If our corporate control structures were uncooked spaghetti, dropping them into the wider environment softens them like boiling water. Working wider, requires us to challenge the central premise of corporate hierarchy: control.
Our mental reflexes are so tuned to hierarchical control that imagining a world without it is difficult. Corporations and Congress are quick to add new laws and policies but deadly slow in removing them. Be it a flawed shoe bomber, drug addict or digital piracy, each digression launches a new “War Against XYZ” that rarely contains the violators while seriously impinging on the rest of our lives. Leaders tell us they’re working hard to control the problem but it doesn’t get better. Then, we’re are asked for more money to fund that war. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”
Here’s how subtle and powerfully the control mindset infiltrates our thinking. Many consider 3M and Google visionary companies because they allow employees to pursue what they think is important 20% of the time. What if people did what they thought was important 80% of the time? What if we prohibited management from formally directing people to only 20% of the time? Is it possible that with minimum policies and structure people might operate just as they prepare Thanksgiving dinner each year? We threw out our Thanksgiving Policy Manual yet the mundane tasks of setting up, cooking and cleaning get accomplished each November. Is it possible that with today’s educated employees, communication tools, etc., mundane tasks inside the firm would get done because they are obviously needed to compete? In fact, isn’t that what happens in small unheralded moments every day?
This is not an idealistic rant against control per se. It is against control that doesn’t work very well, punishes the majority of people who control themselves and costs too much relative to the innovation it crushes. Hierarchical control relies on power more than collaboration which is the antithesis of what working wider requires.
Do we have areas of business where controls are essential? Absolutely! As long as I’m flying, I want Boeing and the FAA to have strict controls and testing. I wish the SEC had been awake when several people pointed out Madoff was a crook. The problem is that our instincts for top down control are so well developed and reinforced by the fears of what would happen if we didn’t that we close off alternatives. It reminds me of the fights against decriminalizing drugs or gay marriage. Would a change cause all your friends to become junkies or leave their heterosexual partners? My concern is results; not beliefs or ideology.
Let’s stretch beyond what is often not discussed to uncover new models that can help people collaborate and compete better relative to the challenges and opportunities before us. The good news is there are several new examples already occurring.
The table below highlights changes in where, when and by whom control is exercised. It’s nowhere near perfect or complete but hopefully conveys the directional opportunity before us.
|Who Controls – Shifting from exclusively inside to also outside
|Higher levels or independent authorities (e.g. auditors)
|Peers, crowds, idea markets, community norms
|EBay buyer ratings define seller credibility
Social networking word of mouth marketing challenges traditional push marketing
Internet citations & link count is key to Google Page Rank system
|When Controlled – Shifting from before to after…and after again.
|During design through production; generally stops at release
|Starting at concept and through end-of-life but sometimes in reverse order
|Wikipedia publishes first and refines/verifies later via user contribution
Intuit engages top users in internal development reviews
SaaS software addresses bugs & adds features in real time vs. requiring a new release and rollout by IT
|Where Controlled – shifting from the source of production to point of use
|Internal from concept to production
|External at point of user
|Location based services that call for service based on local parameters vs. preset standards – e.g. GPS, Foursquare (GPS with friend finding).
Open Source collaborations that distribute control across networks
These changes are dwarfed by those operating within established conventions – such is the nature of innovation. Furthermore, the new controls will not be better at controls as we already know them. Wikipedia can’t compete with Encyclopedia Britannica’s skilled, pre-publication editors, but its community control tops Britannica’s ability to stay current and vet what they do publish.
Every time I work or speak with executives or students regarding working wider, the unspoken conversation and skepticism is about their fears at losing control. Let’s speak about it, dive into and see what we can create works better. Please help by taking control of this conversation away from me.