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  • Writer's pictureHillel Glazer

The Unpopular Elephant


In wrapping up this series, we’ve stayed away from a very touchy subject. The series began with observing “the elephant in a room full of elephants” and identified that “elephant” as the subject of time.


That’s still true. Time is still the elephant in a room full of elephants because it is always there, and as such, is overlooked. But there’s another elephant in the room and this one is harder not to notice. In fact, its presence is well known and people must work to ignore it. That unpopular elephant is the touchy subject of people.


The most recent entry in this series promised to examine three questions:

  1. Are the right people in the right jobs?

  2. Can everyone communicate with all of the people with whom their work interacts?

  3. Are staff and leadership mutually accountable to each other?

These are not abstract musings on process, flow, efficiency, or time.

These questions deal with people and require that we ask sometimes difficult questions.


Are the right people in the right jobs?

What does it mean when the answer is “no?”


Can everyone communicate with all of the people with whom their work interacts?

When no, why not?


Are staff and leadership mutually accountable to each other?

What does this even look like?


In recent years it’s become part of business fashion to stake out a corporate position that anyone can be trained to “move up” the corporate ladder; that employees all have “equal access” to promotion and leadership roles. But in reality, this just isn’t rational.


Not everyone “wants” to be a manager or other leader. Not everyone has the disposition to oversee others. Not everyone can break free of the inhibitions precluding them to trust others. Not everyone has the intellectual capacity to take on challenging work. Not everyone can hold a mental image of the complexity of the business in their heads. Not everyone has the strategic mindset to see beyond a certain timeframe.


Operations are not just the tools, processes, and sequencing of delivering work. Operations are systems of people. Treating everyone as if they all have the same desires, capacities, and mindsets is obviously detrimental to the business and is terribly unfair to the individual.


An effective approach to treating everyone with the respect they deserve and within their own capabilities is through effective organizational design. One such design schematic has the following characteristics:


Every position is defined by what it is accountable for.


That is, when given everything necessary to get the work done and left alone to do it, what outcome (not just output) is each position expected to bring? Is it reasonable for each person in each position to be expected to produce this outcome? Do they have what it takes? Can they ever have that? Spend extra time considering the scope of the word, “everything.”


To whom and by what means does each person interact?


Of course, this involves managers and subordinates, but remember peers within and across the organization, too. How do people keep each other informed? How is it assured to be timely? How much authority do people have to coordinate and synchronize independently? How does this affect what they’re accountable for?


Each branch of the org chart cumulatively builds towards a shared goal.


When positions are defined by accountabilities—both up and down, and sometimes laterally—and communication, coordination, and synchronization are open and facilitated, the structure ought to be working together towards a shared objective. A common source of organizational dissonance is when parts of an organization have different objectives from other parts reporting through the same leadership positions. This is also witnessed by other dysfunctional behaviors such as “favoritism” and workload imbalance.


Establishing what these three characteristics ought to look like for a given company takes work. It often demands asking difficult questions, difficult answers to get, and difficult decisions to be made. Too often companies avoid this work by asserting blanket policies that don’t help either the company or the employees.


It’s understandably impossible to provide all the details here, so consider these questions and the organizational characteristics as merely starting points for important discussion. This is a place to start, not a recipe for finishing.


No amount of planning, automation, sequencing, managing, timing, or structuring will overcome the drag of a poor organization. Getting this right well enough can create opportunities for growth and success long before any other improvement approaches. The magic happens when it all comes together.


Good luck.

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