Home > Agile and Lean, Sami Lilja, Systems Thinking > The TOP-3×3 signs you are in a command & control organization

The TOP-3×3 signs you are in a command & control organization

Lists are great and here is my list: TOP-3×3 Signs You Are In A Command And Control Organization.

The signs are divided into three categories, hence 3×3 in the title, and the categories are

  • The Obvious,
  • The Unexpected and
  • The Hilarious

Before the lists, let’s see what is command and control. It is a management thinking pattern that assumes the organization must have

  • Up-front planning
  • Reporting and metrics against the plan
  • Defined roles and responsibilities
  • Hierarchies that support the defined responsibilities
  • Best practices and harmonized work process to achieve efficiency

Command and Control is built on an assumption that people in power know what and how needs to be done, and its is their duty to inform others about this. Communication from “doers” to “decision makers” is done mainly via reporting. The other direction is work orders, tasks and evaluations.

The Lists 

The Obvious are signs that almost all command & control managers create around them. Here are my TOP-3 of those.

  1. Hierarchies. This is a sure sign of command and control mindset. This is an obsession to draw organization charts. Also phrases “reports to” or “is a subordinate” show that the hierarchies dominate.
  2. Reorganizations. Related to the previous, organization structure is the symbol of hierarchies. Organization may have low hierarchies, but if it reacts to impulses by doing a reorganization, then it surely is command & control. Click here to see Dogbert meet with C&C boss.
  3. Performance management. This comes in many flavors: incentives, individual bonuses, target setting and annual performance reviews. All of them are rooted in thinking that someone else knows best how to do work.

The Unexpected are signs that on the first look seem harmless, but closer look shows they are Command & Control in disguise.

  1. Lync, Skype and other communication tools. What? These are useful! Yes, they may be good in some occasions, but these tools drive low-bandwidth communication. Once you have Lync installed, why not skip all face-to-face meetings? Phone / video fits well to giving orders and delivering reports, i.e Command and Control . Worse even, organizations tend to acquire messaging tools to hide the fact that they are not capable to put people work together.
  2. Metrics. Again, these could be useful if they were derived from purpose and customer demand. Unfortunately, almost always these are  merely process metrics: “Are we doing the things right“, “Are we on track” and “Are my commands being executed properly“. Metrics are a great antidote to learning.
  3. Support functions. Human Resources, Premises Management, Finance&Control and so on. These are based on thinking that specialization is a good thing. But this detaches decision making from work and creates system where “someone else knows better” and “do your work so that mine is easier“. Oh, and if anyone comes to you and say they have “Agile X” (X represents any support function), then be very worried. It is just command and control in camouflage.

The Hilarious are signs that are just too absurd to be true. But they are and tell a lot about management mindset

  1. Policies: “Nice that you are doing Scrum, but you can not purchase whiteboards without 3rd level manager approval“. And at the same time the organization buys everyone a $500 license to an Agile Lifecycle Management Software.
  2. Access rights. Both physical world (doors) and virtual world (information systems). If you have trouble getting through doors to your colleagues, then there are significant trust issues in the organization. Interestingly, the more the leaders emphasize openness in all-hands meetings, the more difficult it is to get access rights in the real life.
  3. Institutionalized dysfunctions. Dysfunction is something that is wrong in design and management of work. Dysfunction becomes institutionalized when management creates process or tool to go around the problem and the discussion moves from the problem to the workaround. The original problem remains. If you see a lot of weird meetings talking about things that should not even exist, then you know organization sees a tool or process as a solution to every problem. Command and Control.

None of the items in the list above (except “Performance Management”) as such are harmful to people. Command & Control is not about mis-treating people or imposing punishment (while those do occur). Command and Control is about attitude towards work and it impacts how people in power treat other people, but C&C management is not “evil”. This often confuses managers, because they think they are nice, “people-oriented” and good coaches. Sorry, doing Command and Control more “softly” is not going to help. The problem lies in thinking, not in how the thinking is implemented.

How many of the items on the list you have seen today in your work?

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