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Command, Control, and Innovate

  • Palo Alto, CA
  • comments

management

Command and control has worked effectively in military units across the world for thousands of years. But apparently we've just discovered that the best companies are built on different verbs, which are inspire, delegate, trust, lead, innovate, etc. The question is whether we really uncovered something new that our predecessors failed to understand for ages or something else is going on.

Andrei Rublev (1966) by Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Rublev (1966) by Andrei Tarkovsky

We are lazy and greedy animals. To work and produce something for someone, we need two things: motivation and punishment. The carrot and stick has been a dominating principle in management for thousands of years. The Colosseum was built not because people enjoyed building it but rather thanks to a simple rule: Good slaves ate, and bad ones were beaten to death. A primitive form of command-and-control management was most effective at that time, both in civil and military arenas.

Once slavery became illegal in the 19th century, the simple rule changed: Good workers were paid, while bad ones were fired. 150 years ago in most countries, losing a job literally meant starvation and sometimes death, so it was not really far away from beating slaves to death. Because a hundred years ago there were nearly no mechanisms for social protection, capitalists were allowed to do almost anything they wanted. A slightly more advanced but still rather primitive form of command and control was the best management paradigm.

Besides that, the armies of all time have always been built as hierarchies with very strict and deterministic definitions of responsibilities and authorities. Since the time of Sun Tzu, the external strength of any army was ensured by its internal discipline, which was always about a clear and explicit chain of commands, rewards, and punishments.

The situation started to change only recently, in the 20th century. Three trends dramatically influenced the balance of power between employers and employees, masters and slaves, managers and managees: socialism, computers, and education.

  • First of all, socialism is slowly taking over capitalism. Workers gradually obtain more rights and protections while employers lose them every year. Losing a job is not a tragedy for us anymore.

  • Second, the complexity of the tasks we perform at our workplaces is growing, mostly thanks to computers. We are not as easily replaceable as we were a few hundred years ago.

  • Third, we are getting smarter every year. Most of us know how to read and write. We learn more, faster, partially due to the Internet.

Thanks to these three major trends, it's almost impossible to apply the same primitive command-and-control management anymore: Modern workers are not the same as those who built the Colosseum in ancient Rome. We are very different, and our carrots and sticks must also be very different in order to be effective. Still, giving us carrots and sticks is absolutely necessary, because we are still lazy and greedy, just like the guys who built the Colosseum. Likewise, we need motivation and punishment in order to produce something for someone.

What about creativity and inspiration? Just like the architects of the Colosseum, we need people today to create iPads and Facebooks, but management and coordination are what really make projects happen. And command and control is the only working mechanism for coordinating humans.

However, what management is doing now is absolutely evil and unethical. They still adhere to command and control but mask it as inspire and trust. They use carrots and sticks but redefine them as appreciation and peer pressure. They lie to us that we are not animals anymore and don't need command and control, while at the same time doing exactly that.

The primary victim of this slick approach is our mental health. A thousand years ago, masters physically damaged their slaves; today they damage us mentally. Which one is worse? Where are we heading? I predict serious problems in the near future.