Tool: Pace Layers

In 1989, Elliot Jaques proposed six different, hierarchical strata of work, defined by their complexity (and the time-span of their authority).

Jaques' Six Layers

  1. Executes against a prescribed, linear path (90 days);

  2. Can reflect on potential problems and diagnose (3-12 months);

  3. Understands entire process and has preplanned ways to respond (1-2 years);

  4. Parallel processes several interacting variables – make trade-offs (2-5 years);

  5. Applies judgment against constantly shifting events – intuitive and diagnostic challenges (5-10 years);

  6. Creates an environment for the entire organization to succeed (10-20 years).

I think of these hierarchical layers as levels of leverage that different people, or teams have with their work. Level 6 has more leverage than Level 1, say – because its time-span is longer.

In 1994, Frank Duffy defined the idea six of "Shearing Layers" for building. Stewart Brand expanded on this idea in 1999, with six "Pace Layers" for civilization: "The fast layers innovate; the slow layers stabilize. The whole combines learning with continuity."

And then in 2011, Stephen Drotter identified six layers of organization, defined by their unique value-producing role.

Drotter's Six Layers

  1. Define the corporate strategic framework, including vision, mission, and values;

  2. Create a business strategy to deliver short- and long-term profit, based on the business unit's role in the portfolio;

  3. Manage each function to achieve a competitive advantage that supports the strategies;

  4. Use functional capability and annual operating plans to deliver productivity, standards, information, and decision-making;

  5. Manage clearly defined roles and train and develop people to enable the delivery of results;

  6. Produce and execute the designs, products, services, sales, and fulfillment promises against the business plan.

I was personally struck by the uniformity of this thinking across time and discipline – in general, there are six different levels of escalating complexity, each interdependent, each with an important role.

Important to note here that in my table, "Leverage" is not the same thing as "Time to complete something."

  • Writing the values for an organization (Level 6 work) could only take a few minutes of "work," but when done well could influence the lives of millions over the span of decades.

  • Making an ad campaign (Level 2 work?) could take a year, but might only influence culture and buying pattern for a few months. Or more! This is a thinking tool. Use it to think!

And then in 2021, John Cutler identified nine Mandate Levels, primarily for teams working on or around software. The brackets in each are meant to be fill-in-the-blank/choose-your-own-adventure.

Cutler's Nine Mandate Levels

  1. Build exactly this [to a predefined specification]

  2. Build something that does [specific behavior, input-output, interaction]

  3. Build something that lets a segement of customers complete [some task, activity, goal]

  4. Solve this [more open-ended customer problem]

  5. Explore the challenges of, and improve the experience for, [segment of users/customers]

  6. Increase/decrease [metric] known to influence a specific business outcome

  7. Explore various potential leverage points and run experiments to influence [specific business outcome]

  8. Directly generate [short-term business outcome]

  9. Generate [long-term business outcome]

These felt so similar to the Pace Layers from Jaques and Drotter that I felt like they needed to be mashed into one, comprehensive look at the Pace Layers and Generic Missions/Mandate Levels that live within an organization.

So I filled in the blanks in Level 2: People management and training, Level 4: Functions and capabilities as a source of advantage, and Level 6, Corporate strategic framework, including vision, mission, and values.

I personally find this end result very, very useful.

For one, you can overlay a number of different concepts, including Alfred Chandler's 1962 definitions of Strategy, Structure, and Tactics.

Chandler's Three Definitions

  • Strategy: The plan for the allocation of resources to anticipated demand.

  • Structure: The design for putting the enterprise’s existing resources against current demand.

  • Tactics: The efficient and steady use of current resources whose allocation had already been decided.

You can also drop the late J. Richard Hackman's 2012 Authority Matrix, showing the difference between Manager-Led Teams, Self-Managing Teams, Self-Designing Teams, and Self-Governing Teams: each successive step toward self-governance consumes more and more of the "stack" of Organizational Pace Layers into a single team.

I've also added a new layer to Hackman's Matrix: a Self-Governing Organization that incorporates collective wisdom into the slowest-moving, highest-leverage, foundational aspects of the firm.

This explains a good deal of what works and doesn't work for teams, especially when it comes to their mission. For highly capable knowledge-work teams (marketing teams, software teams, research team, etc.), low-leverage missions tend to be uninspiring. They need something in the G. Solve this [open-ended problem] to N. Generate [short- or long-term business outcome] range, not something like "Launch Product X in Market Y by Date Z."

And when teams have something important to do in rows A, D, E, F, J, and L, all at once, it's obvious that they'd have cognitive overload and struggle to do any of those tasks with flow.

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