In designing management-structures, why is it so often assumed that responsibility-relationships only go one way?
Our organisations often place enormous attention on insubordination, a refusal or failure to follow ‘orders from above’; yet why don’t they place the same level of attention on insuperordination, the refusal or failure to respect the the same relationships and responsibilities to those ‘below’?
For that matter, why do we still prop up the misplaced myths of ‘above’ and ‘below’ anyway? After all, in a service-oriented view of the enterprise, there is no hierarchy – they’re all just mutual peer-level service-relationships, no different in nature from any other. And does anyone benefit from those myths any more? – other than people who need to prop up arbitrary and unwarranted delusions about their own importance?
This came up for me today from three different directions:
- reviewing several posts here on management-architectures, particularly ‘Rethinking the architecture of management‘, ‘Management as ‘just another service’ ‘ and ‘Rebalancing top-down management-architectures‘
- a Tweet from SystemsWiki, pointing to a brilliant HBR paper by Gary Hamel, First, Let’s Fire All The Managers‘ [PDF]
- thinking about ‘bosses’ I’ve known – some good, some not-so-good, and some just plain incompetent
I’ll happily give names to the good ‘bosses’ – Helen Mills at Australia Post, for example, or Graeme Burnett at DSTO. For the others, well, I’d best be a bit more circumspect, hadn’t I? – which is an interesting point in itself…
But there’s one of the latter that comes particularly to mind. It was on a large engineering-project a couple of decades or so ago; almost all of the team were contractors, some of them world-class level, because it was a genuinely innovative system that had to do things that had never been done before. To make it all work, and to hold the team together, we needed a manager at the same kind of skill-level. What they gave us instead was – to be blunt – an incompetent idiot, a classic civil-service time-server, eking out his last years before retirement. Not a good choice…
He was way, way out of his depth and his comfort-zone – a fact that became painfully obvious even before the first day was out. He had no experience or understanding of the inherent anarchy of innovation: as an ex-military-type, all he knew was command-and control. Which really, really, really didn’t work.
We limped on under his endless incompetence for a few months, until one day it all came to a head. At a particularly fraught team-meeting, every one of the contractors blew up at him, saying that he alone was the reason why the project was so far behind schedule; furious, he rushed out, accusing everyone of insubordination, and yelling – and I quote – that “I’ll have all of you frog-marched out of the establishment!”
At that point, the executive realised they needed to intervene, kinda urgently… The team explained to them that whilst, yes, they would perform best with a good manager, they would actually be better off with no manager at all than with this guy. And for once – hooray! – we actually had senior-management who had some real grasp of what was going on – and they agreed. So for the rest of the project, we ran as a self-organised team, without any manager at all.
In short, our incompetent manager had been fired for insuperordination – failing to deliver the required management-services to the level needed within that context.
Looking around at most management-structures, it’s clear that that needs to happen a lot more often…
And this, of course, is where it can get v-e-r-y tricky for enterprise-architects and the like. We can see what’s not working. We can see why it’s not working. We know exactly what to do to get it working again. And yet we’re supposed to pretend that the myths of management-hierarchy are somehow sacrosanct, that insubordination is real and punishable, but insuperordination and plain management-stupidity is not. We’re allowed – in fact required – to ‘fix’ anything and everything except that which is the blatant cause of the problems, namely those myopic myths of management, which we’re not allowed to challenge at all. Hmm… About time we started being honest this, don’t you think?
Implications for enterprise-architecture
Insuperordination isn’t just lack of leadership: it’s a structural failure of the management-model to support essential symmetries of responsibility in mutual service-relationships.
And as a structural flaw – one that has serious impacts on overall enterprise risk – it’s very much a concern for enterprise-architecture.
The key requirement here is to stop thinking in terms of hierarchies. If we take a service-oriented view, it’s clear that management-services have a very real function, as information-aggregators and resource-distributors, dealing with the trade-offs across a functional-silo.
Yet those types of services are not well-suited to managing end-to-end cross-silo process-flows: there needs to be a separate category of coordination-services that handles that task – a fact which immediately implies matrix-relationships of some kind.
And those matrix-relationships need to be peer-to-peer – which doesn’t fit at all with any Taylorist-style concept of top-down management-hierarchies.
In short, top-down ‘command-and-control’ hierarchy is an overlay on top of a tree-structure that arises naturally from aggregator/resource-distributor relationships. The tree-structure provides a genuine service; the hierarchy, all too often, a genuine disservice. Don’t conflate the two structures: they’re not the same.
The way to separate them is that the tree-structure could be viewed in any orientation: top-down, bottom-up, sideways-in, centre-out – it’s all the same. But the hierarchy is always described as top-down: it can’t be made to (seem to) make sense in any other way.
The top-down management-model is essentially a leftover remnant of a supposedly long-dead feudal past, in which position in that hierarchy denotes ‘rights’ to demand subservience on pain of punishment for ‘insubordination’. As a structure based entirely on ‘power-over‘ – with all the dysfunctionality that that implies – it can only be made to seem to work as long as there is no need to engage the ‘subordinates’ actually in the work: “check your brain in at the door” is how one colleague described it. But when the work does require that kind of personal engagement – as is becoming more and more common throughout almost every business context – then the overall system will either operate only at low efficiency, or even fail to operate all, if that ‘conventional’ command-and-control hierarchy is allowed to remain in place.
It’s an architectural choice. Command-and-control hierarchy will only work with low-agility: if we need to preserve command-and-control hierarchies, we will not be able to achieve high-agility in that context. If the organisation – or some part of the organisation – needs high-agility, we must define a structure in which that section of management is peer-based, as ‘just another service’ – and in which the responsibility-failures of insuperordination must be recognised as exactly symmetric with insubordination.
In any given context, we can choose one model, or the other: they don’t mix well, and we can’t have both in the same context – as even current military doctrine [PDF] now makes clear.
If we want our organisations to work, we need to stop pretending that insuperordination doesn’t exist – and instead acknowledge that it’s one of the most serious sources of organisational risk.
That’s the message that we need to give to our enterprise-architecture clients.
Challenging, yes – but it’s the only way that this is going to work.