The power of decentralising decision-making

For managers used to wielding tight control, it can be hard to let go

At the recent CompTIA ChannelCon event held in Washington, D.C., a keynote speech from General Stan McChrystal left a lasting impression when it comes to leadership in technology companies.

A four-star general, Gen McChrystal famously helped turn the tide of the war in Afghanistan. One of his most powerful leadership lessons from that time is the importance of decentralising decision-making.

Many IT companies in Australia are either start-ups managed by their founders, or else they’re multinational corporations with strict hierarchies and answering to senior executives in Asia Pacific, Europe, or America. This can create decision-making bottlenecks where people wait for authorisation from senior executives before acting. In some cases, this can mean businesses fail to leverage opportunities at the right time.

Gen McChrystal saw this in Afghanistan and changed the US military’s mindset from following orders to thinking independently. His standing order was, “Execute on the order you’ve been given unless you think the order was wrong, in which case, execute on the order you should have been given.”

This approach acknowledged that people in the field had access to better, more up to date, and more comprehensive intelligence than people making decisions at headquarters. Furthermore, it demonstrated trust in the ability of frontline people to make the right decisions based on the right information.

The numbers speak to the success of this approach. Gen McChrystal took his team from executing four operations per month to 300 per month. At first, he personally approved every operation. Soon, he removed himself from the decision-making process, empowering staff to work more flexibly and successfully.

The most important ingredient in this approach is trust. It’s essential to hire staff that can be trusted to make good decisions according to a common purpose. And, it’s equally important that those employees also trust their managers to make decisions that are in the business’s best interests.

Too often businesses' managers emulate the example that was set for them in their formative working years. That means managers who were micromanaged will likely turn out to become controlling managers themselves. By contrast, those who experienced a freer, trust-based style of management are more likely to rely on that when they become managers.

Fostering this type of management goes a long way towards building effective teams that work together to achieve a shared goal.

Of course, it also depends on having the right people in the right roles, and this can take some trial and error. Getting it right starts in the recruitment phase and continues throughout the person’s experience at the organisation. Setting a culture whereby the right behaviours are rewarded and mistakes aren’t punished but treated as a learning opportunity will empower employees and deliver the best outcomes.

For managers used to wielding tight control, it can be hard to let go. However, smart staff members can often surprise managers with their capabilities and nous. Removing decision-making bottlenecks can help businesses move faster, adapt more readily, and succeed.

If the US military can evolve this quickly and effectively, then IT organisations in Australia should be able to as well.

Karen Drewitt is chair of CompTIA Executive Council and general manager at The Missing Link.

Read more: ​Why all technology organisations should embrace the growth mindset

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