Integrating Front-Line Team Members Makes for Better Decisions

There is an overriding concern from many leaders in today’s organizations who are trying to lead in a time of tumultuous chaos: traditional organizational structures no longer seem sufficient. There’s a simple reason:

The world in which many of today’s leaders were raised and trained no longer exists.

Fast Company Editor Robert Safian’s cover article in the November issue of the magazine is entitled The Secrets of Generation Flux: How to Lead in a Time of Chaos. In an earlier post I took a look at one section; now it’s time for another section – one that hits close to home for me.

Where hierarchy clearly fails the modern organization is in fostering and encouraging the creative ideas needed to stay agile in today’s networked world. The challenge for the Generation Flux leader, then, is to encourage creativity and agility while retaining the advantages of hierarchy. One of the leaders who has done so most successfully is General Stanley McChrystal. An Army man, McChrystal ran Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly five years, and later commanded all U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, before he resigned in 2010 after his staff was quoted saying critical things about the Obama administration in a Rolling Stone article.

McChrystal experienced a reinvention challenge of his own when the threat of Al Qaeda emerged and the U.S. military had to rethink its assumptions. “We thought we knew the rules, that we knew what it took to be successful,” he says. “But the sport we had been playing wasn’t good enough for the sport we were required to be effective at.” McChrystal, 58, speaks with the stentorian assurance of an old-school leader. But what he has to say doesn’t fit that profile.

We grew up in the military with this [classic hierarchy]: one person at the top, with two to seven subordinates below that, and two to seven below that, and so on. That’s what organizational theory says works,” he explains. Against Al Qaeda, however, “we had to change our structure, to become a network. We were required to react quickly. Instead of decisions being made by people who were more senior–the assumption that senior meant wiser–we found that the wisest decisions were usually made by those closest to the problem.”

In other words, leaders need to be open to letting others make decisions for them. In a fast-changing world, the boots on the ground–be they soldiers or salespeople, engineers or intelligence officers–often need to react without going up the chain of command for approval. What’s more, they need to be empowered to act, to solve problems they encounter unexpectedly. This kind of openness requires not just free-flowing information but a new kind of collaborative trust.

For McChrystal, creating an organization where the best ideas win starts with instilling what he calls a “shared consciousness.” Leaders want the best ideas, but they want to ensure that everyone across the organization understands its goals and strategies. How else can you ensure that your people will act as you would like, even when you are not there? “If I’d proposed this idea to the people I grew up with [in the military],” says McChrystal, “they would have beaten me up and taken my lunch money.”

In Iraq and Afghanistan, local commanders relied on video surveillance from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which gave them unparalleled views of target zones. But there were few UAVs to share among many commanders. Divvying them up was operationally critical but also emotionally important; in a fluid, diffuse war zone, commanders could easily feel slighted if they weren’t informed and empowered. “We forced our task force to hold frequent video conferences,” says McChrystal. “It was tempting to centralize control of these assets, but neither I nor my top leaders did. The commanders made the decisions about how to disperse them.” McChrystal invested in technology to spur communication and decentralize decision-making; his organizational structure made sure that it was used by the troops in more efficient ways. “My command team and I guided our values, strategy, and priorities,” he explains. “The leaders lower in the organization made tactical and operational decisions in line with those principles.”

What makes McChrystal’s comments above very personal to me is that one of my sons is in the Air Force UAV program. He’s a sensor operator, providing the video surveillance described above that helps commanders make crucial, time-sensitive decisions. Serving under the same command structure described in the Fast Company article, he has guidelines to follow. But more than ever before, those guidelines allow the critical input of the front-line troops.

As the son of a WWII vet, the father of an active-duty airman, and an avid reader of military history, the movement toward this type of decision-making is unprecedented. That may be, but it’s being duplicated in all types of organizations – even in ChurchWorld.

As McChrystal says, “The wisest decisions are made by those closest to the problem – regardless of their seniority.”

At organizations big and small, the smartest leaders recognize that a new kind of openness to ideas is required. This is where hierarchy fails us completely. How can a leader make sure that all the options and ideas from the trenches make their way to the top? If you rely on a traditional suggestion-box approach–“Please send me your ideas”–you’re doomed to limit your inputs, even in a digital, social age. Self-censorship is endemic wherever there is a whiff of hierarchy. People assume that their opinions aren’t really valued.

It seems as if today’s leadership is about ambiguity. It’s time for both/and, not either/or. Leaders need a balance between top-down command and control and bottom-up, front-line leadership.

It’s time for GenFlux leaders.

Who’s the GenFlux leader in your organization?

My favorite post from October, 2012

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