The tragedy is that so many have ambition and so few have ability.

William Feather

You walk in the corridors of large organizations and you get the feeling that there are just too many people around. You can’t explain why but somehow your familiarity with the organization suggests to you that there is just too much bureaucracy there and they could have done the same with less. Not everybody seem to be as busy as you would have thought they should be and this, you surmise, is a clear indication that an inefficient process is abound.

I was, up until very recently, a great disbeliever in the ability of organizations to efficiently reign in on their processes (and by implication – on their human resources) so they are lean, economical and productive.

A conversation with a builder friend of mine has somewhat changed my mind.

“I was called in to a construction site to complete some work. I took a team of 6 people with me and was then told off by my plumber that I’m taking too many people”. “If you take this many people”, he told me, “there’s a good chance that for some time they will stand there idle doing nothing”.

“I disagreed with this observation”, my friend tells me, “because although he was right in general terms, there is a comfort in having large numbers around, there is a comfort in having that many people because when the pressure increases and the unexpected occurs, they can get things done, and quickly, thus allowing me to meet the customer’s expectations”.

The discussion I was having with him then turned to the fact that not all his workers are the same. Some are better than others and, certainly with the younger ones, the quality of their work cannot be predicted.

And this is where I got the following realization: Organizations require many people because they are not all equal. Some are mavericks and some are just good. Organizations are on a look for the mavericks, the innovators, the revolutionaries. You don’t know when you have one in your midst until you get them in and give them a chance. But you need to have a pool of many in order to find the gems  that would propel your organization forward. As you drill and look for those gems you end up sifting through a lot of dirty soil – and that’s ok – because as you do that you increase your chances of unearthing those individual that can help make a difference.

So there you go. That’s my (tentative) theory for why organizations keep on growing.

And before you kill the idea, think about it!

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  1. Hi Shim,
    I too am a building contractor and while I can appreciate the concept explained in the paper, given most “hard money” (firm fixed price) contractors are working on single digit EBIT margins, we simply cannot afford to carry too many people “on the bench”.

    Like any sports team, we are always trying to identify our weaknesses and weed out those who are the “weak link” on our team and replace them with “better” or more competent practitioners. But at the same time, having people standing around waiting is one of the most sure ways to end up in bankruptcy court.

    Bottom line- what we need to develop to be successful as a contractor is an OPTIMIZED team. Like Goldilocks, it cannot be too big or too small; it has to have the right mix of experienced veterans (Master Craftsmen) and novices (Apprentices). It has to be “just right” and that means a constant process of reinvention and “tweaking”…..

    Dr. PDG, Amsterdam, Netherlands


    • Hi Paul, thanks for your comment.

      Clearly, as you sum up, the problem is in determining that optimized team size. For my friend, the way he evaluates things, his method represents an optimization point for him. One of the comments he mentioned, and this echos from your note as well, is the need to allow the apprentices to use ‘idle’ time as an opportunity to observe and learn from the more experienced team members.

      The more philosophical point of my post was an attempt to understand how organizations use large numbers, inadvertently, as a method for identifying talent. Superimpose this alongside the Peter Principle and you get a fairly good understanding how bureaucracies develop and grow.

      Cheers, Shim.


  2. Hi Shim,
    I found your post very interesting and I think it opens more lines of research than it closes.
    The first thing that comes to my mind is about optimal team size, and Dr. Paul has a strong point, and I subscribe it: if bidding for a contract, let’s not add costs nor communications complexity. Water clear.
    Now, contracts and projects are actually extreme sides of organizations. Families are not optimal, yet they work better with grand-parents and many productively “irrelevant” relatives. Artists are a [cost and efficiency] burden for most societies. America didn’t need Italian or Irish immigration, if considered from MANY viewpoints.
    But if you take almost ANY artificial people bundling (like companies or formal societies, teams, etc), no one is expected to have people in excess than it was planned. Just because of its design! If fact, how would a Triunvirate work according to the rules with 4 members? Ridiculous. I fully concur with Dr. Paul in this.
    And you Shin, I think you triggered an alarm: “What if…”? Yes, What if our organizational designs allow for characteristics that make the organizations more able to self-behave, self-adapt, to grow in unexpected niches not necessarily by following optimal routes, but those paths that bring the more harmony for both the organization and its environment?
    Hey, those guys out there are blurbing stuff about the need of companies minding people, being customer-centered instead of self-centered, being self-managed, people-empowering, aren’t they?
    After all, are that many RH and managers actually benefit-creators, or one more burden?
    BTW, I hate all this about spirit and ease of soul and orientalism and yoga. I’m a Western guy. But it seems that a lot of western idols had feet made out of mud. Recognition time!

    Have a happy middle-week!


    • Hi Ricardo, thanks for your comment.

      You make an excellent observation that the post is more like an opening statement than a closing one. As indicated in an earlier comment, I was attempting to raise a philosophical point about the possibility that organizations inadvertently use large numbers as a method for identifying talent. When you take into account the Peter Principle, where ‘Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence’ you can possibly begin to understand why the bureaucracies in large organizations tend to spiral out of control and require constant culling and monitoring.

      As to your other points. The key message in my post was around the fact that I am not feeling more forgiving when thinking about bureaucracies. I now have a more compassionate view of their emergence and sustainability.

      Does it make sense?

      Cheers, Shim.


  3. I’m not sure over-staffing is always about bureaucracy. My dentist, Annalee, has an interesting staff structure. Her husband runs the office, handling sales (dental implants, etc.) and administrivia so she can focus on teeth. She has five or six young women in scrubs running around, performing various tasks while she scurries from one patient to another, across five work areas. All these folks are enabling one knowledge worker to spend every minute of her day applying her knowledge, and it works because she’s an extrovert, comfortable holding four conversations at once and being the center of attention.

    My doctor, Kristian, has one assistant, who never leaves her computer in the waiting area. She handles intake and insurance, and answers the phone. In a typical visit, I’ll spend 20 to 30 minutes with him while he goes over lab results, inspects whichever body parts seem to require monitoring, and types notes into his computer. We chat about my health, the lab report, his observations, and whether I can have a glass of scotch in the evening (last visit, he finally said that I can – after two years!). He wants to have one conversation at a time, and focus on developing a relationship with his patients, rather than maximize his throughput.

    Annalee’s staff is as busy as she can keep them occupied, because she continually directs them. Kristian’s staff of one is as busy as the patients in the waiting room keep her occupied, because he has delegated everything but health care to her. I like and respect both of them, and I don’t think one model works better than the other. But each office reflects the personality of the boss.

    I suspect most offices, to a greater or lesser degree, reflect the personality of the boss.


    • Interesting point Dave and certainly worth considering. Mind you, my post was written with large corporations in mind so I’m not sure (or clear) how your thesis will work out there. The other point worth considering is the fact that you are portraying two pictures of established businesses that don’t seem to undergo constant state of change. They must have gone over that hurdle years ago and have now comfortably settled into their habitual behavior. The question you need to explore with them is how would they react to a change (perhaps merging with another practice or other complimentary services)?

      I’m going to have a scotch (make sure it is 12 years or more, at the very least) and think about it.

      Cheers mate.


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