Span (out) of Control

How is it that for a long time we were 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 so often was spans of control in the 2‑3 range ..? [Duh, exceptions and successful organizations aside…]
Because I came across some post on Forbes where there’s an early simple statement that a span of control of 10 would not only be normal, but outdated as well, as the span could be at 30.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 Bruce Schneier’s Liars and Outliers.

Oh yes now it springs to mind the 8 figure was developed by the military, the ultimate built‑for‑survival organization, through the ages to be the optimal span of control, aligning with the apparently natural Dunbar number. It was then taken over to business for its apparent effectiveness, and 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. From which the fearful, the accidentally pushed into management roles clueless managers, tried to do what they thought was the gist of managerial literature: fight all uncertainty that might threaten your career. Through micromanagement, through requiring all data to be reported. Not to use it wisely, but to just pretend to be in control. And, if you don’t understand, just do with less direct reports to shrink what’s coming at you.

That man on the pole was quite a good leader it seems.]

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. A bit like an AA group. Which burdens the underlings by taking time away from actual content work and creating the need for action item lists and reporting blub. Thus losing time off colleagues with all sorts of, 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 (net) negative value with all their externalities that managers may commonly do. This burdening then leads to ‘process’, ‘procedures’ etc., to ‘standardize’ (otherwise, understanding of actual content would be required; the horror for petty middle managers!). Thus hollowing out even further the value of any work done. As in the abovementioned Forbes article; the Peter Principle will reign.
  • Too low a number and the standardization will drive out the creativity (required in customer service and in product/service design, production and delivery). Where that is ever more essential than before to counter the ever more changing environment. As I typed this, this article arrived…
  • Colleagues (or rather, underling staff) will be demotivated due to having less and less time to do the work they’re assessed and valued for by the organization, and having to produce ever more TPS reports for overhead purposes. This will bring down performance, both directly and indirectly. And by the way, all the controls will also suffer by staff demotivation leading to less effectiveness or even full evasion. With equally rising risks for performance.

An extension to ten, or even twenty or thirty would be very well possible as well, in these times of massively improved information and reporting options. The latter aligns quite well with the increased need to at least have a little oversight left.

Though that would require much more empowerment (again) of your employees. That are the knowledge workers par excellence, right? If you don’t have those yet, you may have an entirely different but even more pressing problem… Have the real knowledge workers left, don’t they want to join anymore, or have you unconsciously but actively numbed them into sully drones? Whatever the cause, the real knowledge workers know better than their manager how to do their work – that’s why they do it and not the manager. If it were the other way around, it would be beneficial for the organization to have the manager do the grunt work. And no, micro management is something else.

The empowerment should go hand in hand with different styles of leadership, direction and oversight. Not based on ‘objectives’, made ‘smart’(not) for Pete’s sake, but based on truly smart KPI’s that leave employees room to do their business in ways they see best fit. Not rails, but guiding rails, and no yard-by-yard route directions but some A and B and a road (?) map. Or, well, a good navi system – or would you the manager want to pull the steering wheel for every correction? Reporting can similarly be made smarter anyway, or is that wishful thinking. In times of smart analysis with big data or not, this should be feasible.

And keeping just a little oversight is enough already for a good manager, and quite different from total(itarian) ‘control’. The former is needed to lead and direct, the latter is paralysis through total suppression and denial of a capricious reality.

And oh, for the record, some form of hierarchy will always be needed, even in fully horizontal network organizations with 360° feedback and what have we. Just re-read Flat Army by Dan Pontefract; without collapsing to a free‑for‑all hippie group, there are quite many ways to manage more humanlike. There just are so many ways to flex- and telework from home or anywhere, and a mature manager and her/his organization will pay for performance not mere attendance over performance.

So yes, we all need to focus on upping the number. To counter stalemates. To counter bureaucracy heavens. To regain flexibility. 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 and compliance attitude. Which I doubt. Maybe we should start to let such managers pursue other careers elsewhere, those that are specialists in sticking to their own chair by sacrificing all capacity and performance in times of cost savings. Then, the ones that are not good at that because they really try to achieve something for their organization wouldn’t have to be let go by the numbers and restore some positive balance of managerial capabilities.

But then, organizations relying on the control freak managers (whether already or after they will have crowded out the actual managers via the Peter Principle and acolyte behavior) will lose out to the upstarts that do keep the mold out. There’s hope.

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