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A Decade of Requisite Organization: Celebrating 10 years of writing about the work of Elliott Jaques

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In November 2013, I celebrated a decade of writing about Elliott Jaques. Let’s look back on the last ten years of articles, shifting ideas, and learning, and maybe see where things are going for the next decade.

In 2003, I lost what will likely be the most promising job I’ll ever have. It happened quickly, falling apart so that I couldn’t put it back together. I went looking for some answers in the world of organizational design consultants and writers. While looking for information about the Abilene Paradox, I stumbled across the late Jerry Harvey’s essay on “Who the Hell Is Elliott Jaques?”

It struck a nerve.

I wondered why the hell no one had ever told me about this stuff. I ran across a book by Dr. Jaques and Dr. Stephen Clement, Executive Leadership: A Practical Guide to Managing Complexity. It could have done with an editor, I thought, but what it described was so amazing I read it sideways, jumping in whenever I thought it was interesting.

I started writing about what I was reading. As far as I knew, this stuff was essentially forgotten. I mean, I had a degree in sociology, read widely, studied organizational sociology, and had worked on three academic texts in the field. Elliott Jaques and his ideas of levels of work, that work could be “sized” and compared using the measurement of time span of discretion, how long into the future until your decisions came due. It was answering core questions I had had about how work works and about why that consulting job went south.

When I started writing about Jaques, it wasn’t to do anything. My audience skewed heavily to people I knew in high school and other Reformed Christians, with a smattering of others who stumbled upon it.

I had some interesting friends, though!

J was a working plant manager and West Point graduate. He brought out how the Army’s ideas lined up with what Jaques and Clement described.

Tremendously interesting. I can see his influence in how the Army ran personnel management. At the time I didn’t like it because it prevented rapid advancement. Advancement came with experience not ability, so I felt held back. Using hindsight, and experience since then, that is the right way to do it. Promotion after experience has tempered intelligence is much better, and I’ve been much more successful.

J and I would discuss these issues for years. We’re still at it, just not publicly.

By mid 2004, I started attracting other people. Folks like Al Gorman, who is now an executive with a Canadian mining company. Gorman was bored at work and engaged so much that I made him a writer on the blog. His stuff was and still is awesome. He brought a real-world manager’s point of view of how things work, how they break down and how they can be better.

Michelle Malay Carter, an expert in Requisite Organization, also found my blog. “I’ve scanned all your postings with references to Jaques,” she wrote, “and must say I am impressed (and somewhat intimidated) by your ability to grasp his concepts and apply them simply by reading his books.” Which was flattering.

I got my first taste of controversy when I confronted Elliott Jaques’s detractors. I was misunderstood, but it cleared up and some great discussion resulted. (There were 26 comments.) It was heady to talk with people like Michelle, Al and Glenn Mehltretter, the senior consultant at PeopleFit whom Michelle brought my way.

It’s interesting how many of these early thoughts about Elliott Jaques and Requisite Organization are still with me and still have currency. I wondered how project management would be affected by roles’ time span and individuals’ time horizons. Is a mismatch between the actual time span of the project — how long it will take complete — and the personal time horizon of the project manager (or simply the limited time span of discretion of the role he’s in) creating most of the failures we see in IT?

I even asked a simple question about Elliott Jaques’s offhand comment that you could implement Requisite Organization structure (one that follows from what is naturally required by the work being done) on Friday and on Monday all those backstabbing, two-faced, backslidden sinners would be friendly, trustful, cooperative “team players” on Monday. The conversation on that was amazing, with people chiming in from all over. I’m still not sure that Requisite Organization works over the weekend but I can say that it might.

Over the next year or so I had become everyone’s favorite filler guest for RO training. I was young-ish (at least for that crowd), asked interesting questions and generally behaved well. I also tended to write about things I went to and learned, so there was a marketing angle, too. Why not be helpful?

I got introduced to some folks creating a society about this stuff. The Global Organizational Design Society (GODS) had to find a new acronym but they were in good company — Warren Kinston’s taxonomy is called the worshipful “THEE”. I wrote a trio of case studies for them, including one about Inglis that I would reprise for their book in 2007. (I also stupidly used a name from my mighty Marvel Comics collection for one of the pseudonyms. Who would have thought that Tony Stark would become a household name?)

Rather quickly I had chimed in about Project Management and time span, and even corrected myself about how it’s all about time span of discretion and not about some measure of complexity. Many people in the field believe that time span of discretion has become irrelevant in this world of constant change. But I have always lived in the tech world — I built my first commercial catalog website in 1994 and have even worked in Big Science’s datastream — so my viewpoint comes from a different angle than these old guys from industries that weren’t quite as modern. In IT and software, time span of discretion is so incredibly easy to find and so wildly useful that these ideas of “time span compression” sound really funny.

