“Stagnation is self-abdication.”
“The moment we stand still, we begin to decay.”
“If you’re stationary, you’ll die.”
Gen. Mark Milley, Joint Chief of Staff
Ok. I tend to believe any reasonable business person recognizes stagnancy leads to inevitable death <although at the same time many reasonable business people also have an unhealthy relationship with tried & true systems & processes, mitigate risk taking to such an extreme level that change almost seems indiscernible and views any change as something that needs to be analyzed from every view imaginable before undertaking it>.
I thought about that when I scanned a fantastic article on WarontheRocks discussing the army strategy of the future. Within it was a phrase that caught my eye – “disciplined disobedience.”
It first and foremost reminded me that businesses can view stagnancy in a variety of ways in their attempt to “not change what works” while seeking “change what needs to be changed” <all of which simply means “something within your business is not dynamic and there are scraps of stagnancy slowing you down”>.
It secondly reminded me that back in august 2010 I wrote something called ‘discontinuity for successful company continuity’ in which I shared an organizational idea called “controlled autonomy” <others may call it a version of a self organized organization or a decentralized organization or a variety of ‘decentralized-like employee empowered’ terms> … and suggested that was the organization of the future.
A continuous discontinuous organization?
Controlled in that there is a vision, a focus and a functional understanding of what is it we do well.
Autonomy in that outside the ‘control developers’ people can do different shit.
Controlled autonomy is certainly an organizational shift from the past.
But even IBM has looked at this concept.
A past IBM research report suggests that the best analogies for businesses in the future may no longer be the command structures of the military but the self-organizing networks found in nature: schools of fish, flocks of birds and swarms of insects.
I don’t know about the birds & bees thing but I do understand they are suggesting some decentralization (or autonomy at the employee level).
The struggle with this is that this agility I am discussing is a process where the leadership is not omnipotent.
And further struggle continues with autonomy (and the ensuing agility) as there will be enablers and blockers within the organization therefore the leadership must factor in internal organization limitations (and possibilities) when judging the best plan of action.
What that really means is that no matter how you slice it … organizations are ‘tense anxiety-driven’ structures.
Employees typically oppose new ideas because they perceive they are unworkable (and sometimes they are if the ivory tower doesn’t have their shit together) and bad for profits (or it appears to on the ground people they aren’t making as much money).
And yet we also know that employees always have a large stake in the future success of any organization. Some hesitancy is due to fear or laziness but it can also be due to good judgment.
This is where autonomy comes into play.
It’s not just about diverse views in planning (which obviously highlights opportunities and obstacles) but also some permission of diversity in on the ground decision making.
And autonomy in an organization helps address the truth that is there is a difference between ‘intended’ strategy at the corporate level and ‘realized’ strategy on the business level, i.e., what management wishes to occur, and what is in fact carried out.
That is also the dynamic portion of businesses that permits change to meet changing markets.
Sounds awful difficult to control? (or manage) Sure it is.
But that is why a leader should be paid the big bucks.
Uhm. I still believe that.
At the most simplistic level any business faces two basic demands — it must execute its current activities to survive today’s challenges and adapt those activities to survive tomorrow’s.
This means executing and adapting at exactly the same time. This also means, within your business, there is a constant competition for resources, money & time in order to meet executional demands and adaptation opportunities <therein lies a significant portion of the ‘tense-anxiety’ dynamic of a dynamic organization.
I am not making this up.
Peters and Waterman <In Search of Excellence> argued that organizations must simultaneously be “tight” in executing and “loose” in adapting. I believe they also pointed out that very few do both well.
I have had many discussions with many businesses trying to convince them that an organization can be very good at both executing and adapting and how to be good at both.
It seems that many business leaders sometimes forget that the organization can sometimes forget they can actually be an organization from an aligned ‘doing’ perspective <because we put such an emphasis n vision and strategy>.
What I mean is that most good businesses have naturally incorporated a sense of autonomy and over time the organizational alignment aspects fade into a subconscious background space and individual departments and groups coalesce around the autonomous aspects <it gives them a sense of pride, empowerment & self-actualization as part of the whole>.
Everyone should note that while this is an incredibly powerful engine in a company it can become challenging with employee turnover <because there has to be some plan to assimilate new people into a subconsciously acting organization>.
Look. I believe, and vocally espouse, great alignment in an organization more often than not is actually “purposeful fragmentation.” This is the type of alignment which permits the parts of the organization <departments, divisions, etc.> to maintain some autonomy yet always be grounded in what is ultimately important to the organization.
