Say Goodbye to Command-and-Control
At one time, country rulers, army generals, and company executives thought the only effective way to organize and manage was through a system of command-and-control. The king/general/boss gave the orders; everyone lower did what they were told.
The system contained some hidden assumptions: (1) The boss knew more than anyone else. (2) Workers could be trained—or threatened—to follow orders unquestioningly. (3) Any other system was inefficient and slow to react to threats and change.
In fact, bosses never had as much control as they might have thought, or wished. Employees talked around the water cooler. Customers gossiped over the back fence. Because enlightened bosses realized not all the good ideas originated in the executive suite, they installed suggestion boxes and took other measures to be more open in the way they led the organization.
Today, while there are probably thousands—even millions—of rulers, generals, and executives who still believe that command-and-control is the only way to administer, social networks are rapidly undermining that approach to management in government, in the military, and in business. Leaders are seeing the ordered world they understand crumbling as citizens, customers, employees, and partners are empowered by new tools that were almost unimaginable fifteen years ago.
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, Yammer, Jive, Glassdoor, and hundreds of other websites give people the power to opine about products and services, to learn about organizations and their policies, and to share insights and experiences. The old assumptions no longer hold true (if they ever did). The boss may know more than any one individual in the organization, but it is an arrogant and reckless boss who believes he or she knows more than everyone. Workers—especially younger workers—want to do what is best for themselves and the organization; they become sullen and unmotivated when they do not understand why they should be doing what they’re ordered to do (this is very true!). And although a less dictatorial system may not react as rapidly to threats and change, it is more flexible and innovative and thereby more likely to survive. Ordinary people want government, the military, and business to be more open.
Being open should be considered a rigorous approach to strategy and leadership that yields real results. I am not suggesting total transparency and complete openness, whereby everyone from customers to competitors has access to all information and everyone is involved in all decisions. Such an unrealistic extreme of complete openness is untenable if a business is to sustain its competitive advantage and ability to execute.
At the other, equally unrealistic end of the spectrum is the completely closed organization, in which information and decision-making is centrally controlled and everyone follows every instruction not only perfectly, but happily. Such an organization cannot survive in today’s world. The question isn’t whether you will be transparent, authentic, and real, but rather, how much you will let go and be open in reaction to the new technologies.
As people become more adept at using social and other emerging technologies, they will push organizations to be more open, urging leaders to let go in ways in which they may not be comfortable. The natural inclination may be to fight this trend, to see it as a fad they hope will fade and simply go away. It won’t. Not only is this trend inevitable, but it will also force leaders and their organizations to be more open than they are today.
In the past, leaders had the luxury of remaining ensconced in their executive suites, opening up only when they felt the need to. Today, information leaks out everywhere, with company miscues and missteps spreading all over the Internet in seconds. And all involved—from employees and customers to business partners—feel entitled to give their opinions and get upset when their ideas are not implemented. The fundamental rules that have governed how relationships work are being rewritten because of easy, no-cost information sharing.
Being open is hard. But if you can understand both the benefits and the process, it can get easier. You may be in a leadership position—a manager or CEO—of a business that is trying to use social technologies to introduce a new product or to counter a customer backlash. You may be an HR manager or company strategist eager to tap into the ideas of your workforce. Or you may be a church committee leader who is trying to energize listless volunteers, or a school administrator working with vocal parents agitating for change.
The struggle to balance openness and control is a universal, human problem. As a parent of growing children, I sometimes long for the days when I could simply strap a discontented toddler into a car seat and drive off to my destination. Just as children grow and develop their own voices that need to be heard, so do customers, employees, and partners want to be brought into the inner sanctum of the organization as well. Successful leaders will find ways to bring them in while strengthening the organization by their presence.