Redesign for Capability Not Flatness

In an HBR Blog Network essay by Ron Ashkenas titled “More direct reports make life easier”, the case is made for increasing the span of control so that it becomes “possible to compress the number of hierarchical layers or levels.”  Why do this?


Ron insightfully notes “today the manager’s job is more about leadership than control…it is to foster teamwork and communication while providing inspiration and direction.”  It seems that the intent to control is recognized as no longer appropriate.  Ron continues “when executives use changes in spans and layers to drive greater empowerment and simplification — with cost-reduction as a by-product — it can lead to a fundamentally more productive organization.”  It appears the desired effects are less cost and more productivity derived from fewer managers, greater simplification and empowerment.  On the surface, to get these results all we need to do is increase span of control of managers.  Sounds great and oh so simple!


There’s More To It

Even though increasing the span of control leading to fewer levels and less managers can reduce cost, the resultant structure is still hierarchical.  A flatter hierarchy is still a hierarchy.  Critical to understand is that changing the number of levels of management, reducing the number of managers, is not synonymous with a change in the nature of management—the antecedent of empowerment.  Absent of anything else happening, having more direct reports and subsequently shifting responsibility is not empowerment, its delegation!


Although Ron claims “the manager’s job has changed…no longer is her primary function to aggregate work done by subordinates and control their activities”, the focus or emphasis seems to be on the span of control and not on changing the approach of management.  That is to say the effects desired won’t be realized unless there is a corresponding change in the approach to management as well as the very practice of business: That is, unless there is a commitment to continuous improvement of quality throughout the organization, particularly management.


Moreover toward reducing the number of management layers, the implied approach to implementation asks executives to “drive for greater empowerment and simplification, which reflects a mechanistic command and control orientation., When enlightened by learning anew those in authority will understand that the organization and those in it can’t be driven—you drive machines and you engage with people.  People aren’t objects to be moved about by the power of one’s position.


It is a change in words but not a change in mindset.  What this reveals is holding onto the beliefs of an old paradigm while espousing the way of a new paradigm. I’ve experienced this very practice as the norm not the exception.  That is, still ridding the hobbyhorse of management control while using new paradigm terminology.  Talking the talk, not walking the talk!


Fundamental Change of Mind

If a truly different way of organizing and managing is desired, yielding empowerment and sustainable productivity gains, then those in authority have to fully dismount the hobbyhorse of control and learn to understand the nature of management and practice business of a different mind.  Such a change requires committing to practices that employ the positive energy triad of self-initiation-non-attachment—engagement’ and discontinuing the use of the negative energy triad of ‘fear-desire-pride’ upon which popular management practices are based.


One can’t implement a new approach to organizing and managing while employing the negative energy practices of the old paradigm and continue to embody integrity and trustworthiness.  Because duplicity won’t engender trust among those you seek to influence, this approach of talking the talk will inevitably fail.  Hence the often-heard lament, oh we’ve tried that before, it doesn’t work!


If we truly challenge the why of organizing and the corresponding role of management, then we indeed will have a fundamental change in how we think about and practice the business of business.  We would no longer mix paradigms.  We won’t use terms like subordinate when referring to those with whom we work or mechanistic words like drive when speaking about influencing people’s behavior. Mixing paradigms isn’t reflective of new thinking it simply represents a rearranging of our thoughts not thinking anew.  It points to the need for education of management.


Seeking to reduce costs by flattening the organizing structure is not the way of the wise since it inevitably increases fear, confusion and total cost.  The intent that guides decisions should not be cost reduction but development of capability.  The number of managers an organization should have is the number that facilitates the improvement in capability and the emergence of creativity—no more and no less!  Once you change your mind about what it means to manage and lead then the way to greater capability (and creativity) will be revealed.  It is as simple and complex as this.


2 thoughts on “Redesign for Capability Not Flatness

  1. My organisation has recently gone through a change programme (read: cost-cutting by removing layers of hierarchy and reducing staff levels), and i am now observing precisely what you describe so eloquently here. The espoused purpose of the programme was “transformational change” & “a flexible and agile workforce”, but all that has happened (to me, and others i observe around me) is individuals having less autonomy, less connection to the senior power base, and way less satisfaction with the job. It is a great shame – we could have done it so much better if the thinking had been stretched, as opposed to just the finances.

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