Balancing control and autonomy

I previously linked to this New Yorker article on how the army is self organizing to handle the challenges of Iraq. After putting up the link, I had a conversation with a coworker that evoked some more thoughts. One was the observation that the army is composed of units, each of which can be run autonomously, from squad to company to battalion. The commanders of each unit are given overall mission definition, and are left to figure out how to use their unit to accomplish their goals. I wonder if a company could be structured that way, such that any unit would be functionally capable of operating independently. I think this is part of what “matrix management” is attempting to do, but it never seems to work.

Part of the issue is the unwillingness of management to give up control to their subordinates. Even when they do give up control, they often restrict behavior with processes and SOPs to such an extent that the subordinates have no freedom of action. There’s some good reasons for that – the processes are often put in place to prevent bad things from happening to the company. However, by not giving the employee any freedom of action, the company is also preventing its employees from contributing in new and unforeseen ways. In other words, it’s a balance between “doing no harm” to the company, and the risk/reward of giving employees control.

The right balance is hard to find. I think in an organization composed mostly of inexperienced people, the first choice might be better; McDonald’s and the franchise mentality of having a three-ring binder of regulations exemplifies this. However, in an organization composed of talented, independent people, such restrictions are insulting (not that I have an opinion). Of course, the pendulum can swing too far, and give the employees too much independence; Malcolm Gladwell’s essay on Enron describes the consequences of that. As usual, it’s a matter of context; each company will have a different blend of competencies, and that blend should determine the management’s approach to determining this balance. There’s no such thing as the One True Management Style. It’s always contingent. Managers, not MBAs.