Issue #1: The Case of the Missing Authority (Part 3 of 3)

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The Adventures of Hobart Issue 1: The Case of The Missing Authority Pulp Fiction CoverWith some caffeine coursing through his veins, Hobart and I were back in the boardroom, ready for action as we started our wrap-up with the folks from Diversifier.

Hobart began, “Let’s summarize what we’ve said so far. We talked about how you don’t need authority to be an accountable leader.

“Being a leader depends on your span of accountability, not your span of control.” Everyone nodded in agreement.

“Good. You also need to change from the throat to choke system of accountability you’re using now, a system that is focused on the who did what to whom, to an accountability system that is proactive.”

“What exactly does that mean?” asked Lucy.

“It means committing to what you’re going to produce and then meeting that commitment.”

“What he means,” I said, “is that you need to be really clear about what you are committing to BEFORE you make the commitment. And then, once you do commit, doing everything in your power, and within your organizational accountability, to make it happen.”

Hobart added, “And it means that if you meet your commitment, you fulfilled your accountability, and if you don’t, then you failed.”

“That seems a little harsh,” said Joyce.

“Yes,” I said as I took back the conversation, “I can see how it would. However, in matrix accountability, the commitment you are making is not just handed down to you. It’s one that you negotiate, that you willingly commit to. It’s part of what creates a culture of success instead of one of failure,” I said.

“So, you’re saying we have a culture of failure?” Mike seemed quite offended by the implication.

“When you’re focused on whose throat to choke,” answered Hobart, “Yes, you’re in a culture of failure, because you’re focused on what and who has failed as opposed to how to make sure everyone is successful.”

I continued, “Matrix accountability focuses everyone on making commitments they can keep which in turn ensures the success of the entire organization.”

Hobart just couldn’t help himself and he jumped in again and said, “To get that culture of success you have to live within your means.”

Joyce looked confused and asked, “Whatever does that mean?”

“Most organizations set stretch goals with unrealistic, unreachable deadlines and budgets,” I explained. “The goals assigned can’t be achieved within the deadline or budget. Time, people and money are the means by which goals are achieved. If you overspend, you set everyone up to fail.

Hobart added in his typical ‘diplomatic’ fashion, “On top of that idiocy, they don’t prioritize or they try to make everything a number one priority, which amounts to the same thing.”

“Crazy,” he muttered as he shook his head.

“So, you’re saying that we can’t commit to more work than we have the person-power to achieve or the budget to execute,” said Joyce tentatively

“That’s right,” I said.

“When you ask people to do something that is undoable,” I continued, “particularly when they are already overbooked and don’t have the time to do it, and you force them to commit to it, you simply demoralize everyone and there is no way they can get it done because there just isn’t the time – you have too many priorities, you are over capacity.”

Mike seemed to be having another aha! moment. “Oh, I see. So, we have to stay within the capacity we have, because there are only so many hours in a day. No more. People can only do so much.”

Hobart responded, “That’s right. If I give you the equivalent of 15 hours of work a day and you work 8 hours a day, only 8 hours of work is going to get done. It’s simple math.”

“And,” he added, “if you assign 15 hours and the person only has 8 hours, who do you think decides which work will actually get done?”

“Probably the person doing the work, and his or her priorities might not be the ones I would pick,” said Mike.

“Exactly,” said Hobart. “If you want to set priorities, you have to step up and make the hard choices that are involved in setting priorities. It’s one of the primary jobs of the leader – one that was mostly abdicated in the last 20 years.”

Hobart said, “Makes me crazy,” under his breath.

“What did you say?” asked Mike.

“Nothing. Write this down: only assign work that you have the organizational capacity to actually fulfill. Don’t overcommit!”

Joyce jumped in. “Wow, that would change the entire culture here, if we actually did that.”

“What? You don’t think we could do that?” asked Mike.

“I’m just saying it would be a huge change. There would have to be cross-functional priorities and a discipline about what we take on that we don’t have now.”

“Yes, that’s true. Let’s put it on the list of things we need to work on.”

“I believe we have beat that horse to death. Are we ready to move on to another topic?” asked Hobart.

Mike spoke up somewhat hesitantly, “Before we do, I’m still concerned that if everyone is accountable, no one is.”

Hobart responded, “That’s because we haven’t talked about how individual accountability works. Penelope will explain,” at which point he sat down to recover from such an exhaustive expenditure of energy. Now it was my turn.

“Let’s talk about Hobart’s point about individual accountability. As we discussed earlier, the team, as a whole, is accountable for the overall outcome of the team.”

The group all nodded in agreement.

“In order to create a team outcome or output, there are individual outputs that need to get created. Yes?”

Everyone nodded in agreement.

“Each individual output should have one and only one person accountable for producing it. That’s called individual accountability. That way all the pieces of the outcome are covered by individual accountability, and the outcome as a whole is covered through team accountability.”

Mike observed, “So you’ve covered each of the parts and the whole in this matrix approach to accountability.”

