67 – Design a management job for high performance. Part 1 – some theory.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                              1250 words


In the previous post I discussed a tool that you can use to test your current job design to see whether it has been designed for high performance. In this post I will elaborate on the theory behind the tool. This is a long post but I didn’t want to split the story. Sorry. In the next post I will attempt to apply the theory to the design of three local government management roles that I am familiar with.

Simons’ starting point in discussing the design of high performance jobs is failure to implement strategy. Why is it that organisations with clear strategy, access to resources and developed relationships still fail? He points out managers being too complacent and slow to respond, instead of being entrepreneurial. Problems coordinating activities across functions. Decision making is fragmented. Costs are excessive and eroding surpluses. When these symptoms become evident senior managers start to wonder whether they have put the wrong people in critical jobs. However, Simons says that the problem is systemic across the organisation.

In some ways it has been designed to fail. Key jobs may not have been designed to support strategy. The key requirement for each job is that the supply of organisational resources should match the manager’s demand for them.  should enable each manager to answer the following questions:

  • What resources do I control to accomplish my tasks?
  • What measures will be used to evaluate my performance?
  • Who do I need to interact with and influence to achieve my goals?
  • How much support can I expect when I reach out to other for help?

Simons describes the answers to these questions as the four basic ‘spans’ of a job; control, accountability, influence, and support. Each span can be adjusted to be narrow, wide or somewhere in between. Simons liken the spans to sliders on a sound mixer, as shown below.simons spans concept

So, how does thinking about a job in terms of the four spans help to design it for high performance? I will look at each span in turn.

Span of control.

This span defines the range of resources (people, assets, budgets) for which the position has decision rights and accountability. The span of control needs to be adjusted to match the way the organisation delivers value to its customers. Simons provides some examples. In an organisation that provides value through low prices, the span is narrow and operations are characterised by standardisation and economies of scale. Managers control their function but have limited decision rights about how services are delivered, and little influence over what services are delivered. In contrast, in an organisation that needs to customise its services to suit numerous customer segments (‘local value creation’) the span of control for local managers is wide so that they can customise services in response to customer’s expectations.

Span of accountability.

This span reflects the trade-offs affecting the choice of measures to evaluate a manager’s performance. If a position is responsible for a specific head count (EFT’s) and a tightly structured budget, it will have little scope for trade-offs to improve the ‘measured dimensions’ of performance and, therefore, has a narrow span of accountability. Don’t exceed the head count or overspend the budget in each cost centre. In contrast, a position responsible for market share or profitability can make many trade-offs and has a relatively wide span of accountability.

This setting is determined by the type of behaviour required of the position. If compliance with directives is required, hold the position accountable for narrow measures. If creative thinking and problem solving is required, hold the position responsible for broad measures, such as customer satisfaction or return on capital employed.

This span must be considered in conjunction with the span of control because the first defines the resources available to the position and the second sets the measures of performance using those resources. You might expect that ‘authority would match responsibility’, however, Simons says that high performance organisations many positions are held to broad performance measures even though they don’t have control of all the resources needed to achieve those results. This forces managers to become entrepreneurial.

Span of influence.

This span corresponds to the ‘net’ that the person in the position needs to cast to collect data, get information and attempt to influence the work of others. A position with a narrow span of influence can focus on their functional responsibilities without needing to pay much attention to people in other functions. In contrast, a position with a wide span must interact extensively with people in other functional areas to influence them.

The span can be widened to stimulate ‘out of the box’ thinking to find new ways to serve customers, resolve complex issues or increase efficiencies. Many organisations do this to overcome the ‘rigidity’ of their organisational structure and the silos created. It encourages people to work across boundaries to test new ideas, share information, and learn. It can also help to ensure that operations managers isolated from the customer will interact with the people closest to customers.

The span of influence of a position can be broadened by requiring work on a cross-functional team or making it reportto two bosses (a matrix). The levels of goals also forces broadening. The nature of a manager’s goals drives the span of accountability, but the level (or degree of difficulty) drives the span of influence. A stretch goal will often force people to seek out and interact with more people. An alternative approach is to make a manager bear the burden of indirect cost allocations generated by other functional areas because they will then attempt to influence the decisions of those areas.

The more complex and interdependent the job, the more important the span of influence – and it makes the position more powerful and effective. Simon’s quotes A. G. Lafley, the CEO of Proctor and Gamble, who said that:

“The measure of a powerful person is that their circle of influence is greater than their circle of control”.

Span of support.

This span refers to the amount of support the position can expect from people in other functional areas. It isn’t about the support available from their boss. Where the ‘slider’ is set will depend on how much commitment the position needs from others in order to meet their goals. If the job is independent and individual contributions can be easily measured, and this is desirable in delivering value to customers, the span can be quite narrow. This can be operationally more efficient.

Wide spans of support are more important in organisations where the value chain is complex. In these organisations, managers must be prepared to respond to requests for assistance from others trying to satisfy customers or find their way through complicated organisational processes.   Individual managers cannot adjust their own span of support – it is dependent on a shared sense of responsibility for outcomes, which in turn is dependent on organisational culture. Either everyone is prepared to do it of no one can. Senior managers can encourage broadening of the span of support by focussing on a customer-based mission that creates a shared sense of purpose. Likewise, team or group-centred incentive programs encourage widening of the span of support.

It is worth remembering that the optimal settings for the four spans in any position will depend on the organisations business strategy and the contribution of the job in implementing it. The setting of each span should commence with control, followed by the spans of accountability and influence, then, finally, the span of support can be set.

In the next post I will apply the theory to three local government jobs.

Simons, Robert 2005. Designing High Performance Jobs, Harvard Business Review, July/August.