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Breaking the chains of command

5 min read


Companies need control to make sure they are efficient, compliant and even predictable, but it’s easy to go too far. Coping with a tough economy, increasing regulation and occasional errors, many leaders introduce too much central control, which ironically slow things down and undermine local responsibility and empowerment.

Institutionally, where does this tendency come from? In fact, traditional companies often take their cues about control from the military, where supervisors and overseers literally watched over the work of their people. It is called the “chain of command” for a reason! But this is an old model from a simpler past and doesn’t really work effectively in an environment where organizations and employees are much more skilled, complex and diverse.

The problems with this model are especially acute in complex organizations, particularly ones operating across geography and time zones. Here are some of the trappings —  do any of these look familiar?

  • Larger central staffs. To control things centrally, we need to understand them centrally. That means expensive and expansive central staffs whose jobs are to be smarter and more up to date despite not being close to the problem.
  • Decision-making processes that mostly require approval. Despite introducing delay and extra cost, escalating decisions to the center tends to be the default.
  • High levels of turnover or dissatisfaction for the rank and file. People prefer and expect autonomy. When they don’t get it, they either get fed up or pack up.

To stop ourselves from falling into these traps, we should follow four simple principles.

First, focus on essential controls. It’s tempting,when times are tough or there is a lot of change to try to control everything to increase the comfort zone. This can easily lead to micromanagement and to disempowerment of your employees. Instead focus on the key issues that really make a difference.

Secondly, control close to the action. Consider how, in American football, the quarterback is often the most valuable (and invested in) player. Much of the value they bring comes from their decision-making, whether making plays on the fly or having the liberty to call an audible at the line of scrimmage. Coaches can wield authority at critical moments of the game but relinquish much of their power to their personnel. Giving autonomy does not mean there is no control; it just means that the people close to the work are exercising control.

Look at it this way: If you have something so important it needs to be controlled, why would you want to delay the control and move it to a point distant from the action? A separation of those doing the control from those doing the work simply leads to a lower level of responsibility in the people doing the work.

Next, constantly build local capability. When you receive an escalated issue or identify a control problem, don’t just stop at solving the problem. See this as an opportunity to build capability so this problem doesn’t happen again. Identify why people close to the action couldn’t make the right decision. Was it a lack of skill? Not enough knowledge? No authority? Put in place training or documentation and reset approval levels or expectations so that the next time the problem happens, people will be able to deal with it immediately.

Finally, focus on responsibility, not rules. As organizations grow, they inevitably introduce more rules and processes. It’s hard to run a business of thousands of people on relationships and common sense. But we often write rules because one idiot makes a mistake. We can end up with a rulebook which is a fossil record of the worst mistakes of the stupidest people we ever hired, and then use this to train our new people!

Instead of rules (which will rarely head off the next disaster), we need to develop a sense of responsibility and good judgment. This often means training people in values and in how we want them to behave rather than which rules to follow mindlessly.

As leaders, we need to establish the right balance of control and autonomy for our business. The management techniques and assumptions developed for a simpler past can make it hard for us to make these changes now.

In a complex environment, we can’t be the experts on local conditions, technologies, cultures and priorities without becoming micromanagers. We need to realize that we can’t know everything, and we must have good people who are informed and skilled to cover the gaps.

Instead of having the solution to everything, leaders need to become effective coaches who focus on building the capability in their people to solve problems for themselves. This is both more sustainable for leaders and more empowering for their people.

I will leave the last word on this to Mario Andretti, one of the world’s most successful racing drivers. He said, “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough!”

Kevan Hall is the CEO of Global Integration, specializing in matrix management, virtual teams and global working training and consulting. He is the author of “Making the Matrix Work: How Matrix Managers Engage People and Cut Through Complexity,” and “Speed Lead: Faster, Simpler Ways to Manage People, Projects and Teams in Complex Companies.”