Sunday, December 18, 2005

Time is the enemy

Companies often boast about their "flat hierarchy" (and yes that term is something of an oxymoron) but it seems a flat hierarchy is deemed to be a good thing - although the reasons why this is so seldom seemed be spelt out.

I think they are supposed to be good because they speed up decision-making - the idea is that are not so many middle managers to go through to get decision.

And they are good because it allows those at lower levels to have their voices heard. A flat hierarchy allows everybody talk about their ideas to others whether they are more senior less senior or just the same level as yourself.

Trouble is, without those intervening layers there is more work for those of the top to do.

Suppose we have nine workers and each reports to one of three managers. And suppose those three managers in turn report a one manager. Each middle manager can spend one quarter of his time with each worker and the remaining quarter with his manager. And the manager the top has a little bit of spare time for external activities. Now if we take out that middle layer the manager at the top has less than one ninth of his time with each employee.

Don't get me wrong and not in favour of big hierarchies and middle managers necessarily, all I am saying is that no point in having a flat hierarchy if people hierarchy don't actually have the time for conversations and discussions. You have to allow time.

So there may be one level between you and the decision-making but will you ever get his time to make the decision? And when you need a decision or conversation will you get the time when you needed it?

Of course managers, wherever they are in the hierarchy, face time pressures. Big decisions need to be made: strategies need to be invented, deadlines need to be set, projects need to be managed and customers need be entertained.

But what about people who report these managers? Of course there is always next week to talk to them - isn't there? - External always seems a trump internal.

The hierarchy may be flat but if managers don't have time it makes no difference whether your hierarchy is flat or deep.

In the first case I'm thinking of giving your people time to help them develop. I said it before and I'll say it again:

"In my management philosophy the number-one job of all managers is to develop your people."

But it goes beyond this.

How do manager know what skills, talents and experiences their staff have if they don't spend time getting to know them?

So often the conversations that matter in the company are the ones that happen outside of meetings. But how will a manager know about these conversations if he spends all his time in meetings and talking to other managers?

On a technical project (yes, I am thinking specifically of software development) the people who do the work of often better positioned to see problems coming. Kind of an “engineers intuition” if you like. But if the manager is frugal with his time how will he ever have the time to talk these people and know about potential problems?

Also it is a matter of simple decency. People no matter where they are the company hierarchy, have a right to be listened to; they deserve to be listened to. And when they listen to they get a sense of fairness, their opinions have been heard and considered. They are more likely to buy in to the company strategy if they feel they have been listened to and treated fairly.

Often it is when the pressures are greatest that a manager needs spend most time with his people. For example, a manager introducing it change, or trying to win a big deal, or accelerate the process, really needs spend more time with his people understanding how it affects them. Unfortunately, it is just these times that managers often feel the need to be elsewhere.

Of course it is not only time starvation that creates a chasm between managers and workers. Separate cultures often develop with managers talking to managers and workers only speaking to workers. Over time managers don't feel the need to attend meetings and discussions with workers and it becomes a vicious circle.

And the same is true for workers. I've lost count of the number of times somebody has told me "they don't want that" - but who are they? And when you do asked them, they are often quite open to ideas. When communication breaks down people fall back on assumptions and stereotypes.

In short managers can get disconnected from those they manage. This is a bad thing for both sides.

So if you are manager please don't this happen to you. Take some time out of your meetings and the decisions to talk to people and find out what's going on and how they feel. After all these people are your most important asset - don't they deserve some of your time?

And if you are worker? Well, I encourage you to keep asking for time, keep trying to engage with your management. Please don't fall back on assumptions and stereotypes, keep asking questions.