Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Command, Control... and you ultimately fail!

For those of you who have read through my ramblings over the last couple of years you'll know that I've never been a fan of Command & Control.  Not the
video game of the same name - I think that's a great way to relieve frustration after a long day.  However, it seems that I'm not alone as Simon Caulkin makes clear in the Observer in his article Command, conquer and you'll ultimately fail.

He points out that "...Optimists assume that management is a linear story of progress - slow perhaps, but we're getting better at it all the time".  As times get harder he notes that "... management is becoming more overbearing and controlling... leading to a lack of morale, difficulties in retaining staff and general unrest".

Now I understand that such a regime is important if you're about to take soldiers into battle, if you're a surgeon about to undertake a radical and dangerous operation or if you're a despot trying to maintain an iron grip over a country.  You're not looking for creativity, innovation or even progress - just making sure that everything is done the way you know it needs to be done regardless of the cost.

So why is this at the forefront of my mind at the moment?  I guess it's because of the ill-fated decision I shared a few months ago that it would be good to leave Agile projects for a while and get back to something that a) people understood and b) meant that I wasn't living with ambiguity every day.  So here I am, sitting at the brink of a multi-million pound programme wondering "when the hell are we going to deliver something... anything!"  Under the ever watchful eye of our leader, affectionately known as Pooh bear, every meeting, email, conversation and plan is interrogated with the vigour of KGB at it's peak. 

As an aside, I often classify my stakeholders as characters from Winne the Pooh - A A Milne was seemingly an expert in developing real life characters that could be applied in real life.  Currently on my programme I have Tigger, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga (and Roo) and Christopher Robin each displaying their own characteristics along with Pooh (a bear of little brain).  If you're wondering where Eeyore is then that's me - I've always agreed with his outlook on life.

So has the ever increasing number of plans, templates, two hour meetings and complicated processes generated more control?  Does the fact that we have an increasing number of project managers & business analysts on the programme team deliver results better and more quickly?  Does the fact that we have 50% more managers talking about delivery than actual people delivering something on the programme team mean that we're leaner and more effective and more in control?

The short answer is simply no (as is the long answer to be frank) and it's not
just in project management.  In law enforcement there is an increasing awareness that command and control doesn't deliver results.  A recent Police Leaders article "The myth of command and control" the writer states:

"The power of command and control, ultimately, is a mirage and is becoming less and less effective in contemporary law enforcement. Like a mirage, it is not power at all, it is only the appearance of power and it eventually evaporates along with its impact. The real power of leadership comes from the influence that a leader develops through quality leadership practices and from the amount of control that is given, not kept"

That is reinforced by the two hour project meetings that seem to be more about rehashing the results of every other meeting and listening to people who love the sound of their voice rather than actually deciding or doing anything.  I've lost count of the number of templates, slides and documents I've had to produce which no one reads or even cares about.  When I consider that my Agile sessions take no longer than 15 mins I can appreciate where Agile gains in productivity and team morale.

So what have I learnt in the past few weeks.  

Command & Control

  1. Work on the misapprehension that after a large amount of discussion and planning that they, not the business, knows what needs to be done - plain arrogance
  2. Assumes that the more controls and managers you have on a project will increase adherence to time, cost and scope of works
  3. Provides places for people to hide, lie & blame others for lack of progress because everyone is anonymous
  4. Is poor at delivering relevant solutions - indeed they focus on delivering what was thought to be important 6 months ago
  5. Resists any form of change or innovation
  6. Demotivates teams and breeds learned helplessness

Latané and Darley noted that there were five characteristics of emergencies that affect people
  1. Emergencies involve threat of harm or actual harm
  2. Emergencies are unusual and rare
  3. The type of action required in an emergency differs from situation to situation
  4. Emergencies cannot be predicted or expected
  5. Emergencies require immediate action
Due to these five characteristics, teams go through cognitive and behavioural processes:
  1. Notice that something is going on
  2. Interpret the situation as being an emergency
  3. Degree of Responsibility felt
  4. Form of Assistance
  5. Implement the action choice

The larger the group the less likely that anyone will take responsibility for dealing with an issue.  They called this 'diffusion of responsibility'.  Furthermore, where a command & control environment exists they demonstrated that this diffusion of responsibility happened with significantly smaller groups.  In other words no one does anything or takes action because they assume that someone else will.

But didn't I already know all of that?  Yes - but I think sometimes it's good for Agile managers to work on projects managed by unconscious incompetence so they can appreciate, and reinforce, sound Agile concepts.  As a reminder these are the differences:

  1. Assumes the business knows what it needs to do and
    how it can be done - they just desire synchronisation & coordination
  2. The fewer managers and controls you have the more accountability & responsibility business owners will take
  3. Is transparent - no where to hide, lie or blame others
  4. Welcomes change and delivers relevant solutions.  They still plan, but for what's important now not past imperatives
  5. Builds strong motivated teams
  6. Focuses on delivery not definition
So what am I to do?  Well I've already made a make or break decision.  Either we adopt a delivery focused approach (e.g. Agile) or I need to find an organisation that will.  My command and conquer stakeholders tell me that they support the idea - I guess time will tell.