Monday, September 7, 2009

Some Thoughts on Span of Control

I listened to a report on the news today that said that the President was appointing his 37th ‘Czar.’ Frankly, I didn’t know the number was that high. I have seen one list that showed he had only 34. One resigned over the weekend, and another was established over the weekend so the number should be the same. The President also has 15 cabinet members who report directly to him, as well as the Vice President, his Chief of Staff and several other officers such as the Director of National Intelligence. All in all, President Obama has, at least on paper, more than 50 people reporting directly to him.

The point of this article is not to comment on the debate as to whether the appointment of czar’s is either constitutional or appropriate; that is for another time and place.  The question is whether it is effective?  The question is whether having dozens of people nominally reporting to one person exceeds the limits of Span of Control.

Span of Control is a term and a concept that has fallen out of favor over the past decade or so, not that it ever had a great following. That is because Span of Control speaks directly to one of the great barriers to effective leadership and management: hubris. Over the past decade or so, as computers have become omnipresent, the idea of the ‘flat organization’ has come into its own. Normally proselytized by ‘management consultants’ and ‘deep thinkers’ with little leadership experience, the idea is that the modern manager can have dozens of people reporting directly to him or her and can effectively lead though such an organizational structure.

In fact, this is the worst kind of nonsense.

If by ‘manage’ we mean nothing more than the collection of performance data from a number of different offices, and there is no requirement to either consult or mentor the individual reporting to the ‘manager;’ no requirement to provide any guidance; no need to understand both the subordinates’ operations; nor any need to understand the subordinates’ responsibilities or issues, then it might be possible to have several dozen people reporting directly to one ‘manager.’ But, in such a situation, the ‘manager’ is not really managing (never mind leading); instead, the ‘manager’ is doing nothing more than collating data and keeping a report card on performance.

It has become popular to suppose that ‘flat organizations,’ in which a hierarchy is replaced by a large group of who interact as peers, are more capable and responsive in today’s information economy. That is true in specific cases. But the key to those cases is that flat organizations will work as long as decisions can be made by consensus, such as in the early stages of some – but not all - research and development.

The problem with flat organizations is simply this: people are people. Certainly, if you have 15 or 20 motivated people working on the early stages of a project it can be quite exhilarating to watch them move forward as a team, to develop new ideas, to arrive at innovative solutions. But, eventually there comes a time when decisions have to be made and egos have to be assuaged. In fact, the first is the easier of the two. Someone must be responsible for making the decision, and that is the manager, not the group. That can be done fairly simply, at least relative to the second half of the ‘equation.’ The second half of the equation is getting everyone focused on the operation AFTER the decision has been made. After the decision, whatever it is, some efforts will be terminated, some ideas – the ‘children’ of some of the people involved – will be crossed off the list, and those who were the creators of the surviving ideas become the ‘firsts among equals.’ It is now up to the leader to motivate everyone else and keep the organization moving forward.

To everyone out there who says ‘that doesn’t really happen,’ my answer is that it does, in every organization on the planet. And the manager will need to spend time with every single individual in the organization to keep them motivated, as well as with select groups – who will respond differently then the individuals inside that group. These responses will rise up among the most professional, senior, educated people, just as they will among a group of high-school students working in a fast food restaurant.

So, how many people can a manager ‘manage?’ In those rare ‘flat’ organizations that really do work well, I have seen very capable managers who are completely tapped out at 12 to 15 people. It is first and foremost an issue of the complexity of the issues at hand. As the complexity increases, the level of emotional involvement will also increase and the number of people that can be managed will decrease. For very complex problems the number of people who can be effectively managed – by the most capable managers and leaders – is remarkably low: three or four people.

Most people will respond that that is silly, that they have seen all sorts of organizations that have considerably more than four people reporting to the CEO. Furthermore, few CEOs report any difficulty with having 8 or 10, even 12 direct reports.

The answer, of course, is that most CEOs and Presidents suffer from both hubris (and believe the are doing a great job when they aren’t), and as important, despite the fact that they may have 8 or 10 or even 20 people reporting directly to them on paper, in fact another thing happens. Instead of 20 people reporting directly to them, in fact, most of the people who ‘report’ to them are adrift, working for no one most of the time.

What happens is this: the Boss (CEO, President, whatever) sets up his organization with a dozen or more people reporting directly to him. He spends several months trying to keep fully informed on the progress of each of these people. Eventually (usually within three or four months, but often less than that) the Boss becomes intellectually and emotionally exhausted from the effort and begins to focus on just a few key areas, usually either the ones he is intimately familiar with, or the ones that he was brought in to fix. The Boss then spends the vast bulk of his time focused on just two or three issues, and for the most part ignores everything and everyone else. These become the key items the Boss talks about all the time. Then, at seemingly random intervals, or whenever someone else brings up an issue in one of the other, non-key areas, the Boss ‘dives in’ up to his elbows and stirs things up. Then, as soon as interest wanes, that issue is abandoned and the Boss moves to another issue or back to the two or three key issues. In this way some issues are dealt with frequently if erratically, and others will seemingly disappear from view for weeks or months at a time.

Speaking of limits to span of control has almost become heresy. I have heard various consultants refer to ‘span of control’ as ‘yesterday’s news.’ When questioned they inevitably are found to have little or no management or leadership experience. More disturbing, many senior leaders are seemingly unconcerned with the issue, firmly believing that they can manage both the detailed information flow and the even more difficult personnel issues associated with a dozen or more people working together. The fact is that they can’t. As tasks become more complex, the span of control must decrease if you want to provide real leadership. And, as people ‘mature’ and develop ever-larger egos, managing the interrelationships among peers becomes more difficult.

In short, Span of Control is a real issue; you may think it doesn’t apply to you. If so, you’re wrong.


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