The Blurred Lines Phenomenon
Operations Transformation

Why is it that so many middle and senior managers are stuck in the detail of daily business operations, rather than focussing on the big strategic imperatives and longer term opportunities so essential to any operations transformation?

This is one of the most common and unresolved problems in business today – managers operating not as managers, but as technicians, blurring the lines between their responsibilities and those of their team members.

The role of middle and senior management is to develop and execute strategy, and to coach team performance. It’s about taking the big steps forward and enabling an organisations full potential. Yet senior and middle managers, for a variety of reasons, often become entangled in transactional detail and daily issue management. This phenomenon has a cascading effect – each layer of management is somewhat forced by the next layer to operate at a level below their role design. As a result, and right across the spectrum of industry, managers can be found ‘working in the business rather than on the business’.

This phenomenon impacts short term performance. It also prevents senior leaders from developing and executing longer term strategic goals at the required pace, if at all. It diminishes the value that middle and senior managers should be bringing to the table, and it reduces morale and employee engagement in lower ranks of the organisation as well.

Given these wide ranging impacts, why is this phenomenon so common in the modern workplace, and what can be done about it? Below are some of the factors fuelling the blurred lines phenomenon.

Low capability of direct reports
This is the most frequently cited cause of the blurred lines phenomenon. More junior managers, who are often promoted into a management role based on their technical skills and experience rather than management acumen, are often not equipped to ‘step up’ into their newfound management responsibilities. As a result, they require hands on support and intervention from their more senior and experienced bosses. The boss gets dragged into daily operational issues, willingly or not, and over time this becomes the organisational norm. This then has a knock on effect up through the levels of the organisation.

Lack of trust
Middle and senior managers were once junior managers themselves, and some have difficulty entrusting their former responsibilities to someone else. They’ve ‘been there, done that’ – they know how the job should be done, or at least they think they do. It’s understandable that trust will be lower early in the tenure of a new junior hire, but what starts as support can eventually become interference. Managers who don’t learn to trust their subordinates, to the point of letting them fail on occasions, will inevitably be labelled as micro managers, adversely impacting the morale and productivity of their direct reports.

Poorly defined Roles and Responsibilities
One place the blurred lines phenomenon is sure to flourish is where the division of responsibilities between the manager and his or her direct report is unclear. Job descriptions for both the senior and junior roles may cover similar areas of responsibility and scope, with only subtly different terms being used to describe where one role ends and the next begins (managing – leading – overseeing, delivering – coordinating – facilitating, driving – controlling – directing, etc). What results is an overlap of responsibility, with the manager and direct report constantly doing parts of each others jobs – it might look they are simply being helpful to each other, but it isn’t helpful.

This is particularly common in organisations with too many organisational layers or where job design has not been properly conducted.

Insufficient resources
In cases where the resources within a team are genuinely insufficient to operate the core business processes, managers can become involved as quasi team members. This might be right and noble during times of crisis or workload peaks – ‘all hands to the wheel’ – but this type of support should be occasional and transient.

When the ‘manager-as-team-member’ becomes an ongoing situation, questions should be asked about business process efficiency and resource levels.

Addressing the Blurred Lines phenomenon

Given these causes and impacts, what can be done to address the blurred lines phenomenon?

Many junior managers are thrown in the deep end without any form of management training. When junior managers are out of their comfort zone, they will revert to what they know and start acting more like technical operatives than team leaders.

New managers learn their management skills by observing other managers, whether they be good, bad or indifferent examples. Yet the core role of management – maximising team performance, commercial acumen, and holding team members accountable – require skills that are not innate, they need to be developed over time.

Even a relatively small investment in frontline management capability can make a big difference, by multiplying team capacity, thus freeing more senior managers to ‘get out of the weeds’.

Building trust and engagement
Working proactively to build a trusting and collaborative relationship between managers and their direct reports is a simple way to address the blurred lines problem. By taking a structured and proactive approach to collaboration, simple misunderstandings and poor communications that have undermined trust can be quickly and simply resolved. Building robust and transparent communication systems like visual scorecards and dashboards will also aid in building trust and boosting employee engagement levels.

Related article: Why your employees aren’t stepping up

Clarifying Roles and Responsibilities
The simplest way to clarify roles and responsibilities is to define who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed for each task, process or decision type (RACI model). Being very specific about tasks and processes is obviously helpful for both managers and direct reports. But it is equally helpful to be specific about communications, reporting and escalation processes, as good communications can alleviate anxiety a manager might feel about not being ‘in the loop’ on every detail as they once were.

Job descriptions can then be updated to reflect the agreed RACI matrix. If needed, a review of organisation structures and job designs would be the next step beyond a RACI exercise. (Interestingly, restructures are often the first option managers turn to when an organisation is not performing to its potential).

What’s the untapped value within your management ranks? What could your organisation achieve if its strategic plan was accelerated by 20, 30 or 50%, without asking your people to work 20, 30 or 50% harder!

The first step is simply to recognise the blurred lines phenomenon and the untapped potential that exists. Then, simple steps can be taken to address skills gaps, build interpersonal trust and clarify roles and responsibilities, leading to an uplift in organisational performance.

As an operations leader, you may be feeling pressure from all sides – your CEO is asking for year on year savings, your customers want better service, all while business and product complexity continues to rise. As each year passes, the challenge of delivering these gains gets ever harder.

The Operations Transformation Guide summarises 3 foundational practices and approaches to transformation that many organisations don’t do well. These are not the only ingredients of success, but their absence has the greatest impact. In our experience, mastering these foundations will make the difference between incremental improvement and genuine transformation.