Attendees at the 1952 Republican National Convention, Chicago, Illinois. 1952 by Thomas J. O'Halloran, U.S. News & World Report Magazine. Donated into the public domain. Via Library of Congress.

All Work Is Decision Making

Forrest ChristianDecision-making 3 Comments

Lots of people these days have a problem with work hierarchies, and with good reason. Their experience of them is that bosses micro-manage or change the rules to suit themselves. They take over as much of your life as they can, and have no loyalty to anyone but themselves.

Sadly, this is indeed the case in many situations. But that’s not work hierarchy. Oddly, it’s actually a failure of organization. But most people don’t see this, especially in New Economy companies which rely almost solely on Creative Class outputs. Work hierarchies are intended to control other people, they say, and the solution is to keep organizations small and let “natural selection” and ordering take place. An emergent, natural and righteous workplace will emerge, free of the Power Mad Boss syndrome.

Methinks these people have never seen a tribe of baboons or chimpanzees.

The real issue is that the people making these suggestions don’t understand that all work is making decisions. I’ve actually sat in a room with a bunch of prima donna software developers — the type whose feathers get ruffled at the merest hint of an upper manager putting limits on what can be done — have the nerve to say that the people who use the systems that they design should just be made to use it, and if they don’t comply they should get fired. “I should be able to make decisions over my own work area, but I should be able to tell you how you should do your work.”

No, everyone should have — and fulfilling their jobs requires — the discretion to make decisions about their work, within known limits. If you’re chaffing at the constraints, maybe the problem is that you are too big for your job and the decision-making discretion you long for is outside of it.

Wilfred Brown tackled some of these issues in his 1971 management classic, Organization (London: Heinneman Educational Books, Ltd.). At the time the retired from both leading Glacier Metal Company, a multi-national concern, and a Minister of State at the Board of Trade, Brown found the then popular American idea of “informal organization” “a contradiction in terms. ‘Informal’ implies the lack of structure, whereas ‘organization’ implies the existence of one.” [58] If you can’t get his difference here, you are probably not going to be successful with innovative organizational forms and power lines.

To the charge that informal organization gives people the opportunity to make decisions, denied to them within Brown’s “work hierarchies”:

This is false, because the raison d’dêtre of formal organization is to use human decision-making ability to its fullest possible extent. Any failure of organization to achieve this situation calls for better organization — not its abolition.

The false assumption of the ‘informal organization’ school of thinking arises form its failure to realize that human work inevitably concerns ‘decision-making’. If work does not require decisions to be made there should be no need to employe human beings to do it.

I’m thinking that people who were underemployed liked the idea of an “informal organization” where they could be under the radar change agents, setting new policy for the corporation. Sadly, this was true of the early days of the corporate PC, as Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes in Change Masters. But it seems that this was a failure of management, including the managers of MIS, to give certain workers sufficient decision-making discretion over their work. And that’s what they wanted the “informal organization” to give them.

I’ve certainly been there. I always loved working in a crisis where everyone else was running around like the proverbial chicken. Having grown up raising hens for eating, I can tell you that they really reminded me of them. That would let me sneak in a major change that would be good for the corporation but should have been outside my purview. I used the “informal organization” to end-run around managers.

The problem there was two-fold:

  1. I was working below my capability, much less capacity, since most of what I put in is still in use, and made the groups much more productive and satisfied.
  2. The organizations weren’t. They were un-organizations.

I looked at hierarchy as a way of shoving things down my throat, so I wanted to overturn hierarchies. It was only after I worked for a manager who actually added value to my work, rather than wasted my time, that I understood that bosses could actually serve a purpose.

Brown talks about this, too:

The fact is that the ‘informal organization’ thinkers tend to regard formal organization as a structure of roles down which specific work-tasks are delegated. They do not think of roles as containing precisely defined areas over which the occupant has to make all the decisions. As a result the idea of informality is essential to them, in order to provide the opportunity for somebody to spot the need for a decision to be taken and have the courage to take it. But if instead a role is defined by delineating an area over which the occupant of the role has, as a duty, to exercise discretion and take the necessary decisions, then there is no need to think in terms of informality as a mechanism for filling the gaps left by inadequate formal organization. [59]

Work hierarchy, when approached in a Real Boss way, restores decision-making discretion to jobs. It is in the unnatural, “Fake Boss with the pointy-hair” hierarchies that we have our decision making stripped from us. This strips away our dignity as people.

So don’t do that. Remember that everyone’s job involves some form of decision making. And just because it’s in a form that you would find boring doesn’t mean that it’s boring work.

Because that person, like you, is the killer app.

Image Credit: Attendees at the 1952 Republican National Convention, Chicago, Illinois. 1952 by Thomas J. O’Halloran, U.S. News & World Report Magazine. Donated into the public domain. Via Library of Congress.

Comments 3

  1. Work: the exercise of judgment and discretion in carrying out goal directed activities (Jaques, Requisite Organization)

    We have a training exercise, that asks participants to rank order four different factors which describe the level of work. One of those factors concerns the type of judgments made.

