Save Money or Save Face – What would you choose?

Thought Experiment

You’re in charge of “A Thing” and are accountable for the successful execution of the objectives that the Thing has (e.g. you’re the CTO in charge of the IT Department, or you’re the Project Manager of a strategic project). Which of these scenarios is worse?

  1. A decision you make results in a significant financial loss for the Thing. However, you do not suffer any loss of face (e.g. you can successfully employ the “circumstances outside my control” defence).
  2. A decision you make results in the Thing avoiding a significant financial loss. However, it goes against the political winds and you suffer a significant loss of face.

Just what is important?

I’ve been trying understand how the notion of “what is important” varies in organisational structures. A pattern that seems to be emerging is that what is of primary importance falls into one of three zones.

  • The first zone values money, externally mandated timescales (e.g. legislation etc)
  • The second zone values their personal reputation, their personal “empire”
  • The third zone values their use of time – being able to spend it on valuable or meaningful work

These three zones look very similar to the zones in organisations when thinking about appetite for change (e.g. very senior leadership is the first zone, the delivery teams are the third zone and the “permafrost layer” are the second zone).

The thickness of each of the three zones/layers is an organisationally specific function, and seems to exist no matter what the scale (for example, I’ve even seen this sort of structure in project teams, for example when a product owner is too busy and a business analyst operates as a message passing proxy). The existence of this middle layer correlates with size, but is not caused by size. One factor that reinforces the middle layer is fear of failure, which is heavily influenced by the personal history of everyone concerned. Given any degree of employee churn, I think it’s impossible to have zero middle layer.

The important question for me, is so what? I’ll look at that next.

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