Men of Fort Story operate an azimuth instrument, to measure the angle of splash in sea-target practice. 1942. (reversed)

Learn Decisional Due Date and Build Dynamic, Decision-Driven Organizations

Forrest ChristianDecision-making Leave a Comment

Elliott Jaques is rightly praised for many things: first one to apply the ideas of social culture to the life inside organizations; identified and named the “mid-life crisis” (sorry Gail Sheehy!); led the longest on-site social research efforts at Glacier Metal Company, running some 25 years; and developing a method for building the requisite organizational structure for any managerial endeavor.

But for my money his greatest achievement was discovering that you could measure roles and identify real bosses through the measure of Time Span of Discretion.

Lots of people, including many of Jaques-lovers, think it’s hooey or only useful in factory roles.

My opinion: if you’re not using Time Span of Discretion, you’re an idiot.

My long-time clients and readers will quickly point out that at one point I wrote exactly that: Time Span of Discretion was probably just a proxy for complexity and it was probably impossible to discover at the higher ranks.

And I was an idiot.

Timespan of discretion is the single greatest tool that you can have in your understanding of work and organization of work.

TSD, as it is known to the cognoscenti, was originally about your longest work task. At lower levels, this was pretty easy. The longest task was how long you could work until your boss or foreman came and checked your work. Easy enough.

There’s even a great primer on how to get at TSD available through the Requisite Organization International Institute. It shows how to timebox a manager’s statements to get at how long he or she believes a direct report’s tasks are. It also makes the point that asking the direct report directly might not be all that useful. What does the manager see as the work of the employee?

In general, if you follow this you have remarkable success.

Yet at higher levels, finding TSD became elusive for many consultants. This was especially true in the Army. When the TSD experts interviewed camp commanders, for example, they constantly hit up against short tasks. The commanders were only expected to serve in this role for perhaps two years. In their eyes, their longest task in commander role was always less than that.

Ralph Rowbottom and David Billis had a similar complaint when they started interviewing executives in the UK National Health Service (NHS) and other organizations. They simply could not find a task that was longer than a couple of years.

And there’s the problem: they were looking for tasks.

Michael Raynor pointed out in The Strategy Paradox: Why Committing to Success Leads to Failure (And What to do About It), what you are really measuring isn’t tasks but decisions. How long does it take for your decision to come due?

That’s pretty much the way that Elliott Jaques was looking at it, from his writings. (Full disclosure: I never met the man.)

When you look again at the camp commanders, you can see that while any one task is pretty short, their decisions come due much farther in the future. This is actually one of the points made by Dr. Owen Jacobs, who led the top leadership studies at the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences (ARI) and created the original leadership textbook for the U.S.’s National Defense University. He talked about how the commanders would have to work across several iterations of themselves. That is, one would make a decision and others who followed would be shepherding this decision through time until completion. These decisions might be rather far out into the future, and would have to be made in concert with others in the command structure, not to play “cover my ass” but because so many people would be involved in seeing it through. My decision would have to be supported over time by others, so there was a need to comply with Army command values.

We can talk about how this is wack or not, but you can see how decisions are made by the commanders that come due (where you can see the results of the decision) much farther into the future.

Raynor also points out that some of these decisions are about “strategic options”, where I get things started now in order to have the option to do something in the future. In my world, software and IT, executives with long Time Horizons will refuse to let complete standardization on a single technology take place. Instead, they opt for what is inefficient in the present to gain efficiency in the future if another technology overtakes another. When the decision comes due, I may decide that the option is no longer needed and cut the group loose.

If you can get this “due date for decisions” understanding down, you should be able to overcome your fear of TSD. Then you, too, will find that timespan is such a powerful tool for understanding what is going on that you will wonder why you ever didn’t use it.

Image Credit: Men of Fort Story [VA] operate an azimuth instrument, to measure the angle of splash in sea-target practice. 1942. Alfred Palmer. (reversed) U.S. Library of Congress image. Public domain.

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