How is it that for decades, we had been used to managerial spans of control being in the 5-to-10, optimal (sic) 8 range, whereas what we had in the past couple of decades is spans of control in the 2-3 range mostly ..? [Duh, exceptions and successful organisations aside…]
Because I came across some post on a well-known business site where there’s an early simple statement that a span of control of 10 would not only be normal, but outdated as well, as the span could be at 30.
Well, I doubt the latter, as this would conflict with a lower ‘Dunbar’ number which indeed is about 8, with ramifications for informal control as outlined in this Bruce masterpiece. Oh yes now it springs to mind the 8 figure was taken by the military, the ultimate built-for-survival organization, to be the optimal span of control, and taken over to business for its apparently attractive all-business-is-war metaphor – where the attraction is there only for those not really exposed to the gore of war, I guess.
But whether it’s 8, 10 or 30, the optimal span of control clearly is larger than the common today’s practice.
Which has implications:
- Too low a number will inevitably lead managers to seek to have something to do. Busywork, in their role leading to excessive micromanagement (yes pleonasm but on purpose) and/or excessive meeting behavior, in particular with their underlings and/or likewise trapped colleagues, like an AA group. Thus burdening the underlings with time taken away from actual content work and the need for Action item lists and reporting blub. Thus burdening colleagues with all sorts of time lost on, what actually is, whining.
- Too low a number and the micromanagement leads to extreme (far overextended) controls burdens on the ones who’d actually produce anything of value instead of producing negative value with all their externalities like managers may commonly do. This burdening then leads to ‘process’, ‘procedures’ etc., to ‘standardise’ (otherwise, understanding of actual content would be required; the horror to managers!), hollowing out even further the value of any work done. As in the abovementioned / linked Forbes article; the Peter principle will reign.
- Too low a number and the standardisation will drive out the creativity (in process and in product/service design/production/delivery) that is required ever more than before to counter the ever more changing environment. As I typed this, this article arrived…
So yes, we all need to focus on upping the number. To counter stalemates. To counter bureaucracy heavens. To regain flexibility.
But still, still, this could only work IF, very very big IF, ‘managers’ (not to address actual managers, that I value enormously!) can loosen their frantic, fear-of-death-like Totalitarian Control attitude.
Which I doubt. But then, organisations relying on these (whether already or after they will have crowded-out the actual managers via the Peter principle and acolyte behavior) will loose out to the upstarts that do keep the mold out.