217 What should our Executives spend their time doing, and why don’t they?

By Lancing Farrell                                                                            1800 words


Image: http://content.wisestep.com/why-your-resume-should-be-one-page-good-reasons

This is the question that crossed my mind recently when discussing time management with a colleague who is part of an Executive team that is reviewing use of their time. They have engaged a consultant to work with them individually to understand how to best use their time. Like every Executive team, they always have more work to do than the time available to do it.

After keeping a time diary in 15 minute intervals for two days and coding up each activity according to musts, wants, work that should be delegated, and work that shouldn’t be getting done at all, it became apparent to my colleague that more efficient use could be made of available time but this wouldn’t solve the problem. Optimising use of time wouldn’t provide enough to do all the work. The nature of the workload needed to be examined.

In part this examination was prompted by the time management consultant suggesting that the time spent by my Executive colleague in meetings with direct reports could be reduced or the meetings held less often. In considering this idea, she realised that this was some of the most valuable time they spent each week. She also realised that (at the moment) she didn’t have a better use for that time. What could she do with the time that would be more valuable than influencing and helping her direct reports? This realisation started her thinking more broadly about the work she was doing.

This led her to re-examine Elliott Jaques’ work on requisite leadership. In particular, Jaques’ concept of time defining the degree of complexity in managerial leadership roles. The idea that every task has a target completion time and that the longer the time-span of discretion for tasks, the more complex the role, struck her as relevant in working out where she needed to spend her time and effort.

Jaques’ describes seven levels of organisational hierarchy, each with a different time-span of discretion ranging from 3 months to 50 years. He calls them requisite levels. Based on this, my colleague sketched out the relationship between Jaques’ theory and her work and time allocation challenge in the following table.

Categories of accountability and responsibility in managerial hierarchy (Adapted from McMorland, 2005, Jaques and Clement, 1991).Jaques table 2Clearly, the majority of time and effort required from an Executive is at level 5 in linking corporate values to the behaviour expectations of individuals through the strategies and cultures existing within their directorate.

A key aspect of this will be applying Jaques definition of work as the ‘exercise of judgement and discretion in making decisions in carrying out goal-directed activities’. Working towards a goal requires the individual to have a concept of the future that is held in the present. Work that is happening now needs to have consideration of its contribution or impact on intentions for the future. This is the challenge for Executives in  level 5 and 6 roles to connect the work of individuals and their teams to corporate strategy and values.

In local government achieving this is further complicated because often it has been strong performance at level 4 that has seen managers rewarded with promotion to Executive roles. They have been good at maintaining current practice and improving it, but effectively linking corporate strategy to their directorates work and driving hard for a return on investment requires a new skill set. And it can be hard to let go of the behaviours that have made you successful.

Even when an Executive can see what they need to do and they are committed to doing it, restructuring the use of time to focus on level 5 work is difficult. Scheduling time to think ahead and plan for future actions is relatively straightforward. As my colleague advised, if you are a ‘morning person’ simply book out the start of each working day to do more reflective work from a suitably quiet place. Consider that this has a flow on effect to others that the Executive works with.

In particular, the direct reports who will now be asked to step up and ensure that their level 4 work is removed from the Executive’s diary (i.e. they don’t bring it to meetings). They will also be asked to implement many of the more future-oriented strategy and culture actions now being planned by their Director. This means that they in turn will have to get their direct reports to step up and operate at level 3 (if they are not doing so already).

Focussing on level 5 work will also require an Executive to take control of their time each day, week, month and year. It is interesting to think about who is actually deciding what work Executives should do? My colleague discovered that much of her work was directed towards her by instruments of delegation and organisation policy regarding authority and decision making. These will need to be reviewed to release Executives from ‘organisational drag’.

Executive’s in-boxes overflow daily with information sent to them for their consideration, requests for advice or a meeting or a decision. Much of it is work better suited to level 4 and it is often generated by managers who have been disempowered. Each week the Executive’s diary fills with meetings requested by others. Again, are these meetings to progress level 5 work or is it simply to make up for deficiencies in the way people are working at level 4 and below?

Even the Executive’s annual work plan is frequently determined by others in local government. The annual business planning cycle is typically ‘bottom-up’ with managers and their teams determining what they think is needed for them to deliver on their understanding of what the Council Plan intends. This is often a critical gap in the corporate ‘strategy to action’ chain through the managerial hierarchy.

Managers also generate capital works business cases, populate council meeting schedules and plan the review or creation of policy and strategy, which drives the work of Executives. As a result, Executives responding to the workload created for them by others can struggle to find the time for the thinking necessary to provide ‘top-down’ direction to transfer corporate strategy into value-adding activities.

