Wayne’s Word

September 13, 2008

A Management Lesson from Starship Troopers

Filed under: General — Wayne @ 12:13 pm
Tags: , ,

I’ve been thinking about management structures lately and I remembered a favorite passage form Starship Troopers. (The book, not the film.) I think there is an important management lesson to be learned here from Heinlein.

From Starship Troopers …

The M. I. (Mobile Infantry) has the lowest percentage of officers in any army of record and this factor is just part of the M. I.’s unique “divisional wedge.” If you have l0,000 soldiers, how many fight? And how many just peel potatoes, drive lorries, count graves, and shuffle papers? In the M. I., 10,000 men fight.

In the mass wars of the 20th century it sometimes took 70,000 men (fact!) to enable 10,000 to fight. The root of our morale is: “Everybody works, everybody fights.” It is this “everybody fights” rule that lets the M. I. get by with so few officers.

[In the M. I.’s organizational structure] you wind up with 317 officers out of a total, all ranks, of 11,117. There are no blank files and every officer commands a team. Officers total 3%. In fact a good many platoons are commanded by sergeants and many officers “wear more than one hat” in order to fill some utterly necessary staff jobs. Even a platoon leader should have “staff”—his platoon sergeant. But he can get by without one and his sergeant can get by without him. But a general must have staff; the job is too big to carry in his hat. He needs a big planning staff and a small combat staff. Since there are never enough officers, the team commanders in his flag transport double as his planning staff and are picked from the M. I.’s best mathematical logicians then they drop with their own teams. The general drops with a small combat staff. Besides necessary staff billets, any team larger than a platoon ought to have a deputy commander. But there are never enough officers so we make do with what we’ve got. To fill each necessary combat billet, one job to one officer, would call for a 5% ratio of officers—but 3% is all we’ve got.

In place of that optimax of 5% that the M. I. never can reach, many armies in the past commissioned 10% of their number, or even 15%—and sometimes a preposterous 20%! This sounds like a fairy tale but it was a fact, especially during the 20th century. What kind of an army has more “officers” than corporals? (And more non-coms than privates!) An army organized to lose wars —if history means anything. An army that is mostly organization, red tape, and overhead, most of whose “soldiers” never fight. But what do “officers” do who do not command fighting men? Fiddlework, apparently—officers’ club officer, morale officer, athletics officer, public information officer, recreation officer, PX officer, transportation officer, legal officer, chaplain, assistant chaplain, junior assistant chaplain, officer-in-charge of anything anybody can think of, even—nursery officer! In the M. I., such things are extra duty for combat officers or, if they are real jobs, they are done better and cheaper and without demoralizing a fighting outfit by hiring civilians. But the situation got so smelly in one of the 20th century major powers that real officers, ones who commanded fighting men, were given special insignia to distinguish them from the swarms of swivel-chair hussars.

Excerpted and abridged from Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. If you haven’t read the book, read it. There are a lot of other lessons to be learned.

… To Corporate Troopers

After making some substitutions, we get a reasonably applicable management lesson. The analogy does not carry-over perfectly from the M. I. to a company, particularly because the army has no equivalent of secretaries and admin assistants. But, the general principle still applies.

The model company has the lowest percentage of managers in any company of record and this factor is just part of the model company’s unique “divisional wedge.” If a company has 10,000 workers, how many do actual work? And how many just advise, assist, and shuffle papers? In the model company, 10,000 employees do actual work.

In the mass business ventures of the 20th century it sometimes took 70,000 employees (fact!) to enable 10,000 to do actual work.The root of the model company’s morale is: “Everybody is employed, everybody works.” It is this “everybody works” rule that lets the model company get by with so few managers.

There are no vacant positions and every manager manages a organizational unit. Managers total 3%. In fact a good many sections are managed by project managers and many organizational managers “wear more than one hat” in order to fill some utterly necessary staff jobs. Even a section leader should have “staff”—his assistant section manager. But he can get by without one and his assistant section manager can get by without him. But a BU manager must have staff; the job is too big to carry in his hat. He needs a big planning staff and a smaller working staff. Since there are never as many managers as managerial positions, the organizational unit managers in his BU double as his planning staff and are picked from the model company ’s best project managers and then they still do contract work with their own organizational units. The BU manager manages with a small working staff. Besides necessary staff positions, any organizational unit larger than a section ought to have a deputy manager. But there are never as many managers as managerial positions, so they make do with what they have. To fill each necessary managerial position, one job to one manager, would call for a 5% ratio of managers—but 3% is all there is.

In place of that optimax of 5% that the model company never can reach, many companies in the past promoted to management 10% of their number, or even 15%—and sometimes a preposterous 20%! This sounds like a fairy tale but it was a fact, especially during the 20th century. What kind of a company has more “managers” than project managers? (And more senior staff than technical leads?) A company organized to lose contracts—if history means anything. A company that is mostly organization, red tape, and overhead, most of whose “workers” never work. But what do “managers” and senior staff do who do not manage employees? Fiddlework, apparently! In the model company, such things are extra duty for other managers or, if they are real jobs, they are done better and by administrative staff. But the situation got so smelly in one of the 20th century major corporation that real managers, ones who managed working employees, were given special titles to distinguish them from the swarms of swivel-chair hussars.

In case you are interested, some of the substitutions I made were:

M. I. model company
army company
officer manager
general BU manager
soldier, trooper worker
command manage
fight work
platoon section
men employees
war contract
rank level
sergeant, corporal, non-com technical lead
private non-manager
combat worker
commanders high-level managers
drops does contract work
team organizational unit
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