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Consider the cases of two general managers, Ted Hanson and Rita Collingsworth. Because of a major restructuring in both their organizations, they were asked by their respective COOs to decentralize a significant portion of their operations to middle managers. In Ted's case, after much of the technical staff--particularly the design engineers and financial professionals--had been laid off, five of the product managers in one of his divisions were to be given increased responsibility for the packaging, product design, and control of their product lines.
The managers had developed a crack reputation because of their respective successful product launchings. Yet Ted wasn't sure that four of these managers were up to the task, because they hadn't been involved in design work for four to six years. Moreover, all had relied so heavily on their financial staff that their control of operations would have to be constantly scrutinized. Fortunately, the company's new computer information system would allow Ted the means for careful review.
So Ted called his five managers together and announced that he would be giving them additional responsibility for their lines, and that they should consider him to be a consultant or a backup in the event they needed some assistance. Otherwise, he stressed, it was going to be sink or swim.
Rita had an almost identical situation in her school system. As coordinator of secondary instruction, she needed to convey to the four principals that unless they were willing to lose more staff, they would be operating without department heads. Teachers would be given more control of the curriculum and would have to coordinate instructional activities not only more intensively among themselves but also through the principals. They in turn would still be required to submit the standard curriculum reports to Rita. So she too discussed with her managers the need to pitch in and do more hands-on work. They should take more responsibility for their buildings, she told them, but they could use her as a resource at any point.
What transpired in these two scenarios? In Ted's case, he found he couldn't stay out of the control loop. The four managers that he suspected had become dated in their design work were hopelessly in over their heads. The packaging and design of their products were old-fashioned and hackneyed and offered nothing unique. They failed to constitute even implicitly the marketing theme that he insisted the division embody. Ted considered this theme to be essential because it mapped a new direction the COO had divulged he favored in a recent executive meeting. Because the general managers tended to mind their own business, Ted wasn't sure whether his peers had picked up on this cue from the COO, but he wanted to be out in front on it. Ted was forever "coming down to division" to work with his managers to straighten their designs. He also needed to keep an ever-watchful eye on their budgets, which were occasionally out of whack with control estimates.
Meanwhile, spirit in the division plummeted. All but one of the managers, allegedly Ted's favorite, complained that Ted's pronouncement of increased responsibility was a sham; he was even more vigilant than before. Their commitment to the company declined, as did their trust. They even began to compete with one another rather than work as a team. Except for an occasional outburst, they never told Ted or each other what they thought of the "new" approach; everything was presumably going fine. They complained bitterly, however, to their own staff.
When Ted discovered how poorly things were going, he became infuriated with the managers and increased his surveillance of their activities. His original view that they couldn't be treated with extra responsibility was confirmed in his own mind. Meanwhile, the managers perceived his increased surveillance as confirming their view that the new structure was a sham. Although Ted wanted to fire at least two of the managers whose lines were doing particularly poorly, he resigned himself to the fact that they were the type of people he had to deal with and that corporate conditions were not going to improve in the short term. Eventually, he gave up on his ability to effect change in the division. Low morale and low productivity persisted to the point at which Ted eventually lost two of his lines.
Things went differently for Rita. The year before, she and other executive educators had attended a statewide workshop, where there had been intense debate on how to survive coming cutbacks. At that time she formulated the plan on restructuring her system, which combined the principles of increased building management and decentralization. She became convinced that this was the optimal way to survive the cuts and yet retain the instructional excellence the system was known for. She also knew that this plan couldn't be shoved down the principals' throats.
Any plan that middle management staff thought had been hatched at the top and merely sent down to them for implementation had always met with stiff resistance. The principals had insisted on involvement; most …