How leaders bought themselves time (and why it failed)

Time is always a scarce commodity in a company and even more so for leaders and managers. The phenomenon has of course intensified over the last 20 years with the multiplication of technologies that have made us switch to near real time, but the phenomenon has always existed.

When you suffer from a lack of time there are not an infinite number of possible solutions: prioritize and delegate. And this race against time has over time been one of the causes (not the only one) of the growing complication of organizations.

Delegation as a solution to lack of time

In a day that never lasts more than 24 hours, even the most hard-working people end up reaching the end of a logic based solely on prioritization. So they started delegating. A little at the beginning and then more and more. Delegating files, but also delegating whole areas of responsibility. And it’s totally logical.

No need to look at a (large) company today to wonder why it has come to an incredible stacking of hierarchical layers, departments (based on the principle that when a subject emerges you have to create a department to deal with it) and temporary commissions, task forces and project teams (but sometimes the temporary lasts…). Just look at a company being created, knowing that all large companies are born small.

At the beginning you have a leader or a management team that does everything. The company is small, there are few means, it’s inevitable. As it grows, the areas of responsibility become more refined. Those who have expertise deal exclusively with the subject and when a subject requires a technicality that does not exist in the company, someone from outside is brought in.

What is seen logically as the most logical of functional organizations is only the result of two things: the material impossibility of the founder(s) to do everything for material (time) and/or competence reasons.

And as we cannot create departments ad infinitum (although we can sometimes ask ourselves the question…) when a subject emerges and requires a specific treatment, a project team or a task force is created to which we delegate its treatment. Always for the same reasons: time and skills. If you’re looking for another reason, take a look at some of the companies you might see growing: for a founding manager to abandon a field, he or she must feel incompetent (and many find it hard to recognize this), or they are seriously lacking time (a more frequent reason).

Delegating, which in the end at this level of responsibility leads to structuring the company into different departments or directorates, is the most logical and sensible thing to do. So there is nothing wrong with that.

When delegation happens on every floor…

A company is born with its leaders but, fortunately, it can grow and sometimes grow a lot. And little by little, at each level we begin to see the same problem as the above one.

So those to whom they have delegated delegate, those to whom they delegate will delegate, and as all this becomes formalized we see the hierarchical layers multiply and a form of bureaucracy proliferate because, as we will see later on, all this is not always put in place wisely.

That’s how we see large companies with 15 or 20 hierarchical levels, but when faced with companies of such a size, we can say to ourselves that this is normal when it’s not always so. But I’ve already seen SMEs with 50 people at 5 hierarchical levels with managers supervising only one person or even only themselves.

The irony of the story is that appointing managers and creating departments at all costs to get things done has become a practice in itself without remembering why we started doing it and why we should be doing it in the first place.

But let us proceed.

When we see what we see, we can only wonder if it really works. People continue to run out of time (okay, the company’s business has continued to accelerate) and on top of that, from an organizational point of view, it’s working less and less well.

So why?

Poor delegation creates heaviness

To cite just some of the figures put forward by Yves Morieux in “Smart Simplicity“.

  • Managers in the top quintile of the most complicated organizations spend more than 40% of their time writing reports and 30-60% in coordination meetings.
  • In the most complicated organizations, teams spend between 40% and 80% of their time wasting it, not because they are doing nothing but because they are doing unproductive things.
  • Over the last 15 years the number of interface, coordination and control process structures has increased by 50 to 350%.

Delegation, whatever you call it, brings reporting and control. And by dint of piling up, we spend more time managing the effects of delegation and making it work than we do working. So delegate to someone else?

Missions were delegated without delegating the means or trust

The multiplication of reporting and control structures is, of course, a logical consequence of delegation, but it is above all its proportions that cause concern. And this is an avoidable evil.

Delegating a task or domain makes sense. Then it is a question of defining the level of control you want to have over what is done. Depending on the criticality of the subject we may want to keep total control, control the decisions and not the execution or not control anything at all.

This is where the problem lies. Delegating and wanting to control everything is the same as not delegating at all, because all subjects end up back on the table of the one who wanted to get rid of them. And he only has himself to blame, that said.

The inability to trust therefore leads people to want to retain control over the most trivial tasks and thus make those to whom they have entrusted a mission simple resource managers, which is not without causing other problems.

So the delegation and setting up of functional departments and adhoc teams did not allow those who did it to save time, just to postpone the moment when the problem will come back in their hands.

In short, delegation does not work without a clear establishment of responsibilities and if people are not given the means to carry out their responsibilities. Without subsidiarity, if we do not force ourselves to deal with issues at the level at which they should be dealt with, everything always ends up going up.

Because one also delegates upwards

You thought delegation was an exclusively top-down phenomenon? Well, you’re wrong. It can also be ascending. It is called “upwards delegation“.

This is what happens when a person does not take responsibility. Or when a company suddenly moves from a mode of hyper control to a more empowering logic, often under the impulse of a new leader who wants to reform culture and managerial model while the company is not used to it.

In these cases everyone will seek implicit or explicit validation from their superior for anything and everything, even when the latter does not ask for it. And often, he himself will try to cover himself against the decision of one of his subordinates. I am not going to write once again the ubuesque situation that brought the validation of the recruitment of an assistant in Poland to land on the desk of Alcatel Lucent’s CEO, 16 hierarchical levels higher, several years ago but I invite you to go and read it here.

Because we think vertically and not horizontally

The reflex according to which “one subject/problem = one department” is so ingrained that it has become a reflex whose validity is no longer questioned. Wrongly so.

Sometimes, instead of adding a structure that will reinforce the verticality of the company, the problem could be solved by transversal, horizontal collaboration between existing structures.

But one does not think about it and moreover being “head” of a vertical entity is more rewarding than being project manager / facilitator of a short-lived transverse team.

Because image matters

In still too many companies, often old and well-established, it is no longer seen as a way of dealing with a constraint (time/competence) but as something statutory. “If I don’t delegate myself, I’m not really a boss”.

So as soon as possible a person will try to staff their team and recreate roles to which they can pass the monkey.

And I’m not even talking about those who were appointed manager with no one to manage, not to say that they were a one-person task force because of their rare technical skills.

Remember your reasons for delegating and creating new structures.

There should be only two reasons to create a new structure, to put someone in charge and to delegate a subject to him. Lack of time or skills of the person who is currently leading the topic. That’s all there is to it. Any other reason is a bad reason.

And while you’re at it, don’t delegate without giving the means, trust and decide on the right level of control, otherwise the subjects you wanted to get rid of will come back to you with a vengeance, often in a hurry and having gotten worse in the meantime.

Image : Save time by nito via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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