Over the years I got to meet a lot of people in this field. Some of less interesting than others. Some are the smartest, most insightful people I’ve ever seen. Many — like the late, great George Reilly, author of Finding Our Way: From the Past to the Present in Personal Growth — were both insightful and warmly collegial, truly generous in sharing themeselves. The people with the best knowledge and insight aren’t always the ones that show up in the press. People like Belgian management guru Luc Hoebeke and former Red Cross / Red Crescent CEO George Webber sat down to talk with me about their experiences. And of course the wonderful hospitality of Glenn Mehltretter of PeopleFit.

I met people all of the various parts of Elliott Jaques’s career: men and women who were at Glacier, including a chance to spend some time with Richard Brown, Lord Wilfred Brown’s son; researchers who worked with him at Brunel; people who worked with him at the U.S. Army; engineers who worked with him at CRA; people who worked in the earliest days of Bioss’s Career Path Assessment (CPA); people who just stumbled on his work in the 1970s; folks who studied with him at George Washington University (if I have that name right); and of course the folks who met him after he came back to Canada to teach people in the 1990s. Jaques had many “phases” to his brilliance, each one seemingly with a different set all who thought that their understanding was the right one.

It has been a deep honor to be thought of as someone to send an article to, or ask for a book review. (I have one left to do.) These have all been some very interesting thinkers and I know that my mind would have been much less exercised had I never engaged with them.

It’s been a rich set of people. Some of my favorites are people you have never heard of but who held some wonderful stories and great thoughts about the real world application of Requisite Organization or Stratified Systems Theory.

A decade of richness and learning.

I got to know some wonderful people as I started to use what I learned to help people. I saw people’s lives transformed in little more than a session or two with me. People who told me that they had fired their therapist (“Why do I need this now? You gave me the answers!”), doubled their incomes, found real love, woke up from the haze that being told that you are not who you are. I have been truly blessed to know them, to work with them, to tell them these things that I have learned.

Regrettably, transforming people in two sessions is not a workable business model. The initial client doesn’t have any money. It takes 10 hours to get a two or three hour client. And although it’s worth more than their three years of therapy, no one will pay the same. It’s the Consultant’s Dilemma again. Sad, but true. Psychotherapists face the same issue. They must keep clients for 20 visits or so in order to pay for getting them. Therapists who can “cure” a client in one or two sessions can’t make money. The same works in consulting. If you are able to come in and transform your client quickly, you will find yourself out of a job, because the trick in consulting is to get in and create a need that can be fulfilled with 200 people working under you for two to three years. Good consultants are not people who do their jobs well but people who bring in more work, because it’s all about the hours. It’s just the way it is.

And I suppose this is one of the issues with Elliott Jaques’s Requisite Organization or Stratified Systems Theory. The people who are doing it and making money have to keep working. They aren’t building a product that can be resold or licensed, something like Myers-Briggs. And they go in and can be wildly effective. Does the organization still need you once they get Requisite? And they don’t use armies of lower level MBAs, either, and this is the way that partners at large consulting firms make their big money.

So here I am at what feels like the other side of an inflection point.

My work has moved considerably away from the RO world. It’s not that I have abandoned it as a lens through which to understand corporate environments: I still wince when I listen to people who do not have the requisite capability to manage a group try to boss. Such waste. But process designs do not require the lens. I can diagram complex flows without ever thinking about it and in fact am more needed in less requisitely organized companies. Perhaps I will be using it often, but in reverse as a marketing tool: “Let’s find the most non-requisite companies we can!”

After a decade of writing about and promoting Elliott Jaques’s ideas about Requisite Organization and Stratified Systems Theory, about the work of Wilfred Brown at Glacier Metal, about Gillian Stamp’a ideas and Career Path Assessment, about Warren Kinston’s taxonomy, about Glenn Mehltretter’s take on the CIP interview method — maybe at long last I have said all that I have to say.

Image Credit: Off shore oil rig. By images by (CC BY 2.5)

Comments 4

  1. Thank you, Forrest! Your writing and your coaching helped me to become much more engaged in understanding who I am. So much can follow from simply starting to understand….

  2. I hope you have not said all that you have to say! I still eagerly look forward to every new post.

  3. You know, contingency fee lawyers don’t have this problem. They simply value the case, and ask for 33%, regardless of the amount of work involved.

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