Category Archives: Authority

Ownership

I think ownership is an interesting concept. Early North American Indians did not have the concept of “ownership” as we know it when it came to the land they inhabited. That concept of ownership was brought to the then new world by the colonists who had a centuries-old concept and tradition regarding ownership. In general, they conceived of land as personal property to be used for the realization of economic and material gains. This seems to be the definition of ownership that has been perpetuated both down through time as well as throughout business. The single possible exception to this ownership concept in business can best be seen when there is a performance problem. Then it appears that like the early North American Indians, no one owns any of the land on which everyone is standing.

There is an ancient Indian proverb that goes:

“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

I like this one as it nicely defines the stewardship responsibility that was felt. They didn’t own it, but they were responsible for taking care of it. It is admittedly a somewhat different variation on the concept of ownership but it was an important one. They didn’t own a piece of the Earth, but they were responsible for it on the whole.

In business, these days it more and more seems that if you do not directly own it, then you are not responsible for it. And just as importantly, it seems that if you don’t own it, you are not responsible for taking care of it. It looks like the concept of stewardship has been lost as we have matrixed and processed business organizations over time.

As we continue to look to decompose what were judged as complex business actions into ever more granular, simpler, repeatable activities to create our processes, we “own” ever smaller pieces of the whole. We no longer have ownership, stewardship or even responsibility for an issue or activity, but rather just a continually smaller piece of it.

It appears that the concept of “if one person being responsible for solving a problem is good, then multiple people trying to solve the same problem must be better” is now being applied. This has given rise to the now popular concept in business of multiple owners for the resolution of business and performance issues. This in turn has given rise to what I like to refer to in the following axiom:

“If there are multiple owners for the resolution of an issue, there is in fact no owner for the resolution of the issue.”

While everyone will be involved in the process used to hopefully resolve the issue, each participant will be primarily focused (and measured) on their specific aspect of the solution, not the overall performance. No one person will have the higher-level view required to change, modify or even remove any of the defined steps in the process. The result of this sort of an issue resolution structure can usually be seen in the progress report meetings.

You can tell the overall ownership of the issue resolution is lost when there are no “difficult” questions being asked in the progress report meetings. Each group will report on their specific area of responsibility, and as is usually the case, they will try to put their best foot forward in their report. And since no one reporting group wants to incite similar difficult questions to be asked of them, no difficult questions will be asked. The net result is the presenting of several reports detailing the high points of any of the several aspects of the issue, while the actual primary overall issue remains largely unimproved or unresolved.

A few examples of the issue resolution detachment can be easily shown. In a time when business profitability is the overall issue, it is usually each sub-organization’s position to show how their costs are either at, or slightly under their proposed budget levels. If every group is under budget on costs, then why is profitability an issue? It is obvious that the overall profitability problem is not their responsibility since they are well within their cost objective guidelines.

There can obviously be several causes for this issue. Increased competition causing either reduced market share (volume) or reduced prices in order to maintain the current volume are a couple of simple reasons that come quickly to mind. While each group’s costs may be in line with their budget, something else is causing the margins to miss as a whole.

An immediate focus should obviously be to see what can be done to increase the top line to help alleviate the margin issue. However, there must also be an overall owner of the margin issue who would also have the responsibility to challenge the various cost budget oriented groups to reduce their costs as an alternative action to help bring margins back into line, just in case increasing sales turns out to be more difficult than expected. Someone has to have the responsibility to say that in reduced margin times like these, meeting your cost budget isn’t good enough. Someone has to own the overall issue and have the ability to adjust the discreet aspects of the process, such as reducing component group cost budgets, in order to achieve the margin objective.

Taking this example the next step further, when looking at the sales process, the business development team may be generating all sorts of customer contacts, however for some reason these contacts may not resolving into the required volume of sales. Are the right types of contacts being generated? Have customer product preferences shifted? Are the correct markets being addressed? The list can obviously go on.

This is not going to be a discourse on Greek Philosophy, asking the Plato-esque question: If every aspect of the problem-solving process is being correctly administered, why isn’t the issue being correctly resolved? I tend to try to be a little more pragmatic. I usually follow a couple of very simple rules in situations like this:

The first is: If what you are doing is not generating the results you want, then you had better do something different. As simple as this sounds, it is becoming increasingly difficult to implement in an increasingly process driven organization. Change imputes risk and almost everyone is risk averse. That is the reason for the rise of the process. It is supposed to reduce the risk of change and variation in business.

