The Matrix revisited

The matrix is an organizational mystery to me. So popular, so reviled, so dysfunctional, so often suggested by the major consultancies.

My first encounter with the matrix was in the eighties when one of the major consultancies had suggested a matrix to the big international chemicals company where I was working. Fantastic product company, but they needed to know about marketing and markets, to which the matrix was the answer. The new region to which I belonged got a forceful manager who quickly made his mark, pushed the right sort of issues and quickly got the product division to hate and undermine him. A ”war” in which we in our market had to do our best to survive, while keeping customers happy and churning out plans and reports in all directions to keep the matrix happy. Good job that chemicals were so profitable then that they could afford using 20-25% of our resources for planning and reporting.

Not so long ago I did a specific organizational audit in an exceptionally profitable company. They had been wrestling with the issue of emulating their one-product/one-market success to more products and more markets. The big consultancy had solved this by implementing a matrix. Now everything seemed to be decided in committee, where all participants appeared to have the right to veto decisions for their particular market/product. Accountabilities were vague and unclear and role descriptions inflated. Good job they have all those profits so they can afford all those people sitting in meetings.

In one organization where I worked the combination of the matrix and Parkinsons law led to the proliferation of jobs. On the product side of the matrix they started adding people to deal with market areas and on the market side people to deal with product areas. The least one could say is that we did double our efforts.

My most absurd encounter with the matrix was in a major government agency, interviewing a manager with a vertical responsibility. Being a seasoned bureaucrat used to sitting in headquarters issuing edicts he was concerned with his mandate. ”Look here”, he said pointing to the intersection between his vertical and a specific horisontal responsibility. ”Look at that box”, he said, ”could one not draw a diagonal in that particular box, so that I am in charge of that resulting triangle, and the horizontal manager in  charge of the remaining triangle”.

I believe that the matrix was an honest attempt to address the fact that people need to cooperate to get stuff done and that drawing the matrix was the quickest way of fixing that. However, the nature of people does not seem to have changed. We still had the same issues with power, office politics and accountabilities. The managers on the top team more concerned with making their mark and jockeying for pole position.

More about what I think matrixes are attempting to solve and alternative solutions will follow in coming ports.

Organizations, bandwidth and social networking

I have read that the human bandwidth for communicating with and perceiving the outer world that is 10- 11 Megabits per second, most of it visual. We are not conscious of most of this information flow. Consciously, we can handle 30 to 40 bits per second. This of course has implications on how we manage and structure organisations. Let’s assume that we are looking at a first-line manager with 10 subordinates. They totally absorb 10 by 10 Mbit = 100 Mbits per second. With the manager only being able to consciously manage 30-40 of those bits, there is a huge overflow.

This completely overthrows the concept of the manager being able to see and hear everything and take informed decisions. It means that the manager cannot micromanage as that reduces the capability of the organisation to the communication bandwidth of the manager, i.e. nothing gets done, which is what we often hear about micromanaged organizations.

So what can we do about it?

  • Allowing employee discretion.
  • Context setting and information chunking.

Employees need to be allowed to use their discretion in taking decisions. Their bandwidth is closest to the point of need of the decision-making. But they need to see not only the local context but also the overall company context. That means that the manager needs to spend most of his/her bandwidth to set context and understand the situation around the employees, guiding them in their decision-making.

If employees absorb 10 Mb per second the possibilities are immense for them to overflow the bandwidth of the manager by telling him/her absolutely everything. Many managers fall for this and become micromanaged by their employees. Employees overfeeding info and demanding desicions become like Denial of Service attacks, where web servers get blocked by overwhelming traffic. However managers and subordinates need to communicate and discuss what is important. The manager cannot only be fed aggregates and what is thought to be significant deviations. There can be weak patterns that not one single employee can see – it is found in the context of several employees.

In some organizations I have seen higher managers that are like albatrosses gliding over the ocean, believing that from up there they can see the big picture. But like albatrosses they can spot a significant bit down in the water. Suddenly they swoop down and catch the fish that broke the waves. Great eyesight, but not the big picture. Sometimes higher managers dive into something that they just spotted, that everybody else thought they had talked about in strategy or budget sessions, a project is terminated suddenly, and people learn to avoid being conspicuous.

Elliott Jaques talked about information chunking. How are relevant bits of information ”fed” to the manager. The employee knows a lot more than what managers may see a self-evident. Managers at different levels and employees need to talk about what is important and patterning, so that information can be fed upwards in significant chunks.

