Is it time to say good-bye to the chain of command?

Henri Fayol created the modern theory of management that was built on the concept of a chain of command that dominates most company cultures. But that time honored tradition just might be killing your competitiveness.

Henri Fayol was a French mining engineer who published General and Industrial Management, one of the first theories of management, in 1916.  His work identified and explained 14 principles of management.

Among these 14 principles, better known examples are (1) division of work – people should specialize in their work so they can produce more with higher quality, (2) unity of direction – one person should only receive orders from one superior, and (3) scalar chain – which became known as the chain of command.

Chain of command defined the chain of superiors from the ultimate authority to the lowest ranks. This last principle, chain of command, and how it has been applied in business haunts our industry today.

The French army soon embraced Fayol’s principles of management to better manage troops. General Motors began to embrace Fayol’s principles in its management systems in the 1930s. GM was a large company, even then, and needed a structure to manage and control employees.

Over time, the notion of chain of command began to permeate corporate America. As people have left the military, to work in civilian jobs, they bring this mental framework with them to their places of employment.

However, what made sense for managing a large hierarchal, industrial era firm does not apply to today’s knowledge-based businesses.

The notion of chain of command has become an explicit or implicit element of most companies’ culture and management system. In the traditional company structure of yesteryear, this may have made some sense to manage the work of blue-collar workers. Management was there to lead; employees were there to obey orders.

Today, this antiquated view of management’s role, with wisdom flowing down from high, severely constrains a company’s competitiveness.

Work is no longer about specific work roles, an employee’s goals or what is best for a department. One indicator of this kind of thinking is hearing someone say, “That’s not my job”.

Work is about team-based roles, enterprise-wide functions, cross-functional goals, knowledge sharing, and the company’s objectives.

Today, our industry’s common program/project/task/activity work orientation reduces employees to being foot soldiers thereby having minimal opportunity to provide input to management’s decision making and business growth.

An employee may report to one person for administrative purposes but the employee works for the company. Every employee is a company-wide asset that can be leveraged well beyond their immediate task. It is management’s responsibility to identify and tap into this unrealized value. 

Today, employees are knowledge workers who must share knowledge and maintain their learning in order to continue to be relevant. The manner by which employees can perform these value creation processes extend well beyond the domain of one supervisor’s charge.

Management should be an enabler that allows employees to contribute more, remove internal obstacles to growth and maximize knowledge sharing across the organization.

Companies in our industry are struggling, for several reasons, while competing for fewer opportunities and contract awards. Management wants employees to be engaged, committed to growth, and demonstrating buy-in to the company’s success, so now is the time for management to embrace a new approach and cast aside industrial-era thinking.