Tag Archives: organisation

The companies that survive longest are the ones that work out what they uniquely can give to the world not just growth or money but their excellence, their respect for others, or their ability to make people happy. Some call those things a soul.

– Charles Handy


Managers need to connect the boxes!

Or as I stated this imperative at another time a few years ago:

      Talent management is dead without managerial leadership.

This provocative insight is usually met with the managerial response “we don’t have enough time”.  The challenge is thus: where do we get more time from?  We can’t create time, so we have to find ways of wasting less of it.

The last 20-odd years have shown me three key “time-wastage avoidance” methods:

  1. Match capable individuals to the task
  2. Be clear about expected results
  3. Foster commitment to the desired outcomes

I have since found two bodies-of-work that usefully address all three opportunities spelt out above.  Not surprisingly, these two schools at first appear to contradict one another.  After all, the concepts of “hard” and “soft” are opposites…I will explore Elliott Jaques’ “Requisite Organisation” (RO) theory and then Richard Barrett’s work on deliberate culture transformation.

Jaques: the ignored visionary

The late Jaques’ very long career, that effectively created management science, is still remarkable.  His background includes advanced studies in science, medicine, sociology and psychoanalysis.  He was perhaps more importantly a researcher of the human condition under real conditions…if you accept that adults spend most of their waking hours at work, you will be pleased to hear that he spent years answering difficult questions like:

  • What is work, really?
  • How do jobs get “sized” (with no manipulation!)?

Elliott’s startling insight was directly inspired by interactions with the union reps.  “Bigger” work is fundamentally different because of the longer time-horizons required.

Jaques’ addressed the key issue of matching appropriately capable individuals against a hierarchy of different roles (categorised as the different levels-of-work).  Some roles only require careful attention to the here-and-now; while others require wrestling with what lies out-of-sight and far into the future…

His 1990 Harvard Business Review article is called “In Praise of Hierarchy”.  He clearly lifted out its key insights:

“Managerial hierarchy is the most natural and effective organization form that a big company can employ. As organizational tasks range from simple to complex, there are jumps in the level of responsibility. As the time span of the longest task assigned to each managerial role increases, so does the level of experience, knowledge, and mental stamina required.“

Jaques basic prescriptions for “requisite organisation” (yes, he did prescribe a better way) are straightforward, but it still takes courage and persistence to implement:

  1. Get the right structure (determining the right number of levels is a crucial first step)
  2. Get the right people for the right roles (ensure incumbents have the required capability for their role)
  3. Teach the right managerial practices

His approach requires major adjustment in thinking about organisations.  For instance, employees do not report to managers; instead managers are accountable for their subordinates.  This shift in power relations means that it is in the manager’s best interest to invest in their subordinates’ success.

He has been called “authoritarian” by Tom Peters.  This misrepresentation of Jaques is a tragedy.  He is in fact the opposite of the unfeeling “structuralist” he is painted as.  He wrote:

“An institution or pattern of organization may thus be defined as requisite to the extent that it reinforces the expression of behaviours supportive of confidence and trust in human interactions, and reduces suspicion and mistrust.

For those who want an additional, non-abusive approach to “managing” values let’s turn to Barrett.

Barrett: the accessible visionary

Barrett’s “value-work” was launched when he wrote “Liberating the Corporate Soul”.  His culture-transformation tools are now being used globally.

What makes the tools powerful, and attractive to CEOs, is that they are a measurement methodology for managing culture change.

The Barrett model shows leaders that not all values are of the same type.  It is useful to think of them as occurring at different levels of needs and motivations.

Using Maslow-like triangles, Barrett presents us with Seven Levels of Consciousness.  The obvious similarity between this and Jaques’ levels-of-work is that lower levels are concerned with the short-term, while higher levels are long(er)-term in focus.Image

Where they differ, is on how to access the higher levels.  Jaques’ model needs the highest levels to be for individuals with the required cognitive capability.  Barrett has the highest levels requiring not mental aptitude, but spiritual attunement.

By gathering an organisation’s perceptions of what its current and desired sets of values are and then plotting this, deep insights are made.  After doing this, it becomes clear what an organisation’s culture is and should be.

The amazing result of doing such a values investigation is that desired future state and the implied journey to get there, is generated by the employees in an organization.

But organisational change is preceded by personal change.  For leaders ready to embrace the challenge Barrett’s tools are very useful.  It will take courage and honesty, but as Gandhi said:

“We must become the change we want to see in the world.”

The answer’s not so much in the boxes, as in the lines! (Part 1)

ImageI’ve remembered recently that I actually penned a couple of articles three years ago that speak directly to this vexing boxes vs. lines conundrum.  At that time I had a noisome bee-in-my-bonnet about Human Capital vs. Social Capital perspectives.

One of the hats I occasionally wear is that of a registered Master HR Practitioner.  Not having being trained as a traditional HR professional though, it had for a long time dismayed me that the “unit of analysis” in HR is typically the individual (hence psychology is widely studied in HR courses, but not sociology).