I recently read ”Freedom from Command and Control”. Seddon gives an example from call centres were managers focus on number of calls, call time and call forwarding calls per hour but completely miss the fact that 47% of all calls were avoidable as they were prompted by sloppy routines elsewhere. All those who took he calls knew, but not the managers as they were busy ”manageing”. Clearly an example of a severe lack of communication between managers and employees.

We consultants often play games. The one I am thinking of usually has a poker-related name. There are three managers and 8 employees in a formal hierarchy. Only written communication along organizational lines is permitted. Everybody has got four playing cards and may swap them along lines. Only the top manager knows the objective, but does not know that nobody else does not know. People start swapping cards making assumptions based on the poker name. Notes fly all over the place. Eventually the top manager realizes the problem and starts organizing.

The middle managers are overwhelmed by communicating. At the debriefing the middle managers table are cluttered by mostly irrelevant notes from understimulated subordinates. In fact the ”chatter” is so overwhelming that the real clues as to what is going on gets hidden. Usually the task is solved by command and control. I have done experiments where I do not distribute the cars randomly but in such a way that a few cards need to pass through the top manager so that most of the solution could be delegated. It would be interesting to consider what would happen in social networking was allowed i.e. employees were allowed to talk with each other.

Social networking is how stuff really gets done in an organisation. A manager can still be held accountable for the results of the unit, while not micromanaging but creating the circumstances for the employees to a sort out and resolve the situations at hand.

I sometimes wonder if matrix organisations are a way of imposing structure on something which is better left informal. I often find that matrix structures create dual and competing command and control structures that in the end are incapable of taking requisite decisions and action. The tiny available bandwidth gets completely filled up by coordinational demands.

The only way to be ”in control” is to be ”out of control”.

Only the one at the top can get away by doing nothing

Managers and those of us who work with them need to be aware of the jokes and cynicism about managers and what they do.

The crow is sitting at the top of a tree and doing nothing.

A rabbit passes by.
Rabbit: “That looks great, can I do nothing as well?”
Crow: “Of course. Just sit down there and do nothing.”
As the rabbit sits there enjoying doing nothing a fox comes by and eats it.
The moral – You can only get away with doing nothing it you are at the top.

The conventional response to this is probably that being down there you can’t really see what managers are doing. Another interpretation is that is always is blindingly obvious to subordinates if managers are creating value in their role or not.

Many managers keep themselves busy by intervening in the work of subordinates instead of giving them the context for doing their job and using their discretion and common sense in doing what they see needs to be done and how to do it. In other words doing what they are paid to do.

Metaphors we organize by

Often when I interview people in organizations I ask them which animal they would liken the company to. The responses are interesting and very revealing of how they perceive the culture of the organization. After all there are huge differences between squirrels, boars, elephants and cats. When I ask them to tell me more I get fascinating descriptions of the behavioral traits of the animal that adds a lot of color to the interview.

Just as revealing is the difference between higher managers and subordinates. The managers almost invariably select powerful animals such as tigers, lions and sharks, which are seldom mention by others. Subordinates seem to select animal metaphors that describe the organizational culture, whereas manager selects according to wished external effect and power towards competitors.

These experiences makes me wonder about metaphors about how we organize. Are teams and symphony orchestras wishful metaphors of target and structure driven managers? I have never heard higher managers liken their organization to a circus or a dance band, only other people in the company. I have only heard consultants use the jazz band metaphor as being useful to explain organizations or groups with high creativity.

The team
The focus is on winning the next match and eventually the tournament. Short term success is dependent on training, tactics and pepping the team (GO team GO!). Longer term success is seen as dependent on getting the right people on the team and the right manager/trainer. If the team doesn’t win, first sell some players, buy new one’s and if that doesn’t help then sack the trainer.

This metaphor seems to drive mostly male managers experienced in or fascinated by team sports. ”If we just try hard enough we will be in the premier league”. In reality a lot of workgroups are more like Charlie Browns baseball team, made up of the available locals. Can be fantastically creative, but not in the direction that the manager was targeting.

My main difficulty with the sports team metaphor is the belief that you can motivate people. People motivate themselves. And there are few organizations were people actually do work together like teams.

The symphony orchestra
For a while the symphony orchestra was a metaphor in the vogue. Independent knowledge workers co-ordinated by the great master. But everybody have their fixed positions and the work is predefined by the composer. There is no way that the troboneist can come to the help of the third violinist. Those who come to the concert get to hear exactly what it says in the program. A clever factory with all the cogs in place producing high quality and hopefully somebody will come. A metaphor probably mainly used by those who like to see themselves as conductors.

