July 17, 2018

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Remembering Dr. Jaques

I always laugh when I think about my conversations with Dr. Elliott Jaques. He'd ask a question like, "Can you name a scientifically valid result from psychology?" I'd struggle for some kind of halfway intelligent answer and he'd reply, "I'm sorry but you are completely wrong."

Dr. Jaques thought long and hard about organizational theory and came to the conclusion that almost all of it was junk. His goal was to create a scientific basis for research on organizations. A brilliant, original thinker, he left behind a solid body of work that will enrich readers for many generations.

Of all his ideas, the one that has most affected me is his theory of organizational strata. He showed there is a "right" number of levels in a hierarchy and showed how important it was to have a manager one stratum (no more, no less) above their direct reports. This is an idea I reflect on whenever I look at our own company.

I was also pleased with the results of his research showing that you continue to get smarter as you get older, and that mental capability doesn't just improve along a continuum, but makes distinct jumps every 15 years or so. This fires me with renewed commitment to strive to improve, knowing that my best days lie ahead.

Jaques' work on accountabilities is very helpful for human resources professionals. He clarifies how you can be accountable for advising, while a line manager may be accountable for results. He explicates that there are situations -- regarding safety for example -- where you may have the authority to force someone to stop doing something, whereas other times your final course of action may be to advise a person's manager of your opinion. I've never seen such thoughtful work on accountabilities anywhere else.

For managers of managers, Dr. Jaques may be the only person to have explicitly outlined the duties of the role. He spoke of the "manager once removed." That's a critical element in organization functioning and no one but Dr. Jaques seems to have recognized it as such.

I'm sure each of Dr. Jaques' many fans will have their own list of "most useful ideas." I'm sure his friends will have many funny stories from the life and times of Dr. Jaques. What inspires me is the joy and energy he put into his work right up to the moment of his death in his mid-eighties. What a great way to live your life.

-David Creelman