Management Outside the Box Technology

Decentralized Command

The best leaders in the world understand when to rely on others to help them.  The problem arises when leaders try to take on too much.  Some leaders feel they should be in total control, know every aspect of what’s going on with their employees, basically when they start to micromanage.  Not only does this mean leaders have less time to focus on bigger issues, but employees feel like they aren’t trusted and are prone to be less loyal to the leadership and the company as a whole.

So what should effective leaders do?  Implement decentralized command.  So what is decentralized command?  To put it simply, decentralized command involves leaders building a team of leaders to manage the workforce and then report to the leader.  By building teams within teams leaders are not only ensuring greater effectiveness of teams, but also training future leaders for internal promotion.

Example

Let’s say you have a department with 80 people in it you have a department manager, assistant manager, 2 junior managers, 4 team supervisors, and 72 hourly employees.  With this setup each team supervisor is required to manage 18 employees, and studies have shown that a person can only effectively manage 7 to 10 people, so the result is the supervisor is not able to effectively manage all the employees under them.

So how do you fix this?  The simplest way would be to break up the team into 2 teams of 9 with one employee being team leader.  Supervisors should pick the most capable candidates from the team and make them team leaders, then break up the team into 2 teams with each team leader managing their assigned team.  Care should be taken to not put “problem” employees only on one team, but should be equally spread among both teams.

Now as you can see in the diagram above supervisors only need to relay objectives to the two team leaders who will in turn relay the objectives to their team of 8 employees.  In the previous diagram supervisors would have had to relay their objectives to 18 employees taking more time and risking some not understanding and failing to meet the objective.

While breaking teams down into small sizes makes for more effective teams of workers there is still a lot of overhead and waste.  By reducing the supervisor level down to only 2 supervisors managing 4 teams you can reduce costs and allow for more knowledge of what is happening with each team to coordinate each team more effectively.

With only 2 supervisors overhead is reduced with the elimination of 2 higher cost to employ supervisors from the previous diagram, and team effectiveness is not hurt since supervisors are still only managing 4 team leaders.  I recommend keeping both junior managers as a redundancy measure.  Having a junior manager who manages a supervisor allows for consistent leadership if a supervisor is absent due to illness or vacation.

The Big Picture

In their book Extreme Ownership Jocko Willink and Leif Babin discuss how trusting their team to make decisions freed them up to focus on the big picture.  By allowing subordinates to make decisions and complete objectives given to them by superiors, they allowed those superiors more mental bandwidth to focus on the bigger picture and overall objectives.

This is what supervisors need to do, give team leaders clear objectives and allow them to allocate resources within their teams to meet those objectives.  Of course supervisors should still be present to answer questions and resolve issues as they arise, but a supervisors time should be spent focused mainly on larger objectives and planning how to accomplish them while team leaders are focused on smaller current objectives.

Avoiding Silos

The main problem with decentralized command is the silo effect.  When teams are smaller and have a focused objective they tend to silo themselves and not communicate with other teams, sometimes even seeing other teams as rivals.  To avoid this you must encourage communication between teams, making sure each team is working to support other teams in the organization.

In Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams he explained how he sent his best officers to other teams to work with them for a limited time.  The result of this was that teams outside of his network realized how valuable his team was and when the officer came back to his team he was able to explain how valuable the team he was with was.

This is what supervisors and managers should try to employ, on a regular basis a team member from each team should be moved temporarily to another team with different objectives.  This will allow that person to understand the needs of that team and when they go back to their home team they will be able to relay those needs to the rest of their team.

Supervisor and managers should also hold regular group meetings with all teams to discuss their needs.  By having teams discuss their needs with the larger group, members of other teams can not only gain a better understanding of what the other teams need from them, but they might be able to suggest solutions unknown to others during that group meeting.  I would recommend holding meetings of this nature no more than quarterly as doing so more regularly could lead to lack of sharing due to not enough time passing front the previous meeting for ideas to be tested and new issues to arise.

Use the technology at your fingertips

In our modern world we have the ability to communicate with anyone anywhere in the world.  Leaders should encourage teams to talk with each other on a regular basis, face to face is fine but with tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack team chats can lead to more engagement and more substantial knowledge sharing.

Team chats should be set up to include all members of an individual team so they can share data about their team’s objectives without distracting other teams.  Then a chat should be set up with all teams under a supervisor to allow knowledge sharing more broadly.  Finally a department wide chat should be set up to allow all members to share knowledge and communicate.  By having these 3 levels of communication individuals can focus their questions or concerns to the group that has the knowledge they need without disturbing members of groups that can not help them.

These 3 levels also allow leaders to focus their messaging on a desired group.  Team leaders can chat with just their team, supervisors can chat with all members of the teams they are in charge of, and department heads can chat with all employees.  An advantage at the supervisor level is that by only having 2 supervisors team chats supervisors can connect with more people at once than with 4 supervisors team chats.

Information sharing

Teams should also be encouraged to share information.  A good way to force information sharing would be to have documents and spreadsheets stored in a department wide folder accessible to all employees.  Obviously care should be taken not to include sensitive information not meant for wider distribution, but if one team can see what the other teams are working on they are more likely to offer support if they see a way they can help.  Team members can also use the shared documents as a resource, being able to pull from work already completed allows teams to complete tasks faster and meet objectives on time.

Build the team of teams

Effective leaders should encourage communication and knowledge sharing among teams.  Teams should feel like they are part of the greater whole, understand their part in the department and understand the other teams roles in the department as well.  Every leader should be on the lookout for siloing and work quickly to avoid it.  While this is easier said than done, it is vital to the long term success of the team of teams.

While communication between team members is important, communication between all teams is vital.  I’m going to include a diagram from Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams to help illustrate what a team of teams look like.

Conclusion

Building a decentralized command with a team of teams takes work, but in the end departments and companies that build cooperative networks will thrive.  Leaders must take care to avoid siloing of teams by encouraging communication, leading department conversions, helping teams see the value of other teams, and ultimately leading from the front.

Before implementing these strategies I would recommend leaders read both books referenced in this post to gain a better understanding of the concepts discussed in this post.  I also recommend leaders in general should read both books for their leadership knowledge.

Please note that both links below are affiliate links, I will receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you, if you purchase through these links.

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

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