The primadonna show
Without the starbilled primadonnas nobody would come to the show. The primadonnas are more important than the organization, and boy do they know it. Here we probably find what the British call ”the chattering classes”, politicians and media, but probably a lot of consultancies as well. But who would want to admit being part of a travelling circus, when they see themselves as having the lead role? How many higher managers talk about their primadonnas in a positive sense rather than seeing them as negative and impossible to manage.

The dance band
Nothing special or to write home about. Next week another indistinguishable band will be on the stage, delivering what is expected, not more, not less. Since they all sound the same and play the same tunes they do try to make themselves different by inventing even more flashy and tasteless dress.
Like your average company. Humdrum, plods along. Delivers average quality but tries to differentiate by doing the wrong things. Not a metaphor that anybody but people with a cynical turn like me would use.

The jazz band
Jazz bands are interesting, they would consider themselves a failure if the tune is the same on Wednesday as on Monday. The musicians create as they go along and in resonance with their audience. Miles Davis refused to let his band practise together, he paid them to play. One jazz musician I spoke to said that while playing a tune he would have another two or more tunes in his head. The same musician told me of one of the great bands he played with, where several people could not stand each other. They respected each other professionally, but as soon as the gig was over they disappeared in different directions. Quite different from the ”we like each other” or politically correct ”we pretend to like each other” and ”we pretend to like team building” in the modern workplace.
Is the jazz band where most people really would like to play, but probably would have difficulties coping with the constant pressures of creativity and innovation? And how many managers in organizations have the temper and direction to lead what they see as a herd of cats? There ain’t many like Miles Davis out in the business world.

Any more metaphors anyone?

Keep your eye on the ball

Whoever won a match by looking at a set of instruments showing the speed, angle and forecast path of the ball. Yet that is how most business seems to be managed.

Many years ago I was working with a major ski resort hotel and their change and development. I was there in off season when business was virtually non-existent. The hotel belonged to a major tour operator and they were using a customer satisfaction survey. Every year when they had recovered after the heavy season they pored over the data. The business plan stated that they wanted to increase customer satisfaction from 3.9 to 4.3 on a scale 1-5.

When I came the management team was heavily involved in that years major project aiming to achieve the goal – they were rebuilding the bar. Which they apparently did every two years, absolutely certain that this time they would make it. I asked how they knew that was what the customers wanted them to do. Well, they just sort of knew that was the right thing to do. In the season they did not really have the time to talk to the guests.

I was flabbergasted. Guests stayed for an average of about a week. Apart from the time they are on the slopes, they are virtually captives at the hotel – and nobody talks to them? If I had been the manager I would have invited 2-3 families a week to drinks before dinner. I would have rewarded staff for talking to customers and finding out what was important to them.

The Future of Management by Gary Hamel and Bill Breen

The Gary Hamel fan club is disappointed. I have been sucking up every word of Gary since I first heard him in 1991. Peter Day interviewed Gary about the book on BBC GlobalBiz some weeks ago. My expectations on the new book rose even more. But now I think that the podcast was better and I am still trying to figure out what happened.

A lot of critics have been castigating Hamel for being so positive to Enron in ”Leading the Revolution”. I thought that was a ggod book, although it at parts seemed to be written by his associates rather than by himself. The book introduced a new concept for business planning, which I still think is great. And who could foresee that behind the slitzy facade of Enron were such devious fraudsters?

This book has been written ”with Bill Breen”, which I guess that Bill did most of the writing. Bill is a former editor at Fast Company. At times the books reads more like an extended FC article than a book coauthored by Hamel. Some critics say that after the Enron ”fiasco” Hamel does not dare to be as prescriptive again. The book is full of questions for the manager to consider himself.

I do think that we need to see a change in management from old-fashioned command and control to something else. Partly because of the knowledge economy, but also new generations grow up in a more open and democratic society they will not accept autocratic management.

Hamel and Breen make a fairly good case for the need for change. They then roll out ”the usual suspects”, Google, Semco and Gore to prove that new forms of management do exist. As little has been written about Gore I lapped up all about them.

They give the reason for change, they give us the exemplary cases and all the questions for the manager to think about hid/her own company. It is a bit like paint by numbers. Here are the tubs of paint, these are some ready pictures, fill in the gaps yourself.

I doubt that we are likely to see radical management innovation in the large traditional industries. There are umpteen difficulties in the transition and at least as many excuses for not making any significant change. But the book did get me thinking about how the transition might be made and I will share my thoughts in this blog.

My rating:
3 stars

Why are managers outsourcing their core function?