Hobart shot a glance at Mike, not believing what he was hearing.

Then he smiled.

“Exactly!” I exclaimed. “Team accountability makes sure everyone is focused on the common goal, the team outcome. And individual accountability ensures all the pieces are completed.”

I handed the marker back to Hobart and he rose slowly from his chair. I worried that the caffeine level in his veins was dropping precipitously.

“The last point we covered before the break was,” he said laconically, “the need to let go of the hierarchy – to let go of using authority to get things done.” He seemed to be building up to something important. “You need to lead and manage horizontally, not vertically!” And bam, he hit them with his main point.

Everyone looked a little shocked at his vehemence.

Simon spoke up and said, “I think you lost us, again.”

“Penelope. . . “

“Let’s think about how the business really runs. You get inputs from your suppliers. You turn those into products and services which are then delivered to your customers. This is a slide of what that looks like generically.”

horizontal dimension of organizational structure

“Your business, whatever it may be, runs through business processes that turn inputs into outputs. Your supply chain is an example of a piece of the horizontal dimension,” said Hobart from where he sat at the table.

“Right,” said Mike.

“You can think of the horizontal dimension as the cross-functional dimension if you want, but whatever you call it, it’s the dimension you should be focused on.”

Everyone nodded because they were afraid to disagree with him.

“You, like most organizations,” I said, “are used to running things vertically, through your functions. Sales runs sales. Manufacturing runs manufacturing. R&D runs research and development. But this splits your horizontal dimension into vertical silos. The horizontal dimension needs to be run as an integrated whole.”

Hobart jumped in, “There is more to operating horizontally than just what we’re covering today and when you’re ready to really commit to doing that, let us know. But what you do need to understand is that, one, the horizontal is the most important dimension of an organization and two, there are no authority relationships in it.”

I continued, “Your leaders all need to learn how to lead without using authority, just like Lucy.”

“Unfortunately,” moaned Lucy.

“Everyone needs to lead primarily in the horizontal and not the vertical dimension, even if you don’t have direct reports because most people don’t like being dictated to by a boss.”

“That’s true,” said Joyce.

“So how do our leaders learn to lead without authority?”

“Training. Train them in the concepts, skills, and tools they need to be effective at leading teams where they don’t have authority over the team members.”

“I’d like some training,” said Lucy hopefully.

“We already have leadership training programs,” said Simon confidently.

Hobart grunted. That grunt that meant disgust.

“Well, you’ll need to examine if those programs are teaching them the skills that enable a leader to lead without authority. One of the key skills they will need is the ability to facilitate a team through a number of collaborative methods, like decision-making, problem-solving, risk assessment, etc. A good collaborative method leads naturally to group consensus.”

Mike spoke up, “We aren’t really into consensus. We want our leaders to make the decisions.”

“Because they know better?” asked Hobart.

Mike seemed flustered at first but then he said, “Because they have a broader view.” He seemed satisfied that that was a good answer.

“So they know everything that the people that have a stake in the decision, the stakeholders, would know? They know all the interdependencies and all the effects each area has on every other area and can put it all together into the best decision possible?”

“Well maybe not everything,” Mike said meekly.

“Exactly,” said Hobart.

“They can’t possibly know everything. But a team that includes all the key stakeholders has the broader, collective knowledge that is needed to make the best possible decision,” explained Hobart.

Hobart continued, “So, the issue is how to harness that knowledge. That is a what good structured collaborative method can do for you.”

I stepped in. “What tends to happen now is that everyone sits around and discusses something ad infinitum, and then the senior leader of the group makes the decision and the group may or may not agree.”

“That works, sort of, in the vertical dimension, in the hierarchy, but it doesn’t work in the horizontal, where there are no authority relationships. A structured collaborative decision-making process would have the group work together through a set of steps that leads to group consensus on the best possible decision, one that everyone involved also buys into and can support.”

Simon said, “We don’t teach leaders collaborative methods or skills, but I guess we need to consider that seriously.”

“And,” I said, “make sure they get training on matrix accountability so they understand how this new system works.”

“And that goes for the senior leaders too!” interjected Hobart.

“Right, if the senior leaders don’t support it and live by it themselves, it will not be very effective.” Mike agreed.

Hobart stood up and said, “That should cover it for today. We’ve covered the low hanging fruit. Lucy and the other product managers will be able to get back to doing what they did before, ensure products are being delivered to customers.”

I stood up and added, “This approach fits with your current appetite for not too much change.”

Mike softened up some and said, “Appreciate that.”

“So,” said Hobart, “are we done here?”

Everyone laughed, a bit uncomfortably and started gathering up their stuff.

Mike looked up at Hobart and said, “This has been eye-opening. Thanks for your help. I know we’ll need more help once we get over this current hump.”

“Sure. Wouldn’t consider moving your headquarters to somewhere besides California, would you?”

Mike looked confused, but I gave Hobart the cut it out look and we said our goodbyes.

“Coffee!” he said as we headed out the door.