How many layers do you need?

Levels of Work in Organizational Learning

As organizations grow and mature, increase in headcount, I see the construction of too many layers. In an effort to create a flat organizational structure, I see too few layers.

Most organizations follow a military protocol and misunderstand layers as reporting relationships. When I ask any group of managers if they have direct reports, they all raise their hand. I have to remind them they are not managers so people can report to them.

In the struggle to create “reporting,” too many layers emerge. The decision of who reports to whom gets made based on seniority, age, political pressure, personality. None of these are good reasons for “reporting” and eventually create organizational friction.

Every organization faces different problems to solve and has different decisions to make. Some problems and decisions are more complex than others. It is problem solving and decision making that demands layers (contexts). We can measure the complexity of the problem or decision by defining its context. That metric is timespan.

Looking at context, most problems and decisions fall into five levels or stratum. If we organize around the decisions and problems, we come up with a natural order of layers, not too many and not too few.

Stratum I – decisions and problems at hand, where variables are known, concrete, tangible.

Stratum II – decisions and problems of intention, related to quantity, quality and time. This is the land of supervision and coordination. These are short term variables (up to 12 months).

Stratum III – decisions and problems related to variables that fall along one specific critical path, or system. Intentions for system output are consistency and predictability. Goals and objectives up to 24 months.

Stratum IV – decisions and problems related to the existence of multiple systems (multiple critical paths) that must be integrated for total system throughput. Goals and objectives up to 60 months.

Stratum V – decisions and problems related to the enterprise in the context of its market (external system). Goals and objectives range from 5 years to 10 years.

It’s all about context related to decision making and problem solving. What is the level of decision making, what is the level of problem solving required? As the organization grows, it must meet those decisions and problems with the people who have the capability to make those decisions and solve those problems. The people in those positions must be able to bring value to the decision making and problem of the team one level of work below. And, that’s how many layers you need.

Tom Foster

Tom Foster

Tom Foster spends most of his time talking with managers and business owners. The conversations are about business lives and personal lives, goals, objectives and measuring performance. In short, Tom’s work focuses on transforming groups of people into teams working together. 

Talk to us.

We're interested in speaking to people who would like to be part of our vision.