What are some of the warning signs that an organisation may be headed into trouble?
Start with how people spend their time.
We’ve known since at least the 1950s, with the work done by William Oncken and Peter Drucker, that management’s time is a key variable in organisational performance, especially in the long term.
Management time is the source of leverage — through what it’s spent on, and how much work is done by the people being managed.
Multipliers on work come with establishing and insisting upon free action by those below you. The term delegation doesn’t mean, in other words, telling people what to do and how to do it, or requiring endless check-ins and approvals, but making them responsible for outcomes and removing barriers to their ability to achieve, all the time guiding and teaching as needed.
One sign that an organisation is headed toward trouble, therefore, is when the management cadre is too busy to pay attention to new and needed initiatives.
Consultants see this repeatedly. Whether they initiated a proposal that was accepted, or responded to the request for one, there’s a project they’ve been hired to undertake that offers the organisation a payback.
The executive sponsor may even have some degree of urgency in mind, if the numbers are meaningful enough.
But the managers involved don’t have schedule space to work with the consultant. They’re overloaded, according to their calendars. Meetings are proposed, then cancelled.
The staff are ready to go. The sponsor’s looking for progress toward completion. The consultant is there. But the manager can’t make the time.
There are crises that erupt. Some other project is in trouble, and needs to be put back on track. Delegation turned into a disaster with this staff member, and not only the pieces need to be picked up, but time has to go into that person’s learning, while it’s fresh.
There are also cyclical issues to deal with: it’s budget time, or plan time, or staff evaluation time.
Still, there’s an ironclad finding that’s often overlooked: management time is best spent where it produces the greatest leverage.
That consultant — who, depending on the financial arrangements, may or may not be costing you money — is a superb source of leverage. After all, you hired a consultant to do the job to get exactly that.
Finding the hours needed to get the project up and running, allocate internal resources, set intermediate checkpoints as needed and then stepping back should be a natural move. It increases the overall return on the manager’s time.
But too few see it that way. Instead they focus on the routine, the cyclical and the meetings that protect against harm (at the cost of great outcomes, by restricting staff freedom) and push the things that would make a difference now to the margins.
Do that often enough, broadly enough across the management cadre, or space too many gaps between involvements, and two things happen.
First, costs go up and benefits don’t accrue: not only do you delay achievement of the efforts (and getting the expected returns from it) but you also drive the cost of the project upward. (If you want people to bid hourly rates rather than value-priced fixed fees to do work, and then come to the cubicle assigned them in your offices and do little to nothing all day on your nickel while they wait on you, this is a good way to go about it.)
Second, if you’re that fully booked, you’re also not doing the job of a manager in looking over a longer time horizon than the immediate at challenges the organisation may face, or opportunities it may miss.
If you want to know why so many organisations end up failing, here’s one of your answers. Watch how managers spend time — and what they can’t (so they say) make time for.