Challenging The Chain of Command

If management can control things then management can be effective and efficient in realizing the desired results and sustaining the business. You will find very few who would disagree with this if-then thinking.  This thinking is so common that it is rarely, if ever challenged—until now.


Informed by the 17th century (mechanistic and materialistic) paradigm underlying their system of belief, those in authority within an organization apply the hierarchical organizing framework, whereby labor and authority are divided and compartmentalized, so that effective and efficient management of the enterprise can be realized. There are two critical issues in this scheme.  The hierarchical organizing structure doesn’t capture the interconnectedness of things and the corresponding approach of management is necessarily mechanistic.  On this latter point, the materialism in the paradigm guides management to deterministically focus on the tangible. With managers being the mechanics of the machine, all that is needed are the tools—which business school curriculums have been designed to provide.

It is unquestionably assumed that the nodes in this framework not only enable management to perform their role, providing direction and exercising control, they define the role.  That is, the nodes form the chain of command and identify the seats of power over the various parts of the enterprise; it is this chain that keeps the many parts of the business under control—or so it is believed.

With this tacit belief seated firmly in the minds of those at the higher rungs of the hierarchy, the approach to most initiatives is top-down, in spite of the fact that the work of the organization happens far more horizontally than vertically.  That is, irrespective of the fact that the work of the organization is divided across the structural framework control is vertically exercised.

The critical part of this atomistic and mechanistic view of managing is that the organization’s performance is viewed as a summation of individual parts or elements and managers are tasked (i.e. given their piece of the work) with making sure the parts they oversee maximize performance. Russell Ackoff referred to this as “parts management.”  The operative (unconscious and false) assumption is that maximizing the performance of parts leads to maximum performance of the whole.

What this reflects is a reductionist approach.  Under this approach the guiding principle is breaking up the work of the organization into controllable pieces affording greater command over the parts, making things more manageable.  Hence we see such practices as, cascading goals, accountability, and performance appraisals being quite popular across so many organizations. Clearly practitioners must actually believe in the effectiveness of these practices otherwise why would they continue using them?

Popular Doesn’t Mean Proper

But it just doesn’t work this way no matter how emphatic one is about controlling things to be as one would like. A beginner’s understanding of systems thinking reveals that everything is connected; you can’t do just one thing!  The aliveness and connectedness (or interconnectedness) of our world can’t be ignored out of existence, no more than someone turning down an alley ceases to exist because he/she is no longer in view.

Managing as if people are separate objects in the machine inevitably leads to self-destruction.  When interconnectedness or interdependence is ignored then decisions are made in isolation of everything else—the viability of the whole is not even considered.  As those in authority double down in their efforts to control the parts, the organization as a whole suffers in the long run, as it becomes increasingly likely that it will grow itself out of capability.

Yet people persist advancing a purely mechanistic view believing that control over people as objects leads to better results. Why?  Because the operative paradigm makes people as parts perceptible but not people as living beings.  As Max Weber foretold a century ago, by our own creation we’ve become cogs in the machine.

It’s the Feeling That Counts

Could it be that feeling as if you are in control is what matters?  Or is it because those in authority refuse to learn anew?  Surely they have the capacity and capability to move beyond 17th century mechanistic thinking, so maybe they choose not to do so.  In either case, as people feel self-assured that they are in control as those they oversee conform to their demands, this conformity is making the organization increasingly less likely to exist in the future, diminishing viability.

Just like you will find very few who would disagree with the logical fallacy connecting control to effectiveness, you will also find few who will disagree with the notion that organizations must continually change in order to remain relevant.  Yet the vast majority of corporations aren’t wellsprings of ever improving capability and creativity. We see many seeking to grow but oh so few striving to develop. Gaining a sense of control in pursuit of growth is what seems to matter.

Most in authority who seek greater capability and creativity don’t change the approach to organizing and managing they either look outside the organization to acquire them or simply create a separate entity—a skunkworks—that operates outside of the organizing/management structure all others operate within.  Why is this done? It must be an unconscious acknowledgment that the generally practiced way of organizing and managing does not facilitate improving capability and creativity. Perhaps giving up a little bit of control on a small part of the enterprise while maintaining an overall sense of control is a small price to pay.

Time to Dismount

How can those in authority of the enterprise avoid shortening the life of the corporation?  The answer is obvious facilitate development!  And how can they do this?

First they must follow the guidance of the tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians, “when you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.”  It is time to get with a future focused management strategy and to get off the hobbyhorse of control for growth.

Second leaders must understand and relate to the organization as a living system and not a mechanical system where people are just parts in the machine.  The dead horse won’t be dismounted otherwise!

Good management isn’t about exercising greater control in pursuit of growth but rather facilitating improvement in capability through development. According to Russell Ackoff, “growth just makes a system bigger, like dinosaurs, often less efficient and more vulnerable.  Development makes a system better able to do what it was designed or intended to do.”  Moreover capability emerges through the synergy realized in humanly productive relationships, and not from part-based practices and measures of control.

Third those in authority must focus on meeting both material and non-material needs of people.  To this end, because humanly productive relationships are foundational to development, enacting trust toward making these relationships probable is critical.  But trust is not possible when people are viewed and treated as objects, hence the need to change paradigms and practice business of a different mind.  Then and only then will those in authority understand development as an investment and not as a cost.

When managing for capability management’s job should not be to exercise control over things but rather to create and maintain a system that ensures (by design) the organization’s viability.  Such a system enables people to actualize potential it doesn’t constrain and disable!  After all this should be the defining nature of management.

2 thoughts on “Challenging The Chain of Command

  1. Pingback: Redesign for Capability Not Flatness « For Progress, Not Growth

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