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Chiefs: they are jokers, expect them to perform any roles

Especially often, activity/project/organizational roles and organizational positions filled by middle managers are confused - because the middle managers' ability to allocate resources is crucial. Will you coordinate some preferences on subjects of your interest with a player in a professional role (substantive discussion) or with a middle manager (approve/disapprove, based on unknown considerations)?

Middle managers need to be considered in relation to roles as"jokers"[1], who can act as any card at the player's discretion. The middle manager rather tries to play the roles personally, which he considers insufficiently represented in the project, or tries to find out the situation to delegate the resolution of some issues to the organizational positions (individuals or teams) that exist in the team and have a sufficient level of mastery in performing work according to the method required to solve a difficult problem. To do this, he actively seeks as yet unaccounted interests/preferences, and also engages in leadership, that is, he assigns the appropriate role to one person-in-position/actor as the smallest organizational unit, or even appoints an organizational unit consisting of several people as co-organized actors with their distribution of organizational roles within the team-organizational unit. The agent-manager takes on this leadership role to ensure that a specific work method is performed qualitatively, leading to considering specific interests. You need to pay special attention to the words of middle managers: their subjects of interest are usually not defined, not presented, plus they regularly change during the conversations.

Remember: "terms are important, and unimportant," so do not focus on job titles and positions. Pay close attention to what is being said by the middle manager right now and/or carefully read the managerial texts in chats and documents, without paying special attention to the mention of positions (for example, in orders and instructions) that are similar to role titles. A job title is not about the content of the work, i.e., methods/styles/cultures of work! It is about the authority to manage resources, to assign tasks! This is "logistics," management, rational use of someone's resources. The content/methods of work need to be independently reconstructed from speeches, texts, and models of agents involved in the project.

For example,

  • within the first five minutes of some "selector meeting," some "shop manager" will act as an operations manager (preferences: reduce work deadlines, reduce resource usage),
  • then for a couple of minutes as an engineer (for example, a concept development engineer: preference to identify and coordinate additional usage scenarios, allowing to propose new features/ opportunities for the system-of-interest),
  • then until the end of the conversation as a CNC machine engineer (preference for low complexity of detail processing from the side of the production platform engineer, therefore intent to ascertain the specifics of processing details in connection with modified machine usage scenarios and newly known deadlines).

During the conversation, it is necessary to timely recognize the transition from one role to another and respond each time with the correct role, and not as "shop manager." It is necessary to respond to the "shop manager" only when the question is about authority to manage resources. That's when it is important that it is about the "shop manager," but even here it is easy to confuse an operations manager, who calculates the optimal resource distribution but does not touch the authority to allocate them (for example, an operations manager schedules work, and the concrete people for these tasks are appointed by the managers of these people) - and therefore it is easy to confuse one conversation about resources with another, "allocating resources" with "empowering to allocate resources."

In plays, the theater director does not play but even if in situations of acute necessity (someone from the actors is sick, or on vacation, or the budget does not allow hiring an actor and someone has to play "to anyone"), then you cannot understand by his job title what role he plays, how high is his level of mastery in the method of work. The director, like any manager, can intervene in the course of performing any role and even play any role at any moment simply because he has the authority to do so (but not the expertise in this role!). The theater director is not Hamlet, it is just a position in the staffing table, and it is not even an acting one.

The management manager and "operations manager"/"project manager" in classical project management - should not be confused, although the word used is the same, manager. The management manager - this indicates responsibility and authority (position), and not a professional/operational role requiring a certain level of mastery from the performer in some method.

Positions - these are not roles, these are organizational positions. Agents as performers of roles occupy organizational positions, becoming an "organizational unit" in this process. An organizational position includes:

  • the name of this position (the name of the "position")
  • authority to manage labor and resources
  • the obligation to perform work through certain methods in specific roles
  • the obligation to execute directives from their managers from the upper organizational units.
  • Salary (some part of the remuneration for the work, received by virtue of holding the position).

Agents, occupying positions, inherit these powers and duties.

If a role performer is also a manager, then he can arbitrarily choose his role - trying to substitute for the absent role performer. Certainly, the manager plays this role (as well as any untrained and non-professional role performer) often poorly - an agent-manager occupying a position as an engineer-heat engineer can be a very bad heat engineer or a very good heat engineer, but instead of spending two days on the problem, as he would do if he actually performed the role, he will spend ten minutes on the issue; in other words, it is like an actor in a Shakespeare play spending a minute or two on the role of Hamlet, and then going about other business. But this agent-manager may believe that decisions on any subordinate role must be made by him, after all, he is the manager!

