understanding the work part 2

understanding the work part 2

In my last post when I spoke about systems of work, I also made a point that many Managers don’t really understand the system of work that they are accountable for. In this post I want to dig a bit deeper into this topic.

As you move vertically through the management structure of an organisation the work being done is different (or at least it should be). It is important to understand what is different about the work at different levels of management and that it is not just more of the same or more difficult work technically.

Complexity

So what is it that is different, what do we look for to make this distinction? The answer is – (as it usually is…) it depends. It depends on the level of work, as it is both the focus of the work and the complexity of the work that should shift as you move vertically in the organisation. Gillian Stamp from BIOSS developed a helpful framework to distinguish the difference that makes a difference with respect to the work at different levels of management. The product of this thinking is the idea of Work Domains and it builds on Jaques’ idea of  “levels of work” and I think presents it in a better way. Stamp and Elliot did work together for some time at BIOSS so no surprise that they share this view.

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Three Tools of Leadership

Increasing complexity means you as a Manager need a broader set of tools to work with. At lower levels your own behaviour is your main tool to influence the team together with and understanding of team dynamics (i.e. team leadership). Understanding and being aware of how your interpersonal leadership style impacts performance and how your team work together is of course critical at all levels of leadership but a lower levels i.e. supervisor and/or first level team leader the authority and accountability for organisational systems are not there so as leader you can only influence these, not authorise changes to them.

There is a saying that I first came across when working with a global mining company many years ago that had a great impact on me. They used it in the context of safety issues but it is applicable in a broader context:

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

In other word, your actions or inaction as a leader when unproductive or undesirable behaviours occur within the team sets the tone for what is accepted.

However, as we move up through the hierarchy relying on your interpersonal skills alone is no longer sufficient because you will no longer be able to have a personal relationship with everyone in the organisation.

So what other tools might leaders in more senior positions require?

Systems Leadership suggests that there are three tools; systems, symbols, and behaviour, that successful managers understand and use.

So whilst, role modelling is critical for challenging unproductive behaviours, it is not enough for sustainable change. You also need to align the systems and symbols of the organisation.  Having said that, if you as a leader cannot be bothered to actually live and behave in way that is consistent with what you want staff to do you might as well throw your change initiative in the bin straight away.

When I said earlier that many managers do not understand the system of work they work in or are accountable for this is exactly what I mean. There is lack of understanding of how the system is shaping and driving the behaviour of the people and overall performance. Without a theory for understanding this, changing it becomes a terribly difficult task.

The desire is of course for the authorised systems to be productive. Often they are either not as productive as they could be or they are productive despite of the manifest design. In other words the extant (or real) system is different from the official authorised system, usually became staff develop unauthorised “workarounds” to produce good customer outcomes.

Systems_Matrix_2

For senior executives it is essential to understand how systems work so that they can design appropriate organisations systems to deliver on the purpose of the organisation. Designing the organisation is the role of senior management; a role that I often see being delegated way down in the HR function to someone with no real authority, often lack the capability to do this level of work, and often with no real understanding of organisational design theories or organisational systems.

A helpful theory for understanding the critical functions in an organisation and the relationships between them is Stafford Beer’s work in Management Cybernetics – The Viable System Model. In a previous post there is a video by Javier Livas explaining the Universal Management System, which is the VSM in less complex language. If you want to watch an in-depth video of the VSM by Javier, you can email him to request access details from his YouTube account. I thoroughly recommend doing so it you can find the time to view the full 2 hour video.

In short, the VSM views an organisation as a system that requires five key functions to remain viable (i.e. maintain its existence). The five systems are recursive (or nested in each other like a Russian doll) so every system one is in turn made up by the five key functions:

System 1 – Operations

System 2 – Coordination

System 3 – Management

System 3* – Audit & Monitoring

System 4 – Development

System 5 – Policy

I will not go on in detail about the VSM as many other better writers and thinkers have done a great job of this already, Beer alone wrote at many books on the topic: The Brain of the Firm, The Heart of Enterprise, Diagnosing the System of Organisation to name a few.

I have found the VSM to be an outstanding theory to work with when diagnosing organisations. It provides immense value and insights and I can discuss the insights with clients without getting into the underlying theory in too much detail. The beauty of the VSM in my view is the recursive nature of the model, which means it is applicable for systems at any levels and Managers across an organisation, can all get value from it. It does require some investment in time to get your head around but it is well worth the investment.

Another “theory” I am a big fan of is the Vanguard Method. Its use in service organisations and it has greatly influenced my thinking and my work. Like any method it is not all-encompassing and I have found the mix of The Vanguard Method, Systems Leadership and The Viable System Model to be very powerful and insightful across multiple levels of organisational complexity.

In a service organisation, one of the quickest ways to make value creating more difficult, is to functionalise the work. This is just one of the many issues that emerge when applying tools and ideas that were designed to solve manufacturing issues in a service or knowledge environment. Functionalization of work is based on the assumption that someone with specialist skills will perform a task faster and to a higher quality. Whilst this seems to make sense it fails to account for the flow of the work and is based on Tayloristic view of the workplace.