Sure. I do believe there are things you want an organization to do fairly commonly and certainly can do if you ask the organization to swing into action. And I do believe it is imperative to get these things down and established as ‘rote behavior’ in the midst of an organizational shift/transformation. But organizations have a nasty habit of falling back on less-than-autonomy type leadership and thinking. This nasty habit occurs as we gain experience because our ‘rules & guidelines’ hierarchies fill up based on a larger collection of specific experiences and more feedback on what has and hasn’t worked.
Someone articulated the outcome of this as:
“our mental models grow into complex structures of categories, interlinked rules, and weightings. We become less likely to perceive experiences as totally new and instead try to relate them to previous ones, which we group into existing categories. As mental models become more complex over time, major rearrangements become more difficult.”
Basically, as an organization’s size and complexity increase its degrees of freedom & autonomy decrease. and while I just made a sweeping generalization I would point out something that Scott Page, University of Michigan, who studied why some organizations are complex and hierarchical while others are simple and flat concluded — organizations evolve in response to the problems they have to solve.
All of this leads me back to what the Army Chief of Staff said in the warontherocks article. Two thoughts for any business person who embraces the uncomfortable truth that stagnancy is the path to irrelevant death:
“If you’re stationary, you’ll die.”
Consolidated bases and logistics hubs will be untenable, presenting lucrative targets for an enemy with precision firepower. He noted we must “untether ourselves from this umbilical cord of logistics and supply that American forces have enjoyed for a very lengthy period of time.” Army units will have to move, set up, move, and move again — “maybe every two, three, four hours just to survive.” Fixed sites of any kind will be lethal magnets for destruction by enemies who will have a rich diet of targeting information — especially since smart phones will be even more ubiquitous. As he bluntly stated, “If you’re stationary, you’ll die.”
- Disobey Orders — Smartly
He called this “disciplined disobedience.” I believe this idea was floated by a past Army Chief of Staff back in the 1970’s but called “selective disobedience.” This suggests that disobeying orders can be justified to achieve the larger purpose of the mission.
[A] subordinate needs to understand that they have the freedom and they are empowered to disobey a specific order, a specified task, in order to accomplish a purpose. Now, that takes a lot of judgment … it can’t just be willy-nilly disobedience. This has got to be disciplined disobedience to achieve the higher purpose.
“disobedience, when done, must be done with trust and integrity, and you must be morally and ethically correct.”
A business competitive field has always been one of chaos and unpredictability <although we have always tried to communicate it as more static in SWOT analysis and crap like that>. And if you accept it is more chaotic and unpredictable it will become easier to understand why far too many organizations frequently lack reliable communications up and down the chain of command. As the Army recognizes, and businesses more often should, junior leaders may have to independently make quick decisions upon which battles may be decided and which may have strategic consequences.
In a controlled autonomy the leaders must become more comfortable with some ambiguity and accepting the fact that employees closer to the point of action/decision will be making unsupervised decisions to achieve the organization’s, and leader’s, intent. Simplistically, as the Army suggests is mission command — empowering leaders with the “why” of their task, but leaving the “how” to their imagination.
Well. Suffice it to say … while people like me love that thought & concept most business leaders are scared shitless of it. Frankly, most senior leaders <centralists by management nature> who seek to implement some autonomous aspects don’t set out to deceive anybody. In their heads they know that high degrees of involvement, participation, and autonomy are key elements in high organization performance. But in their hearts, they still crave orderliness, predictability, and control.
They get trapped in the wretched in-between because a central “plan” cannot dictate and bring order to a haphazard, chaotic, unpredictable, and rapidly changing business world – no matter how much we wish it would.
And. It gets more difficult.
With a continuing stress on “bottom line” or making margins as high as possible leaders fall into the financial analysis trap which encourages anything but autonomy.
Financial analysis can clearly show that consolidating and centralizing support services and functions saves money and increases efficiency <in huge PowerPoint graph slides in the conference room> therefore suggesting autonomy is less than efficient.
What doesn’t show up in these analysis are two things:
<1> consolidating & centralizing is most effective & efficient in servicing a static business (note: business is never static)
<2> the inherent alienation, helplessness, and lack of ability to connect with real time customer & market needs or organizational purpose that centralized bureaucracy often brings
I could argue for controlled autonomy for years. And I could begin with the simplest thought that efficiencies may save gobs of money but the processes to do so can be cost you the intangible people energy and passion engine within the organization <and then add in at least 5 additional powerful reasons you, as a business leader, need to suck it up and embrace some ambiguity>.
Controlled autonomy may not be the proper terminology <albeit it offers a more comfortable liminal space fr a lot of existing leadership> but I would encourage all business people to start using the Army as an example and start using “disciplined disobedience” as a management North Star.