Following is an excerpt from our new book, Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy (Chapter Three).

The command-and-control model for organizations was developed to maintain order in large marching armies with the mission to destroy other large marching armies. This style of management dates back to Minds-at-work-150 the Roman Empire, if not earlier. Modern corporations codified this structure to control the numerous hands that needed to be managed. As the Industrial Revolution gained steam, command and control became the accepted approach to building corporations—it was ingrained in the processes and procedures and codified into articles of incorporation used today for old and most new corporations.

A command-and-control manager says:

  • “I’m the manager, so I make the rules.”
  • “Your job is to do what I say.”
  • “If you mess up, I’ll let you know about it.”
  • “If you don’t hear from me, that means you’re doing fine.”
  • “You’d better be careful not to make a mistake or cross me!”
  • “Respect for the boss is the most important attribute you can demonstrate.”
  • “I make the policies, and you follow them.”

Guilds and apprenticeships, in which control was more democratic and decentralized, only worked in relatively small organizations of artisans and craftspeople. Most workers today find themselves in command-and-control organizations run by command-and-control managers.

Command and control starts with the decision-making process. When work and workers were still connected to an actual space, leaders felt a need to control distributed decision making. When there are many decisions to be made and many hands to manage, command and control gives leaders a sense that they are in charge of decisions, which will not be made without their input and final say. This approach allows them to justify their importance and remind others of their value to the corporation. But the truth is that the people at the top cannot control everything that goes on in a complex organization.

A command-and-control style of management is often the main barrier to corporate learning. This style of management prohibits the more open, transparent, and fearless approach that the newer communicate-and-collaborate model facilitates and supports. Decisions and options often feel predetermined by people at the top and are not open to discussion. Any call for review is too often viewed as unwillingness to be part of the team—a challenge that should be punished. Using training as a reward is the flip side and also symptomatic of this approach.

Deciding to start dismantling your company’s command-and-control structure takes real courage. But trying to maintain the illusion—or delusion—that control in today’s knowledge economy is even possible is far more dangerous. You’re not alone if you fear that you could commit to reconstructing your organization into one that holds knowledge sharing and collaboration as core values, only to find you have turned it into something that’s half fish, half fowl, and can neither swim nor fly.

Fortunately, there is evidence that this does not have to happen. Consider the software development company Nearsoft. Founded in 2007 by Matt Perez and Roberto Martinez, the company has more than 200 employees and has enjoyed rapid growth and increased profits. It also has a highly unusual culture that includes lots of freedom, no managers, and very few rules. Instead, Nearsoft employees rely on a set of five core values: leadership, commitment, teamwork, long-term relationships, and being smart and getting things done.

“We don’t believe in command and control,” Perez told Corporate Rebels in an interview. “Our people have the freedom and responsibility to make their own decisions . . . and therefore [are] probably more structured than many hierarchical organizations. We have clear processes in place for many things we do.”

Perez and Martinez built trial and error into Nearsoft’s DNA. “When a person or team wants to experiment with something new, and there is enough internal support, they are completely free to give it a try,” said Perez. Once the company decides to try an idea, they commit to it for at least a full year, to give it time to work. And if an experiment fails?  No problem: All lessons learned and new information are viewed positively.