If you read up on articles or books by John Seddon you will find that he keeps banging on about the damage from the “economies of scale” mentality that permeates most organisations. His point is that they should shift to understanding demand and design the flow of work accordingly. Seddon is trying to shift ingrained mental models of how organisations operate many of which came about due to Taylor’s theory becoming the mainstream one and the ideas of others such as Mary Parker Follett, were less successful at the time. Only now after the failings of the mechanistic view of organisations are we starting to embrace her ideas employee engagement and power with rather than power over. This is not to say that Taylor’s ideas were useless, they did help the industrialisation of the world. We can only guess how different the world of work might have been if Follett’s more humanistic ideas had been the dominant ones.

In the spirit of economies of scale we tend to measure activity (because being busy and high utilisation of our time is important…seemingly regardless of what we are doing) instead of measuring how well we deliver on what matter to the customer, treat all demand the same. John Seddon made life a bit easier by coining the term “failure demand” as he gave word and enhanced meaning to something I had come across many times but just treated as COPQ (cost of poor quality or rework). Its significance as leverage for improvement quickly became evident through Seddon’s work. For me earliest time I can remember identifying this was at a when doing some work to understand the complaints process in a public housing organisation where we came across an unreasonable amount of plumbing issues in relation to the amount of properties owned by the organisation. The practice was to just log the complaints about poor work, no shows and rescheduled visits as new jobs. This hid away the true volume of value work amongst all of the failure demand – i.e. demand created by a failure of doing the right thing for the customer the first time or failing to do it at all.

What Vanguard does really well is providing a method “Check –Plan – Do” for understanding the flow of the primary activities (System 1 in VSM language) at the level of recursion where the customer interaction occurs. For me the gap with the Vanguard method relates to how to embed constructive leadership behaviours and models to support a new way of thinking (and subsequently a new way of working) such as the decision making model and the task assignment model I outlined in a previous post. At higher levels in the organisations the work is more focussed on how all the other systems across multiple recursions are meant to work together to support value creation for customers.

Usually the feedback systems are in terms of hard numbers such as “productivity measures” or process output measures. More often than not, they are looking at the wrong things and provide little if any understanding of the system of work. Activity measures are in place to measure performance with a complete disregard for the inherent variety in demand that comes in and failure demand is treated as value demand.

Understanding demand, understanding variation, understanding the connections and feedback loops in “your” level of recursion (as part of the VSM), understanding the systems, symbols and behaviours that reinforce or contradict the desired culture are all important aspects for Managers to consider when they grapple with the difficult task of “understanding the work”.

It is not easy, it is a complex task but with some good theories and models it becomes less challenging.

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managerial leadership part 2

Managers work of role

Systems Leadership Theory defines the role of a Manager as:

“A person in a role who is accountable for their own work, and the work performance of others over time.”

I think the purpose can be shortened a bit and this statement might be controversial, but if you are in a managerial role then in simple terms, your role is there to:

“Maximise performance to purpose.”

Before the systems thinkers out there start jumping up and down saying,

“What about sub-optimisation?” just hold on to your hats and please read on.

Taking a systems view of work and of organisations means you must understand not only your system of work, you must at a minimum understand the purpose of the system “above” (the system that your area is a sub-system of) because that system provides the context for your system’s existence. This means that clarity of purpose is critical, in fact so critical you will see a recurring theme in many of the models clarifying context and purpose.

This could mean that from the perspective of any single unit or division, it may not operate at maximum capacity as performance has to be viewed in the context of the broader system and sub-optimisation is a big no-no. I will get to this topic when I discuss the “understanding the work” element.

Value adding

An important aspect of a well-functioning organisation is the value-adding function of the different roles. Systems Leadership Theory identifies three main types of managerial roles – Operational, Support, and Service. I think it was John Seddon from Vanguard who said that there are only three roles in an organisation: one that creates value directly to the customer, one that enables that value creation to occur, and one that improves how they both occur. If you are not creating value, enabling it or improving it, then what are you doing?

These two ways of articulating types of work focus on the individual rather than the organisation.  To create clarity of the broader focus of a role using different work domains as outlined in Luc Hoebeke’s – Making Work Systems Better is quite helpful for identifying the general theme of the work context. The work domains are  – Value adding for the present – Value adding for the future – Value Systems (value adding for humanity).

There are additional functions required for a viable system from a management cybernetics perspective but we’ll get to that when discussing organisations as systems later on.

Master – apprentice

In many organisations the individual with the most experience or best technical skills gets promoted to a managerial role. We can see it in health care where the best surgeon becomes the administrator; in accounting firms and law firms it is almost standard practice to task senior partners with running the organisation, even though their skills in this area might be very limited.

Often the remuneration system is the culprit as the only way to reward individuals is by increasing the number of people reporting to them and by moving them higher up in the organisation. Even though this means doing less of the technical work they are highly skilled in (and often enjoy more than the additional administrative work). They would probably add more value being in a specialist role focusing on their technical skill and perhaps developing the skills of others.

The e-myth is a great book discussing the idea that just because you are technically good at something does not mean you are good at running a business that provides that technical skill.

