Disruptive Thinking: There’s No Management Like Micromanagement

inigo montoya

So you’re leaving the US military because you’re tired of being micromanaged?

As it turns out, the private sector isn’t much better.  In a recent report from Harvard Business School, entitled “The Flattened Firm: Not As Advertised“, we learn that CEOs are falling prey to the same pitfalls as America’s “tactical generals“.  In the 21st Century, both military and business leaders find themselves receiving input from an increasing number of reporting chains, as staffs grow, and organizations have more subordinate units.  According to the report:

The adoption of IT is correlated with more functional managers at the top—and certain types of positions, i.e., CFO, CHRO, General Counsel– suggesting that IT  centralized certain types of functions.

The report concludes with an observation many in the military have noticed for years: that, contrary to vision laid out in the Army Capstone Concept and FM 3-0, information technology has centralized, rather than de-centralized decision-making.  Remember that the next time a defense contractor peddles a high-dollar computer network, claiming it will “enable mission command“.

The evidence from the interviews suggests that flattening corresponds with CEOs involving themselves more intensively in internal operations and subordinates’ activities…

…The top team consists of more and higher-paid functional managers making corporate-wide decisions. And the senior executive group is led by a CEO who is more involved, not less. The flattened firm also appears to rely on more coordination among the top team and a different role for the CEO. The evidence is at odds with simply pushing decisions down. Flattening at the top is a complex phenomenon that in the end looks more like centralization.

Of course, this hardly a new development.  Commanders in the field complained about micromanagement when the optical telegraph first made its debut.  But in an era in which generals can dig through individual training records, or when sergeants major can use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to inspect uniforms in remote locations, have we gone too far?  When was the last time we let a platoon leader sign off on a risk assessment? Or, as General James Mattis once mused, when was the last time we turned off our radios?

Last week, I wondered how we would communicate without computers, especially with our adversaries investing heavily in cyber, electronic, and anti-satellite warfare.  But in an era of increasingly centralized decision-making, we should also ask ourselves how small unit commanders will lead and make decisions without their higher headquarters whispering in their ear.

H/T Adam Elkus

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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