    The exercise requires placing 4 x 6 = 24 cards. We take them into the exercise cold, without front-end explanation. 4 of 5 teams get them all right, and the 5th team will reverse two of them. The point is that learning to identify levels of work is not difficult. When the descriptions of the type of judgment are placed before us most managers will agree on what is more or less complex.

    So the foundation of getting the right job content in the right hierarchy of jobs is not difficult. Its not an intellectual breakthrough needed, but a willingness breakthrough.
    Forrest, thanks for Brown stories — really enjoying them


  2. I agree that the objective of requisite management is liberating employees to execute their work and specifically to apply discretionary judgment in doing that.

    There is a contradiction as well insofar as every organization has standards, rules, and policies, that confine the boundaries within which people exercise their discretion. Some of these are legislated and organizations have little choice in complying with legislated requirements. Many of these rules and regulations found their origin because someone’s judgment was poor. Health and safety legislation is literally written in the blood of injured employees; individuals who exercised poor judgment and were affected by the outcome of their poor judgment, or someone else’s.

    A “systematic” approach implies repetition, standardization, consistent output and as a consequence will invariably lead to prescriptive ways of doing things.

    While I agree in principle with what Brown has advocated I also question how we can successfully achieve the full liberation of human discretion and deliver a product that meets a desired specification. There is to some extent also a contradiction here. What the “informal organization” attempts to achieve is what the formal hierarchy has never fully succeeded at accomplishing, albeit perhaps because it was never designed correctly. It seeks room for creative expression and a looseness in the exercise of discretion. Jaques, and others, would argue that we cannot denounce the merits of formal hierarchies because organizations have failed to structure them properly, to introduce the appropriate systems, and managerial practices to liberate human discretionary effort. I’m inclined to agree but also question the practicality of creating that organization. If it was a natural human phenomenom it would have a prevalence absent complex organizational design and redesign.

    The simple fact of the matter is there will be specifications associated with outputs that people will have no discretion over. The cpQQT/R is assigned and it is within these boundaries that people execute their discretionary judgment. For some, even those who are working in roles at their full potential capability, this will seem restrictive.

    My colleague and friend Maurice Driscoll would argue that involving people in the planning and scheduling of their own work delivers the engagement required to liberate human potential. It’s a good place to start and the rules, policies, standards, and insecurities of more senior managers are an interference to the process.

    Were it all simple there wouldn’t be droves of management consultants making lucrative livings in a perpetual quest to achieve organizational excellence.

  3. Post

    There are lots of natural human phenomena that are not always dominant. Jaques and Brown discovered some interesting emergent realities of humans working in groups. They also recognized (at least earlier, if I’m reading them rightly) that there would always be a difference between the organization as it is set up, the organization as everyone assumes it works, and the organization as it actually works. What they advocated was getting the three more closely aligned.

    Discretion is not full freedom over one’s work to do as one wills. It is the proper level of discretion for the level of work. Many people who have been underemployed do not believe that this is possible, as Brown points out in several places. But just because they want more discretion doesn’t mean that the role should have more.

    All of human existence is lived within limits, even if only those of physics and death. All work is similarly constrained. The question is about the extent of discretion that is appropriate for particular jobs. I want as much discretion as I can handle. I do not want more than that, because I will be paralyzed by the uncertainty.

    People who chafe against the boundaries of work that supposedly fits them are probably working in the wrong industry. Software developers at Level 2 have a much greater degree of discretion over their worklife (when they arrive, what they wear, when they lunch, what tools they use) than most Level 2 jobs in capital-intensive industries like those that E & J came from. (Warren Kinston has a great build on this, and one day I hope that he publishes this extensive IP because it clears the air on this considerably.)

    I think that Michael Raymor probably has the piece that your missing on work discretion when he describes “requisite uncertainty”.

    Also, don’t confuse “simple” with “easy”. I recently finished a year working in Fermilab here in Chicagoland. The high-energy physicists there have many simple ideas that are not easy. Artificial Intelligence has been similarly stymied by simple things (identifying a friend) that are truly not easy. Many of my exercises back on the bassoon were simple (“hold this note at pianissimo 10 seconds, crescendo to fortissimo over 10 seconds, then decresendo back to pianissimo over 10 seconds, then hold for another 10 seconds”) but were devilishly hard to do.

    The ideas of creating an organization much like Brown advocates (and which Jaques at least partly abandoned in RO) requires working with other aspects he did not really go into, things like Values and Purpose. There are also issues that Warren Kinston and Jimmy Algie outlined in their description of the seven decision-making approaches (and Kinston in “Strengthening the Management Culture”) that simply weren’t on Brown’s radar.

    Planning and scheduling my work isn’t enough if I am current potential capability of L5 working at L2, regardless of my current applied capability in that role, and I have a CAP L2 manager. That has to be a part of it (again to Brown’s idea of a policy-making body that is made up of employee and management representatives) but it is not sufficient. I think that if you applied Brown’s ideas, seen through a lens of especially complexity sciences, you would go a long way to curbing or checking the insecurities and over-specification of management. (Again, I point to Raynor’s “Paradox” and Kinston’s “Strengthening” on this.)

    Of course, if I am writing Java code and I want to be a Pentecostal preacher, nothing is going to help me be liberated at work other than quitting.

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