The April 12 launch at Pad 39A of STS-1, just seconds past 7 a.m., carries astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen into an Earth orbital mission (STS-1. 1981). NASA

You Need All Levels of People For Success

Forrest Christian Project Management 3 Comments

People who can see the whole complexity of the project “need to be paired with people that can deal with the details at other levels,” says Jack Vinson.


Looking back on what I have written, I haven’t made that entirely clear.

Everyone is important and necessary for the group to succeed. We need each other, each of us working at the level that challenges us, yet still within our own limits so that we might succeed. Having only strategic thinkers means that nothing ever gets done.

Information Technology often has people doing great work at the detailed and operational management levels. They work hard and are often dissed by the Business. Some projects need more high-level people involved, too.

Maybe your project truly needs someone at the Executive Vice-President level sponsoring it to have the right level of cross-over management and high-level context setting. You will then need all the layers in-between in order for the strategic vision to get to every level in language that they understand and in the chunk that is relevant to their work. It’s not that no one else can understand the vision, but that programmers at each level need more information about this or that.

You can’t have just high-complexity thinkers, nor can you just have shorter time horizon thinkers in the project: you probably need both. Depending on the project work, of course.

But you will definitely need every level represented between the shortest time horizon role and the longest time horizon role.

Image Credit: Space Shuttle Columbia launching (STS-1. 1981). NASA

Comments 3

  1. The idea of strategic vs. detailed thinkers gets at a key issue, but it’s only scratching the surface. That is, its more complex than that.

    I just returned from meeting with a group of senior consultants who focus on helping organizations implement Requisite Organization practices. One of the topics we discussed in some detail concerned the importance of manager’s understanding the differences in the nature of work at different levels.

    Independently we have observed that a major contributor to failed execution is the absence of some specific level of work. We generally agree that a root cause of this is a lack of understanding on the part of management of the nature of work at different levels. This lack of understanding results in the failure to see that a specific level of critical work is not being done.

    This situation is exacerbated by the tendency of people to gravitate to the level of work they are naturally wired to do and to drift away from doing work at other levels.

    I’ll give an example of an actual, and common case. First I’ll need descriptions of work at the different levels. I’ve included titles, but they are tricky, your org. may not align with these examples.

    Stratum VI: Manage multiple total business systems – more than one business unit, more than one major support system. Group VP, Exec. VP. – Looks externally into the world and defines strategy needed to maximize the impact of the combined systems/businesses in light of the changes taking place. (time span 10-20 years)

    Stratum V: Optimize a total business system to meet externally defined goals (from the Group VP at stratum VI). Business Unit Pres, Corporate VP – Looks internally to optimize the system. (time span 5-10 years)

    Stratum IV: Manages major business/system functions. Is concerned with the resource balancing, and integration of many interdependent serial projects. General Manager, Director. (time span 2-5 years)

    Stratum III: Executes one or more serial projects (projects that require proceeding through a number of serial steps: focus group-spec. outputs-program new system-beta test-train etc.) Senior engineer, programmer, project manager (time span 1 to 2 years) Note that “real work to move to a new place begins at this level”
    If we do this it will lead to that and then we can…”

    Stratum II: Executes the individual steps of the projects planned at stratum III. Engineer, programmer. “To produce this output we have to do this and that and this other thing.” (time span 3 months to 1 year).

    Note that true strategic thinking, the ability to build complex mental models, begins at stratum 4. Jack’s comment highlights the difference between work at stratum 4 and above, versus work below that level – a very real and valid differentiation.

    Example (portions of several real situations):
    Large company has a stratum 5 role to head the XYZ business unit. The role is newly occupied by a stratum 6 capable manager. In a short period the manager observes the opportunity to migrate from one business to three with the growth of two product lines into stand alone business units.

    [Note that stratum 5 work is to focus in and optimize to meet external goals. Note also that stratum 6 work it to focus out and position a group of systems for combined impact. What work was the new manager doing? Group work, stratum 6.]

    In examining the current situation, the manager determined that to succeed, three new systems would need to be established: a revised people system, an effective new product introduction system, and a strategy deployment system.

    [Once again what level of work? Multiple new systems – group level, stratum 6.]

    A year passes buy. The new systems are beginning to take hold in one of the developing businesses but are clearly not progressing in the major original business, and the other new business. A review of the org revealed:
    The progressing business: accountable role stratum 4, manager capable at 5.
    The two lagging businesses: accountable role stratum 4, manager capable at 6.

    In the progressing business the manager at 5 was personally involved in creating context for the implementation of the new systems, as well as for development of the business plan. The “five work” of bridging strategy to execution was being done.

    In the business headed by the 6, the manager had delegated the “five” work of the two businesses to a direct reports with capacity at 4. They were incapable of doing the needed “five work” and therefore it was not being done. The 6 needed to drop down to do that needed “five work” context setting, but did not understand that the work was not being done. The 6 business unit head, recognized that progress was not being made but didn’t see the source of the problem. He directed that the systems be installed, but did not see specifically why the directions were not being executed.

    Here is the point. We, as managers, really need to understand what work looks like at all the different levels, not simply strategy vs detail. It’s the only way we can be sure that execution will happen and its an effective way to diagnose whey execution it not happening.

    The preceding example and explanation applies at all levels. Each of the senior Requisite Organization consultants I have queered has done work for clients on clarifying the nature of work at different levels.

  2. Post


    I incorrectly used the strategic vs. detail as shorthand, but you are entirely right: if you just think in this dichotomy, you’ll never get it right. I recall Nonaka saying that in Japan, middle managers were considered knowledge creating, whereas in the US they are considered waste. Europe seems more uncertain. Obviously, these layers can have a purpose in requisite organization. Understanding what needs to be done at what level would change the flat organization discussion. (Although a flatter organization would work where the work starts at Str III or IV: I can think of at least one boutique consulting group where the consulting organization — as opposed to support staff — starts pretty high but doesn’t need to go up much higher, at leastit didn’t then.)

    This explains why so many writers talk about how “the vision thing” drove their company into the ground: someone at the top had some from of strategic thinking that misfired as it went down because a layer, a stratum, was missing. Each Stratum needs the stratum below it, and you need enough Strata in your organization to fullfill its longest task. Obviously, Glenn’s discussion here is a lot better than simply saying “Too many chiefts, not enough Indians”, irrespective of the slur on Native American peoples.

    I’m pretty sure that I don’t understand the work differences at Strata V, VI and VII. I’m not sure if that’s my current internal limitation or if I need to go back to my studies. Probably both.

    And think about how whacked that organization was: it had Str VI people in Str IV oles reporting to a Str VI person in a Str V role. This has to be a recipe for disaster. And obviously was.

  3. So what’s the fix? In a perfect world, you move the stratum 6 folks up and backfill with stratum 5 and leave your stratum 4’s in place. In a real world, you have 3 slots: one 6 and two 5’s so we have excess 6’s and no homes?

    Boy, just writing this question tells me why HR people don’t like this stuff: too much categorizing. . . . .

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