By Mark Bonchek and Causeit, Inc.
This Guidebook gives you a new way of thinking about decision-making for empowerment across networked organizations.
This Guidebook helps you make the mindshift from hierarchal to networked decision-making.
This Guidebook can help your team begin developing decision principles for alignment + autonomy throughout your organization.
Let’s say your company’s executive team wants to increase innovation to keep up with fast-growing new digital competitors disrupting your industry.
Word comes down that they’re going to flatten the organization and empower everyone to be more agile and take more risks. Everyone gets excited about the possibilities, and a bunch of projects get launched.
After a few months, though, the executive team looks around and sees chaos: What are all these new projects, and why aren’t they better aligned with business goals?
So the executive team yanks back top-down control, taking over some projects and ending the rest.
Those whose projects get killed or micromanaged can’t help wondering why management let them take the initiative in the first place.
And everyone is a lot less enthusiastic a few months later when, inevitably, the executive team starts talking again about empowerment and agility.
This kind of whiplash is caused by two competing mental models of how to operate a company: hierarchy and network.
And while both models have advantages under different circumstances, most companies are only able to use one at a time.
In the 20th century, a successful company was one that was large, stable and above all hierarchical. In fact, the very definition of the well-run company was one run from the top, with orders filtering down through the org chart one level at a time.
But in the 21st century, where success is all about speed and flexibility, a company that’s still based entirely on hierarchy is at a handicap. When information about actual market conditions has to percolate back up from the company’s distant edges, it often reaches the top too late for meaningful action.
The larger a top-down company is, the slower and less agile it is—and the harder it gets for top management to let go of old models of what a company should look like.
Today’s market is data-driven and highly interlinked. You have multiple connections to your customers, and they have multiple connections of their own, both internally and with each other. So do your competitors.
As organizations as diverse as Amazon, Wikipedia, and U.S. military have discovered, it takes a network to serve a network—or to compete with one.
In the familiar hierarchical model of management, decisions are centralized to stay aligned to corporate goals. Information flows up, authority and decisions flow down, and people remain in their organizational silos.
This model keeps decisions and actions aligned with business goals—but being told what to do can disempower people and impede their agility and responsiveness.
In a networked model, decisions are pushed to the edge of the organization to be more responsive to market demands. Information is shared laterally, relationships are more fluid, and peer-to-peer connections and actions don't require a superior's permission or direction.
This model gives people more autonomy to make faster, better informed decisions so they can handle complex issues quickly—but it also leaves them a lot of room to move in the wrong direction, creating chaos and steering the company away from its goals.
Enormous flocks of starlings are called murmurations. As a murmuration of starlings swirls through the air, no individual bird seems to be in charge—but when the flock needs to change direction to find food or dodge a hungry hawk, all the birds somehow move together at high speed like a single perfectly synchronized organism.
Computer modeling of starling murmurations reveals three simple decision principles:
The interaction of these three principles generates the rapid and complex behavior of a murmuration.
It’s a perfect balance of autonomy and alignment: No one has complete control, but everything is under control. What could that look like for humans?
We think of the military as having strong alignment, and for good reason: soldiers have to act together to accomplish their goals. But what civilians often don’t realize is that soldiers also need to be able to act autonomously.
The tumult of the battlefield creates the “fog of war”: fast-changing circumstances that create confusion and prevent communication from flowing effectively down the chain of command from military leaders to troops on the ground.
The fog of war can turn straightforward orders into a confusing mess.
To cut through the fog, individual soldiers need guidance in interpreting orders in a way that keeps them aligned with battle objectives, even when they can’t check in with someone higher up the ladder.
As defined by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, doctrine is “fundamental principles by which the military forces guide their actions in support of objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgment in application.”
“Authoritative but requiring judgment in application”—that sounds like the balancing point between alignment and autonomy.
Good doctrine provides the combination of empowerment, autonomy and direction it takes to make this work.
After World War II, the U.S. military was organized around fighting the Cold War, a struggle of one hierarchy against another. In the 1990s, it started to become clear that the conflicts of the future would pit the military against terrorists, hackers and other non-state actors operating in decentralized networks.
In 2009, it released a new Counterinsurgency Field Manual that reflected this new reality. Based on the concept that it takes a network to defeat a network, it set out these new tenets of military doctrine:
Situational awareness is the individual’s ability to understand what’s happening around them, and how new information, events, and their own actions will affect the situation immediately and over time.
Together, these three elements of doctrine create the ultimate in organizational effectiveness: as individuals each synchronize themselves to the organization’s doctrine, the organization itself falls effortlessly into sync.
Imagine an organization where everyone does what you would have told them to do if you were there.
Better yet, imagine them doing what you didn’t know you wanted them to do until they did it.
And imagine their decisions are perfectly aligned with organizational goals and objectives, even though no-one was there to direct them.
Use this graphic to plot where your organization falls on the axes of Alignment / Autonomy and Hierarchy / Network. If different parts of the organization have different decision-making styles, plot each one separately.
Consider your company’s decision culture.
Alignment / Autonomy: How much are strategies and goals shared throughout the organization? How much are different players moving in different directions?
Hierarchy / Network: How much is decision-making centralized and top-down? How much is it decentralized and collaborative?
Reflect on and discuss these questions with your team. Use this worksheet to record your thoughts.
Where do you notice tensions in your organization between these pairs: alignment / autonomy and hierarchy / network?
How have people tried to reconcile them in the past?
Where have you succeeded in having both?
List some advantages and disadvantages of how your company currently makes decisions. Reflect on and discuss these questions with your team. Use this worksheet to record your thoughts.
Advantages: How can you know the network effects are building to “bend the curve”?
Disadvantages: How can you put resources in place now to scale quickly and affordably later?
Autonomy vs. alignment: Why choose? Doctrine gives you the best of both worlds.
Flocking behavior of birds and fish shows how simple decision principles can shape complex behaviors in a group.
Military doctrine pushes decision-making closer to the ground by helping soldiers adapt quickly to circumstances.
Imagine an organization where everyone does what you would have told them to do if you were there. That’s what doctrine can do.
Read “Letting Go Without Losing Control”
by Mark Bonchek
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