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During the ’90s, the phrase “real-time business” was the shibboleth of a particular brand of corporate executive: brash, often arrogant, fiercely ambitious and pretending to be iconoclastic as a way to set himself apart, while actually conforming to the trendiest academic fads.

A decade later, the very executives who conceived and implemented the “real-time business” concept are themselves becoming the insurmountable barrier to its success.

The core virtue of the real-time idea was to loosen up hidebound business processes by eliminating a lot of them that had built up over the years.

Some of those routines were unquestionably archaic and wasteful, but others were set in place over decades to try to overcome the weaknesses or eccentricities of individual managers, suppliers or customers.

Sounds good. So, where’s the barrier?

These executives limit their own effectiveness because too many of them act like filter feeders instead of acting like something more selective. Filter feeders such as mud shrimp eat by sucking in massive quantities of whatever happens to be in front of their pie holes. They filter out whatever they’re sure is no good, and blindly try to digest whatever’s left.

Filter-feeding is not a strategy based on premeditation or informed decision-making. It’s reactive and sloppy, and it makes a big mess of anything that’s bad enough to make them spit it out.

Filter Feeders in the Executive Suite

I know you’ll recognize filter-feeding execs when you see them in captivity. Here’s a great example of a manager at a restructured, lean ‘n’ mean Northeast manufacturer that produces custom components for customers in a bunch of different industries (you know its name, but you won’t hear it here). This executive is super-competent and functions best when left alone; when he needs help, he asks for it.

Click here to read about expertise management, an approach that’s a bit more sophisticated.

He’s a responsible, senior line manager. He resolves the problems in his span of control and keeps the men and women up the chain informed of what happened. But in a typical contemporary organization, this actually creates friction. Here’s how he explained it:

“I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon in current management practices that reminds me of my Navy days. Back then, the surest way to get immediate, undesired, upper-management attention was to have any news—good or bad—pass through message traffic.

“All of the radio-teletyped messages of the day would eventually end up on a clipboard in the C.O.’s [commanding officer’s] stateroom. If you were lucky, the mass of messages would arrive well enough before the daily formal reporting, so you’d have time to soothe him without getting reamed out in front of your peers for something that had been dealt with already,” he said.

“There’s the same thing in today’s companies that have an e-mail list culture: If the boss lets his e-mail accumulate for long periods of time before reviewing it in bulk, anything that you’ve been dealing with and you’d already put to bed will resurface in the form of a direct call or e-mail flame from said boss if he ended up at some point cc’d or is on the distribution list that any message about the situation was sent to—regardless of whether the next 16 messages in the thread indicated that the problem had already been resolved or not.”

It’s filter-feeding behavior. He sucks everything in at once, spits back the first bad bit he finds and ignores the rest. If he was working more like an air-traffic controller, he’d survey the whole environment, pick out the activities he needed to handle as they required his attention, and leave the rest to others in the tower.

The lag time created by upper managers who aren’t selective in a “real-time” environment disrupts the flow of work, and not only when the executive is out of sync with the quick pace of events.

The structure of new organizations, especially in business and in the military, has created powerful disincentives to sensible approaches to message traffic. Lean and mean organizations generally strip out the role of executive assistant, the person formerly responsible for absorbing the message traffic and then summarizing what the boss needs to know.

Delegating work.

Many contemporary executives in lean and mean (or control freak) organizations delegate work—but not decisions. They do this for one of three reasons:

  • Most often, middle management has been thinned out, and the executive is making all of the decisions that would have been spread out over two to four full-time managers.
  • Some do it because they work in a predatory organization where everyone has to try to look as authoritative and important as possible to avoid being ousted.
  • Too many have a personality disorder that makes them fear decisions being made by anyone other than themselves (and some of them are indecisive, refusing simultaneously to give up authority or to finalize a decision).
  • The prime virtue of a stripped-down organization is speed. When you get rid of specialists and chains of command, you strip out the overhead of multiple links of communication, as well as multiple people who have the power to slow responses that are better made in real time.

    Click here to read about a range of other approaches to managing large organizations.

    You also lose expertise and hands to help share the load. Filter-feeding managers can’t overcome the shortcomings, but they can guarantee you won’t get the virtues.

    They become human plaque. They clog the action directly by stopping people to catch them up on the day before yesterday’s news. They clog it indirectly by creating an environment where fear of making a mistake or acting without getting approval first slows every decision, critical or not.

    What You Can Do About It

    If you’re a manager being treated to the mud-shrimp diet by a filter-feeding boss, there’s no technique guaranteed to get you out of the muck.

    If the FF (filter feeder) is the first type I described, and she’s having to make all of the decisions that would have been handled by a team that no longer exists, explain that you recognize her plight and offer to help by thinning out the load. Ask her to work out a list of areas she needs to give clearance on. Whatever’s not on the list, you handle on your own, letting her know if something needs her attention.

    If the FF is the second type I described and gets some political mojo out of micromanaging things, you can try to work out a system where you do the work and keep him informed but make sure he gets the credit. My experience is that few of these kinds of FFs will allow the status quo to be altered. But talk with him and see if you can persuade him; it might work.

    I’ve never met an indecisive control freak (the third type) who could be cajoled or trained into changing (if you have, let me know how you did it, and I’ll share it for all of our benefits). Nor have I seen a method to repair quickly the damage that they do. My advice is to get out of that group, because his neurosis heads the group toward a very likely fall in a real-time or stripped-down organization.

    And if you recognize yourself as the filter feeder I described, give yourself a month to change. Try one or more of the following:

    Delegate. Experiment with the delegation of minor tasks to see who can handle what, and then build from that.

    If you’re responsible for both executive and management work, ease back on the time you spend doing executive work. This will free up time to deal with the real-time problem-solving that makes one a decent manager. If you can’t stand doing that, then unload your management work.

    Hire a skilled assistant to keep track of things for you, alert you when you might need to be involved and reassure you which things are going well enough.

    But whatever you do, wake up the filter feeders in your organization. You can’t manage real-time endeavors using filter-feeding techniques.

    There’s a reason mud shrimp live where they do; no one would want them trying to direct air traffic.