Mind the gap

Since I promised to explain why I thought that hierarchies were broken and in a longer perspective being recreated in a new form, I will start to do it here.

When I had a conversation about organizational consequences of new communications technology a friend of mine told a story about what happened in a large corporation when someone from the management team were visiting the department.

– “It was like an alien had beamed down. He showed us a number of PowerPoint slides and spoke energetically about something. After 30 minutes and a basically silent Q&A session he beamed up again, leaving us to ourselves. A silent confirmation that nobody else understood either were followed by the next point on our agenda.”

This illustrates what I now call the strategic gap of the organization. I have been talking about it for a while in my speeches and nobody anywhere seems to refute its existence. Instead everybody nods and says things like, “yes that is exactly how it is”, regardless of the audience belong to the top, middle or bottom of the organization.

On hierarchies of work

Hierarchies of work is defined by higher levels of responsibility and more overseeing work characteristics the higher you get. One way of explaining this is to recognize the time span of the tasks on the different levels. In general on a higher level we are forced to deal with a wider context and a longer time span, because our role is to manage issues individuals on the lower levels are not able to manage within their own context and time span. What is required is an overview and a capability of a different level of thinking. The increasing complexity that comes with a wider context and longer time span normally requires that we are working at a higher level of abstraction and being able to manage a higher level of uncertainty.

One researcher who have delved into the issues of different levels of time span for the different levels of work in a hierarchy is Elliott Jaques. He identified the fundamental levels in hierarchic organization of work like this.

  1. Focus on Quality – a time span of 1 day – 3 months
  2. Focus on Service – a time span of 3 months – 1 year
  3. Focus on Praxis – a time span of 1 – 2 years
  4. Focus on Strategy – a time span of 2 – 5 years
  5. Focus on Intent – a time span of 5 – 10 years

Being a trained psychologist he identified specific thought patterns matching each level of work. He recognized that a organization didn’t work very well that if some of the levels of work was not being performed, overlapping work were being done or a person with a certain capacity were placed at the wrong level.

N.b. Jaques didn’t write about hierarchies per se, but about how work is being hierarchically organized. This nuance is often missed and these theories are for that reason often neglected as something unsexy as just theories about hierarchic organizations. To read more about Jaques and his theories read Art Kleiners article in Strategy & Business.

Even David Allen is using these different time spans in his Getting Things Done approach when defining the different levels of high level perspectives you is required to take on yourself and your work to set your priorities right.

Work at the different levels
Talking about time span implies that feedback is somewhat interesting, so how does feedback work at the different levels? For work at level 1 it is easy because if you do something wrong it quickly becomes obvious. It is almost the same thing at level 2, even if the time span is a bit longer.

Level 3 is, according to Jaques, the systemic level. To manage the increased complexity in this task our thought patterns have to include systemic relations of subsystems at a more abstract level than at the lower levels. If we are managing a car factory we are most certainly working with the systemic structure of the plant e g how the paint shop is best fitted together with the other modules to assemble a complete car in the most efficient way and how we should organize the supply logistics to minimize time lags. Part from that we are probably initiating quality or culture programs to increase or maintain the overall efficiency and quality of the factory. The feedback is most likely occurring by looking at the productivity and quality measurements for each month, quarter or year as well as having the different subsystems report how they work.

At level 4 – strategy level – we are at an abstraction level above the contained system level. This means even longer time span (maybe 2 – 5 years), higher abstraction, higher complexity and greater uncertainty than what is required at the previous level. We probably have to deal with questions like: “Where are we going to build the next factory?” or “Are we going to invest R&D money into technology X or Y?”. Suddenly we realize that we can’t learn from earlier situations in the same way because there is no objective feedback on this level and above. The same thing could probably be said for small portions of work at the previous level as well, but on this level it has really tipped over.


What has happened is that at this level of work we have almost completely left the realm of managing the current and entered into the realm of steering into the future – a place without either feedback, right or wrong. Instead this realm is full of theories, models and ideas.

Even if we try to be objective on this level we quickly realize the problem since our evaluation approaches are probably based on the same theories as the initial decision analysis. The truth seems to be that on this level and above we have to rely on beliefs. Maybe beliefs based on theoretically sound thinking, but still just beliefs because, about a more distant future we cannot tell if a statement is true in the same verifiable way.

The two worlds

To manage different levels of reality like the present and the future we are forced to have different kinds of thinking. It is exactly this difference in thinking that constitutes the strategic gap. It divides the organization into two separate worlds which rather communicate horizontally with the same level of people in other organizations than trying to cross this gap.

How can we recognize this in our own organization? One significant sign of this is the feeling of growing alienation from both sides of this gap. Another sign is that everybody is constantly engaged in fire fighting and blaming each other for not taking responsibility. The most alarming and obvious sign is the strategy/mission/vision document which uninterpreted is thrown across the gap and falls unread (or at least not understood) to the bottom of the organization like something the cat have dragged in.

Why now?
The reason that this gap emerges now is that it is currently reinforced by some of the changes that currently are taking place. Some examples of these are

  • The individual is provided with new organizational capabilities so reality is changing in a way that new value structures emerges right from level 1, often in direct competition with the official organization
  • An increasing number of employees are trained to take full responsibility for their work and solve many of the problems themselves – problems which no longer have to pass over the gap and act as a common denominator
  • Every statement from leaders will be compared to a huge amount of experiences and views on different levels on a global scale which gives employees many reasons to question the premises and gradually stop trying to understand their own top management
  • The current work situation is becoming more complex and requires increasingly focused efforts to just keep up; there isn’t time to try to engage in unintelligible and seemingly irrelevant mumblings from the top

The future

I fear that top management in all types of organizations is more disconnected from reality than ever. We can see that they are losing in trust all the time. The reason that they float away is not that they don’t get the information, because they gather information the best they can. It is because they live in another reality and filter what they see through their own perspectives and theories of the world, just confirming their own theories.

In the future I can see how many organizations are being “virtually decapitated” and reinvented starting from this gap. When top management “have left the building”, at least mentally, their role will be taken over by those who have relevant capabilities and perspective for the actual required work. I can imagine that in some organizations this has already happened, even if the top management still haven’t noticed it yet.

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