Turtles all the way
There’s this story I must have read in one of Terry Pratchett’s wonderful diskworld novels. In a conference open to the public, a scientist is approached by an older lady. She contests the round world hypothesis and points out that the world is a disk, carried on four elephants, who stand on the shell of an enormous turtle. The scientist then asks her what the turtle stands on. To which the old lady replies: “Sir, that’s a faulty question. It’s turtles all the way down.”
Looking up and looking down
Look down. On whose shoulders do you stand? And how high is that piramid that is holding you up? Are you more towards the bottom, groaning under the weight of those above you but with some sense that if, no, when it will all come falling down you will not get hurt that much … or at least not from the fall? You may still get crushed, but that’s another problem. Or are you dizzy with vertigo from the height you find yourself at? Quite a way to fall, isn’t it?
Look up. Who are you holding up? And why are you holding them up? Is it just because they are above you on the corporate ladder? Or is it because all of you together get rich of some poor productive soul all the way down there, at the bottom of your particular piramid? Do you feel obliged to hold those above you up, or do you expect they will do something for you?
I believe there are a lot of organisations with redundant management layers. They strive to maintain their existence by growth and create redundant management layers while doing that.
The piramid of power
Sometimes I look at a structure, at an organisation, and I wonder who is actually doing the value added work. This, by the way, is not a new thought for me. I had the same worries when I was part of one of the big 4 audit & advisory firms. The piramid is a piramid of power, and it is very apparent in such structures. The grunts are doing all the menial tasks, the experts are in the middle, being worked hard and supported by the grunts, and those people on top … well, with some noteworthy exceptions, a lot of them are first and foremost marketeers, selling the wares but not really performing much of the work. The revenue models used in those organisations do not allow those high cost profiles to be deeply involved with the work.
That being said, the audit & advisory firms are still among the most flat organisations out there. Look at other hierarchical organisations. There are still a lot of those around. There are those producing the stuff that is actually brought to the market and then there is the entire superstructure surrounding that product and how it is being brought to the market. A lot of organisations have turned into administrations. Even organisations with initially lean objectives turn into administrations very, very quickly, if left unchecked.
But we need managers to coordinate the work, I hear you say. But do we?
Proximity was essential, once
It’s a simple question, is it not? We needed managers once. The owners needed profiles that were capable of growing the business without an inate need to take over the entire company. Perhaps even more telling is that the move from the home, where most production was done in the 18th and 19th century, to the workfloor in the mid to late 19th and early 20th century was predicated by the proximity to a unique and highly expensive power source. That source, most often a steam engine, powered many machines. Not being close to that machine meant not getting any work. And work paid wages, and wages put food on the table. No wages, no food, no future.
The hierarchy was a means to control larger structures. Given that the optimal number of direct reports is somewhere between 5 and 10 people (I’ve often heard it put at 7 people), controlling large production structures became a question of layering enough. Communication then was face to face communication, often accompanied by show and tell. We call that on the job training now. In that day and age, the only way to do the work was using this model.
Old solutions are no longer relevant
Times have changed. We are in the internet age now. With some noteworthy exceptions, power sources are available and power costs are going down more then going up. And it is not just that. Communication has been modernized too. There are a myriad of ways to communicate with each other. The use of hierarchical structures where people talked to people who in turn talked to people is no longer required. The problem is that the hierarchy apparently did not receive the memo yet.
Now, rather than assisting organisations in taking the next step in their growth, in the next step in their evolution, those hierarchical managers are preventing the organisations from doing that. They are now, more than ever, the overhead. And you know what is so dangerous about overhead, right? Well, it usually is over your head. Which puts you at risk when it will eventually will come tumbling down.
And unless organisations, especially hierarchical administrations get the message, we run the risk of incurring significant costs of organisational destruction and clean-up. Because marketeers all the way down is not a viable, sustainable situation.