Control AND Autonomy

Henri Fayol has elevated control within the world of business to the level of one of the functions of management. One can also safely say that control is important with the fields of life in general, be it in business, government, the military, etc.

We tend to put in place mechanisms to provide guidelines, rules and regulations for everything. These mechanisms are useful to provide guidance for the what’s, the haves and the whens.

The advantage of control is undeniable:

  • There is no argument as to what is required.
  • The output and input is standardized.
  • There is clarity on what should be done by whom and by when, relative to what standards.
  • Accountability is clear.
  • Transparency becomes easier.

One can therefore state that control is good and has value.

Noel Tichy wrote a very interesting book on the life of Jack Welsch in the early 1990’s, i.e. “Control your destiny or someone else will.” The reality is that one cannot live without it – but we do need to be circumspect about the nature of control we employ. The absence of control is dangerous, i.e. chaos, anarchy, and lawlessness.

The absence of control for individuals can create the following negative environment:

  • Stress due to uncertainty as to what is required.
  • Those living an unhealthy lifestyle easily become unfit, unhealthy, fat and miserable.
  • Corruption becomes a very real danger.

The absence of control for organizations can create the following negative environment:

  • Chaos.
  • No direction.
  • No synergy.
  • No performance.

So, it is fair to say that the real driver of control mechanisms is that it protects the institution and the person driving the control.

However, there are always unintended consequences. With the emphasis on control for the sake of controlling people, people can become pedantic and develop a CYA attitude. It also stifles innovation and creativity.

My personal philosophy is that we need just enough control to avoid chaos and mayhem. We need to embrace autonomy. We need to embrace and use the absence of detail control. We need to embrace mission control.  The German military developed this philosophy more than a century ago. It means that if we understand the purpose or the intent of the commanding officer, we are free to change our orders should we deem it necessary to achieve the commander’s intent.

This does require that we trust our people. We should educate and grow them to live and thrive in the absence of control. This is what real empowerment means! Tom Peters wrote a great book in the 1980’s on chaos: “Thriving on Chaos”. We should do ourselves a favour and revisit the central tenets of this book.

The absence of control and adopting a culture of autonomy does put a lot of pressure on the organization and on the leaders and the managers of the company. Companies that have succeeded over a period of time to develop an environment in which control was tempered by autonomy, include SABMiller. Should you ask the old dogs as to why they were so successful in taking SABMiller abroad, they will tell you that they had senior managers and people who were able to think for themselves and adapt according to the prevalent situation.

Autonomy does not mean the absence of control – it means the ability to adjust strategies and tactics to fit in with the changing conditions in the market and the business. It means the ability to utilise appropriate control! For this, the following needs to be clear:

  • The objectives/outcomes.
  • The broad parameters within which business will be conducted.
  • The purpose of the organization.

I have already stated that we should grow and educate our people. More specifically, we should teach our people to think strategically and critically. We should also enhance their systemic thinking skills, their ability to see the big picture.

From a culture perspective, Kim Cameron and Robert E. Quinn developed the Competing Values Framework of organizational culture. Two of the quadrants are seen to be diametrically opposed, i.e. the Adhocracy Culture quadrant (innovation driven) and the Hierarchy Culture quadrant (control driven). These 2 quadrants are seen by managers as to be mutually exclusive.  We need to change the mindset of our managers so that they will embrace both!

There is an old military saying: No plan survives first contact with the enemy. There is also an old principle of war, i.e. Security. Applying the principle of security means that we plan for a situation in which there will be chaos and mayhem. We need to grow the skills of our people to replan according to the present situation, to adapt to the new situation. By not doing this, we transgress the principle of security!

With good skills, people do not need to go higher up when conditions have changed and new orders are needed. When they understand the purpose, they can change their actions at ground level.

I recently heard that control mechanisms are guidelines for the wise and directives for fools. I could not have stated it better!


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