Posted on

The accordion game

As a middle manager in a large corporate IT department, you feel as if

  1. you are in the middle of an accordion
  2. and the accordion is being played by a monkey
  3. and the monkey has taken some sort of unknown street drug
  4. and the strange music the monkey is playing makes no sense to you
  5. and your bosses think the monkey is a genius
  6. and your subordinates think it’s all your fault
  7. and you don’t see how it could possibly be your fault
  8. and you’re not even sure what “it” is.

You never know whether your job will survive the next re-org. Furthermore, you’re not even sure that your job adds much value to the organization: In a nutshell, you (a) take direction from above and disseminate it downward, and (b) collect data from below, compile it and report it upward. You don’t know how to run the business from the top. You don’t know how to do the hands-on work at the bottom. You have only a vague idea of what’s going on. You can’t trust any of your peers. What will happen to you if your present position is eliminated?

How many layers deep is a good lasagne? What about a layer cake, or a bowl of multi-layer dip? Organizations have layers, too. Your family has a dry place to sleep and sufficient food to eat because of your job. If your job lies in, say, layer 4 or layer 5 of an 8-layer lasagne, how secure are you? There’s no law that states how many layers deep a lasagne must be. It could be 10. It could be 3. It’s still a lasagne either way. And cooks love to tweak their recipes.

Organizations change their management structure from time to time as they seek operational efficiencies. The Powers That Be may decide to flatten the organization. That will increase your span of control, assuming the layer you were in still exists after the re-org. Later, they may decide to decrease span of control, adding middle management layers. That makes you a bit safer in the short term, although also a bit less influential and possibly less marketable in the long term. When they pull layers out of the lasagne, you need to appear more valuable than others who are in the same position. When they add layers to the lasagne, you need to grab as much power as you can so you won’t lose influence and reduce your future marketability.

So, you have a strong incentive to make yourself appear important. How can you do that? In our economy, managers in cost centers (like IT departments) are judged based on (a) how much budget they manage and (b) how many people report to them. When you pursue a management career in a cost center function (like IT) you seek to increase the budget for which you are responsible and to increase your head count.

Your career path consists of steadily increasing those two factors as you advance from one position to the next. You try to maximize budget and head count so that you will have a better chance of surviving organizational changes. And if you don’t survive the next re-org, then you must be able to show prospective employers that you managed a large budget and that a large number people reported to you.

That means you will optimize your part of the operation at the expense of the whole. You will build a fiefdom. You will increase your staff to the extent possible, and chop up the work into small pieces with many interdependent work flows, so that your function appears very complicated. If you are the only person who understands the complicated work flow, it will be difficult to replace you.

You will insinuate your department or work group into as many unrelated processes as you can, so that no one will be able to get any work done without going through you. You will discourage individual workers from crossing the administrative boundaries that you establish, because that would highlight the artificial nature of the complexity you have so carefully crafted.

You will appear important. If you play the game well, you will appear irreplaceable. You will survive, and damn the cost to the organization.

Well, maybe.

The repeated swings of the pendulum between flatter and thicker organizational lasagne represent an internal threat to you. To maximize your chances of surviving numerous re-orgs, you make your operation as complicated, as cumbersome, and as opaque as you can.

Competitors who improve their operations and provide superior service to the market represent an external threat. To minimize the chances that your operation will become irrelevant due to external competitive pressure, you avoid making things too complicated and cumbersome. It’s a balancing act.

But there’s another threat: The organizational change agent. Whether internal or external, an organizational change agent will be looking for ways to reduce complexity and simplify operations. Simplified operations will mean a reduced demand for middle managers. You cannot allow that to happen. Your career depends on the indefinite continuation of the status quo. The problem is that market forces will not allow your company to extend the status quo indefinitely, no matter how skilfully you play the accordion game.

So, you’re in an interesting situation: You have to play the game even though you know it is unwinnable in the long term. You can only hope the status quo will endure long enough for you to retire. When change agents come along, you have to do whatever you can to subvert them. After all, you have mouths to feed at home.

Well, maybe.

You might choose to play it differently. What if you were the organizational change agent? Then maybe…just maybe…you could take a turn playing the accordion. Maybe you can make that corporate monkey dance to your tune. Maybe then your bosses would think you’re the genius, for once. When those scary changes come along, if you embrace them and drive them then you will be in control. Instead of waiting for things to happen to you, you can make things happen for you.

Food for thought from an organizational change agent coming soon to an IT department near you.