48: Stratified Systems Theory — Elliott Jaques

Elliott Jaques

Gillian Stamp

As bureaucracies became more prevalent as a feature of organizations post-WWII, questions surfaced as to how they could be improved. Was there an optimal way to design them? What was the best role of individual members within a bureaucracy? Could individuals be developed to handle higher level roles?

Among those asking such questions was Elliott Jaques, co-founder of the Tavistock Institute and later the author of the renowned book Requisite Organization that combined social theories with theories of organization. As a scientific approach to organizational design, the “stratified systems theory” of requisite organization sought to optimize the hierarchical structure based on the time-span of decisions at echelon. Then, using methods for measuring individual capabilities and capacity for decision making, members could be assigned posts within the organization based on best fit. Stratified systems theory (SST) established a common schema for using time-span that could be applied to any organization.

Stratified systems theory found a home in the U.S. Army due to its immediate applicability in the Army’s large, complex hierarchical structures during the Cold War. The seven strata prescribed in the Theory were found to be analogous with various echelons in combat organizations, and the individual capabilities mirrored the duties and requirements of officers at particular ranks from lieutenant (lowest stratum or Stratum I) to general (highest or Stratum VII). For this reason, and because the report is in the public domain, we opted to read Jaques’ Army Research Institute Report Level and Type of Capability in Relation to Executive Organization, co-authored with Brunel University colleague Gillian Stamp in 1991. The report gives both a good summary of the theory and a thorough explication of its potential use in practice.

But as a scientific approach to organization, SST has been heavily criticized and largely shunned. Why, and whether or not this is fair is among the many topics we tackle in this episode.

You may also download the audio files here: Part 1 | Part 2 |  Part 3

Read With Us:

Jaques, E. & Stamp, G. (1991). Level and Type of Capability in Relation to Executive Organization. Alexandria, Virginia: U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences. Public domain.

To Learn More:

Kleiner, A. (2001). Elliott Jaques Levels With YouStrategy + Business, 22

Jaques, E. (1997). Requisite Organization: Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century. London: Gower.

Jacobs, T. O., & Jaques, E. (1990). Military executive leadership. In Clark, K. E. & Clark, M.. B. (Eds.) Measures of leadership (pp. 281-295). Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

________ (1991). Executive leadership. In Gal, R. & Mangelsdorff, A. D. (Eds.) The handbook of military psychology (pp. 431-448). New York: John Wiley & Sons.