I then wrote these two articles in quick succession in mid 2010.

I believe they contain the seeds of my main contentions that organisations are:

  1. much like complex adaptive systems and so are enacted through relationships (aka the “lines”)
  2. enabled enormously by trust-inducing practices (hence critical role of Social Capital)
  3. misunderstood by many HR practitioners (because of a one-sided preoccupation with “talent”)

In the next few days I’ll re-digest these earlier pieces and see if I can rewrite a more aerodynamic version of these earlier two “blimps”.

In the meanwhile courageous explorers — who want to — can hopefully find many of the nuggets I believed I had hit upon during those heady World Cup months!

So what are the lines for then?

“We use the word ‘organization’ to mean both the state of being organized and the groups that do the organizing.”
― Clay ShirkyHere Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

People are overly obsessed with the boxes in an org structure.  Particularly if your name is on one (or you are aiming for it!).  That is most unfortunate.  This chase only feeds our “lowest common denominator” hunger as Machiavellian operators.

The lines between the boxes do not simply mean “this is my span of control”!  Or, They are my direct reports.  That illusion gives bureaucracy its “evil” – and largely undeserved – label.

My readings have shown me that the lines are pregnant with information, or ought to be!


The writings of following three thinkers will be visited in some upcoming posts:

  1. Stafford Beer, the (Managerial) Cybernetics explorer
  2. Elliott Jaques, the Requisite Organisation pioneer; and
  3. Ralph Rowbottom, an associate of Jaques who went “deep” with hospital organisation!

Here is an idea of the magic possible with “lines” (from Rowbottom et al’s 1973 book)!


p.s. The “triangles” above loosely remind me of Beers’ VSM (viable-system model) diagrammes!  Chance?

So what do leaders actually “do”? (Part 1)

A previous post of mine depicted Garibaldi who unified Italy into one state in the mid 1800’s.  His heroic act is perhaps most neatly summed up as “that bold guy on top of that snorting steed”.  This style of leadership is very visceral (particularly for the opponent who is being subdued and occasionally even eviscerated).

It is fairly straightforward to see what this type of “conquering” leader does – know your enemies, build coalitions, mobilise armies, plan battles and spring the trap!  When business borrows the concept of “strategy” from the military – where it has been honed for thousands of years, from before Sun Tzu to after von Clausewitz – this is what many think is the chief job of the top leader…to be the Chief Strategy Officer.

English: 150th day of death of Carl von Clause...
Carl von Clausewitz (1780—1831) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think this led to the deification of strategy as the Holy Grail for questing CEOs.  And most particularly competitive strategy.  Steve Denning wrote a powerful piece in the wake of the Monitor Group’s recent demise.  In it he pondered why the boutique strategy consulting firm made famous by Michael Porter (he of the Five Forces) went bankrupt and got snapped up by Deloitte.

Here is a snippet from Denning’s tour de force:

The important question is not: why did Monitor go bankrupt? Rather, it is: how were they able to keep going with such an illusory product for so long?

Read it for the full take-down of these high priests and their hubris…

My point is simpler.  Military strategists have one huge “ontological” advantage over the rest of us living in modern civilian times.  They can simplify the world into us-versus-them.  They go even further…

They impute all the goodness in the cause to “us” and all the evil to “them”.  That’s a powerful sleight of hand.  The demonisation of “them” dramatically simplifies planning.  Have you ever pondered why winning wars is so much easier than winning the peace?

That is because the latter is complex while the former is at most “complicated”.

So beware of over stretching the applicability of competitive strategy to the world-of-humans-in-(contested)-community!

Dave Snowden warns against this abuse of “single ontology sense-making”.  Chaotic situations best lend themselves to the dramatic polarisation of situations into black-and-white.  Recall that these are times to act and not reflect (beforehand).

But authentic leaders, in many roles in our lives, are not (or ought not to be) regularly operating at this edge of chaos where “victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat”.

Instead they are creating Works.  My sagacious colleague Professor Dominik Heil in his post-grad days pondered what an organisation literally is.  His PhD thesis worked from the position that this question cannot be answered in the realm of science which is too narrow a frame, but only in philosophy.  Using the ontological frame provided by Heidegger’s “hermeneutic phenomenology” he finds that organisations ARE works.

Deutsch: Paris: Eiffelturm und Marsfeld
Paris: Eiffel Tower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Heidegger a work (like the Eiffel Tower, Mona Lisa or Les Misérables) “sets up a world”.  These works actually create the worlds which we then inhabit.  [I wonder how similar this is to when some sociologists speak of the “social construction of reality“?]

It is primarily the leader’s role to (at)tend to this Work.  Not doing so will allow the ravages of entropic forces to accelerate its decay and then its demise.

The next post will speak more to this “(at)tending” aspect.  I will introduce the perspective of another sage, Luc Hoebeke!