Span-of-complexity, timespan-of-discretion and the double alignment of ‘know-how’

by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD

John Kotter, in his article about how to stay competitive amid constant turbulence and disruption, introduces the idea of “two systems, one organisation“, one system being about the organisation of the vertical linkages associated with the hierarchical North-South, and the second being about the way East-West networks of horizontal linkages are organised. He makes the point that competition is more and more about managing the complex on the edge of chaos, far different to the demands of the 20th Century corporate era.  How are we to think about the demands this shift is imposing on individuals?

Elliott Jaques, in his book The Form of Time, makes a distinction between two kinds of time (p14):

  • chronos – that of “chronological, seriatim time of succession, measurable by clocks and chronometers”; and
  • kairos – that of “seasonal time, the time of episodes with a beginning, a middle, and an end, the human and living time of intentions and goals”.

Jaques, and the Brunel Institute he founded, developed an approach to career path appreciation within bureaucracies – organisations in which the work of subordinates within a hierarchy were aligned under the strategy ceiling of the whole.  This approach was based on the timespan of discretion expected in the exercise of a particular role within the hierarchy.[1]

This timespan of discretion of a role is identified by Jaques in terms of chronos, but can also be identified in terms of kairos in terms of the role’s span of complexity. The span is defined by the operationally and managerially independent entities that are interacting with each other ‘horizontally’, but for which the role holder is responsible ‘vertically’. The complexity comes from the way these ‘horizontal’ interactions generate behaviours [2].   This timespan of discretion/span of complexity reflects the extent to which the exercise of the role is under-determined, i.e. determining outcomes is open to the judgement of the role-holder. In a role that is over-determined, there is a chronos logic to the succession of events that leaves the role-holder with no discretion over outcomes.  But with under-determination comes the opportunity for the role-holder to impose outcomes through the exercise of judgement.  In Jaques’ work, the importance of the accountability hierarchy was to ensure conformance of the role-holder’s judgement to the overall expectations from above the strategy ceiling.  Seven levels were distinguished, described as follows:[3]

  1. Prescribed output: responding to concrete demands – use expertise in practical judgement in such a way that resources of time, skills, equipment and materials are not wasted or misused.
  2. Situational response: assessing concrete needs – comprehend each particular situation by exploration, imagination and appraisal, and then resolve it; explain why work is to be done in a particular way; explain/demonstrate how a particular task is to be done.
  3. Systematic provision: handling concrete systems – imagine all the possible practices and systems that might be used; select those that are appropriate in the light of local conditions; make the most of the people, the finances and the technologies in order to realise those that have been chosen.
  4. Comprehensive provision: developing multiple services – coordinate and supply resources for the practices that are already in place; develop new systems or practices; meet changes in purpose; terminate those means that are no longer realising the purpose.
  5. Field coverage: shaping overall operations – represent the organisation to the external context; act as the source of the mission and as the source of both current and new technologies; relate the separate activities of level 4.
  6. Multi-field coverage: framing operational fields – monitor, obtain and shape intelligence about external contexts; protect the strategic business units against excessive turbulence, alerting them of opportunities and likely pressures; representing the organisation in external contexts; judge priorities for corporate investment.
  7. Total coverage: defining basic parameters – state and disseminate the values of the whole; consider how these values may best be expressed in contexts with different value systems and different social and political economies; design contexts for the future of the whole in places or activities that may appear peripheral but will eventually be sources of strategic advantage; sustain the whole by producing new strategic business units by acquisition, mergers and joint ventures and divesting where appropriate.

The difficulty with this framework emerges when there needs to be no strategy ceiling, and the behavior of the enterprise needs to be relational, delivering type IV quality within the client’s domain of relevance. The alignment of the levels must therefore not be determined by a prior design-time strategy ceiling but in response to the present ‘WHY’ of the client’s relation to their situation representing an opportunity.[4],[5] This is a shift from affiliation to a founding model established at design-time ‘above the ceiling’. In its place comes an alliance formed at ‘run-time’ around containing some particular set of dilemmas in the client’s situation. It requires a change to the way the levels are understood in which the four quadrants are explicitly aligned to the particular client situation. It helps to see this difference if we speak of ‘service units’ rather than ‘business units’.

