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The Chain of Command Story

Ravi Resck 18 de June de 2021

How did we get here?

The chain of command is so ubiquitous in organizations that I find it difficult to find texts and theoretical and practical references of a organizational design do not make use of it. Maybe that's why I like to write here on the blog.

The chain of command (as a structural element), command and control (as a management strategy) and the hierarchy of command (as a principle) are so old that we need to go back centuries to find clues to their genesis and the reasons for their life so long.

Hierarchy and the rise of civilization

We can say that the emergence of civilization and the hierarchy of command is concomitant. 

The social hierarchy in human groupings has its origin in groups of hunters and gatherers who already had some kind of division of labor by gender (not all of them were like that), or some incipient form of patriarchy (adult men dominate) or gerontocracy (elders dominate) . 

With the rise in various parts of the world of agriculture, there was an explosive mix of patriarchy / gerontocracy with an abundance of resources. That is:

Agriculture and other technological advances have allowed nascent hierarchies to become much more complex, authoritarian and violent. Worse still, the military advantages inherent in agriculture - such as greater population density, resistance to diseases from living with domesticated animals and metal tools - allowed the most developed hierarchies of civilization to spread across more territories with the use of conquering armies.

The ideas and elements of management based on command and control emerge in this context. 

The division of labor and the organization chart

In 1776 Adam Smith he advocated the division of labor as a way to increase productivity. On a visit to a pin factory he conjectured that a worker could manufacture 20 pins on his own, but if he made use of the division of labor, specialization and mechanization that same worker could produce 4800 pins.

Alfred Chandler described in his book "The Visible Hand", a hierarchy of command that was introduced in response to a train accident in the United States in 1841. The objective was to prevent accidents by controlling operations through the definition of responsibilities, with reports and checks. These concepts were enshrined in an organization chart where the chain of command was drawn as a line connecting boxes (posts). Today almost every company has something similar.

Was Frederick Taylor in the first decade of the 20th century that brought a scientific veneer to some well-known ideas. He said that the methods were the exclusive territory of managers. It is managers who must decide the best way to do things and the role of workers is to ensure that it gets done.

Less than 10 years after Taylor's publications, the German Max Weber described bureaucracy as the most efficient and rational form of organization. He believed that it needs to have 6 essential elements:

  1. Specialization and division of labor;
  2. Hierarchical authority structures; 
  3. Rules and regulations defining performance criteria; 
  4. Recruitment based on technical and competence guidelines;
  5. Impersonality and indifference; 
  6. A defined formal communication standard.

However, Weber was also pessimistic about the impact of bureaucracy on workers. He could see the dehumanizing effects of the "iron cage" of bureaucracy that "manages to eliminate from the business world, love, hate and all the purely personal, irrational and emotional elements that are not possible to calculate." He was right to be pessimistic.

Success Stories

Two narratives consolidated command and control in the management methods we know. The first was Henry Ford, with its production line that led to cut costs in half and double the wages of employees. Ford's mass production was a dream. 

A dream for shareholders and customers. For workers it was hell. In 1913 Ford had to hire more than 50,000 people to maintain its factory with 14,000 workers. The work on the production line was monotonous and demoralizing. It was in this context that unions grew and many depended on a type of highly dysfunctional and conflicting relationship. 

In the 1930s Alfred Sloan, an executive at General Motors, was trying to figure out how or where his company's most profitable areas were. He proposed the creation of cost centers and business units, in addition to an idea that many still think is brilliant, management by objectives. Sloan considered it unnecessary, or even harmful, for directors to know about the operation, if the numbers are bad, the unit manager resigns, if they are good, he promotes himself. Luck, market or any other factor did not come into his analysis.

In short, the chain of command emerges to support and enhance a social hierarchy, and with the industrial revolution it is praised as the main factor capable of generating efficiency and productivity. Nowadays, these reasons are beginning to be put in check, as we have identified consequences that cannot be ignored.  

Consequences of using the chain of command

The chain of command and all structures and practices related to the command hierarchy have consequences for society and the organizations that make use of it. 

Some of the consequences of using the chain of command are: 

Strengthening injustices

Command and control dictates that people must work in their positions that are designed by management and behave according to the requirements defined by "leadership"

This belief in how work should be organized justifies and maintains wide pay gaps and benefits for top executives. A CEO of a bank in Brazil reaches earn 2000 times more than a bank attendant. By making use of the chain of command we are reinforcing a culture that believes that the power must be distributed so unevenly and therefore strengthens injustices.

Decreased capacity

The beliefs and practices that support the chain of command generate a separation between those who make decisions and those who do the work. And this limits the ability of organizations to generate value in sectors that involve knowledge or creativity. 

It is inconsistent, if not illogical, for a knowledge worker to be forced to do something, when he is actually paid to make good decisions. But that is what the chain of command allows. 

Take the case of a disaster like de Chernobyl, the team that operated the number 4 reactor had its ability to prevent an accident limited by the chain of command. Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov used his almost limitless authority, including using threats, to force young subordinate engineers to make decisions they believed and proved to be disastrous.    

Decreased adaptability 

Currently the reality VUCA demands that organizations be responsive and adapt quickly. Two phenomena make this difficult. 

The first has to do with speed in decision making. With the chain of command, it is common for decisions to come up with information from the front line, and up there, managers make their judgment of what to do. The problem with this is that it creates bottlenecks in decision-making processes and therefore slowness.  

The second has to do with maintaining the benefits obtained. The chain of command promotes competition for positions with more authority, this competition can be won by anyone who knows how to please his superior. When a person reaches a position of prominence and authority, he begins to struggle to maintain it. When the organization finds an opportunity that requires a turn or a change of course, these leaders see their positions threatened. Any change must pass through the scrutiny of those managers who are afraid of losing the benefits they have achieved.

An emblematic example is Alfred Sloan's own GM. A company that spent a good part of the 80s, 90s and 2000s in crisis and was unable to reinvent itself. Even when he had an incredible opportunity with the joint venture with Toyota, and managed with a lot of effort to turn the NUMMI plant, she was unable to take advantage of what she learned and spread these practices to other units. The chain of command keeps things as they are, because those at the top are afraid of losing their position.  

Dehumanization and accountability

The methods associated with the chain of command comprise a fabulous system of liquidating empathies and moral responsibility for the subjects. It is easy for a human being to throw responsibility for his actions to his superior or authority figure. This is what we hear in the daily lives of companies. The manager is expected to be responsible for the actions of his subordinates and their consequences. 

This organizational arrangement makes abject and inhumane situations and events like the Nazi Holocaust possible. In his book Modernidade e Holocausto, Zygmunt Bauman concludes emphatically: "In fact, the history of the Holocaust organization could become a scientific management manual". 

Alternatives to chain of command

If we want to organize work without using the chain of command, it is worth remembering that the absence of clear structures and agreements on power will not prevent it from accumulating and being mobilized by a small group. It just makes this process of concentration of authority veiled and done by politicking in the shadows. 

Another way out would be to extinguish the possibility of someone making any decision alone that has the potential to impact a group, but this is also not a good alternative, as it disables and immobilizes a company or organization. 

The strategy we propose and we already see its use in various organizations, follows the following premise: we need clear and explicit agreements on how the authority is distributed and we need good methods to keep these agreements up to date. It's what we call The Art of Making Agreements. 

There are some practices that are emerging in this field. THE social technology O2 (Organic Organization) aggregates and systematizes some of them and if you want to know more about it, take a look here. 

This article was originally written by Rodrigo Bastos and published ON HERE

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