I haven’t even mentioned the contribution Executives need to make to level 6 work in supporting the CEO and council to align corporate culture and vision with that of their directorate. The ‘learning through doing’ that occurs in operational arms of the council can often fail to influence strategy to the extent that it should.

Many Executives have become conditioned to this state of affairs. As Martin (2012) points out, there is often a lot of chaos in organisations. Working at the wrong level of hierarchy and the ‘busyness’ that ensues and consumes Executive time is part of that chaos in local government. Martin says that in many cases the behaviour causing the problem is habitual and invisible. Typically, she says organisations become so accustomed to it that they think it is normal, or they recognise it but think there is nothing that can be done about it, or they have embraced it as a good thing and developed skills in coping with it.

So, what is the answer? My colleague isn’t sure but has committed to restructuring her weekly diary to create time to look ahead 5-10 years to identify changes that will improve value in the future and plan how those changes can be tested and implemented. In her case, this will be blocks of structured time set aside at the start of each work day to work quietly or hold key meetings to convert thinking into action.

She will also be changing the way she meets with direct reports to shift the focus away from dealing almost entirely with operational problem solving and removing organisational barriers, and towards cultural improvement and strategy development. This will include ‘broadening out’ her meetings to reach beyond direct reports and deeper into her directorate to speak directly to more people about the cultural and strategic issues relevant to their work in the future.

She anticipates that this will be a gradual process to ‘wean’ her direct reports off frequent problem-solving support and to enable them to ensure that their direct reports are also moving into work at the right level of the hierarchy. It will also have implications for some key aspects of delegation as elected councillors are typically told that they need to deal with Directors, no matter what the issue. Many of their issues are highly operational and best dealt with by officers at level 3 or 4.

It seems that using time effectively and efficiently at the Executive level requires fundamental changes in the way work is designed (e.g. delegations), how daily time use is structured (e.g. time for analysis and forward thinking), reporting arrangements (e.g. meetings with direct reports), and the way everyone in the hierarchy does their work. Each level of the hierarchy needs to be operating at the requisite level.

One of the consequences of this not happening is what I call a ‘hierarchy inversion’. It is just like a temperature inversion, except instead of cold air being above warm air, level 5 and 6 work is being done by people tasked to work at level 3 and 4 (and the opposite happens with Executives dealing with basic operational issues raised by councillors).

This frequently results in strategies making long-term commitments of the organisation coming before the Executive team for approval once they have been formed. At this point, the gap between the Executive’s understanding of what is required in the future and that of the officer preparing the strategy usually becomes apparent. Often, it results in strategies being accepted that inadequate, or they are rejected and there is re-work.

It is imperative that Executives work at the right level in their hierarchy and that they support their direct reports in doing the same. Only then will there be time for the work that is most valuable.

Jaques, Elliott and Clement, Stephen D., 1991. ‘Executive Leadership – A practical guide to managing complexity’.

Martin, Karen, 2012. ‘The Outstanding Organisation – Generate business results by eliminating chaos and building the foundations for everyday excellence’.

McMorland, Judith, 2005. ‘Are you big enough for your job? Is your job big enough for you? Exploring Levels of Work in organisations’. University of Auckland Business Review, Vol.7, No.2. http://www.uabr.auckland.ac.nz/files/articles/Volume11/v11i2-are-you-big-enough-for-.pdf


216 – Some further thoughts on systems thinking.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              1600 words

Rodin's The Thinker

There have been a number of posts on systems thinking examining both its theoretical underpinnings and practical application. I recently had reason to consider how systems thinking, or lack thereof, affects organisations from day to day, and the ways that systems thinking can shape or influence organisational culture.

This was prompted by an article by Brian Martens on ‘the impact of leadership in applying systems thinking to organisations’. It is a thoughtful explanation of his research and thinking.

“Systems thinking is a natural way to look at the world and all the relationships and interconnections that are involved in its functioning.”

I think it is the only way to think about leadership or management in councils because connections matter so much in delivering services that meet the expectations of recipients and because resources are scarce and must be shared whenever possible. Continue reading

215 – From the Archive: Creative ways to make your capital expenditure target. Some ideas.

Posted by Whistler                                                                          570 words

capital expenditure graph

Originally posted 20 April 2015

Yes, it is that time of the year when our engineers and accountants become highly creative.   By June 30 they will need to explain whether or not the targeted amount of capital works has been completed. Often the target is expressed as simply as ‘90% capital program completed’. Usually it is a KPI for the CEO and senior managers. That makes it an important target.

