12/13/2008 18:40

Chiefs Enough

Not so many decades ago, the adage of complaint was "too many chiefs and not enough Indians", meaning that an organization had more than enough people with responsible-sounding titles but too few people tasked with accomplishing the work of the organization.

(I'm not sure why the Native American analogy was used; it may have been a result of the prevalence of Hollywood westerns when the speakers were growing up. In moderately regimented organizations, "too many officers and not enough fighting men" would have been at least as appropriate a phrase. It is possible that there was a desire to avoid any implication of criticism of the military, which actually did have too high a ratio of officers.)

In modern business bureaucracies, the problem may often be too few chiefs. I remember my time in Wisconsin's civil service where some first-line managers held the title of "Section Chief" or "Team Leader", depending on the level of formality in the department. The section chief coordinated the efforts of several professional people who did the actual work of the section or team.

The key aspect of the chief's role, as I see it today, was that this person was able to respond to the needs of the whole organization. the chief was the responsible person, both in theory and (usually) in fact. The chief was the person to whom others would come to ask for services, the person who would decide how to prioritize the work, and the person who had to answer for delays or failure. And could answer -- this is the key point -- could answer because the chief had the authority to set the priorities and schedule the work.

What I see in many organizations is a lack of chiefs. No one seems to be responsible in this sense, no one seems able to respond to needs and requests, to advance or delay a particular task, to pace the effort in a way that most closely meets the demands of policy objectives, to match the available resources with the work at hand. Instead, the people who are assigned the work are not given the authority to manage the work, while the people who might have the authority give their attention to different matters.

The result is not paralysis so much as confusion. Some tasks are completed, but not in the order needed. Some work is done by more than one team. Other tasks never quite get done, because the workers are diverted to something else. Sometimes work gets done too early, and has to be redone when the scope is redefined.

Having Chiefs enough is the minimum requirement for an organization to work effectively.