Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Intentional management 26: contextual management 4 and building for an effective balance 1

Posted in HR and personnel, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on November 16, 2015

This is my 26th 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 1-25.) This is also my fourth installment within this series on an approach to management that I have come to refer to as contextual management.

To put this posting in context and to clarify what I address here, I begin its discussion by repeating a three point outline as to what intentional management and contextual management are, and how they relate to each other (as initially offered in Part 24):

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 the bureaucratic extreme, and on businesses and organizations that seek to pursue a pure intentional management approach, devoid of any systematic, officially allowed contextual component. Then I turned in Part 25 to consider the reverse image of that extreme point, with businesses and organizations that actively pursue a pure contextual management approach that is for all intent and purpose devoid of any systematic, officially mandated and pursued intentional management element, or the operationally structured, consistent framework that that would provide.

I offered real world case study examples of these two scenarios, that at least came close to the extreme points of attempting one of these approaches without the other in those installments. In acknowledgement of the demands of reality, I add that “the other” is essentially always going to leak through at least a little bit even when it is as assiduously avoided as possible, as a matter of overall policy and from the top down. At least some consistent structure, and some flexibility are essential for organizational survival. But I did focus on some relatively extreme “one or the other” cases there. Then at the end of Part 25 I stated that I would follow it with a discussion of how a business can strategically pursue a more balanced middle ground with a business model that very intentionally includes both stable and fixed, and open and flexible elements.

I begin that here by posing what might be the central question for business model design and execution, and that is certainly the one most centrally important question for contextual management as an approach:

• What parts of a business: what operational processes and functions should be held more rigidly standardized and consistent, and what of them should be kept more adaptively flexible?

Once you have an at least first-cut idea as to where you need to explicitly include flexibility, the next level question that emerges is one of how to add in a contextual management capability, and in ways that would work for your business and the people who work there. Operationally that is largely a matter of building in flexibility so as to support and work with the more fixed intentional management framework that forms its overall context. So I begin here with the fixed framework and with the established and vetted intentional side of this balancing act. And to keep this as simple and direct as possible, I will assume an at least partly regulated industry and a business that operates within that type of system, and according to its legally mandated rules:

• Operational processes that are externally regulated, and that are required to follow some specific pattern, and for design, execution, monitoring and reporting, or some combination of them, do not by their very nature allow for much contextual flexibility if any at all, at least for that part of the business. These areas of a business’ operations are essentially always going to belong essentially entirely within the fixed and standardized of that organization’s intentional management framework.
• Operational processes and functions that have to be carried out with ongoing consistency as a matter of maintaining essential business efficiency and effectiveness, generally follow a similar path and even when there are no outside regulatory requirements. Though I add here, that “outside regulatory requirements” are not always legally mandated and certainly through legislative processes. When businesses work together through supply chain and similar agreements, it can be just as compellingly important that they remain consistent and that they follow a set intentional approach where their respective processes connect at points of business-to-business transaction. Unexpected inconsistencies can spell disaster, and particularly where they arise in what should be high volume transaction flows that would nominally follow some set and agreed to consistent pattern of process and execution and follow-through monitoring. And yes, at least on an input and outcomes level, this consistency can be effectively required contractually to add a legal requirements element here too.
• I could easily add in other operational contexts where consistent and standardized are fundamental and even essentially so. So where do you add in flexibility, and how?

That last point represents a very open-ended question, so I at least begin to frame my response to it, by constraining myself to decisions based on explicit business effectiveness and risk management decisions. This might mean making directly financially considered decisions. But I would also include more indirect measures and considerations there too, such as cultivation of customers with their potential for offering word of mouth and repeat business value, and certainly where that possibility can be cogently argued for as creating long-term value. My goal here is to include functional areas and business functions that might offer real value and potential for it, but that would not necessarily be seen as part of a business’ more directly monetizable profit center operations.

As points of contrast, I add that I am not explicitly considering more strictly mission-driven non-monetizable actions or the decisions that drive them, as often form the underpinnings for socially and societally supportive nonprofit organizations and their governing missions. I will return to consider these and related exceptions separately, and for nonprofits, not for profits, and for for-profits that are greater good, mission driven, after laying down a basic conceptual framework to connect them to.

I am going to continue this discussion with that last bullet pointed question in my next series installment, and will do so according to these framing parameters. 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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