So, why the need for such high levels of creativity?

Delivering 90% of the planned capital works is harder than it sounds. Many councils would have averaged around 60% to 70% over the last ten years. This is partially explained by growth in capital expenditure that has exceeded the organisational capacity to deliver. Another part of the explanation is that capital works programs have become more diverse with more people participating in the planning and delivery across the council. As a result, projects have become more complex and people with inadequate project management skills are often involved.   Finally, councillors have become much more involved and the capital works program will now have projects that councillors, sometimes in response to community submissions to the budget process, have included – often at the last minute.

As the capital works program has grown, become more complex, involved more people with less skills, and started to include projects without adequate pre-planning or feasibility analysis, especially if they require community engagement, it has become much more difficult to deliver the whole program. But the target remains.

This is where the creativity occurs. Continue reading

214 – Worried about pretend managing? More importantly, are you dealing with real or imagined work?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                                          300 words

imagined work

Colin Weatherby has made some interesting points in writing about pretend managing. A colleague recently reminded me of another important idea – there are two kinds of work in any workplace: the imagined and the real.

He was discussing his work in injury prevention in the workplace. In his interactions with injured workers and their managers he has observed that there are two types of work. The imagined work exists in the minds of the managers making decisions about what and how workers will do their work.

When discussing worker’s injuries with managers, the managers frequently describe their understanding of the work and how it happens. This is imaginary work because usually they have not done the work. Some have not even studied the work. They are in charge of the work being performed and believe they know what is going on.

In comparison, the real work is what injured workers describe. It is how they actually do the work. It includes the short cuts and workarounds that are not in any Safe Work Method Statements. It is what they know from doing the work every day.

It is important for managers to know that there are two types of work and that there is a difference.

If managers operate as though their understanding of work is accurate and complete they will make mistakes. And, according to my colleague, workers will continue to be injured. Recognising that there is real work, and that it is important to understand exactly how it operates, is essential. Organisations need ways for the two types of work to come together. The Service Action Plans described in an earlier post is one way for this to happen.

There is no doubt that pretend managers are a problem. But a pretend manager dealing with imagined work is potentially a much bigger one.

213 – What insight does the capability review of one council and the sacking of another give you into local government culture in Victoria?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         1500 words

insight light

Two interesting reports have been published in Victoria in the last 12 months – the Organisational Capability Review of Melbourne City Council in May 2015 and the more recent Commission of Inquiry Report into Greater Geelong City Council, released in March 2016. Each report provides an insight into local government culture.

As someone who has worked at three Victorian councils in the last 10 years, and who corresponds regularly with people working at another half a dozen councils, the insight is not surprising.  It reveals a deep malaise in the sector that has root causes in the political system, the ways our leaders are appointed, and general organisational leadership capability.

To begin, what are the discoveries in these two reviews of major Victorian councils? Continue reading

212 – How do you know if you work for (or if you are) a pretend manager?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                                          1200 words

pretend manager

Have you ever wondered if your manager is for real? Have you ever wondered what they do all day? Has their contribution to work been difficult to see? Maybe you have a pretend manager.

No, this is not a manager bashing exercise. As a long-term local government manager, I respect the effort put in by many of my colleagues. But there are some managers who are just not up to it. And they are not always managers.

Lancing Farrell discussed an interesting book in the last post. I also took a trip down memory lane and re-read parts of The Third Principle. Neville Lake is a practical, perceptive and prescient person. I just love alliteration. His chapter on optimising managers, highlighted by Lancing Farrell, reads as though he looked into the future to see the local government of today. In particular, the sections on eliminating pretend managers and pretend managing resonated with me.

To optimise managers, Lake says you need to eliminate pretend managing and pretend managers.

To start with, Lake says to look for the managers who think their job is to go through the motions of managing and just tick off boxes. Continue reading

211 – Unpredictability, interdependence, complexity and chaos – why councils need to adopt the Third Principle: optimisation.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                                              1200 words

the third principle

I recently rediscovered a book that I bought 17 years ago when it was first published. It is one of those useful management books that is an absorbing read when you buy it, and then it quietly sits on your shelf waiting for the day you really need it. It is now a book for the times with rate capping coming into Victorian local government.

Neville Lake’s central idea is that management practice has three fundamental organising principles – effectiveness, efficiency and optimisation. He believes that an organisation can be both effective and efficient but be sub-optimised. This leads to only 80% of its potential being realised.

The other 20% is trapped in processes that don’t work, management models that don’t deliver, and interactions with customers that fail to deliver expected value.

Having worked in local government for 30 years, I have to agree that we are sub-optimised organisations. Continue reading