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Marzipan: good for cakes, bad for business

“The Marzipan layer explains a lot of poor decision-making, and even some major business failures. A key factor in 2008's financial services meltdown was a lack of senior management awareness of the risk carried by banks”

RICHARD COUGHLIN, PA's Business Design Expert

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Fans of the UK television series, ’The Great British Bake Off‘, understand the valuable role of marzipan. Rolled out over a cake before it’s iced, the marzipan layer stops sugars leaching from the icing into the cake, and conversely prevents the cake’s moisture from spoiling the icing.

Useful though this impermeable barrier is in a cake, it can cause problems in a business. Layers of management can act as a 'marzipan layer' preventing the flow of ideas, insights and information between top management and operations. If that happens, the organisation may not be able to carry out strategic change, and knowledge of what's happening at grass roots may not reach senior leaders.

The marzipan layer explains a lot of poor decision-making, and even some major business failures. For example, a key factor in the global financial crisis was a lack of senior management awareness of the risk carried by banks.

Let’s think about how you can tell whether you’ve got a marzipan layer, and take a look at the possible causes. Then we’ll consider what you can do to get rid of one.

Does your business have a marzipan layer?

  • To assess whether or not you have a marzipan layer, ask yourself a few questions.

  • How well do operational managers and staff really understand what senior leaders are trying to do?

  • Can they translate these aims into day-to-day priorities?

  • How accurately can leaders explain what's happening at an operational level in the business?

(This last question is a check that most ‘lean’ organisations carry out regularly.)

So what causes the marzipan layer?

The answers to these questions will give you an idea of whether you are suffering from the marzipan effect. If so, there are several possible causes, one or more of which may apply to your business. 

In some cases, the barriers are the result of the management structure itself. With too many layers of management, accountabilities get confused, leading to stagnation of decision-making and inability to convert senior management decisions into operational actions.

In other cases, true power lies two or three layers lower than it should. Middle-management barons become the gatekeepers for change to the business: anything that doesn’t fit their priorities gets ignored.

Yet another cause of the marzipan layer can be the way managers see their role. Some think they’re just there to take instructions from above, translate them into tasks and targets for their team, assess performance and report results upwards. This passive style of management interrupts the link between senior leaders and front line, preventing insight from passing between the top layer and the bottom.

Finally, poor management of business data can stop senior leaders understanding what's really happening on the front line. Badly designed management reporting can hide operational issues, for example by aggregating performance data so that important details are overlooked.

Losing the marzipan

Happily, you can do something about it. It’s rarely just one factor that causes the problem and the answer may involve a series of changes. 

If your management structure is an issue, you’ll need to rethink the layers, and create differentiated accountability for each. To break up destructive power bases, you may need to engineer a shift from silo-based thinking to cross-functional workflows, while also reviewing authority levels and decision rights. Poor management behaviour can also be changed through better performance management and rewards, as well as changing who holds commercial control. And if the problem is poor management information and reporting, it’s relatively straightforward to improve it in such a way as to allow insight to flow more freely up the organisation.

As Christmas cakes fade into the memories of the recent holidays, you can reflect on the important role marzipan played. At the same time, maybe it’s worth making sure a marzipan layer isn’t harming your business.

To talk to PA about how eliminating barriers to information flow can deliver lasting impact for your business, contact us now.

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