Where to Read More About “Work Levels” (and How They Affect You!)

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You may have been sitting there, listening to me prattle on and on about this Work Levels -slash- Levels of Work -slash- Requisite Organization -slash- Real Boss -slash- whatever and have gotten to the point where your eyes are getting glazy or, more likely, they’re starting to glance about for someone else to talk to. You think they might be really important for you, holding the key to understanding your current work situation (which you hate), but you have no idea what I’m talking about. It was just too confusing.

If you can’t wait and want to Read More About It right now, there are several places to look for more information, both online and printed.

I don’t recommend reading Elliott Jaques’s work to start with, or most of the work done by his colleagues simply because people complain about it being unreadable. I think his General Theory of Bureaucracy is pretty straight-forward but most people disagree.

The best place to start is Art Kleiner’s article for stretgy+business from 2001, “Elliott Jaques Levels With You“. It’s a terrific introduction to the whole thing. Plus he talks with people who think Jaques was a fool.

The controversial Canadian theorist claims he can create the perfect organization. Has he found the key to management — or merely a justification for bureaucracy?

Jerry Harvey, of The Abilene Paradox fame, does a great job introducing the main issue in “Musings about the Elephant in the Parlor or ‘Who the Hell Is Elliott Jaques?’”, originally a chapter in How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed in the Back My Fingerprints Are on the Knife? : And Other Meditations on Management from 1992. This is how I first discovered Elliott Jaques.

Harvey is clearly a fan of Elliott Jaques:

Despite its absence from the New York Times best-seller list, I read [Jaques’s A General Theory of Bureaucracy] and found it to be one of the most creative, stimulating, exciting, rigorous, confrontational, intellectually demanding, and morally provocative pieces of work I had ever read in the field of management and organizational behavior. No, that’s not accurate. I found it to be the most creative, stimulating, exciting, rigorous, confrontational, intellectually demanding, and morally provocative piece of work I had ever read in the field of management and organizational behavior.

Harvey’s essay was reprinted in Organization Design, Levels of Work & Human Capability by the GO Society.

The GO Society has also re-released Wilfred Brown’s and the Glacier Institute of Management’s incredible film series, Explorations in Management, that includes a lengthy discussion of levels of work. It’s available for online streaming at their website. (Start at Film #1 of 6.)

The GO Society also have some interesting articles on their Articles page. Mark Van Clieaf’s articles are well written but definitely about CEO work. Michelle Malay Carter’s articles are easy to understand and clear (also available from PeopleFit). The GO Society also has Wilfred Brown’s books (most of them, anyway) available in PDF for free download.

T. Owen Jacobs wrote a book for the National Defense University on Leadership. He and Jaques wrote the paper defining “stratified systems theory”. It’s pretty clear but people have the penchant for reading their own understandings into it, not getting how fundamental and radical it is. Search for it online.

Julian Fairfield wrote an excellent management novel that does a great job introducing work levels by showing how a normal manager comes to comprehend them. Levels of Excellence was only published in Australia, it seems, and it’s long out of print, but you can get download a copy of Levels of Excellence from the GO Society.

I haven’t mentioned Andrew Olivier yet, and he is one of the few who is totally concerned with you underachievers, albeit now at a national and regional level. All his articles and his book, The Working Journey, is highly recommended.

There’s a pretty clear version of work levels at the Project X blog. FYI: “Requisite Organization” just means “the natural organization for humans” and is a term that Elliott Jaques started using in the 1980s.

Although it’s pretty limited in scope, I like Michael E. Raynor’s The Strategy Paradox: Why committing to success leads to failure (and what to do about it). Raynor says that it’s all about managing uncertainty. Higher level work means that you have to manage more uncertainty. “Making decisions today with the long term in mind is not ‘harder’ than making decisions today with the short term in mind; it is a fundamentally different type of decision.” [107]

Anyone have other suggestions for introductory reading to understand how this stuff applies to your own job?

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