The first four levels remain the same, being about the way infrastructural capabilities (1-2) and intra-service-unit organisation (3-4) operate.  The changes come in the levels 5-6 which deal more explicitly with inter-service-unit alignment, and with the superstructural assumptions in level 7 which become primarily about creating value in the client situation:[6]

  1. Prescribed output: responding to concrete demands.
  2. Situational response: assessing concrete needs.
  3. Systematic provision: handling concrete systems.
  4. Comprehensive provision: developing multiple services.
  5. Field coverage: shaping overall operations within the client’s domain of relevance – align service units to the client’s context-of-use within an operational field[7]; act as the source of the mission and as the source of both current and new propositions; relate the separate activities of service units at level 4.
  6. Multi-domain coverage: framing operational fields aka domains of relevance – monitor, obtain and shape intelligence about clients’ contexts-of-use across multiple domains of relevance; protect the domains against excessive turbulence, alerting field coverage of opportunities and likely pressures; represent the whole in clients’ contexts-of-use; judge priorities for strategic investment..
  7. Overall coverage: defining basic parameters – state and disseminate the values of the whole; identify client domains of relevance for the future of the whole in places or for activities that may appear peripheral but will eventually be new sources of value; sustain the whole by creating new service units and potential composite services through alignments between them by acquisition, mergers and joint ventures and divesting where appropriate.

Viewed in this way, these two sets of supply-side levels 1-4 and demand-side levels 5-7 can be used to examine the ‘double alignment’ of ‘West’ know-how[8]:

  1. Vertically, to ensure that roles are defined in terms of the first supply-side set, aligning role-holders’ interests to supporting the use of units’ services at the edge; and
  2. Horizontally, to ensure that the dynamic processes of collaboration and co-creation align the relations at the edge between units’ services and client situations, conforming to the second demand-side set.

These correspond to Kotter’s “two systems, one organisation“, the first being about the organisation of the hierarchical North-South, and the second being about the way the East-West networks are organised.  Managing the tension between these two forms of organisation is fundamental to enabling an enterprise to sustain relational behavior.

[1] Two kinds of insight emerged from the use of career path appreciation: (i) a critical examination of the numbers of levels in a hierarchy, and whether they were necessary to its effective operation – leading to the identification of pseudo-levels; and (ii) a comparison between the level at which the role was defined as compared with the level of which the role-holder was capable – here mismatches led to difficulties in fulfilling expectations of the role and/or behaviors going beyond the remit of the role itself.
[2] Complex behavior (as distinct from chaotic, complicated or simple behaviors) reflect the relation between the horizontal cause-and-effect linkages and the vertical control linkages. See the drivers of organisational scope.
[3] In his book on levels of abstraction in logic and human action, Jaques approximates these timespans chronologically in terms of where the breakpoints came: levels 1-2 ~ 3 months; levels 2-3 ~ 1 year; levels 3-4 ~ 2 years; levels 4-5 ~ 5 years; levels 5-6 ~ 10 years; and levels 6-7 ~ 20 years. When dealing with relational organisations, these have to be converted into time spans relative to the granularity of the component activities, but in a way that reflects the way the relationships are structured.
[4] ‘Client’ is used here in the sense of the position of the client in tempo, entanglement and East-West dominance – the problem is local to the client’s situation or context-of-use, and the models for delivering value have to be actively aligned to that situation.
[5] Remember that the strategy ceilings are derived from the 4-quadrant analysis of the theory-of-use implicit in the behavior of the enterprise.  The ordering of these quadrants comes from the ways in which their timespans of discretion/spans of complexity are nested – it takes longer to shape behaviors supporting the ‘WHY’ than to shape the behaviors supporting the ‘WHAT’.
[6] Thus levels 1-2 relate to the infrastructural capabilities of the ‘WHAT’; levels 3-4 relate to the intra-service-unit organisation of the ‘HOW’; levels 5-6 relate to the inter-service-unit organisation of the ‘WHO-for-WHOM’; and level 7 relates to the superstructural assumptions of the ‘WHY’.
[7] This ‘operational field’ is the domain of relevance with respect to the client’s situation.
[8] Referred to in a footnote to the last point 4 of tempo, entanglement and East-West dominance.  This is what leads to the need for ‘tripartite leadership’ – see The Double Challenge: working through the tension between meaning and motivation in a large system.  Tripartite leadership involves top leaders, professionals and clinicians e.g. in “Leading Psychological Services: A report by the Division of Clinical Psychology”, British Psychological Association, February 2007. For clinician you can substitute any edge role that is about shaping the response to the particular situation. The religious domain is another domain in which I have had particular experience of the challenges facing tripartite leadership e.g. Asymmetric Leadership: supporting a CEO’s response to turbulence.

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