In Command and Out of Control

In Command and Out of Control

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If you want more time, a traditional ‘command and control’ management system just does not work. You won’t ever get free from the day-to-day minutiae if you feel the need to keep up to date on every move that is made. You won’t be able to sit on the beach if you have to sign every cheque and worry about every penny.

If you want to be in the office all day, every day, and you want to be called whenever something goes wrong, then feel free to keep the hierarchical, controlling structure that we are all used to. After all, this is all about stopping people making mistakes isn’t it?!

Command and control management is another example of short term thinking. Ultimately, freedom only really comes from a different type of management.

The phrase “In Command, Out of Control” was first coined by retired three-star U.S. Marine Corps General Paul Van Riper. He was the leader of the Red Team in a $250M American war game designed to simulate combat in Iraq, in which all four armed services were involved. The Blue Team were testing an all-new technology-based command and control system designed for use in future wars. Van Riper saw that the only way to win against a far superior enemy was to change the way that his forces were controlled and managed.

Instead of engaging in the usual framework of warfare through command and control, Van Riper devolved decision-making to his teams, who used a huge array of unconventional tactics:  motorcycle messengers, constant movement of forces, and suicide bombers, to outfox the traditional centrally controlled opposition. He broke the opposition’s system so well that the game was paused and restarted with a change of rules to ensure that Van Riper could not win.

The craziness was, that no lessons were learned from this exercise. The US and its allies invaded Iraq with a centrally controlled plan, precipitating tragic and allegedly unforeseen consequences. Had they learned from the flexibility, unpredictability and responsiveness of Van Riper’s “In Command, Out of Control” methodology, the situation in Iraq may have been far less disturbing.

Van Riper’s kind of devolved management system clearly had its risks. It meant that the leader didn’t always have a clear idea what his troops were up to. It meant that he had to place a lot of trust in his subordinates. It was, by his own admission, a “messy” way to make decisions. But it had one overwhelming advantage. It allowed people to operate without having to constantly explain themselves. It enabled rapid cognition and action. Simply, they could do their jobs, and get on with what needed to be done. In an extremely complex and rapidly changing environment, quick intuitive decision-making is what counts. Van Riper saw that.

How can you learn from this? How can you apply it to your work life? How can you adopt a management style in which you have a clear vision, but leave it up to the individuals in your team to chart their own path to the objective?

As the person in charge, you must have a clear vision of the outcomes you want, and keep your team continuously moving in that direction. Ideally, those doing the work on the ground need to maintain their autonomy so they can progress towards the goal in their own ways, without constant intervention from above slowing the whole process down.

By you taking a step back from a position of control, your workforce is more free to learn from each other, ask their own questions, play to their strengths, and use all the tools they have at their disposal to create something unique and amazing.

In life, unexpected things happen all the time. Set the vision of where you want to get to – and most importantly, why you want to get there – and give people responsibility to make their own decisions. That way, when things go wrong (as they often do) your employees will be able to learn from it themselves. There is no failure – only feedback. Every experience provides learning for next time.

To be in command and out of control you need to do the following:

  • >Share your vision. Be the guardian and promoter of that vision for your team. Most importantly, explain why you want to realise it.  Remind and encourage people, but give them the freedom to execute that vision in their own way.
  • Manage by not being around. Teach people to operate on their own, by giving them responsibility and regular, structured guidance. Then get out of the way. Trust them with the responsibility to fulfil their role. Allow them the freedom to take risks and come up with ideas you would never think of. Work from home deliberately, or work when other people are not around. Give your people room to just get on with it.
  • See failure as a problem of the process – not the people. Failure is an opportunity to learn. Accept that people will make mistakes, but it is simply part of the learning journey. Guide them to put their own solutions in place to ensure that mistakes are not repeated.

All you really have to provide is the clear vision, and a framework for people to operate within. There are frameworks all around us that we operate under without even thinking about it. Why should a business be any different? We have the rule of law, and most people’s religions operate on overall principles and practical delegation. We do not expect our head of state or our God to directly instruct us on every decision that we make. That’s impossible. Instead, we are given moral or legal frameworks to operate by. They form the fabric of our society, without which it would struggle to operate.

You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to do everything. Delegated responsibility wins the day. From your vision, others can even create the framework of structures, staff, policies, plans and procedures – wherever they don’t exist – to enable you to achieve your vision. Your people –  knowing what they’re doing, and doing all they can to achieve the higher purpose and the intended outcome – are people who are in control. Don’t worry – you’re still in command!

Let’s look at a few successful real-world examples of this practice in action.

Consider the case of Google’s “20 percent time” – the brightest employees worked four days of the week for Google and, in return, were given the freedom to spend the fifth day of every week working on any project they liked. Hugely successful products such as Gmail and Adsense were created as a direct result of this policy.

Take the massively successful 3M – producers of Scotchgard, Scotch tape and Post-it notes, amongst other things. They really value innovation highly, “allocating ‘slack’ and permission to play” – to create new products; encouraging risk-taking and mistakes, and ‘bootlegging’ – turning a blind eye to people finding ways to shortcut the systems and bureaucracy for greater efficiency. Imagine building such things as permitting failure, playing about and defying the system into your core values! 3M has.

Finally, look at the example of Ricardo Semler of Semco, the ‘Maverick’ businessman in his autobiography of that name. His policy was to pass over control at every level. He gave all employees freedom to decide their own working hours, their own salary and work environment, and to share everything without secrets. Semco had no secretaries, PAs or receptionists. Every business unit was small enough that everyone involved understood what went on, and could influence outcomes. Workers decided their own production quotas and voluntarily worked overtime to meet them. Profit was shared with every level of employee. Semler retired from all executive posts aged 33, a multi-billionaire. The truly remarkable thing is that this all took place in anti-capitalist Brazil in the late 80s and early 90s.

It is important to remember that the purpose – and the end result – is always more important than the task. Without doubt, you will see greater productivity and creativity over time if you allow people to get on with things by themselves.

If you try to control EVERYTHING you could achieve nothing but ruining your life. Unleash the shackles! Remember, this is a long term approach. Have faith in running your business a better way, and don’t let any blips hold you back. If you prize short term profits over long term autonomy, you are valuing coins in your hand more than your valuable time and  increased cash in the future. I am a great believer that over a long race, the tortoise always beats the hare. In the long run, giving over control enables you to reap the benefits. Eventually, you should have a team that is skilled and responsible, in control of a business that runs itself, while you stay in command at the cocktail bar. Or in the garden. Or even playing war games Van Riper style with the kids.

How can you let go of control to achieve better long term results in less time?

Further Reading:

Blink by Malcom Gladwell (Amazon Link UK, US)

In the Plex by Steven Levy(Amazon Link UK, US)

Maverick by Ricardo Semler (Amazon Link UK, US)

If the above topic, or indeed any of my blogs are of interest to you, then contact me and let’s talk! Drop me an email at

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  1. Felisberto Bila says

    You have invested your time for the right thing – the On command, but Out of Control is a mordern management concept. Many skilled manager would have outstanding results and at the same time improve the social life and of course have time to right books, aticles, atc.

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