Thursday, February 11, 2010

More on Managing Management

Continuing the conversation I wrote about Monday, Tony Sirna came back with the following:

I wrote:
I’d define good (or effective) management pretty much the same way whether the group is using consensus, voting, ouija boards, or do-whatever-Ralph-says.

Tony responded:
While I agree, I think the interesting question is in the edge effects. The middle management might be the same, but I think the relation of CEO to shareholder is very different from Executive Director to members which is different from that of president to voting public.

While I agree that the relationships are quite different in the three diverse examples Tony cites above, I don't think what defines good management changes. That is, the answers to the laundry list I posted under the heading "
Effective delegation requires clear mandates" might change significantly, but the questions don't change.

Tony continued:
At DR I’m most curious about how to deal with that relationship—between top level managers and the group, or alternately how the group can function as a good manager.

My shoot-from-the-hip response is to insist on clear mandates, so that the relationships and expectations are well defined. As a process consultant I work with many cooperative groups and, overwhelmingly, there is a marked tendency to be sloppy about crafting clear mandates for managers and committees, trusting (naively) that good intent will be an adequate substitute for comprehensive thinking. While I'm not sure this is a problem at Dancing Rabbit (I haven't seen their authorizing agreements), I am aware that they have a level of sophistication in how subgroups are categorized regarding their authority to act, and I'd like to bring that into the conversation as I widen my answer.

Jacob Corvidae (an ex-DR member and regular contributor to the Sky Talk blog) laid it out well in the thread he added to this conversation on Tuesday:

I dug up a common business concept (which I first learned from you, Tony) of defining levels of delegation. My paraphrase of it looks like this:

Level 1 – The Report:
Look into the matter, gather information and options, and report back.

Level 2 – The Recommendation:
Look into the matters, gather information and options, identify possibly actions with pros and cons and recommend one of them.

Level 3 – The Action Plan:
Decide the best course of action and make a plan to implement it. Then get the plan approved before starting.

Level 4 – Make the Decision:
Decide and take action, but report on progress and the plan along the way.

Level 5 – Full Delegation:
Go do it and report back only if something unexpected happens.

Several ideas are used around these levels of delegation. The first is that they simply help clarify to everyone involved what’s expected. That’s an important first step in avoiding future problems.

My understanding is that all managers and committees at DR are assigned a level of authority along the lines of the five enumerated above. Essentially, they choose from this menu when addressing the specific question in my mandate template that reads: "What are the limits of their authority to act on behalf of the group? (Put another way, when can they act on their own and when do they need to consult?)"

While I think it's terrific that they've developed this concept of authority levels (which simplifies a complex field—range of authority—making it easier to grasp), I'm concerned that a given manager or committee might simply be assigned one level to cover everything they do. If that's what DR is doing (and I'm not sure it is), it can't be right. Better, I think, would be to walk through each responsibility assigned to that manager (the detailed answer to my question "What is the manager expected to accomplish?") and assign a distinctive authority level to that manager for that responsibility. Thus, the Pet Committee might have Level 4 authority to confine roaming cats indoors during bird nesting season, yet have only Level 2 authority to establish policy regarding pet armadillos (which exotic thing, blessedly, has not yet occurred).

Jacob further wrote:
Other business folks use it as a progressive path for empowerment. In other words, you should never start with delegating at levels 3, 4 or 5 for a new person or committee or when someone’s taking on a significantly new role. Rather, each level builds on the other, and a good manager has to check the skill level and match it with expectations before moving on to the next.

While I like the idea of a pathway to earning the group's trust, I don't agree that you can't start new managers or new committees with high levels of authority. It depends on how clearly the mandate is established, your assessment of competency, and your sense of what degree of nuance and familiarity with the group's culture is needed in order to function well. If you hire a new CPA to handle your accounting, you can be damn sure you'll want that person to have Level 5 authority over ledger entries (though, of course, you may only extend Level 2 authority to them with regard to budget recommendations).

But let's get back to Tony's second question. Reading between the lines, I imagine that Tony's main concern is that top managers must wrestle with how much information to share with the group, when to consult before acting, and when to simply go ahead, even when the expectations in that regard have been spelled out. I suspect that Tony's worrying about the tension between a steady demand for a more streamlined governance process (read wanting fewer meetings, and thus being willing to assign higher authority levels to top managers) and members' expectations that if they complain about something they don't like that it will get addressed (read uneasiness about getting steamrollered by bureaucracy, and thus cautious about advancing authority levels too far).

While I may or may not be reading Tony's concern accurately, I think there's a definite issue of how to avoid a concomitant rise in us/them dynamics as the group steadily increases in size—which is the express path that DR is on. Put another way, how does a group intelligently minimize grumbling about what "they" are doing when members complain about the actions taken by top management?

I believe there is a five-part strategy (If you like the metaphor of five fingers on a helping hand, I invite you to envision an open palm, not a fist):

1) Insist on clear mandates (which I've spelled out in my previous blog).

2) Insist on good reporting (there's an strong link between access to accurate information and trust; if good information is not readily available, eventually, neither will trust be readily available).

3) Delegate the highest authority levels you can stand (if your mandate and reporting standards are high, you can do a lot with this, minimizing the needed for plenaries). Hint: for this strategy to work well, the group has to be disciplined about honoring the work of the managers when they operate within their mandates. If you don't like something they did, yet they stayed within the traces, don't be an ass and ream them out in plenary. Have a private conversation where you share your opinion while recognizing that they had the right to act as they did, and then move on.

4) Insist on regular evaluations of managers and committees, which should absolutely include appreciations as well as any critical feedback (I spelled this out in my previous blog, where I laid out the value of attending to minor irritations as a prophylactic against sepsis).

5) Educate the membership on the balance needed between rights and responsibilities. Thus, each member does have the right for their voice to be heard on community issues. However, that right is inexorably linked with honoring the process the group establishes for how to contribute respectfully and effectively. Members who wish for their opinions to count have the responsibility to read the minutes,
go to the relevant committee meetings, add their input in a timely manner, and contribute constructively (not obstructively). Skipping all the preliminary meetings, not reading the minutes, and then bursting into the final plenary with guns blazing to shoot down the proposal at the last minute is not cool. Independent of whether the complaint is based on sound thinking, it trashes the group's process and undermines the system of governance. Don't be that person!

What I'm talking about here is developing a community-wide culture where there's definition about what it means to be a good citizen.
It's an important conversation.

1 comment:

Tony Skyhouse said...

Hi Laird,

We do indeed specify a manager's or committee's power level for each type of action or decision.

Life is certainly not so simple as giving someone one level of authority for all they do.