I say later, but let’s start here with agreeing: there is different sizes of work. You can feel it in Byron’s story. It’s not just that he gets paid less. He is doing less work. Although both the low-end government job and doing executive compensation for a multinational are important, they aren’t the same size. It’s not that government workers always earn less. The jobs are simply different levels of work.

What Jaques and Glacier discovered was that there was a naturally occurring pattern to this, and that within that pattern you could even determine what people would think was fair for a particular job role. It all depended amount of discretion that a worker had in working. And the way to find that out had to to with time.

Time To Do What?

Clock lock. From Wikimedia Commons. By Felipe Micaroni Lalli. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license.
Photo by Felipe Micaroni Lalli (CC BY SA 2.5)

Which brings us back to the workers and their idea about time and pay.

It was wrong but it was mighty close. Because it turns out that the discretion you have over your work can be measure, in a way, through the proxy of time: how long can work be done in this role before someone comes and checks your work?

For Jaques, this mean measuring the longest task that you have. For example, if you stamp widgets and the foreman checks your bin every night, you have 1 day of discretion over your work. If you write technical manuals and the editor checks your work every quarter, then you have three months of discretion over your work. Discretion is complete, of course: there are always rules and guidelines that you have to follow, such as templates and style guides in the writing example. But within those limits, you aren’t being watched.

Jaques called this the “timespan of discretion” of the job. Timespans can get tricky, so focus on the real measure: the amount of discretion in a job. It makes sense if you think about it: the more discretion you have over what you do and the longer that you have it, the bigger the job.

And if you think about jobs that you know, this holds pretty true within a particular discipline. The timespan of the software developers’ discretion is not as long as that for the project manager.

Fun With Disrupting Org Charts

Now let’s combine this with another strange finding from Glacier. It turns out that there is a shadow organization chart that exists beneath the official organization chart. There’s a lot of different versions of this, so it’s important to understand exactly what I mean.

Try this little experiment the next time you’re at a large corporation:

Go to someone at the lowest end of the organization who likes the job that they have. Ask them “Whos’s your real boss?” Take than answer and ask that person the same thing. Follow this up the entire organization.

You’ll end up with a “shadow” organization chart that seems to be more aligned with human nature or how humans really work. If people in that organization could pick their own boss, the organization would look more like this shadow organization. It can be really different.

Here’s a standard, formal organizational chart for a group. Note the position of the manager and his deputy.

The official organizational chart of a group. Copyright 2008 The Manasclerk Company

If we do our little experiment to discover who people think is their real boss, we end up with something that looks entirely different.

The informal organizaitonal structure of the same group. Copyright 2008 The Manasclerk Company

Notice the dotted lines to Emilio (“Manager”) and Yosef, his “Deupty”. They’re dotted because they really don’t fit anywhere. The group generally did not see them as adding any value to their work. Yosef was thought of as being at the same level as the others in the group and they mostly resented him being thought of as being in charge of the rest. Emilio was considered a manager only in title. He had to approve their HR requests (vacation, personal leave, sick days) but they did not really go to him to find out more about the context of their work.

If Elise, Naga, Wim and Anne had to get their jobs done, and could pick someone to be their boss, they would not pick whom the organization picked (Emilio). They would pick someone who supposedly was at their own level (Heeyoung).

Now here’s where it gets to be even stranger. (Didn’t I warn you that this was going to challenge all your preconceptions?) If you look do this type of exercise across a company, and then look at the timespans of the job roles, you discover something distinct breaks in the timespans, creating different levels. The manager role wasn’t simply 10% larger or twice as long as the subordinate roles. It was above one of these breaks.

Not only that, but there aren’t that many of them. There never needs to be more than seven or eight levels of any organization, even massive multinationals like Tata Group, General Electric or Hyundai.

So it seems that work comes in different distinct levels, and that people can feel this in their bones, and the timespans of these levels appear to have an exponential relationship.

What You Feel Is Fair May Really Be

What in the world is going on? How can people all agree that someone should be their boss? And what does this have to do with the issue of sizing jobs by the amount of discretion given to it?

This is the biggest finding, most brilliant piece of work, the big enchilada, of Elliott Jaques. And he did a lot over the years.

Jaques discovered that people will tend to agree, within a particular company, what they feel is the fair level of pay for jobs with particular discretionary timespans. He called this “felt fair pay”.

Really. And it gets even weirder.

When Jaques mapped these “felt fair pay” amounts onto the Real Boss org chart, he discovered that it, too, seemed to follow another exponential pattern. There is a lot of variance within these levels, so pay is still kind of linear. But the mid-point of the amount folks thought was fair tended to follow a particular relationship.


Here are the main points in recap:

  1. Work size of any job can be measured the length of time the role (not the person) has discretion over the work it has to complete.
  2. The “real boss” organizational structure follows what people would naturally do if they could.
  3. Mapping the timespans of discretion to the “real boss” chart shows distinct levels. The job of your real boss has to have a timespan beyond the next one of these break.
  4. People will tend to agree on what they feel is fair for any role, and within an organizations these tend to be consistent across a single one of these “discretionary timespan”levels.

Okay, so what does that mean for Bryon, our strategic thinker who got stuck in a dead-end government job?

Byron’s previous job was probably within the fourth of these distinct levels of discretionary timespan. He is now working around the top of the first level or bottom of the second.

That’s a big change. He had to do it: he had a baby coming and couldn’t find work.

“But if he can do work that is a lot bigger, he should be able to do the smaller work with no problems!”

Well, no. And I’ll get into that next time.

Previous: A Brief Historical Interlude: On the Glacier Metal Company Next: Underachievers, Are You Simply Out of Flow?

Image Credit: Conductor checks his watch to find out how much time remains at the Bloomington, Illinois, stop on the Turboliner run between St. Louis, Missouri, and Chicago. Photo by Charles O’Rear for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (1970). (NARA record: 3403717) Via Wikimedia Commons.
Organizational charts © 2008 The Manasclerk Company

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]

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