The Management Interaction Gap

this model never makes me particularly popular with other managers or executives… 

Any idiot can face a crisis. It’s day to day living that wears you out.
-Anton Chekhov

There are many explanations of what is “wrong” with management these days… many of them may be right, but I think my model of the problem has a pretty good chance of explaining a huge amount of waste (and general unhappiness) in today’s businesses. I’d like to be clear up front, this post is less intended to bash on management than it is intended to illuminate the logic behind the management decision process, a description from the pointy haired side of the house.

The Management Interaction Gap Model

Let’s start with some definitions:
The Management Interaction Gap
The period of time during which management trusts the team to complete a task or set of tasks, which the team has committed to.
Zone of Planning
The period of time where management attempts to explain an envisioned Ideal Future state. Management will be intimately involved creating a plan that explains the steps required to achieve the Ideal Future State
Zone of Surprise
Management starts hearing “bad things” comes to investigate… You are all IDIOTS. Clearly this isn’t what I asked for. Team meanwhile has been working on system and understands WHY it is the way it is… Manager doesn’t want to hear it.
Ideal Future State
Usually the Manager BELIEVES he understands what he wants done. If you actually ASK the manager they will have a harder time explaining it.
Interval of Expectation
Amount of time between the Official Start of the Project and the expected delivery of the Ideal Future State.

Let Me Tell You A Story

This story is very much a draft… it is too snarky and management bashing, which is how it came out of my head. I plan to rewrite it to better reflect a manager’s point of view

In the beginning of my projects there is a Vision. I BELIEVE I understand what needs to be done (If you actually ASK me right now I would have a harder time explaining the details). I have produced a Power Point deck or some form of a Vision Statement. This document is a rough outline, a vision, of what should be built based on rigorous analysis of the market place, projections, and assertions about the how the future is going to be! 

I know that projects that are unclear or have any ambiguity, either get hijacked OR never get approved so it is important that the Ideal Future State be CLEAR and UNAMBIGUOUS. I have presented the vision statement to my peers to secure funding and resources.

Once I gained the approval of his peers and therefor committed to them to achieve the Ideal Future State, it is off to the Zone of Planning. This is what I am GOOD at… PLANNING. Planning IS Management. Always pay A LOT of attention during the Zone of Planning… because I KNOW, based on previous experience, that the team is going to bollocks up the whole project eventually. This time though, I’m going to make sure the plan is more detailed, this time the team will understand. 

Towards the end of the planning phase the my attention starts to drop precipitously. I am actually starting to trust the team, they seem to understand the vision and are helping to define a plan. After weeks of repeating the same things over and over in meetings, they appear to be able to parrot back the appropriate responses. Now it is time to ask the team to make a ritualized commitment to achieve the Ideal Future state… I love this moment of commitment! Finally I’ve clearly explained the Vision and the Plan, so clearly that the awesome team I’ve assembled, understands. It is so good to be understood.

Now, like everyone else I can only do so many things at once, fortunately I am an expert multi-tasker. Teams and individuals need to manage WIP, managers and companies need to PRODUCE as much as possible. So… during The Management Interaction Gap, I am off helping the next team commit to another related ideal future. Usually that plan and my previous plan… are going to have dependencies.

Towards the end of the project, I start hearing “bad things.” Time to investigate…

You are all IDIOTS.

Clearly this isn’t what I asked for! 

The larger the Interval of Expectation, the more trust I put in the team and the louder yelling is going to be. Now, I only have 15% of the time and budget left and I have to get this project back on the rails. Things are going to have to change, and I am going to have to be HEAVILY involved if this project is going to be saved. The team can earn the trust back, by following instructions NOW, because trust is based on the ability to follow the plan, which clearly the team HAS NOT BEEN DOING.

Fire fighting isn’t fun, but someone has to do it. Thank god I have a ton of experience saving teams from failure.

The team of course has been working on system and understands WHY it is the way it is, they’ve discovered that there were details about the vision that did not make sense.

To tell you the truth I don’t want to hear it, I have got a commitment to my peers and the teams has committed to me to fulfill the plan we defined together. All that hard work planning, it can’t go to waste…


The MIG is a failure state that is seen repeatedly in situations where teams are left to achieve an Ideal Future state, even self organizing teams.

The Management Interaction Gap (The MIG) is scale invariant.

Agile, which encourages managers to trust their teams to self organize, may exacerbate the amount of surprise teams produce for their managers. Managers may confuse trust, self-organization and self-management, leading to an insufficient amount of effective leadership.


Building a tree house and hanging a “No Managers Sign” is not a reasonable reaction to the real problem of micromanagement. The Management Interaction Gap is NOT an invitation to engage in the micromanagement of HOW to do work. It is however a call for management and teams to engage each other more authentically. Management by more consistant attention and teams by an active attempt to be more transparent. Kanban is my preferred route to establishing both these goals.

This all need more exploration that I (or you dear reader) have time for right now… but some specific thoughts in conclusion.

For Ordered Work

Even when appropriate Ideal Futures can done better.

If what you are trying to achieve is predictably inspect-able, if you can explicitly define the qualities of the system that you will value in the future, then The Management Interaction Gap isn’t actually that bad. You may benefit from “going to the gemba” to help make the process more efficient or helping teams become more effective at producing the values you have defined. You may also benefit from inspecting the progress of production more frequently to ensure that the value you expect is being produced. Projects such as, implementing a widely used specifications, building a car and developing film all fall in this area.

When executing processes that repeat, avoid the Banana Principle, know when to stop. The weak signals in Ordered work ARE NOT in the complex domain, weak signals are in the SIMPLE domain. As a manager, carefully observe and test work processes that haven’t changed in awhile. Cautious inspection of highly proscriptive work to ensure that the environment hasn’t changed is critical. When designing training, make sure, as much as possible, to embed information about the appropriate context for the processes. Students will benefit greatly from instruction indicating how to determine processes have entered failure states. Attempt to create a “stop the line” mechanism that allows those closest to the process/environment interaction to notify managers of a mismatch between expectations and reality.

For Un-ordered Work

Often we find ourselves unable to define the values we wish a system to have in relation to an uncertain future. In these cases, producing a clear and unambiguous ideal future is illogical. In these cases the Management Gap is very dangerous. Managers in these cases need to avoid grand visions statements and favor distributed social narrative generation and execute small safe-fail experiments. Close the management gap by; shortening cycle times and increasing transparency.

When executing a safe-to-fail experiment understand when the “story” is becoming dis-coherent. This doesn’t mean that the project is failing, but it is important to re-establish a new coherence based on the new information available. This is where surprises come from, teams working on their own find new information and adjust their narratives to match, managers unaware of the new information AND the gradual change in narrative, are surprised that the story has changed. Of course there is a worse version of the story… one where teams have been so brow beaten that they’ll continue working on dis-coherent work that everyone knows won’t work. Not only is this demoralizing and foolish from a profit perspective, it is impossible to measure progress against a dis-coherent goal.

You know that saying about learning from mistakes? The Management Interaction Gap is a model of a failure state for a management style I once used…