I think we have all been in situations where whatever the approach that was being used was not working, but the prevailing feeling was that it would work the next time, so it was best not to change it. Einstein made reference to the sanity of these types of decisions. It seems that sometimes the fear of change is greater than the fear of continued failure.

The second is: If you want a problem solved, make sure someone is identified as the owner of the problem, has the responsibility of solving the problem and has the ability and authority to make the changes necessary to solve the problem. Someone has to be responsible to make a decision as to what must be done. When there is a committee in charge, there is safety in numbers and anonymity when it comes to issue resolution.

Issue resolution is about leadership. If there is a business performance issue, that means that whatever is being done is not working and must be changed. Experience has shown that change does not occur spontaneously. It must be led; otherwise organizational momentum will mitigate any group change effort.

I don’t think leaders shy away from issue ownership. On the contrary I think leaders look at issues as opportunities to improve the business. It seems that the process driven organization may be slightly at odds with a leadership oriented organization in that it holds the process responsible for success and not the leader. Processes are at their best when variations are minimized.

Unfortunately, when organizational performance is lacking it is an operational variation or change that must be called for in order to generate the desired variation or change in performance. It is at that time that a leader is needed to own the issue, instead of a process.

The Sound of Silence

I have talked about speaking up in business several times. Conversely I have also cited the American humorist Will Rogers on several occasions for his immortal line “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” Unfortunately while I may cite Will Rogers, I rarely follow his advice as I have created issues far more often by speaking up than I have by remaining quiet. You would think I would learn. I think those of you who know me are not surprised that I haven’t.

I’ll paraphrase another American comedian Ron Wood, and say that while I may have the right to remain silent, I rarely seem to have the ability to remain silent. But I’ll continue to work on it.

In business for the greater part we are all knowledge workers. That means that we provide and deliver our value to the organization in the form of our abilities to recognize and process information in the pursuit of the organization’s goals. Equally important is what is done with the information once it has been processed. Having information and not communicating it in an organization is almost as useless as not having the information at all. What good is having a solution if you don’t communicate it? So, our value is not just the knowledge we have but also our desire and ability to communicate to and with others.

Not everyone thinks, or processes information the same way. This is actually a very good thing for all involved.

Unless you are my wife. It seems to significantly frustrate her that I think so differently from her. She doesn’t understand how I can be so wrong so often when it comes to communicating with her. I guess I will continue to work on that too.

A healthy organization should have a healthy diversity of input from the team members. There should be an ongoing dialog on almost all topics as new issues are worked and old ones revisited for potential improvements. As the speed of business continues to increase and the time and distance associated with business decrease, it is probably safe to say that the conditions that were in place when a decision was made have changed.

The point here is that an ongoing dialog on a wide range of topics is important to the health and success of any team. Argument and examination by their very nature end up generating stronger solutions through addressing potential weaknesses to proposed solutions. But how far can or should a leader allow this dialog to go? When does continued discussion actually start to become dissension in the ranks?

Depending on the commitment of the team members and the trust of the team leader, I think the simple answer here is that ongoing discussion, even regarding previously “closed” topics should never be viewed as dissension. The reason is simple.

If you silence a differing opinion on one topic, you may have unknowingly also silenced that opinion on any of several other topics. No one likes to be told to shut up. Will Rogers was talking about our own self control, not the imposed control of others. If one is told to be quiet often enough on certain topics, they may of their own volition start to extend their reticence to other unintentional topics. And since no one is right all the time, there may in fact come a time when there will be a need for the knowledge that the differing opinion represents to generate the issue solution, and it may not be forthcoming.

A healthy organization has a strong amount of dialog going on between the members themselves and between the members and the leader. As ideas are generated and alternatives considered the discourse should increase. This again points out the difficult transition that would be leaders must make: that of moving from the position of generating and defending ideas to one of encouraging and acting on the ideas of others.

