It struck me recently how much the pendulum swings in management thought. The swings are dramatic and often very fast, yet many management capabilities and people don't change nearly so quickly as some of the fads. I was thinking recently about decision making and how far, or perhaps not so far, we've come in the concept of consensus.
It used to be, in the dark ages of the "man in the gray flannel suit" that firms were top down hierarchies. Someone made a decision and that decision rolled down through the hierarchy, and individuals at every level deciphered what that decision meant and made new decisions to implement their small piece of the overall decision. I realize that this is a somewhat simplistic view of things, but for the most part until the 80s and 90s most decisions were top down, command and control.
What we realized then, and have started to correct for, is that the organizational structures were too top heavy and had too many layers to operate effectively, and that the rationale for the number of layers had probably been eliminated. Given much better educational systems and communication systems, work didn't have to be broken down into so many small buckets, and people closer to the customer could probably make good decisions. I read recently that in some departments the University of North Carolina as as many as 10 levels between the workers on the "front lines" and Chancellor Holden Thorpe. This is just one instance of an organization that has too many levels of management. Universities often lag behind businesses in implementing management change. Many businesses "delayered" over the late 80s and early 90s, but many had as many or more layers of management.
With this reduction in layers came new responsibilities further down the org chart. New "closer to the customer" decision making, and consensual decision making. Since many of these front line workers are closer to the customer, it is expected that they can make good decisions about customer service, new products and so forth. Much of this is probably true. However, two things still hamper much of the work: communication of a clear strategy, and the ability to make a definitive decision.
The first issue is that while we say we push decision making down, the senior executive teams often leave the organization's mission and goals very uncertain. I've not yet decided whether this is intentional, and they keep the mission to themselves, or is unintentional and they either don't have a clear mission or just don't communicate it well. However, in many organizations that I've worked in, it's clear that people on the "front lines" don't know, or don't understand, what the corporate strategy is. They make decisions based on historical factors or on what they think or hope the mission is.
Secondly, while "decision making" appears to have been pushed down, in most organizations any real decision must be vetted and approved several levels up. In other words, the act of making the decision was pushed down, but then the decision must be reviewed and approved by more senior executives before the decision can be implemented. This gives the appearance of consensus management while leaving all of the older command and control intact. It is also humiliating, frustrating and timeconsuming for people who need to act on decisions.
My point is that many people in large organizations still operate in a strategic vacuum, having been told that their input is important, they work with little understanding or knowledge about what the organization's true goals and strategies are. With little insight or knowledge about strategy, they turn to what's most important, the 90 day tick tock of the stock market, and do all they can to achieve that. Then consumers and senior executives wonder why some things never seem to change.