For some types of organisations, roles, skills this practice still serves a valuable purpose – to pass on the technical skills that you will only master through experience. So this is not to say that the practice is out-dated, just questioning its usefulness when it comes to appointing Managers based on technical skills or seniority. In fact praxis (theory informed practice) is invaluable even for knowledge workers as a great way to develop true understanding and capability.

In today’s environment with a large proportion of organisations filled with knowledge workers the Manger is unlikely to have higher level of technical skills than the person reporting to them.

“At the beginning of the twentieth century, it has been estimated that 95 % of workers could not do their job as well as their immediate boss. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is estimated that this statistic has pretty much reversed, so that 95% of workers can do their job better than their boss.” – The Fractal Organization

So if you are technically more competent than I am in your area, then how do I add value to your work?  I think it is funny how some people have a view that their Manager ought to know more about the technical side of the work than the people working for them. The view does not stack up logically as the CEO by that logic must be the master of everything in the organisation.

This is exactly why we have organisations – because there is too much for any one person to do we need more people with a wide range of skills and capabilities. The question is how to get the best out of all those diverse skills and capabilities.

Levels of work

In many organisations the organisational chart is used to describe the organisation, even though its use for that purpose is desperately limited. I don’t think the organisational chart was ever intended to explain how the work flows, it is just one way of outlining reporting relationships and possibly a helpful way of knowing who’s who in the Zoo.

The organisational chart can easily be used to manipulate the system of organisation into power plays based on role vested authority and drive all sorts of unproductive behaviours but it does not have to be that way.  I think the traditional organisational chart has to be used in conjunction with some other ways of understanding the organisation.

Before I continue to how Managers add value I want to make a short comment on role-vested authority. As a Manager it is critical that you understand that leadership is not something that comes with a role, it is expected, but you have to earn the right to lead people and without personally earned authority you will never be successful as a leader.

According to Elliot Jaques there is natural hierarchy of capability that should be replicated in the managerial hierarchy of organisations for best performance – hence the name, Requisite Organisation. I have in an earlier post linked to a good paper that goes into Levels of Work in greater detail.  It might be worth pointing out that a theory of discontinuous distribution of capability should not be interpreted as elitist in any way. There is nothing inherently better or worst being at any stage of adult development or having higher or lower mental processing ability – it is just a question of best match for the challenge an individual is to undertake.

If the organisation does not have a requisite structure there will potentially be some recurring issues. When there are too many layers in organisations, clarity between roles can become difficult and it will often lead to micro managing.

Micromanaging is often seen as a personality issue with control-freaks but as Patrick Hoverstadt points out in his book “The Fractal Organization” it is more likely the design of the system that is driving “normal” people to behave in this way.

The solution to the Control Dilemma is to design and implement a better system of monitoring which might mean better measures for understanding system performance, improved role clarity, and better task assignments.

When working with organisations and trying work out where there might be too many levels some a quick insight is gained by asking the question: who is your real boss?

The answer people give, usually refers to the person that they feel add real value to their role rather than who is on the official organisational chart. More often than not this will be an individual with a higher level of capability.

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The value managers provide is providing clarity about roles and operating context, and most importantly by removing barriers that stand in the way of better ways of doing the work.

There are three fundamental questions about work that all employees need answered and your job as a Manager is to ensure that your staff have answers to them:

1.    What is expected of me in my role?

2.    How am I performing in this role?

3.    What does my future look like (in this organisations)?

Dave Snowden from Cognitive Edge suggests that continuous removal of small barriers is good ways for leaders to earn the authority to lead. Snowden makes the point that this practice will lead to positive stories which will get a life of their own and spreads across the organisation (The Use of Narrative), a far superior way of influencing culture compared with just talking about change. This is very aligned with what Systems Leadership Theory calls mythologies – stories that represent positive or negative value of organisational behaviour. Understanding what the current mythologies are is extremely important for change initiative. I’ll cover mythologies in greater detail in an upcoming post.

Alternatives to hierarchy

Even though I am discussing how to make organisations with a hierarchical structure a better place to work, I am also exploring alternative ways of structuring an organisation. I am deeply fascinated by the concepts of Sociacracy and Holacracy as alternative ways to structure and run organisations. Both concepts have strong links to Management Cybernetics, which is another theory that I work with.

I do, however, have some deeply held mental models around levels of mental processing ability and stages of adult development that neither alternative seems to discuss.

The only references to adult development I’ve come across to date is paper on Holacracy that mentioned a common misunderstanding was to assume that a higher circle required later stages of adult development. The reason Holacracy rejects this was the potential for is to lead to abuse of power. The problem with that assertion is that later stages of adult development are characterised by low ego and highly developed sense of community and social fairness, not quite the characteristics of people who are power-hungry.

For more on adult development theories please have a look at David Rooke and Bill Torbert’s Leadership Development Framework supported by Susanne Cook-Greuter’s article “Making the case for a developmental perspective” or Robert Kegan’s Constructive-Developmental Theory used by Jennifer Garvey-Berger in her great book “Changing on the job”

In the next post I intend to discuss work as a social process, I will outline a model for participative decision-making and a model for task assignment that helps provide clarity around expectations and limits of discretion.