This situation is supported by the organizational culture of "engineers as analysts, preparing proposals" and "managers, approving proposals." One of the chief designers in a machine-building plant (note that the word "main" for a designer unequivocally indicates not a role, but a position) recently informed the author of the course that in the evening he finds about two hundred documents in his information system for approval. When asked about the quality of decision-making on approval of all these engineering "proposals" (two hundred per evening!) he just laughed. Such a system will exist for years if one does not begin to deal with the agents (people, AI, organizations), positions, organizational units as agents-on-position, roles (and the course "System Management" will also consider organizational capabilities (capabilities) as a reflection of the fact that organizational units have the authority and resources to perform work according to some method. After all, one can have expertise in a method, occupy a position, but not have the opportunity to work with this method. They hired a pianist::"an agent with mastery in playing the piano" to the position "pianist," they instructed to play sonatas in the hotel lobby, he knows how to do it. But a small nuance: no piano was provided. The organizational unit and the mastery are there, but the organizational capability to play sonatas is not there, the lobby is silent, "there is no organizational capability." The situation is no different from the designer who was not provided with design automation tools.

It is bad to confuse individuals (including people) who occupy positions and thus are in positions and play organizational roles as they can ("do not shoot the pianist, he plays as he can") with "pros," who have a high degree of expertise in performing work methods in roles. In discussing roles with a role performer, professionalism and the "degree of mastery"/qualification/competence in the work method of this role are discussed, and for those occupying positions - completely different characteristics are considered (responsibility, loyalty, honesty, no tendency to steal resources).

The word "manager" confuses everyone: it can mean:

  • the position of "manager," understood as simply a "manager," although it can also be a "sales manager" representing, on the contrary, the lower rung in the hierarchy of employees,
  • the role of "manager" in the sense of an "organizer," understood as the aggregate role of an organizational designer (designing the role structure in the enterprise's work and suggesting the organizational structure of leadership/supervision), a leader (helping people take up organizational positions/jobs and start qualitatively performing the roles assigned to these positions - becoming organizational units),
  • the role of "manager" in the sense of a narrow "operations manager" who is engaged in activities to maximize the logistical performance of the organization's system, an "organization operator," "organization operations engineer." Such a manager has a clear subject of interest: the flow of materials, information, work through the organization's workplaces, and an interest in maximizing throughput (the flow volume per unit of time), the theory/discipline of the operations management method - "operations research" (mathematical calculations of performance). Reasoning based on this theory/discipline provide (in this case - to the operations) manager::role the opportunity for optimally utilizing available resources (literally, he::role ensures that there are no "traffic jams" - bottlenecks in the flow of semifinished products through the enterprise). And if a breakdown is found in the organization (the flow through the organization is disturbed, "nothing works"), it is necessary to call the organization designer::role. Yes, the person::agent may be the same, and even the role is the same, "manager," so the call may not be necessary, but the types of roles are different, the work methods are different, and it is good to distinguish them. And in large organizations, the people will definitely be different (and the operations manager's role will quickly be taken over by computers, the operation of anything today is intensively automated).
  • The various trendy positions and roles that imply making at least some decisions - both administrative (positions) and substantive (roles). For example, the product manager who makes decisions regarding product market properties and the sequence of launching new features into development (and often gets confused with project/program managers, product owners, and even stakeholder representatives). This is a complex role (assuming the performance of many work methods), but as usual, this role can be performed by one person-performer, by many people, and even by many organizational units/divisions. In each specific case, you will have to figure out what exactly you are dealing with: and always work with the methods by which a set of agent roles on positions works, although taking into account the authority coming from the position.
  • The enterprise founder, but in fact, he/she is also an "enterprise designer," and therefore this role is considered managerial. Teaching all sorts of "technological entrepreneurs" is primarily given as an intensive course on organizational management, meaning that founders of enterprises learn agile methods (for example, kanban) in the sphere of operations management, but additionally are trained in strategizing as the coordination of various preferences of different roles in performing the role of a businessman, whose subject of interest is the market price of the enterprise itself. The specifics here can only be indicated by conducting negotiations with external project roles for the enterprise itself, i.e., with investors and regulatory authorities.

In our course, the term "manager" is mainly used as an organizational engineer (most often - an enterprise, but it can also be an association, a holding, or even a swimming club). "Manager" in our course - it is not a manager/supervisor position, but a professional role that also breaks down into numerous sub-roles! And there is a separate course: "System Management," where it is discussed more thoroughly, basic management methods are given as organizational engineering, and typical sub-roles of management are indicated, "manager roles."


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joker_(playing_card) ↩︎