I am thinking a lot about what managers do and should be doing. Mainly because I have undertaken to help a major national authority to structure its demands on management training dependent on levels of work. Since we all started talking about the knowledge economy I have been trying to get my head around how that will change the work of management.

Some years ago my wife and I wrote a long article about our experiences as leaders of leaders in a major volunteer organization. Our hypothesis was that knowledge workers are somewhat like volunteers – if they don not like it any longer, they leave quickly. I have started translating the article into English, it will be a slow job as I will be wanting to rewrite it at the same time.

I had great expectations when I started reading Gary Hamels latest book on the Future of Management. I was sorely disappointed, more on that in a forthcoming review. At the end he writes that the only acceptable hierarchies are the natural ones, but not a word about what a natural hierarchy is.

Since I work with Levels of Work / Requisite Organization / Stratified Systems Theory I have very definite opinions about what constitutes a natural hierarchy. When considering the new work of management we need to consider hierarchies, accountabilities, management span, allowing discretion etc. We need to move away from traditional command and control to something else.

Most managers have been brought up in command and control organizations, so they know that stuff. But over the years the work of management has changed and managers have brought in consultants to help them. My hypothesis is that what managers bring in consultants to do is the new work of management. In other words they are outsourcing their new core work.

When working with the National Authoritys demands on management training I am realizing that managers need to be trained to do what they use consultants to do for them.

Many years ago British Gas compared what their higher managers needed in the way of training and what the major institutes were offering. It was a great disappointment as the institutes were delivering at lower managerial levels than they were selling to. That still seems to be the case.

So what the heck is strategy anyway?

I often feel exasperated over the multitude of definitions of what strategy is. My colleague Martin just defined Strategy as that which we afterwards know was successful. Just look at all these books on Strategy, particularly among the business books at the airport. Broadly they fall into two categories, templates or methods to follow or success stories which imply that you should emulate them for success.

The most dramatic personae in the field is probably Gary Hamel, with his battle cry ”If it isn’t revolution, then it isn’t strategy”. The word strategy seems to be used for anything between that extreme position of uniqueness to the more mundane ”what is our strategy for buying a new photocopier?”. I usually claim that there are at least as many definitions of what strategy is as there are academics and consultants in the field.

Is strategy an organisation or a person thing? Organisations seem to do strategy in some sort of strategic planning process. But as Henry Mintzberg points out in the Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, it is possible, or even usual, to go through a strategic planning ”process”, without strategy actually emerging. Mintzberg focuses on how Strategic Thought emerges.

What do we want to achieve by having strategies? Creating meaning for employees? Creating new direction? Revolutionising business? Surviving? Ensuring long-term viability? Risk minimisation? Starting something entirely new?

In one of his books Tom Peters tells about Bob Eaton, when he stepped in as CEO of Chrysler. At a meeting with many managers he read newspaper cuttings about the bad times Chrysler was in. Everybody thought they were about the present. Bob Eaton read out the dates, and they were about ten years apart. He then said that his job was to ensure that the same situation did not occur after another ten years.

It did not turn out that way, but he was probably right. I use Requisite Organisation Theory, also known as Stratified Systems Theory to understand the difference in work at different levels of the organisation. One of the differences has to do with time consequence. The job of Bob Eaton was to build the structure and set stuff in motion so that the company would be successful and profitable in ten years.

If we want to call that job Strategy, so be it.

What we do know is:

  • There is no way of being certain of the outcome in ten years time, so handling uncertainty comes into it.
  • Strategy probably has to do with being able to manoeuvre through unexpected change.
  • Most probably there is a significant difference between the present state of operations and that which will be in place in 10 years. So whatever needs to be done has to be built on the existing in some sort of mix between bottom-up planning and top-down strategy/vision.
  • Some sort of balance between risk-minimisation and maximum opportunity utilisation needs to be found.
  • Strategy has different meaning for a start-up and an industrial giant with a huge investment in plants.

All these personality tests

I absolutely refuse to be one of 16 personality types. Probably my reluctance to pigeonholing people began at engineering high school, where we introduced to Kretschmers typology. There were two types of people leptosomic who were physically thin and weak with a introvert and timid disposition. The pyknik was round, happy and easygoing. Looking around at the +200 attending the psychology lectures I had my doubts that we could be sorted into two groups, if we could be classified at all.

As a management consultant I sometimes feel the need to know a bit about different personality tests. I keep reading that personality changes very little during lifetime. So various tests should be fairly consistent. But are they really?

I recently bought the Personality Code and completed the test on the web. The IDisc personality types, like Myers Briggs and all the rest of them can be very interesting and to some extent revealing. But whenever I do tests like these, my scoring gets stuck inbetween subtypes and a marginal tilt to one side declares my as being such-and-such personality.

