Monday, April 2, 2012

O'Brien's Law: Why Your Staff is Growing

I had lunch with some good friends of mine the other day and they were lamenting that the organization they worked for was ballooning in size, a large staff that simply kept getting larger, and with each increase in size the efficiency and effectiveness decreased. I felt it necessary to introduce them to a tenet of organizations that I recognized a number of years ago and which I call “O’Brien’s Law.”*

O’Brien’s Law, based on years of observing staffs at close range, is simply stated:

“If left unchecked, a staff will double it’s own workload every 3 years.”

Those who are blessed to be unfamiliar with how a staff works will ask: why would any group want to double it’s own workload? The key to understanding a staff – any staff – is to recognize that a staff will take on a persona, and the central fact of that persona is that growth in size and importance is the key determinant of success. It doesn’t matter what the greater organization is about, the staff is first and foremost concerned with its own size and importance.

But staffs don’t produce anything. Staffs in commercial organizations do not run production lines, they produce no profits; staffs in the military do not train troops, nor do they lead them into battle; staffs are ‘extra’ or ‘overhead’ and can only be counted on to produce studies, and comment on the efforts of those who are actually doing something. Staffs produce paperwork – studies and reports. In and of themselves studies and reports, briefs and ‘read-books’ are neither good nor bad. They are necessary in so much as they help the leadership of an organization make the right decisions.

So, how can a staff protect itself? The easiest way is to make itself more important. And the simple means to do that is to generate requirements for more information and more reports. By producing an ever-expanding series of the very things that staffs consume - reports and studies – the staff creates pressure to expand the staff. More people and more reports and more information from the various elements of the organization, and more intrusive prodding into the daily actions of members of the organization will in turn create even more pressure for more people.

So, doubling the workload will justify doubling the size of the staff.

If left unchecked, staffs will simply continue to grow. Let me give you some examples: Admiral Nimitz’s staff (Admiral Nimitz led US forces in the Pacific during World War II) in early 1945 consisted of 250 men. Admiral Nimitz was leading a force of roughly 2000 ships, 20,000 aircraft, and nearly 2 million men. General Mattis’s staff (General Mattis is the Commander of US Central Command – which is running the war in Afghanistan (in concert with NATO and the Commander of US European Command)) is more than 4,000 strong. General Mattis of course has benefit of computers, sophisticated communications gear and a range of technology that Nimitz could only dream of, all of which should – ostensibly – make command more effective. But Mattis is commanding a force of perhaps 75 ships, 400 aircraft and less than 200,000 men. In fact, Nimitz was commanding a force that is substantially larger than the entire US military. Mattis commands an organization that is less than 10% the size of Nimitz’s force, but use 15 times as many people to do so.

Virtually every other staff in the US military: each of the service staffs, each of the combatant commander’s staffs, each of the smaller 2 and 3 star staffs, have grown in similar fashion over the past 50 years. The only effective constraints on these staffs have been the buildings or ships that they have been located in and the need in the case of the more junior staffs to be able to deploy. Whenever given the opportunity to move into a new command facility the staffs have enshrined their growth with new office buildings.

Consider the “EOP” – the Executive Office of the President, what is known colloquially as ‘the White House Staff.’ Washington of course, had no staff. He did have a secretary, paid out of his salary. Jefferson had a messenger and a secretary, also paid out of his own salary. The first separate salary for a clerk was created by Congress in 1857. By Grant’s Presidency there were 3 official positions on the President’s staff. By Theodore Roosevelt’s Presidency the staff had grown to 13, and under Harding the staff grew to 31. Hoover added two more. The staff remained at 33 until 1939, when things began to change. Through the 1940s offices were added, to include the Council of Economic Advisors and the National Security Council Staff and the staff grew to be several hundred strong. It also became difficult to track the actual size, as people were (and people still are) sent to work on the staff while still being ‘carried’ in other offices around the government, meaning the staffs since the 1940s have routinely been substantially larger than the numbers provided in budget submissions. By 2005 it had grown to 1850 people actually funded inside the EOP, and current estimates place the size of the EOP in the neighborhood of 2,000 to 2,500 people. And this is with the caveat that there are more people on the staff, but they are funded by other agencies throughout the government.

Obtaining specific numbers as to the size, and the growth in size, of the largest corporations is difficult, some size data are available. Prior to going broke and being rebuilt, General Motors was well known for having a legal staff alone that numbered in the thousands (this when total employment at GM was roughly 225,000 – most of whom were ostensibly making cars). Small companies are equally at risk, with the tendency to add ‘secretarial’ and administrative support to the organization as it begins to grow. The result can be a spurt in number of employees with little to no growth in actual productivity.

The only effective limits to the size of these staffs has been and remains direct leadership from the very top, insisting on rigorous justification for any and every staff increase, a careful eye on every type of report to ensure it – the report – is really needed and that the requirement has not been generated by the staff, to support only the staff; and of course physical limits to growth. Nothing else has served to slow the growth of these staffs.

Is there a way to fight back?

The most important thing is that the leader, the commander, the CEO, must be clear as to what he expects from the staff, and what information is required to develop those reports. Then he must mercilessly and ruthlessly curtail growth in the staff at every opportunity. Every request to grow a staff should be denied unless the requirement is so painfully obvious that you are willing to take a loss in profits or productivity or readiness to fund the growth. In particular, you must refrain from giving the staff any authority it does not absolutely need. In particular, the staff should not be authorized to ‘bless’ budgetary requests that concern the staff. Most importantly, ask yourself, and insist that the staff regularly show, how staff actions support actual production or actual operations.

* If someone else has already made this observation and claimed the right to name it, I have not been able to discover this fact, though I have searched quite a bit. Until such time, I’m sticking with my name!


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