Command OR Control

DISCLAIMER: These ideas are not fully formed. Please be gentle. 😉

For the past decade or so I have “known” that “Command AND Control” is the wrong way to run a team or organisation. To me, this meant that Commanding or Controlling was wrong wrong wrong.

I’ve recently been doing some work scaling Agile in the organisation. The role of management or executives is key. They are responsible for focusing the organisation. To ensure that its precious resources are focused in the right place. Some executives do the number crunching in their own heads, other distribute the cognition (self organisation) and some just make it up based on gut instinct. The decision of “what to do?” uses resources from across the organisation, marketing provide market intelligence, and development/operations determine what is possible. Once the decision is made, the executives need to ensure the organisation focuses on it.

There are two ways that the executive can instruct the organisation. They can “Command it” by setting it a set of goals, or they can “Control it” by organising it in such a way that it can be controlled from the top as the executive makes course corrections.

The Marines are an example of a “Command” organisation. The marines are given a clear objective such as “Secure that bridge” or “Destroy that factory”. One individual in the marines can make the difference. In order to do this, the marines are highly trained in a number of different disciplines so that they can “Adapt and Improvise”. A classic example in the business world is Jack Welch’s command to GE “Be the first or second in each market, otherwise exit the market”.

The infantry are an example of a “Control” organisation. Individuals have a lesser impact in a control organisation. The infantry are typically deployed on a battlefield where coordination is more important than individual acts. The training required for individuals in a control organisation is much more limited. The training does not encourage creativity but rather ensures consistency and conformance to the plan. A classic example in the business world is McDonalds. The value to the customer of a McDonalds is that the Big Mac is the same everywhere in the world… from Tokyo to Toronto and Paris, France to Paris, Texas. Creativity can destroy the value of a “control” organisation, imagine the typical customer’s response to a Big Mac made from raw fish or horse meat.

“Control” is important when cost control and consistency are important. They are only appropriate in software development when an effective mechanism to provide command is not available. For software development, “control” is a crude tool as much of the work requires a significant level of creativity. However, without an effective mechanism to coordinate and prioritise “Commands”, “Control” is the only way to provide focus in a large organisation.  Consider an investment bank. They will allocate a budget to each area of the IT development organisation… Bonds, Equity Derivatives, Fixed Income Derivatives, Operations, Finance, and  Compliance. Each department attempts to optimise the value it delivers. When there is not enough budget, the executive’s decide whether to provide more. Any large programmes requiring additional funding are escalated to Management. Within the organisation, the individual groups optimise their profit based on their constraints. This is achieved by providing bonus based on achievement of goals (profit). In effect, Investment Banks operate by getting each business to optimise within its constraints.

“Command” in the context of software may be functionality based such as “Deliver Product X/Component Y” or it may be metric based “Increase Revenue/Reduce Customer Defections in Asia”. Its important for each group to understand what their goal is, especially in a large organisation with multiple products and customers, where there are competing short term and long term priorities.The executive ensures the organisation is focused on the right thing. Once the goals have been set, the organisation should allign to optimise achieving the goals. Distributed approaches (self organisation) are the best… providing appropriate mechanisms exist to coordinate the activity. Organisations with more liquidity can more quickly respond.

So executives should ensure focus using command OR control as appropriate.

Unfortunately, executives will often command AND control. The problem comes that the control (budget) process is normally an annual process and as a result it reduces the liquidity of the organisation. Any changes needed in the control structure needed to deliver the command goals result in time consuming consultation with the executives.

So in summary, an executive needs to “command” OR “control” to ensure the organisation is focused on the right set of organisational goals. Executives should avoid “command AND control” and should speed the transition from one to the other to avoid organisational gridlock.

Like I say. Still getting these ideas clear in my mind. I would welcome feedback.


About theitriskmanager

A IT programme manager specialising in delivering trading and risk management systems in Investment Banks. I achieve this by focusing on risk rather than cost. A focus on costs can lead to increased costs. View all posts by theitriskmanager

3 responses to “Command OR Control

  • flowchainsensei

    If I wanted to get there (where your thoughts seem to be leading) I wouldn’t start from here (the several assumptions implicit in the above post).

    Maybe we could chat f2f sometime about all this?

    – Bob

  • Anthony Green (@anthonycgreen)

    I was fascinated by the comments Dave Snowden made during this presentation regarding prevailing attitudes toward the idea of command and control management. Is there material in the area of complex adaptive systems that can provide insights for the kind of organisation you’ve described?

  • Kent McDonald (@BeyondReqs)

    Hey Chris, interesting thoughts. From my quick read, I think I would add to your thought Command OR Control with a slight preference for the thing on the left when it is as you describe. Ie command meaning pointing the direction via goals and objectives. I think there are fewer situations in a knowledge work context where control would be preferable.

    You may also want to revisit contrasting marines/infantry as I believe both may behave in the way you characterized from the command perspective. From what I understand (full disclosure I have not served in the US armed forces) the US armed forces have been using a concept called commander’s intent for a while dating back potentially to World War II. This is the idea where an overall goal is established via the hierarchy but individual units and soldiers are given latitude to react to current battlefield situations to accomplish that goal. At least that’s my impression based on how I’ve seen it explained. A more apt analogy may be how armed forces act today vs how they acted in the US Civil War where the armies were just starting to throw away vestiges of the line ’em up and move ’em forward approach which was really all about control.

    Then again, I know a lot of folks really don’t like mixing military analogies and agile…

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