What’s the problem with command and control?

Ten years ago Peter Day (BBC business journalist) interviewed Marvin Bower, the man who built McKinsey into the Goliath it is today. Day asked Bower, on the eve of his retirement, what his greatest regret was; Bower’s answer: the prevalence of command and control.

When I ask people ‘what’s the problem with command and control?’ they usually focus on the ‘command’ word – bosses are too bossy – so we need ‘servant leaders’, leaders as ‘coaches’ and the like. But actually the problem is the ‘control’ word. While our organisational controls may be normal they are illusions of control. At the heart of control is budget management and who invented that? One James McKinsey; ironic or what?

The paradox is: when you rid your organisation of conventional controls, develop meaningful controls derived from your purpose and put these to work where the work is done, people light up. They don’t need servant leaders or coaches, they need leaders who think differently; who understand what’s wrong with conventional controls and know how to build real controls. And, by the way, there are times when leaders need to be bossy.


Throw away controls?

Steve Denning, a thought leader in the Agile community, argues conventional controls should be abandoned. A dangerous idea and a mistake we made many years ago: when we persuaded leaders to turn off their controls the workers went to sleep; we learned never to do that again. You can’t turn off the dysfunctional controls without first establishing the better controls. In the case of Agile, if we were to abandon conventional controls the consequence would be (and is) anarchy. Agilists dream things up and implement them; their mantra is ‘test and learn’. When these things fail they applaud themselves for ‘failing fast’ and say they are learning from failure. But if you’ve done the wrong thing you can’t learn from that what would have been the right thing.


Universal Credit (yawn)

The minister responsible for Universal Credit has drunk the Agile Kool-Aid. He said everything will be fine as Agile is ‘test and learn’. So let’s see what can be learned about the performance of this Agile initiative: It was announced as a ‘digital-by-default’ service in 2010, with the original plan being that it would be delivered in 7 years at a cost of £2bn. The end date, which has moved repeatedly, is now 2023, with the minister warning that even this will have to be pushed back. The last available ‘life-cost projection’ for the scheme, dating from 2015 when the project was expected to be completed by 2020, was £15.84bn (this number is out of date and conservative). The costs do not take account of a series of contracts government has given to public- and voluntary-sector providers which mop up the failure demand created. We know that as of June 2018 it was costing £699 per UC claim – four times as much as the government were intending to spend if and when the systems are fully developed. That’s as much as we can learn from the ‘what’ and it is reasonable to assume no one is learning about ‘why’.

By the way, ministers have imposed gagging clauses preventing those with contracts for mopping up failure demand from criticising or harming the reputation of the minister.


Digital mania hits local authorities

The motivation for digital services is lower transaction costs (a wrong-headed control). In private-sector organisations we have witnessed Agile initiatives driving failure demand into service centres because the ideas dreamed up by the Agilists are ineffective. Because they have a rudder of profit private-sector organisations draw back from the madness. In the public sector, however, compliance with ministerial ideas is the yard-stick and ministers have been duped by the digital/Agile promises.

So ministers throw money at local authorities to experiment with digital initiatives. When I read what’s being funded I find myself astonished by the ideas. People who need social care will be given ‘virtual assistants’ like Siri and Alexa; the idea is this will reduce the number of times a care worker has to visit. Anyone who knows about our work in people-centred services (see later item) knows that we waste so much money on ineffective care services because the controls (activity and cost) are the wrong controls. The scope for improvement is stunning and robots won’t deliver any of that.

Some people think an App for reporting housing repairs will cut down failure demand; illustrating that they know nothing about its causes. Expect failure demand to rise. Others think a Planning App will solve the problems associated with planning applications; but these problems got worse when ministers forced local authorities to adopt a universal IT system for planning applications. Others have been persuaded by the IT companies into believing that ‘big data’ will help them improve children’s services. Really? We’ve seen this tried in the North West on adult services; it was of no value and very expensive. And, of course, we see initiatives for ‘chat-bots’ – robots pretending to be people – whose purpose is to reduce demand into service centres. What do chat-bots work on? Rules. How well do rules deal with variety?


The Vanguard Method and digital services

Don’t think we’re anti digital services. We’ve helped plenty of private-sector organisations design effective digital services but we start from a different (control) point of view. We don’t chase the idea of lower transaction costs; we focus on understanding value to customers. IT comes last in the way we work, not first. We don’t dream things up and test them, we help leaders get knowledge of the ‘what and why’ of performance as a system, then we help them redesign the service (which lifts performance significantly) and only then do we help them consider what digital means might do to further enhance the service. You also learn what digital means can’t do.


Better controls in people-centred services

As I said above the scope for improving people-centred services is massive. Our methods for studying and redesigning these services are available in a six-month action-learning course, delivered in conjunction with Kingston University. Thus far 42 people from local government, housing, health and the charity sector have completed the course. Here’s what graduates have to say about it:

“This is the most important thing you could do in your working life to make a difference”
Matthew Lowe, Senior Business Designer, Staffordshire County Council, student on Cohort One

“About 6 months after doing the course I got new job. I’d have never have been successful if it wasn’t for everything I learned and the practical experience I gained on the course. I’m delighted – I’m going to have the opportunity to make a real difference for citizens, and it’s also a decent pay rise!”
Sam Spencer, Merton Council, student on Cohort Four

“Doing this course can make you feel quite angry, but for all of the right reasons, as you start to see exactly how much waste we build into our system, thinking that we are clever managers.”
Bella Ranales Cotos, Area Manager, Cartrefi Cymru Cooperative Ltd, student on Cohort Five

The current cohort has just started, another is planned for September. But you can get an overview of the course by attending a Masterclass on the better approach to commissioning (March 5th, Birmingham). Commissioners who have followed the Vanguard Method for people-centred services have given up their normal controls (activity and cost) and replaced these with controls that ensure people get the help they need. There’s the thing: give people the help they need and your costs fall dramatically.

Information here.


Seddon speaks on shared services

The shared services industry grows despite the abundant evidence of failure. I’m speaking about why these ventures go wrong; have higher than planned costs and how to get out of the mess. It’s in Manchester on February 26th. Information here.

A date for your diary

The major theme for us this year is changing management’s thinking about control. I’m planning to host a Masterclass on Thursday 16th May. It will include examples of how to go beyond command and control, the work we are doing with clients on ‘beyond budgeting’ and advice on the dos and don’ts of ‘going digital’ (the Agilist’s advice is ‘go digital or die’; our advice is if you go about it in the way most do you’ll inflict grievous wounds on costs and service quality).

Join the network

If you want to know more about studying and redesigning services, removing current controls and establishing better controls, join our Beyond Command and Control Network – it is free to join.

Thanks for reading!