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A Tribe Of Adults: The Pond Theory Of Management

We’ve had lots of new people around Skyvision Centers recently. Two sets of consultants have come through at our invitation, our hope being that they would help us improve our patient education process. While they certainly had lots of really good ideas, systems and protocols that have been tested and found to be quite helpful in typical eye care practices, we found that they didn’t really translate terribly well “off-the-shelf” at Skyvision.

Why? It turns out that we have a very different culture at Skyvision, and that the management structure we use to foster that culture is so foreign to traditional medical care that we had to eat up some of our consulting time teaching the consultants who we are and how we work. Oddly enough, the question that set this process off was one that probably seems to be ridiculously basic to these two groups of consultants, but one that turned out to be nearly impossible for us to answer. “Who is your office manager?” Um… well… Gee., we don’t really HAVE an office manager. “Well, who should we talk to , then?” The answer to this question turned out to be just as difficult for them to understand: “everybody.”

I should start, I guess, with a word about our culture. I described the Skyvision culture to a new employee yesterday as a group of adults behaving like adults and treating each other like… adults. I told her to think of us as a Tribe of Adults! This is all I really wanted from my staff five years ago when I founded Skyvision. My most enjoyable part of management has been “blue-sky thinking”, setting priorities, charting a course, and allowing my people to work to the absolute limits of their capacity and ability in order to bring us home. Employee relationship monitoring and management is beyond boring and only barely tolerable. Hence, a Tribe of Adults.

Unfortunately, the typical management structure in small businesses in general and medical businesses in particular is not really conducive to fostering this kind of culture. Pretty much every other medical practice that I’ve ever been involved with, either as a physician, a patient, or a consultant has been set up as a steep management pyramid. Very strict top–down management in a command and control environment. Lots and lots of rules and regulations with an equally dense layer of middle management whose prime objective appears to be applying discipline to everyone who falls below it on the pyramid. Individual initiative is totally suppressed, and even the task of managing your relationship with a coworker is given over to a manager. Yuck.

But a Tribe of Adults clearly needs to be managed in a totally different way. A group of people who are willing to take responsibility, not only for the outcomes of their work product but also for their own personal behavior and relationships within the organization is best managed with as flat a management structure as possible. The ultimate flat organizational chart would be one in which literally no management existed. This is impossible, of course, because at some point someone has to chart the course, lay out priorities, and designate goals. After that  a Tribe of Adults shouldn’t need much management!

Enter the “Pond Theory of Management.”  Unlike the top–down management of a pyramid, if you look at an organizational chart set up according to Pond Theory from the side, what you will see he is a very thin layer on the surface of the pond and a few tiny flowers sticking up a bit above the surface. The magic, though, is looking at this organizational chart from above. If you look down on the pond what you see are a number of lily pads which flow on the surface of the pond, one for each employee in the business. The flowers above the lily pads represent a small number of individuals responsible for big picture issues and those very few instances where the Tribe of Adults cannot work through an issue on its own.

How does this Pond Theory of Management really work? The key, critical difference between a business run based on Pond Theory and one that is run on traditional command-and-control principles is in the allocation of tasks. In command-and-control theory some manager assigns a worker to a task, and might even assign that worker responsibility to direct other fellow workers in the accomplishment of that task. In the Pond there are areas where lily pads overlap, tasks that could be performed and responsibilities that can be shared among two or several workers with similar skills or job descriptions. Where these lily pads overlap the responsibility and the accountability for completing this task or achieving this goal is determined by mutual affirmation of all the workers whose lily pads overlap.

The individual who now has accountability and responsibility for this task retains them as long as he or she is able to deliver the desired outcome; all of the other workers whose lily pads overlap accept this individual as their leader for this particular task. In a similar and related manner, those workers who have affirmed this individual give up any “right” to criticize how this outcome is achieved. There are certain rules and regulations that might apply, of course. In our medical world HIPPA and other government regulations are unavoidable. National, state, and local laws apply, too! Beyond this what we achieve in “The Pond” is outcomes with minimal managerial oversight,  interference, or necessity.

After two full days with us I’m still not sure the consultants really got what I was talking about, and if they did I’m pretty sure they didn’t really believe me. How about my new hire? She came from an extremely rigid practice with rules and regulations to account for pretty much every minute of her day, and a manager who monitored each one of those minutes to make sure that there was 100% compliance with all of those rules and regs. What was her reaction when I explained to her the culture of a Tribe of Adults working in an extremely flat organization, working on the Pond?

“Wow! We’re all BIG girls here!”

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8 Responses to “A Tribe Of Adults: The Pond Theory Of Management”

  1. October 15th, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Tweets that mention New blog post on culture&sturcture at "A Tribe of Adults" -- Topsy.com says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Darrell White, Darrell White. Darrell White said: New blog post on culture&sturcture at @SkyvisionCenter http://skyvisioncenters.com/blog/?p=290 "A Tribe of Adults" [...]

  2. October 18th, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Jess Tandarts says:

    Hey thanks for yet another nice and good post. Where do you get your inspiration for all this :| ?

  3. October 20th, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Bob Guere says:

    Oh, if only NASA worked this way.

  4. October 22nd, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    Jocelyn Chalifour says:

    I saw to your site couple of times, and this time I am adding it to my shortcuts. Your posts are always relevant, unlike the same-old stuff on other sites. Keep up the good work!

  5. October 22nd, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    CynthiaJ says:

    Brilliant! must share :)

  6. October 22nd, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    badmash says:

    I just signed up to your blogs rss feed. Will you post more on this subject?

  7. October 23rd, 2010 at 8:23 am

    darrellwhite says:

    There will almost certainly be more, at least in the comments. Several folks have chimed in on FB; trying to get them to offer thoughts here. Look for some insight on the max number of employees in a particular pond, for example.

  8. November 1st, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Rosendo Milkowski says:

    Reading this reminds me of my old room mate. That guy was one of the smartest individuals I know, but he was a little too original for my tastes though. Anyways I loved reading this, thanks. Will give me something to discuss when I see him.

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