The new, emerging organizations, many people would agree, are more collaborative, more leadership-distributed, less top-down, with more levels of empowerment etc. There is a universal view that the traditional command and control model is exhausted. Everybody sees its liability and wants something different. Even armies are experimenting with models where ‘command and control’ still exists, but it coexists with new levels of autonomy, particularly in situations where it is impossible to always reach the ultimate authority and decision maker in the chain.
So we want to substitute ‘command and control’. The question is with what? Many ‘new models’ are certainly richer in ‘devolving control’ down to the organization, creating self-managed groups, or ‘circles’, or semi autonomous units. In many cases, command and control has not disappeared, it has simply been shifted down. That’s an achievement in itself, many people would agree. But there are still people commanding a lot of control in self-contained autonomous units. Even in the most fluid forms or self-management, there is still control in the form of peer pressure, team leaders and experts etc. Also, ‘no command and control’ is not equal to ‘no hassle’, ‘no pain’. It’s a different pain, more palatable.
So you could say in a cynical way that command and control never disappears, only transforms itself. I wrote about this in 2000 in an article entitled ’Kings or cousins’, and reviewing my notes today, I can say little has changed.
I took this idea by learning from history and cultural anthropology. I then said that, in his magnificent book, Conditions of Liberty, published a year before his death, Ernest Gellner, former Professor of Social Anthropology at Cambridge, described something which in my opinion was of great value to management. ‘Traditional man can sometimes escape the tyranny of kings, but only at the cost of falling under the tyranny of cousins, and of ritual… Roughly, the general sociological law of agrarian society states that man must be subject to either kings or cousins, though quite often, of course, he is subject to both.’ The king is dead, God save the king! But this does not mean freedom – other forms of dependence take over. For example, the submission to the control of kinship, of social subgroups, networks of power, Mafia-like organisations, etc.
That was a reflection in year 2000. 14 years later, the cousins are getting stronger although the dead of the king was greatly exaggerated. Self-management will continue to progress as a natural evolution. There is a parallel with child development. At some point, forms of autonomy not seen in previous stages, will take over. It’s inevitable in the child and inevitable in the organization.
But we don’t quite know what these new forms look like (other than ‘the unique cases’) so, when leaving the room and switching the lights off, let make sure we have a good lantern. Darkness is not a good scenario for creativity.