Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Intentional management 23: contextual management 1

Posted in HR and personnel, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on August 30, 2015

I wrote this posting and then decided to add a clarifying note to it, at its beginning before uploading it to the blog server so it can go live there. When people write and talk, and I add think about business strategy and planning and their execution, they almost always do so in terms of best practices as ideally adhered to and followed. In the real world, we all find need to allow for exceptions and special situation accommodations and even when we as a general rule seek to follow some same set of consistent best practices, and even when we seek to consistently adhere to some single current strategic vision and plan and to a single consistent ensemble of operational procedures. We think and plan in terms of a relatively set and standardized ideal, and then the real world intrudes and we have to add in flexibility too.

I write about and speak about best practices and those intended consistent standards, and I have pursued them throughout my own professional work life and career, but I too have had to deal with and allow for exceptional circumstances. And I began developing what I call a contextual management approach in an attempt to more systematically address the issues that this set of challenges brings with it. And with that said, I begin this series installment.

This is my 23rd installment in a series in which I discuss how management activity and responsibilities can be parsed and distributed through a business organization, so as to better meet operational and strategic goals and as a planned intentional process (see Business Strategy and Operations – 3, postings 472 and loosely following for Parts 1-22.)

I have been discussing intentional management throughout the course of this series, where that is a management approach that seeks to align basic standardized management processes in place, and standardized accepted approaches that are taken in executing them, with the specific needs of the organization and its stakeholders. Intentional management is about meshing the right management systems with the right businesses so as to make those businesses more effectively competitive. Then at the end of Part 22, I began to introduce a sometimes seemingly conflicting side to this overall approach, with some first thoughts offered on contextual management.

• If the goal of intentional management is to arrive at and follow a standardized best practices management approach that is optimized for the specific business and its circumstances,
• The goal of contextual management is to add adaptive flexibility into those intentional management systems, and structured allowance for exceptions and course deviations as need for them arises.
• While intentional management as a basic approach is about structure and consistency, contextual management is included to add flexibility and resiliency, where a more rigid and unaccommodating alternative to this combination would be less likely to effectively, sustainably work and certainly long-term and in the face of change.

That does not necessarily mean having to fundamentally rethink or permanently change a management system or its processes that are formally in place, and either in general terms or in specific detail. This is about flexibility and adaptability in what are essentially settled and established business management systems and practices, with consistent expectations as to what would be done when and where and by whom, and along what timeframes – but where need for exception handling can still arise.

I cited two starter example situations at the end of Part 22, that are at least intended to exemplify how need for special-case exception handling can arise. One dealt with a relatively common and highly localized situation, where an employee with an otherwise set work schedule might need to have an exception made, in this case so they can attend a doctor’s appointment. But as I noted there, flexibility and adaptability in this special exception circumstance would not in and of itself be expected to permanently alter this employee’s work schedule – unless to continue this example, recurring doctor’s appointments and medical need were to arise and in ways that would require a work schedule change as a reasonable accommodation. Then, I add this would require negotiation on the part of involved parties, and might as one possibility mean a longer-lasting work schedule adjustments. And to carry this example one step further, recurrence of this type of work schedule exception, with this circumstance arising for more employees would probably lead to the development of set policy for handing this type of event; I wrote this exception handling example as a new type of event for a probably still young business where it is still a real exception and from a more individual manager and employee perspective, and from their Human Resources policy perspective.

And to highlight the diversity of types of context in which contextual management issues can and do arise, I also cited in-house consulting as a source of very different types of exception-driven events. And while in-house consulting might not be exception driven for the in-house consultant or for their home base team within the business, it all but certainly that it would represent an exceptional situation for their in-house clients who might see both a need for this type of special assistance, and also see this assistance itself as fitting completely outside of their norms. (Here, I am assuming an in-house consultant is being brought in to address a new and emergent problem or opportunity, and not simply to add in a standard skill set that is not available in the client manager’s team but that they will periodically need brought in.)

Contextual management – managing with an effective awareness of context and of optimizing performance in the face of its vagaries and uncertainties, is much more widely applicable than might first be apparent, and for many businesses and organizations where accommodations and adjustments are made all of the time and often without anything like systematic consideration. My goal for this posting and for subsequent related discussion in this series is to at least briefly and in broad brush stroke, discuss this management challenge, and in ways that at least hopefully can be applied to a wider range of situations and events than I will be discussing here explicitly, by way of working examples. And I begin addressing that larger set of issues by posing some fundamental questions that contextual management as an approach is intended to at least clarify, if not always unequivocally resolve and to everyone’s satisfaction:

• Which processes, practices, standards and understandings in a given business absolutely have to be held constant and without room for special case exceptions? (Outside regulatory guidelines and similar set operational frameworks only cover part of an effective answer to that.)
• And which of a business’ processes, practices, standards and understandings can flexibly allow for exceptions and for adaptive accommodations?
• Focusing here on that second group, what types of accommodation and flexibility might realistically be allowed and under what terms, and under what circumstances and for whom?
• What types of agreement would have to be reached as to what is and is not allowed here, and what stakeholders have to enter into those negotiations? (To clarify at least something of the scope of the last clause of this question, I collaterally ask: what stakeholders would likely see a particular accommodation in question as creating problems or complications for them if they are not included in these discussions and negotiations, and made fully aware of this possible accommodation in advance of its taking place?)
• What would the consequences be of adding flexibility into a business system at a point where this type of analysis would suggest that flexibility would not be prudent or allowable?
• What would the consequences be of adding flexibility into a business system that would at least nominally support that, but in ways that a contextual management analysis would argue against?
• And similarly, what would the consequences be if the terms as to what accommodation was allowed were to be broken, and different exception actions were taken than were agreed to?
• What positive results would accrue from allowing for flexibility when terms of exception allowing agreement were adhered to?

These and related questions all focus on where flexibility and allowance for exceptions would and would not make sense, and the consequences for allowing or not allowing exceptions as a core due diligence exercise. And the primary goal of contextual management per se is to reduce if not eliminate avoidably unnecessary ad hoc decision making, with its inconsistency and with its opacity to learning curve advancement and systems improvement. Exceptions are made, but rarely considered, and certainly for their aggregate overall impact. And for many businesses, that in and of itself can become one of their fundamental unrecognized challenges.

• And to cut ahead in this discussion, I add here that when the same accommodation or exception has to be made repeatedly and even consistently, this is a clear indicator that the “standard process and approach” that this is an exception to, is deeply and even fundamentally flawed.
• So exceptions can offer more than just here and now immediate flexibility for addressing what might be more one-off situations. They can also at times serve as a crucial indication of where change and even fundamental change might be needed.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will discuss organizationally rigid bureaucratic systems and how ad hoc decisions leak through that rigidity as a sometimes one and only path to allowing any flexibility at all. And in the course of that I will add more to my here-started discussion of what contextual management is as a whole. After that, I will discuss more entirely ad hoc and essentially rules-free organizations, as I have seen attempted and particularly with some of the more loosely organized startups that I have seen close up. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory. Also see HR and Personnel and HR and Personnel – 2.

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