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Are You Ready to Lose Control?

It may be the best way to improve your organization’s performance.

Control: It’s the essence of management. We’re trained to measure inputs, throughputs, and outputs in hopes of increasing efficiency and producing desired results. In a world of linear processes, such as in the factories of the Industrial Age, that made sense. But in today’s knowledge economy, where enterprises are complex, adaptive systems, it’s counterproductive.

The real problem is confusion between control and order. Control implies centralized control and hierarchical relationships. The person with control tells others what to do and whether they are successful or not. Order, on the other hand, emerges from self-organization. There may not be anyone telling others what to do, yet things get done—often with great efficiency and effectiveness. People know what is expected of them and what they can expect of others.
But how can this be true? Mustn’t an orchestra have a conductor? A dance troupe, a choreographer? A company, a CEO?

Not necessarily. Nature abounds with examples of what is known as swarm intelligence. Termites build intricate dwellings without the benefit of set of plans or engineers with advanced degrees. Birds migrate thousands of miles in formations where the lead position rotates to optimize their collective capacity. There are no marching orders or hierarchies dictating who leads. Massive flocks of starlings engage in intricate maneuvers known as murmuration with neither collisions nor confusion. There is order without overarching control. Indeed, our obsession with control helps explain why human-designed organizations fail to achieve such beautiful synchronicity.

Swarm intelligence was first described by Gerardo Beni and Jing Wang in 1989 in the context of cellular robotic systems. It relies on rigid adherence to simple rules about how immediate neighbors in a group relate to each other: If you do this, I do that. Shona Brown and Kathleen Eisenhardt have been advocating an order-over-control approach for organizations for many years. (I found the book they co-authored, Competing on the Edge, one of the most insightful business books I have ever read and I continue to recommend it.) Brown and Eisenhardt argue that the leaders of an enterprise need to identify the few core rules—thoughtfully developed and rigorously tested—that set the stage for success and mitigate the risk of failure in an operational context. Then they must give managers freedom to operate in the space between the rules. Too many regulations stifle the adaptive capacity necessary in fast-moving markets; opportunities are overlooked and threats spring up as surprises.

My colleagues at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard—Leonard Marcus, Barry Dorn, and Eric Goralnick—and I discovered something akin to swarm intelligence through our extensive interviews of leaders involved in the response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. We spoke with more than two dozen individuals, and many of them said collective leadership was the model that emerged that week: Each was in charge of his or her own organization, but didn’t view any one person as being in charge of the overall operation.

The coordination and collaboration between agencies and across sectors garnered great praise after the event. It stands in contrast to other response efforts—Super Storm Sandy stands as a good example—where we observed both gaps and overlaps in activities. There, conflict was abundant as individuals and organizations fought for control at the expense of order.
So how can you use simple rules and swarm intelligence to boost performance in your organization?

How can you use simple rules and swarm intelligence to boost performance in your organization?

The first step is to embrace the inherent adaptive capacity of the individuals in your organization. As Patty McCord, the former head of HR at Netflix, wrote recently, that company was able to get rid of most of its human resource policies (control) by hiring experienced adults and trusting them to do their jobs (order). If someone doesn’t work out (adding disorder), they are let go quickly with a generous severance package. The organization takes responsibility for its decisions. Management guru Gary Hamel often writes about getting rid of managers because they add little to adaptive capacity.

Trust is central to enhancing order. In the Boston Marathon bombing response, leaders of the different agencies expressed confidence and trust in each other to shoulder their responsibilities effectively. They could act in service of order because they did not see the need to try to exercise control beyond their span of formal authority. They had built trust by working and training together for many years. How much dysfunction has been spawned in your organization because sales doesn’t trust marketing, or because finance tries to micromanage operational decisions?

The essence of the order-centric mindset is to calibrate the exercise of control in service to order. Where it adds to order, control is beneficial; where it detracts, restraint is the wiser course. Where order prevails, there is clarity around the overall objective. Freedom of action is not only possible but encouraged. There is less concern about whether this is “my project” or whether “I” get the credit than whether “we” achieve our desired outcome.

Achieving alignment within the organization and across the value chain has been a challenge for as long as I have been engaged in management and leadership ideas and practice. Ever more complicated rule-based regimes have emerged. Just look at the business rules embedded in a typical enterprise-wide management system. Ask yourself whether the preponderance of control mechanisms has improved or hindered outcomes at your company. I can readily assemble a long list of instances where the rules obstructed efforts to achieve an organization’s espoused objectives.

Order is something we all generally seek, but few of us want to be controlled. Putting order ahead of control taps into these intrinsic impulses and unleashes initiative and innovation. It simply requires the courage to give up a little control.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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