Time was, back when the railroads were built, that the military was basically the only management structure that was large, distributed and relatively effective. So the railroads and other rapidly expanding businesses adopted the military’s top down, command and control management philosophies.
This was actually a driver for industrial growth, since many corporations were forming and needed a structure to allow them to grow, to expand and to control operations. The top down command and control organization wasn’t especially fast at making decisions, but was good at implementing the desires of the senior executives and good at repetitive work. This structure was especially valuable when few people had much education, but could be taught relatively simple operations on a production line.
Fast forward to today, and the top down, command and control organization is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. First, it takes too long for commands to filter down through the organization, so the responsiveness of a top down command and control organization is limited, when the environment is changing rapidly. Second, the executives and leaders rotate through jobs and positions like a roulette wheel, in one slot and then on to another slot every two to three years. This lack of longevity in any role doesn’t create much stability or desire for long term change. Third, most workers in large organizations have far more training and education than their forebears, and are able to make informed decisions, if they are informed of the goals of the organization.
The Cross Roads
Our businesses are at a cross-roads, in terms of existing structures and purpose, and future demands. Most command and control businesses were designed and built based on a competitive model and framework that is dissolving. As trade barriers fall, competition increases and low cost options shift from country to country, building an ever more effective command and control environment is like akin to “fighting the last war”. Organizational structures need to change. But you know this already. Gary Hamel told you this in The Future of Management. The real question is: do you understand the impact of this treatise when it comes to innovation?
Leaders, managers and visions, oh my!
Back in the day when command and control was the accepted and the practical alternative, executives created strategies but didn’t bother to share them with their employees. They simply asked for specific tasks to be accomplished, and the employees acted accordingly. The employees didn’t question, and didn’t bother to share ideas. Requests came top down, and results flowed bottom up.
But today, things should be different. With a far more educated and capable workforce, executive can expect far more than simply acquiescence to commands. But do the communication channels exist to allow good ideas to flow both ways? Often, modern corporations seem to represent the epitome of evolved learning, with empowered teams, active communication and deep training. But underneath all of this evolved learning and management still resides, as an almost vestigial organ, a command and control mentality. Oh, we’ve received the training, heard the message and nodded our heads at the sage wisdom, thank you, but we’ll still wait for the directions.
What we need is a clear vision for the company, and the right and responsibility to achieve it with our best capabilities and ideas, regardless of their source. What we need is executives and leaders who harness our knowledge and channel capabilities and passions. While executives have gotten much better at expressing “what” they want, the “how” part is often still missing, and in the absence of clear directions, staff will revert to what they think is safe and reasonable.
The new paradigm
Greg Satell has written about this better than I can, so let’s link to his article, The Leaderless Organization. What you need to be consistently innovative is to create very clear, compelling strategies and goals for your business, and provide the tools and techniques for your teams to deliver. And be open enough to their ideas to encourage more innovation. This doesn’t suggest that organizations don’t need executives, just that they need leaders even more than they need managers. Leaders are good for innovation, managers are good for efficiency. Both are required in a modern organization.
image credit: the gap image from bigstock
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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.