The Next Level

The novice in the corporate world, devoid of proper understanding or experience of working in a mighty corporation, would be tempted to think of levels in companies as merely referring to the different steps in the ladder representing the ‘org. structure’ diagram, famously displayed in orientation courses and analyst reports. But the true power of the terminology and concept of the ‘levels’ phenomenon will take you to a different level (pun intended!).

The Director of Marketing could be explaining to a group of sales personnel the features of a new line of cosmetics that the company was about to launch. The presentation could proceed on these lines:

“At the basic level, these products are the essential, bread-and-butter items on anyone’s dresser, helping to complete the basic grooming and preparation for the day.

But, we don’t stop there (we did not think you would stop after one statement).

We want to take our offering (here you go) to the next level!

Our products are meant to boost the customer’s self-confidence, assert their personality and conquer the world (huh, what is happening here? conquer the world with a Cologne spray?).

So, go forth and educate your customers (Amen)”.

Levels are not absolute, as you may well have guessed by now. Creation of new/next levels in the blink of an eye is a master move practiced by seasoned managers to duck out of questions and topics that are well embedded in their sphere of ignorance. Let us hear this conversation between a manager briefing his team about a new system to track expenses in the company.

Manager: So, you look at who has incurred the expense. If the person belongs to the distribution department, you allocate the expense to that department code; if from sales, allocate to Sales; and so on.

Team Member-1: How about if the employee belongs to an indirect department such as Human Resources? Should we allocate to all direct departments in equal proportion?

Manager (looking nervous):Hm…I see….Wow….Interesting… I think that is a good suggestion….

Team Member-2: Sir, how about expenses incurred by a contractor providing supplies to our pantry?

Manager (visibly rattled): Oh…. really…(looks around desperately)…. You have taken the discussion to a whole new level… we have not thought of these additional levels of complication. Maybe we should differ this to the next phase of the system.

Team Members: (whatever man…..)

The ‘levels’ curve ball can be used, with telling effect, at all levels in the organization. In a meeting of departmental heads, the Controller, Finance could carefully lay down budgetary allocations for controlling overtime pay, stating, “I need all of you to keep your employee overtime expenses below 5% of your total payroll”.

“But my staff, mainly the drivers, have to work significant hours of overtime that the nature of their work demands”, quips Liz, the Director, Transportation.

The Controller, clearly annoyed, comes back with a quick retort, “Oh Liz, you are jumping the gun and taking this to the next level. We have not yet come to the point of taking care of exceptions such as …….

“But, sir, the nature of work for these drivers has not changed in decades. How is this an except…..”

“We are out of time. Meeting adjourned”.

The Dotted (line) Company

Geometry seems to be an integral part of the corporate world as we have seen in some of our earlier analysis. But nothing has been as cunningly used, with (un)predictable effect, as the dotted line. Early novices in the corporate world created the concept of defining and drawing an organization structure as a chart containing a series of parent-child relationship, connected using a bunch of vertical and horizontal lines.  Modern day management gurus have successfully neutralized the structure, and any discipline represented by such structures, by introducing the ubiquitous dotted line!

For the uninitiated, in an organization chart, a dotted line, in its simplest sense, represents an informal reporting relationship. But, before you get your hopes high regarding your understanding, let me warn you that there is a lot more unwritten, implied meaning to be derived by reading between the lines (pun intended). A dotted line serves various purposes, chief amongst them being to confuse the structure by diluting authority and responsibility, the cornerstones of an organization structure.

For example, in a company that has multiple manufacturing units at different locations, there is a finance department in each location reporting to the General Manager of the respective unit. At the same time, the head of finance at each location has a – you guessed it – dotted line relationship with the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) operating out of the Head Office.  The CFO could use the dotted lines as strings to play on the puppets attached at the end. This informal structure serves as the recipe for conflicts in priorities, daily activities and everything in between for the local finance departments who are forced to spend all their time managing a major standoff between their solid and dotted lines!

To understand the full power and destruction potential of the dotted mode of operation, listen to this conversation in a team meeting on an IT project.

Cindy (Project Manager)(trying to keep the overall project on track): I understand that the requirements have been gathered from all user departments. So, we can proceed with ……….

Jim (senior team member): Yes, Cindy, I believe we have completed the scope definition for the system.

Ron (HR specialist): Hold on a second. We have not fully vetted the legal requirements affecting part-time labor. We need to analyze those.

Cindy: But Ron, this issue has been raised many times in the past three months – why was no action taken to finalize legal requirements?

Ron: Cindy, I have been deputed to this project from HR, so I only have a dotted line relationship with you, the PM. I was ……

Cindy: But what does that have to do with you completing the requirements analysis, now that you have been on the project for three months?

Ron: I needed to ask for an additional resource from Legal to help with this analysis but since I only have a dotted line to you, I could not make that request to you.

Cindy: For God’s sake, why could you not ask your own HR manager that you needed help?

Ron: It is complicated – since I was temporarily assigned to you, my direct, solid line reporting within my department was suspended for the duration of the project – preventing me from placing any requests and so…

Cindy (exasperated): Why could you not have brought this up months ago?

Ron: I was still new in the company and was undergoing orientation from the Training department on all the dotted line relationships that I was part of.