Friday, March 19, 2010

First Time - Part 18: Span of Control

This is part 18 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

Span of Control

There has been a great deal of talk over the past 15 to 20 years about flattened organizations and how modern systems and the internet let senior management make direct contact with the workforce, or with sales or whatever is applicable in your organization.

Let me be the first to say that I fully support any elimination of unnecessary middle management and stultifying bureaucracy. Of course, the operative word is ‘unnecessary.’ But the fact is that some middle management is necessary. And the reason for this is simple: human beings are incapable of controlling more than 6 or 8 people at a time.

The common wisdom is that the flatter an organization, the faster it can respond to changing conditions and changing customer preferences. Why this is so is fairly simple: the number of steps between the work-force and the decision-maker has been reduced. Information flows ‘up’ more quickly; the decision-maker is in closer contact with the ‘shop floor,’ hence has a better ‘feel’ for the situation; more rapid and accurate decisions are made; and the decisions are communicated more quickly to the ‘shop floor.’ There are fewer de facto powerless middle managers who can only slow down information and inhibit decision-making, thereby allowing more rapid response.

All of that is true. But it doesn’t change the fact that if a leader is directly managing more than a certain number of people he will be swamped with information flow – of all types – and be incapable of properly executing his functions.

Why this is so is fairly simple: we are a gregarious bunch but none of us mixes perfectly. If you have one person who works for you, the only relationship you have is the one between you and that person. If you have two people who work for you, you have four relationships to manage: the relationship between you and each separately, the relationship between the two of them, and their combined relationship with you. If you have three people working for you, that number jumps to 13. True, some of the relationships will, in fact be of no consequence. But, as a rule of thumb, you can assume that the minimum of meaningful relationships that you will manage is equal to your number of subordinates – squared. So, three people: nine important relationships; 4 = 16, 5 = 25. By the time you get to 10 you have 100 different relationships you need to manage. And while each will take a few minutes a week, some may well consume hours at a time.

Is it possible to have a host of people who are all remote from each other, none of them dealing with any of the others, allowing you to deal with each ‘one-on-one?’ Certainly. And in the rare cases where that exists I suppose one individual might be able to handle a whole host of people. But such circumstances are very rare.

And so, despite the fact that most leaders thoroughly enjoy mixing with ‘the troops,’ the fact is that no leader can actually manage more then a handful. History bears this out, not only in the major political and military leaders of the past, but also in virtually every leader of today. The average manager or leader today often has fooled himself into believing that he can manage 15 or more people reporting directly to him. But close observation reveals, in virtually every case, that what happens is something like this:

Of the 15 people who report to him, he routinely ignores the bulk of them. In fact, he is so oversaturated with input that he will focus on two or three subordinates who are involved in the work that he himself is particularly interested in. If he used to be with sales, he will focus on sales, if he was an engineer, he will focus on the engineers and system development; in the military the commander will spend all his time with his operations officer and one or two subordinate units, and never talk to the G1, G2, G4, G5, G6 or any of his other staff codes (and usually several subordinate units will also be ignored.) This will persist for some time and then, as if descending from the heavens the boss appears in this office or that office, appears to show great (often too great) interest for a certain period of time, provides guidance – often conflicting, then disappears, not to reappear again for who knows how long.

If this sounds like your boss, it is because his span of control is too great. Hopefully, it doesn’t sound like you.

As a leader you are responsible not simply for managing the ‘output,’ whatever it might be; you are responsible for your people. And that means you must know them, and understand them, and understand the issues and pressures they are facing. That includes all the various relationships that develop in any workforce. And that takes time. You must become involved if you want them to be the best they can be. And yet there is an obvious limit to how much time you can spend managing all these relationships.

So, how many people should work for you? The answer is not an easy one. It depends on the complexity of the tasks at hand and the degree to which the subordinates operate independently. A chief of surgery at a hospital may have a dozen surgeons ‘working’ for him, but in a very real sense, they don’t work for him, and his degree of control and oversight is less then it might at first appear. On a production line a foreman may have 10 or 12 people working for him and as long as the skill level is not too high, and he has the time to come to know everyone, this may be manageable. As the complexity increases, or as the turnover rate increases, it will become increasingly difficult to manage 12 people.

It is worth noting that the size of an infantry squad – around the world – is between 7 and 11 people, and has been for more than 2000 years. This has nothing to do with tradition and everything to effective leadership. That you can then move up through most armies in the world and find most commands trying to keep the number of subordinates reporting to any commander in the range of 5 people is a testimony to the lessons of effective leadership (it often is more than 5, but most people do try to keep that number in sight.) Simply put, the leadership becomes less effective as that number increases.

You will need to find your own way, and on your first job you will certainly simply be told what the answer is. But, be honest with yourself and recognize how hard it is to do your job and manage everyone and all the human relationships that are around you. Delegate when you can, take notes, and when you have the opportunity, don’t over extend yourself.


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