IDisc declares that I am a Detective, but like astrology columns half of the descriptions fit extremely well, but not the rest. And there are 4-5 other personality types that I think fits as well.
And then what? Now that I ”know” that I am a Detective, what do I do with the rest of my life?

Many years ago I did Myers-Briggs and the closely related Kiersey test. They use the same scales, but label the results differently. According to MB I am Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiving. Had I been in a slightly different mood that day I probably could have been Extraverted iNtuitive Thinking Judging, as there was only one point tilting me to one category on two of the scales. Kiersey labels INTP as an idealist.

To some extent I guess that the Detective is closely related to Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiving, but Idealist? At least all these tests are fairly straightforward and categorical. I am such-and-such a type. This summer I completed the Spiral Dynamics CultureScan and got a brief and very hard to understand report. I am Yellow, New Alpha, Systemic Flow, Transitional, 2nd Order Change Preference and Moderately Analog. Above all I need a 16 page handbook to decipher who I am.

I am glad that I have had supervision and therapy by some very good psychologists. I feel quite familiar with who I am and quite satisfied with who I am. I consider my personality (and those of others), as very complex and which cannot be satisfactorily revealed by a 15 minute test. But then of course this is an attitude which would be very typical of a Detective.

En av årtiondets viktigaste strategiböcker

The Strategy Paradox av Michael Raynor ärr en av de mest intressanta strategiböckerna det senaste årtiondet. Jag har arbetat med strategi och planeringsfrågor i chefspositioner i flera stora internationella företag och som konsult. Jag plöjer igenom mängder av böcker varje år. De flesta av dem besvikelser, med enstaka godbitar dolda i ett överflöd av ord, lika meningsfulla som hissmusik. Många innehåller berättelser om hur VD tidigt tog ställning till vad som visade sig vara en framgångsrik strategi. Sällan något ord om liken, efter misslyckade ställningstaganden, längs vägen.  

I The rise and fall of strategic planning, demolerade Mintzberg så gott som tanken på strategisk planering genom att hävda att strategisk tanke, inte nödvändigtvis uppstår i en planeringsprocess. Han menar också att de flesta VD berättelser om hur de och företaget framgångsrikt nådde sina strategier är bristfälliga eftersom de är skrivna med efterklokhet och sällan beskriver hur den strategiska tanken uppstod och utvecklades. Raynors bok är ingen av de vanliga receptböckerna om att snabbt fixa strategier. För de som vill ha snabb tillfredsställelse om hur finna den stora strategin och att envist bita sig fast i den är detta inte detta bok.  

Edison lär ha sagt De flesta människor missar möjligheter eftersom de är klädd i blåställ och ser ut som arbete. Tyvärr har han rätt. Raynors huvud-poäng handlar om att hantera osäkerhet och en mångfald av möjliga ageranden. Istället för att envist hålla fast vid en uppsättning strategier, vinna eller förlora, så föreslår han att man istället hanterar en portfölj av strategiska möjligheter.
Efter Shells framgångar med scenarioplanering på 70-talet har många försökt att efterhärma metoden.

Åtskilliga misslyckades eftersom de valde det scenario de mest gillade och brydde sig inte om resten. Raynor föreslår optionsteori som sättet att hantera det man gör efter att ha skapat scenarierna. Shell använde scenarios för att skapa en allmän medvetenhet i chefskåren om multipla framtida inriktningar. Raynor föreslår att man bygger strategier kring varje scenario och behandlar dem som optioner att läsa in allteftersom lämpliga framtider visar sig.  

Jag tror att osäkerhet är ett fult ord i hjältedyrkande, machoartade chefskultur. Starka åtaganden och fokus på genomförande är vad som räknas. Raynor menar att osäkerhet på 5-20 års sikt är just vad koncernledningar skall arbeta med. Det är deras jobb att se till att företaget är livskraftigt i det tidsperspektivet. Att hantera osäkerhet på lång sikt krockar inte på något sätt med åtaganden och genomförande på tidshorisonter kortare än 3-5 år. Raynor menar att om varje nivå i organisationen gör sitt arbete så har divisioner och operativa enheter mer flexibilitet i att lyckas med sina åtaganden än om koncernkontoret detaljstyr hela tiden. Raynor försöker förändra ”osäkerhet” från något att otäckt och att undvika till något som koncernledningen faktiskt skall jobba med. Han ger ett ramverk för hur man kan positionera användbara metoder för att lyckas med detta. Boken är definitivt en av de bästa jag läst på länge.  

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