For and Against: management styles
Executive director, speaker and author
Profile: Dr David Fraser
Dr David Fraser is a chartered engineer with a major projects background and has qualifications in neuro-linguistic programming and mediation. He is executive director of change for Leaders, a consultancy focused on bringing out the best in people. He is also an international speaker and author of the award-winning book ‘Relationship Mastery: A Business Professional’s Guide’. www.drdavidfraser.com
Founder of the Business Genome project, author and speaker
Profile: Andrea Kates
Andrea Kates is the founder of the Business Genome project and author of the bestselling business innovation book ‘Find Your Next’. She is a member of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) community and a featured 2012 TED speaker
Command and control, or top-down management, has its place for certain things: ensuring nuclear safety for example, or as a way of allocating scarce resources when demand for them is unlimited. The trouble is, organisations rely more on self-organisation among their participants to be successful.Dr Manfred Hellrigl, an authority on ‘social capital’, says all organisations depend on self-organisation. The more complex the operation, the more true this is. The issue is how to promote self-organisation: the answer is to build networks. Hellrigl cites the difference between traffic lights (command and control) and roundabouts (self-organisation), where more reliance is placed on distributed intelligence.
Peter Senge, author of ‘The Fifth Discipline’, says that one of the keys to organisational learning is peer-to-peer networks. He cites the example of Hewlett Packard, where researchers found that as long as the networks were not disrupted, the team was still able to develop high-performing products and lead a technologically intense and fast-changing industry.
Command and control starts at an early age. Schools are organised using the mass-production model favoured by our industrial forbears - they created the education system to provide labour. At school, we are taught the importance of tangible, logical, rational processing of information and facts. We are conditioned to favour this mode of thinking throughout our lives, and are expected to pick up social skills.
We might discover some hierarchies exist because of their main participants’ need for status and power. Psychologist Abraham Maslow said that ‘self-actualisers’ - those who seek to become spiritually whole in their lives - are not invested in power over other people.
All this leads to organisations that are less conscious of networks than they are of hierarchy. They may be rather good at fighting fires, but have to allow a crisis to develop first.
Another consequence of top-down management is the development of silos, usually delineated by role and function. It becomes comfortable for employees to remain in role - the organisation struggles to achieve cross-functional coordination. The top management and its targets become the customer, and the result can be dismal.
History shows that in difficult times, those with strong networks thrive. They are best placed to adapt to change. Modern managers need to hone their effectiveness at forming, developing and drawing on their relationships within and beyond the workplace.
We are rarely taught explicit skills for relating to other people. We are expected to develop our interpersonal skills through experience. Examine a typical write-up on bullying in the workplace and you’ll notice that it’s completely silent on the ability of the employees to handle relationships effectively. And yet, that might well be the principal underlying cause of the problems.
The modern manager must often learn to exist in an environment that is explicitly command and control, and must simultaneously be wholly dependent on implicit networks. One of the most challenging but also liberating things we must learn is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind. Quantum mechanics illustrates this in wave-particle duality. Physicist Niels Bohr was fond of saying that the opposite of a profound truth is often another profound truth. In other words, many questions have not one answer, but two.
Science and engineering provides the classic example of the duality we need. That can mean loosening our grip through command and control mechanisms and allowing innovation and performance to emerge from self-organising networks. The modern manager will do well to place less reliance on command and control and strengthen the networks in a fast-changing world.
During the long era in business when expansion came from scaling up operations and planning outputs from assembly lines, it made perfect sense for leaders to drive their companies based on a command-and-control style. One central person (or team) had all of the facts, and was therefore in the best position to set the strategy. Workers were specialised. They didn’t have the big picture and could only be expected to conform to the requirements and execute the game plan. Recently we’ve been lured into a new way of thinking, brought about largely by the ubiquity of information where everyone is factored into decision making. So we see people encouraged to bring creativity to their jobs. Information is more accessible and everything from pricing to customer opinions are more transparent. “Empowerment” is a popular rallying cry.
The problem with this zealous embrace of informal networks over authority is that our new leadership model is often a bridge too far. We have swallowed some serious myths as we evolved from the rigour of strict hierarchy to a more relaxed, informal leadership approach.
- Myth No 1 - Entrepreneurial spirit outperforms a hierarchical structure. We have fallen in love with entrepreneurs, sometimes at our own peril. Look at the Facebook love affair, where a bit more rigour and scrutiny might have put the brakes on overvaluation. Compare with GE Ecomagination’s roots: Jeffrey Immelt proclaimed that sustainability was here to stay and pushed that vision forward. The company now generates billions of dollars in revenues.
- Myth No 2 - Groupthink is a better way to make decisions. Brainstorming is socially engaging, but the outcomes under perform more traditional problem-solving techniques. Informal networks are great for getting people connected, but not the best way to set a company on its course. Johnson & Johnson was looking for a new way to ship supplies. After months of brainstorming and discussion, it took one visionary leader to see that European waterways were an option. He challenged the team to make it work. It was one leader, brave enough to go out on a limb, who led the way.
- Myth No 3 - Consensus is the best way to devise new direction. Most companies need a healthy dose of singular vision. Allstate Insurance needed e-commerce and bought Esurance to leapfrog them into a new arena. A small team made the decision and the company had to execute with precision and clarity.
In each case, it took one leader to chart the course, and people had to make it work. It used to be that corporate leadership was based on a military model. One man sat at the top, commanding orders, based on his unique vantage point. If he were one of the industrialists toward the beginning of the 1900s, he might have been the only person with all of the facts. It doesn’t work for a football team to function without a coach, and I argue that it doesn’t work for our organisations to move forward without a hierarchical structure.
Antiquated, military-style command and control structures won’t work these days. But there is such a thing as making management too informal. We still need to have personal responsibility, an idea of who our gurus and mentors are. Informal networks are great for informal networking and their benefits are obvious, but the extent to which they can steer policy, long-term planning, business planning, hiring and marketing strategy is limited. It all depends what we mean by hierarchy and there is a good case to be made for the 21st century ‘benign hierarchy’. You don’t need to be Stalin to lead the way, but organisations need leaders.
Imagine Churchill’s famous “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech, where instead of placing a stake in the ground and inspiring others, he set up a brainstorming committee. Business is facing economic challenges and pressures that warrant a bit of good old-fashioned bold leadership.
Do you agree?
Developing networks has become more important than command and control for today's manager.
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