Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Intentional management 25: contextual management 3 and the unstructured ad hoc extreme

Posted in HR and personnel, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on October 17, 2015

This is my 25th 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 1-24.) This is also my third installment within this series on an approach to management that I have come to refer to as contextual management.

To clarify this posting and where it enters this series-long discussion, I repeat a brief set of definitional points from Part 23 and Part 24 of this series, as to what contextual management is, and how it relates to intentional management as an organizing approach:

1. 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,
2. 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.
3. 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.

I focused in Part 24 on organizational systems that in effect seek to pursue an intentional management approach without a flexibility-accommodating contextual management component. And I cited, and briefly and selectively discussed a specific government bureaucracy as a working example of that. Then at the end of Part 24, I stated that I would follow that example here, by considering attempts to take a contextual management approach without an underlying established intentional management foundation. I will focus on that here, and then as noted at the end of Part 24, I will at least briefly discuss how a business can strategically pursue a more balanced middle ground between these extremes, and with both consistent organizing structure and process, and a built-in capacity to flexibly adapt where that would make the most sense. (In anticipation of that, my wording: “where that would make the most sense” is going to prove centrally important to that soon to arrive discussion.) But for now, I focus on attempts at flexibility as a supreme goal, and without a consistent organizing framework to support it.

I turn to some of the startups that I have worked with and observed as a source of examples there, and with a particular focus on some of the internet startups that I consulted to, leading up to the first big dot-com bubble burst of late 1999 and 2000 (with some of that continuing into 2001 as well.)

• Startups can slip into what amounts to the opposite problem to that of the overly-rigid bureaucracy, where everything seems to be carried out ad hoc and without recourse to a larger more organized pattern. And all of this, for these startups, is carried out under buzz word rubrics such as “organic growth.”
• The dot-coms that I write of here, fell into that ad hoc only trap, and for a variety of reasons.
• The people who founded them as at least would-be technology visionaries, often very genuinely had significant hands-on technical skills and expertise. But many of these ventures were founded by people with no real organizational or management skills or experience. And they were driven to break away from more traditional and perhaps stable workplaces from frustration from what they saw as the inflexibility of those systems, and from not being able to pursue their visions there.
• They sought to build their own businesses at least as much as points of rejection of older and perhaps more established business ways, as they did for more positive goals-directed reasons.
• And the founders of the dot-com startups that I write of here, believed the hype – their own and that of the press, that traditional business approaches and traditional business performance metrics and considerations were no longer relevant. They sought out and at least in retrospect, surprisingly often received investor funding for ideas that they could not (yet?) formulate as specific profitably marketable products or services. And they sought to build without any consistent, organized business process planning.
• That type of failure can mean a lack of longer term strategic vision or prioritization, and I have in fact been addressing that side to these business ventures in my bullet points up to here. But for these businesses, that also meant a lack of short term organizational and operational planning, and a failure to build for reliable consistency in the short-term too.
• And if a startup starts to slip into that pattern,
• And certainly if it seeks to remain in it in the face of what can quickly come to be seen as a succession of ongoing impending crises, as adversity and the unexpected seem to just suddenly emerge,
• That new business venture is in real trouble.

Businesses facing change management challenges can find themselves overly-rigidly structured where more open flexibility would offer greater value as in my Part 24 example. And as an opposite extreme as exemplified here, they can face what amounts to the same types of change management challenges from an overall failure in being able to organize an effective overall strategy, and where priorities are both inconsistently and inappropriately set and with essentially all key decisions either backed into and reactive, made entirely ad hoc, or both.

So the goal has to be in knowing where and when to adhere to a single consistent process and pattern, and where to accommodate flexibility, when for example acknowledging and dealing with the novel and unexpected. And as a final point of thought for this posting, that is essential if the business and its leadership are to in any way effectively prioritize what they do and what they expend their resources on. You need both consistent structure and resilient flexibility in order to know when and how to best prioritize, and in any here and now or for any anticipatable future.

• Bureaucracies and other sclerotic organizations miss opportunities, and usually quite consistently, from their failure to be able to prioritize adaptively in the face of change.
• The startups that I write of here all too often spent way too much of their pre-revenue liquidity inappropriately (e.g. by literally building what amounted to club houses with pool tables and similar employee recreation perks) – when they really needed those funds for actually building their businesses into competitively profitable enterprises. They could not meaningfully, effectively prioritize either.

And with that set of points noted, I end this posting. And as stated above, I will follow this discussion with one on how a business can strategically pursue a more balanced middle ground that includes both stable and fixed, and open and flexible elements. 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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