‘Command and Control’ is a phrase that we only use nowadays in connection with modern management in a tone of amused irony. We all know about command and control as the management system of choice from the earliest days of the major modern corporations—and we have definitely ‘moved on’.

Or have we?

Command and control systems used by the armed forces were deliberately adopted by the emerging corporations of the early twentieth century, as a means of ensuring that the most appropriate command decisions were taken by the general staff (senior management) and that these were effectively transmitted to the ranks (workers) via their officers (middle management).

Although we think of command and control as the ultimate ‘top down’ management style (commands are cascaded down through the system, giving each unit the precise instructions that they need, and no more) there is an essential feedback loop in place. The role of staff officers is not only to communicate the commander’s decisions to operating units, but also to feed information about the developing situation back to the commander. This is the ‘control’ system that ensures the effectiveness of the commands.

Command and control works—so where’s the problem?

There are four key problems with command and control (and the most significant is the last).

  1. The people at the sharp end are asked, in effect, to supply raw data only—they are not expected to recommend a course of action because that decision is reserved for command. The people at the sharp end are better informed about the local situation, though not about the broader picture, from which they are deliberately excluded. But if they knew about the bigger picture, this might change their interpretation of their immediate environment.
  2. The commander’s decisions are based on information that is second- or third-hand at best. Although the commander sees the broad picture (in theory) he or she may also be disastrously wrong about the real situation ‘on the ground’.
  3. It takes time for information to be conveyed to the top and for decisions to relayed back down the command chain.
  4. Command and control ultimately relies on the judgement of a single person: the commander. Success or failure hangs on the decision-making skills of one individual.

An emerging, modern model

My guess is that you would agree that the management of modern organisations needs far higher degrees of consultation and empowerment, that decision making should move closer to the consumer and that leaders need to encourage genuine input and creative thinking from the whole organisation.

But is this really happening?

Consultation

Modern leaders and managers need genuinely to consult with the organisation as a whole: there should be a broad consensus before major policies are implemented, and significant issues should have been discussed. An organisation that has had the opportunity to address the likely issues arising from the new plan is more likely to implement it successfully. More importantly, the plan has no longer been imposed on people; ‘consensus’ is the key word here.

Empowerment

Individual team leaders should be given considerable latitude in choosing the appropriate course of action within the overall strategy. Modern leaders should give their teams the goal and the direction, and then trust them to make the best decisions for themselves.

Moving decisions close to the consumer

The teams that are closest to the customer are best placed to know what customers really want. Modern leaders must create systems that make these colleagues’ voices heard and build them into the decision-making process in a structural way – but also, as above, empower them to make rapid and effective decisions without referral.

It is not easy to devise management systems that embrace these principles effectively, but modern organisations are finally moving in this direction – because they have to.

Today’s highly-educated and mobile knowledge-workers won’t tolerate a ‘production line’ approach to their working life; they expect to be consulted and they expect to make a contribution.

The leader who is not harnessing all of the skills, knowledge and experience of their colleagues is both wasting an immense pool of talent and failing to engage colleagues in a mutual effort to create a successful organisation.

We need to start seeing the organisation and leadership in a very different way. Command and control really is SO twentieth century.


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