Most managers attain their position because they were able to generate and defend good solutions to multiple issues. This engenders a type behavior. However once they are in a leadership role it is no longer the sole behavior that they must demonstrate. Their new role must evolve into a utilization and growth of others to generate and defend good solutions. Hence the needs for the ongoing give and take between the leader and the team members.

But what happens if the manager doesn’t change? What becomes of the team dynamic if the person who was rewarded for generating good ideas continues to insist on generating all the good ideas?

The first indication that this managerial centralization of solution ideas is occurring is when the team communication starts to become reduced. Instead of a continuous stream of new proposals and iterations on older issues, there is less and less that is put forth. If the manager is going to generate the solution anyway, why not remain silent and wait for it.

As I noted earlier, no one likes to be told to be quiet. Whether it is directly in the form of publicly shooting down the proposals, or tacitly in the form of quietly just disregarding their input, no one likes to see or feel that their intellectual work is being disregarded, or continuously superseded by someone else intellectual work. If it happens often enough, team members will have a tendency to just shut down. They may work out the issues, but they just won’t bring forth the proposals and solutions if they don’t feel they will at least be honestly analyzed for function and purpose.

They in effect go silent and just wait to be told what to do. Either that or they have a tendency to leave for other organizations.

I’ve discussed the difference between compliance and commitment in the past. Commitment comes from team members feeling that their input and ideas are valued. That doesn’t mean that their ideas must always be selected. It means that they should be discussed. Rarely is an individual’s entire proposal invalidated. There are always pieces of it that can and should be incorporated into the final solution.

As leaders, the discussion and selection process associated with functional strategies and solution implementation is delicate. Selecting and supporting the stronger aspects of the team’s work while acknowledging and remanding back the less applicable aspects for further work can be a tightrope like balance. Be too harsh a critic and risk alienating the team. Not be demanding enough and risk allowing less than optimal ideas and work into the process.

When faced with this type of conundrum it is easy to see why the default response may be to drive harder. It is also easier now to see why so many organizations seem to be getting quieter. If the manager believes that the best person to rely on is themselves, then why does there need to be a dialog.

Issue identification, goal and strategy setting, and problem resolution should not be quiet activities. They are the basis of all business progress. The noted past conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Erich Leinsdorf once said when discussing the music that he believed in friction and that without it there could be no progress.

Here was a leader (orchestra conductor) who had to lead as many as one hundred and twenty different team members (musicians), each with an instrument with a discrete voice, in the playing of some of the most complex symphonies in history. Each musician needed to play and contribute, but within the structure set by the conductor in the creation of the end product. In his time that organization was credited with some of its finest performances.

It is often thought that the conductor simply tells the musicians what to play and how to play it. Leinsdorf is credited with changing the process so that when he wanted something, he didn’t just demand it. He asked for it, and explained why he wanted it. The results and the performance reviews spoke to the success of his approach.

As business moves more and more to virtual types of office arrangements, and meetings become more like phone calls, the office continues to become a quieter and quieter environment. Managers can mistakenly interpret this phenomenon as the tacit agreement with their plans and policies. I think in most instances it is not.

I think the new office arrangements and business dynamics have only served to exacerbate some of these management tendencies. Regardless, there seems to be a large number of organizations that like in the old western movies, it can be said that things are quiet, almost too quiet. And the sound that silence makes should speak volumes as to where the ideas and solutions (as well as the future leaders) are, or in most cases are not coming from.

Measuring and Reporting

Management styles seem to go in and out of style. We have one that works moderately well, and then we go looking for one that is purported to work better. It didn’t used to be like this. For the longest time business structures seemed to follow the same structures that we had in our militaries. We even used a military naming nomenclature when we described them: The General Management Model.

Now I am sure we have all heard the jokes about the efficiency of the Military, and how “Military Intelligence” is an oxymoron, but it seems to be an organizational model that has literally stood the test of time. Please do not make the mistake in assuming that I disrespect the Military. On the contrary I have the greatest respect for those that serve in the military. They have chosen to put themselves at risk for our benefit.

I thank them for their service.

Can you imagine what would happen if the Military experimented with a Matrix Management organizational model? Having a conference call in the middle of an engagement to determine what the response to the hostilities should be doesn’t strike me as the most effective way to deal with that situation. The phrase “shoot, move, communicate” leaps to mind as the preferred active response.

