The expression "Span of Control" surfaced from the murky mists of my mind the other day. I remembered having learned no manager can expect to directly manage more than 7-10 people effectively. This made me wonder if this term was still used and whether the theory still applied. So I had a quick look at the internet. The results certainly made for interesting reading.
Rather surprisingly, the term stills seems to be widely used - another indication that the concept of command and control is not quite as passé as we would like to believe. Wikipedia confirmed my recollection of 7-10 being the ideal number. It also informed me that corporate leaders' efforts to flatten organisation structures since the 80's had caused the average span to increase to about 100. As you would expect, this was made possible by "the development of inexpensive information technology." Nonetheless, with a span of control this wide it is hardly any wonder that employee engagement is the problem it is.
As you would expect, however, the concept of span of control has become "less salient." This is apparently due to the shift away from hierarchical structures to self-directed cross-functional teams. Since responsiveness and adaptability are hardly compatible with hierarchical organisational structures, this shift makes perfect sense.
However, one aspect of business continues to be doggedly hierarchical: the development of strategy and operational tactics. This remains exclusively the domain of the executive team and perpetuates top down, command and control management. Conventional wisdom says this is unavoidable. But the problem with this is that the executive team is:
- The furthest removed from the customer; and
- The furthest removed from day-to-day operations and the challenges people face.
This means that the people who know the business needs best are not involved in the process. Furthermore, in most organisations the executive management team comprises only a small percentage of the business thinking capacity. Thus it is illogical that they should have such a disproportionate say in charting the direction. Clearly this is risky and lack of strategic alignment and lack of employee engagement - different sides of the same coin - are a clear indication of an executive management team that is out of touch.
Good communication goes some way towards addressing this, but only if it is a two-way communication. Management has to be prepared to listen and be guided by people "lower" in the organisational hierarchy. You may not be able to dispense totally with the hierarchy, but you must have some means of utilising the full "business intelligence" of your people. Clearly this is not possible with disengaged employees. You need to move away from "span of control" to "span of contribution."