Roadside stand near Birmingham Alabama (1936). FSA photograph by Walker Evans. Via Library of Congress collection.

Requisite Organization Lens On Software Development vs Maintenance

Forrest Christian Managing, Project Management, Theory 3 Comments

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.

Dropcap letter, from Book of Esther, 14th century illuminated manuscriptBut 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.

Comments 3

  1. There are a couple of references that could use a little more discussion:

    For different groups within an organization to have competing goals we would need to conclude that there is a disconnect between the context and purpose being provided to the different groups within the same organization. This is also apt to occur where role accountabilities and authorities are not clearly specified. If we considered a simplified example of operations and maintenance we might suggest that machine ‘A’ is required both to operate and is scheduled for maintenance and as a result there is a conflict, yet we will need to understand that mximizing up time for machine ‘A’ for operations is a function of a well run maintenance program. The either maintain or operate logic is a level 1 logic sequence and understandably where there is too much discretion the operator will forego the maintenance. At level 2 the logic needs to be maintain and operate where level 3 might deploy a strategic execution to the maintenance: operations relationship.

    The assertion as to the relevant application of Jaques’ RO principles and SST as it grew up in a “stable” economic period versus the “instability” of today leaves me gobsmacked. I seem to recall somewhere in the middle of his work period (1973 if I recall correctly) was the energy crisis and 20% interest rates and significant recession. Rest assured any organization that sat still throughout the last half century is surely out of business. Business has always been dynamic, requiring innovation, continuous improvement and reinvention and transformation. The simple question is which organization is better endowed to cope, one that is structured properly in terms of managerial hierarchy with requisite managerial practices deployed, or one that is not? I’ll put my money on the former thank you very much!

    Of course massive things are accomplished by “low level people” as virtually all of the execution takes place at this level. These are the roles that do the “real” work. Promote them too far and nothing massive will occur. The key is obviously to install the right individuals in the right roles between you and them.

    With respect to HR, there are HR functions that need take place at each level in the hierarchy, thus there is level 5 and 6 HR work that needs to be done in addition to levels 4-1. For example designing effective HR systems is a level 4 HR function. Managing a level 7 organization’s succession plan may be a level 6 function if we are defining developmental pathways for high mode young candidates so there is a talent pool available to replace the CEO from within.

    I would declare that there is also longer span maintenance work that applies, at least with physical assets, if not with software.

  2. Post

    “The assertion as to the relevant application of Jaques’ RO principles and SST as it grew up in a “stable” economic period versus the “instability” of today leaves me gobsmacked.”

    Most of Jaques’s innovations about organizations come during the 1950s and 1960s. Stratum and even modes seem to be well on their way by the early 1960s as a part of felt-fair pay. (Someone feel free to correct me on this.) He indeed does much later work, including his Time book which many of my academic friends consider a reasonably important philosophical work. But for the most part he is simply continuing to develop the ideas that he saw in Glacier.

    I’d argue that the American Army was pretty stable during the 1980s. The fallout of Vietnam for their structure was pretty much ending; the draft had been over for years; Reaganites increased defense spending constantly. It destabilized in the early 1990s when they started shedding forces.

    Jaques needed a stable environment, where people would be in a defined role for some time, in order to do his job. If he had worked in PC software during the early 1990s, he would have come to felt-fair pay much differently. Turnover could be high. Roles were often self-created, or socially created in the moment and not determined by the organization. The organization changed and morphed constantly to meet an environment that would radically change every few years.

    Instead, Jaques worked in a manufacturing facility during one the longest runups in Western economic history. Planning became popular because it was so easy: markets would always grow.

    I’m not arguing that Jaques’s findings are no longer relevant. But they have to be applied differently. And I think that this difference is why Billis and Rowbottom had such a hard time replicating Jaques’s TSD for senior executive roles.

    There are certainly still capital intensive industries where the amount of money that has to be spent means that there is some relative stability. Chip manufacturing comes to mind. Even though it’s high-tech, the cost of creating a fab facility is incredibly high. Even retooling one for a new chip design is monstrously high. So it’s hard to turn to meet a new competitor, and it’s almost impossible for a new competitor to arise.

    I believe that Jaques discovered an emergent property of task-oriented human groups. Yet what we normally talk about is designing the proper structure, a top-down activity. It is this leaning of RO people that leads others to see it as a thing of the past, an old “hierarchy” theory that has been supplanted by more complex theories that meet the needs of moving markets with dynamic, changing companies.

    What if we instead said, “Everyone pick your own boss”? If Jaques is right, people would mostly migrate to those who were one stratum above them. You would find a naturally requisite structure, even without “official” structure. The extant organization would, at any moment, be requisite. But because the organization flowed freely to adjust to various market and personnel needs, you couldn’t predict it. You could predict that you needed some more of this mode, etc., and you could do some risk analysis to determine that you can’t enter this market because you don’t have sufficient high stratum staff to lead the thrust. I think good companies do this already, and it makes sense to make the connection between this and Jaques’s TSD.

    Had Jaques worked in today’s commerical service industries, I think that he would have had approached his ideas from a different angle. I wonder if he would have ever been able to see them. When I graduated from university, Americans in my cohort were supposed to change careers three times over their worklife. That number is now expected to be four times, and those younger than me should expect at least that many. (For the record, I’m on career five now, depending on whether you count technical writing and project management as simply “IT” or not.) In this constantly shifting environment, I doubt that he would have been able to develop much of what he saw. Maybe he would have come to felt-fair pay and TSD stratum but maybe not.

    I think that it’s interesting that Jaques enjoyed his greatest respect in the greater business world during the stable period of the 1960s and saw a decline in the 1970s and 1980s.

    It’s not that I don’t think that timespans still apply, etc., but that the description and application would be different.

    On maintenance, you’re right that some maintenance programs have very long timespans. Especially true in capital intensive industries. For example, the maintenance chief of a chip fab plant would have to be a stratum three, I’d think. Maybe four. I think that the designers would need longer time horizons than he would, though. I can think of several cases in steel where the maintenance chief would end up needing a higher stratum than the designers had. I can’t imagine that anyone thought that the plant would still be there 100 years later.

    I’m very interested in the application of RO to a company where whole silos are torn down and new ones built up as new products and needs come and go.

    What I really want to see is an RO take on WL Gore & Associates.

  3. I’ll hold firm on the assertion that RO is as applicable today as it was since its inception and that the principles apply in either stable or unstable circumstances. We might consider for a moment that industry had a discipline as recently as 25 years ago that doesn’t exist today. The value (perhaps the skilled knowledge) placed by the last generation in a planned and organized systematic approach to business, and in fact to life, is considerably different than what we see today. Many businesses are quite content today to avoid strategic work, to execute absent planning and to contend with the ever present urgency of fighting the next fire. Arguably those who take an organized and systematic approach are stable and have a lasting quality to them that others do not possess. We could ponder how this disorganized business approach perhaps is the foundation of the instability you are referring to. If so, an application of the obvious then is missing versus RO being outdated to today’s business climate. Absent a systematic routine approach to life consider that people find their personal existence unstable as well.

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