However business has never seemed to be constrained in such an organizational way. There are many organizations that have dabbled with if not fully implemented non-general management types of organizational structures in their efforts to find more effective ways for dealing with their various engagements. Has it worked? I would say that the results are mixed. In some instances possibly yes and in others, not so much. I think that it clearly goes to show that there is an individual / human aspect to leadership that directly interacts with and affects the success of the chosen organizational structure. Good leaders can make any organizational structure better, while managers can slow down the progress of any organization.

What these other organizational models have also done is that they have created the need for an entirely new business structure almost entirely dedicated to measuring and reporting on the various separate business elements.

The creating of this measuring and reporting structure has both good points, and some not so good points. Within a non-general management oriented organization no one person has the full authority over any specific engagement. In the military this would be the equivalent to having an organization responsible for guns and another organization responsible for bullets. While you may come up with the best guns and the best bullets, if they don’t work together you may be in for some surprise issues when it comes to engagement time.

So how do you solve this problem in such an organization? You measure each group’s performance and publicize or report on it.

It has long been proven that the best way to get someone to fulfill their responsibilities is to report on and publicize their performance. This is true with respect to the investigative reports that we see on television that expose improper behaviors in our politicians and businesses, and it is also true with respect to the internal workings and responsibilities within a business organization. Shining a light on bad behavior is one of the best ways to get that behavior to stop just as shining a light on good behavior is an excellent way to continue to propagate that type of behavior.

The problem with this sort of structure is that those people who are doing all of this measuring and reporting are not directly contributing to the performance and progress of the business. They are making sure that someone else is directly contributing to the performance and progress of the business. No matter how you want to look at it, there is a fundamental difference. Measurers and reporters are what are known as Overhead Expense in an organization.

In a distributed (verses centralized) organizational structure no one controls the end to end view and performance of the business or the organization. For a business to be maximally efficient someone needs to have this decision making authority and responsibility. In the non-general management organization no one has that final decision making role and since it seems that everyone must be fully informed, everyone must be measured and reported on by everyone else. It is possible that the evolution of this process results in more people measuring and reporting on what needs to be done than there are actually doing what needs to be done.

This can be seen as a business proof of the old adage: Too much of a good thing can be bad.

This sort of measuring and reporting appear to take a more central role in the organization when there is a division between responsibility to get something done and the authority to get something done. In the military there is a very clear responsibility – authority line of command. Orders and responsibilities are cascaded down and the objectives are usually reasonably clear. One officer does not go outside of his organization and tell another officer or his organization what they must do unless there is a direct reporting line between them. In this way compliance with the objective is a given.

In the distributed responsibility structure, compliance may not necessarily be a given. Issues arise when one organization is dependent on another for the completion of a task, but the second organization fails to prioritize or perform its part of the task. After all, what can be done when an organization fails to comply with the wishes or directives of another organization that is not directly in the same reporting line? You may be able to complain, but you cannot enforce compliance as may be done in the General Management model.

So what do you do to assure that disparate organizations comply?

You start measuring and reporting on them so that everyone else knows which organization in the distributed structure is not performing. This is both an offensive strategy in that it tracks progress (or lack of it) toward the objective as well as a defensive strategy in that it clearly points out if there are issues and where they are – presumably not in your or the measuring organization.

Reporting in the general management structure is used to determine the progress against a defined set of goals. It is normally self reported by the organization. Reporting in the decentralized structure not only performs these vital tasks, but also takes on the added function of identifying any potential external organizational dependencies that can be incrementing, or decrementing performance. As such it is not uncommon for each group to report not only on themselves, but on all contributing groups to make sure that their, presumably correct opinion on progress is documented. Thus they all add to the complexity and the overhead associated with the entire reporting process.

Measuring and reporting are definitely needed in business. It is how we keep score. Having each group report on so many other groups would seem to me to be an extreme. The problem is I don’t know what else you can do when one group has the responsibility to get something done, but the actual authority and ability to get it done resides somewhere else. It seems that the only thing to do is shine the light and hope for the best.

Either that or utilize an organizational structure where the authority and responsibility to get things done reside in the same place. It cuts down the need for so many reports. Like President Harry Truman said:

“The buck stops here.”