Friday Reads: Power to the Edge by David S. Alberts & Richard E. Hayes

In my work in the Agile business community, I have long been fascinated by the “hidden gem” nature of this report. Its findings support so many of the points Gavin Watson has been making in his Friday Reads series. I appreciate an opportunity to offer it a place within the connective tissue of ideas we’ve been exploring about self-organization, employee engagement and where leadership resides across the continuum of established institutions and emerging, ‘start-up’ ventures.

‘Power to the Edge’ reminds me of an anthem seen on a poster at a college radio station or a chant you might hear at a community protest. However, it was actually a report commissioned by the Department of Defense’s Command and Control Research Program (CRRP).  According to the report’s introduction, the CCRP “pursues a broad program of research and analysis in information superiority, information operations, command and control theory, and associated operational concepts that enable the DoD to leverage shared awareness to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of assigned missions.” An important aspect of the CCRP program is its ability to serve as a bridge between the operational, technical, analytical, and educational communities. 

So, DoD thought it was important to set up a research program focused specifically on the national security implications of the Information Age! If the military has become aware of this information gap, then perhaps there are useful lessons here for the rest of us fighting our lesser battles, day-to-day. 

The publication’s central thesis is that Industrial Age structures – often organized with hub-and-spokes centrality as a key support to their command-and-control functions – must develop greater interoperability and agility in order to respond to the needs and crises of the Information Age. 

Moving the seat of institutional power from the center to the edge achieves control indirectly rather than directly. While this can feel threatening to commanders who fear chaos, it is often faster, more efficient and life-savingly more effective in today’s fluid missions and environments. 

Enabling technology has come in the form of advances in communications that can keep individuals and networks richly connected at minimal cost. The enabling mindset to accompany the new technology, however, is still emerging. 

“As bandwidth becomes ever less costly and more widely available, we will be able to not only allow people to process information as they see fit but also allow multiple individuals and organizations to have direct and simultaneous access to information and to each other.”

David S. Alberts & Richard E. Hayes, Power to the Edge

As John Stenbit writes in the foreword, “Our future success requires that we think about information and relationships differently. We need to move from a set of monopoly suppliers of information to an information marketplace. Only by doing this will we be able to ensure that our forces will have the variety of views and perspectives necessary to make sense out of the complex situations that they will face.” The battlefields of Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, among others, have provided proof-of-concept for the value of such network-centric capabilities. 

Empowering the edge, these authors propose, is a transformation more fundamental than any other the military’s command-and-control structures have had to handle since the early to mid-19th century. It is also absolutely essential for navigating the complexity in which we find ourselves today. 

You see, the edge of an organization is where the organization interacts with its operating environment to have an impact or effect on that environment. Empowerment of the edge involves expanding access to information and the elimination of unnecessary constraints. Whereas in the past, perhaps many procedures were needed to deconflict various elements in the absence of quality information, today the emphasis is on establishing clear, consistent rules of engagement that the forces can implement themselves. By unbundling command from control, commanders become primarily responsible for setting the initial conditions that make their teams more likely to succeed. 

Edge organizations thus often move senior personnel into roles that place them at the edge. This can reduce the need for middle managers whose role is to manage constraints and control measures. 

John Sviokla summarized four fundamental principles of the agile, “edge-based” organization a few years back in the Harvard Business Review: situational awareness, skills, values, and decision rights. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn to see how you can empower the edge in your organization. 

Situational Awareness. Traditional command-and-control structures evolved from a set of assumptions about fog and friction in warfare. In the Industrial Age, information to thoroughly assess a situation was costly and difficult to attain. However, information flow is fast-paced and cheap, changing the economics for the Information Age. Today,in the time it would take for a network to convey information from the edge to the center and then back out to the edge, the situation would have already changed, making such centralized conclusions obsolete! Find ways for edge-stationed personnel to communicate directly with one another to acquire and convey robust awareness of a given situation. Situation awareness will always need to be developed and shared, but whose task this is and how it is accomplished are evolving.

Skill. When professionalism and creativity among a force are in question, very little can be accomplished. Mission-critical competence  – that is, the ability to know what exactly to focus on – is best demonstrated under pressure when there has been sufficient preparation in advance. Preparing for a range of shifting circumstances is key (note: this is not the same as planning for a single, desired outcome, which often assumes certain circumstances which may or may not materialize in the field. Perhaps counterintuitively, too much of this type of planning can make an organization more fragile.)

Getting any job done typically involves things that need to be accomplished prior to undertaking a given task or mission  – known as ‘readiness’ – and things that need to be done to accomplish the mission. Likewise, leaders at any level must have sufficient insight to know when to undertake different approaches to both, given the specific, on-the-ground circumstances. The comfortable position of selecting a single philosophy and working to establish it in both doctrine and training  – then marching forward to a centralized leader’s drumbeat – has disappeared now that we are in the Information Age.

Values. This is what can replace that former security found in following the leader. Edge organizations seek to make command intent congruent throughout a whole organization, so that any part of it can ‘figure out’ how best to proceed in a complex situation. (It is not just the ‘head’ anymore that does the thinking!) This is made possible through reliance on a shared value system. Values can serve as a reference to guide every day-to-day decision as well as organizational design features. When structures are imbued with values, the results are congruent. It turns out that it is not lack of information but lack of clear and consistently-applied values that create fog and friction in our organizations. 

Decision Rights. The most mature form of an edge organization is recognized by its self-synchronizing capacity. In edge organizations, peer-to-peer interactions are paramount, enabling high degrees of trust. Only through very rich personal interactions, guided by the values, skill and situational awareness outlined above, can sufficient information be conveyed in a fluid manner to overcome the uncertainty and volatility associated with complex field operations. The Power to the Edge report found that commanders do well to increase the degree of creativity and initiative that subordinate decision-makers in the force can be expected and even encouraged to exercise.

For example, General Douglas MacArthur, when organizing his campaign to island hop and retake the Philippines, is reported to have called in the commander of his theater Army Air Corps and told him to “keep the Japanese air forces out of my way.” That was the only order issued and the subordinate was left free to decide how he would accomplish the mission.

At the risk of repetition, in order to do this, his troops had to have access to four key things, also necessary for business organizations seeking the speed and effectiveness of self-synchronization. These essentials are:

  • High quality information enabling shared situational awareness; 
  • Competence at all levels of the force; 
  • Clear and consistent understanding of command intent; and 
  • Trust in the information, subordinates, superiors, peers, and equipment.

Today, even in our home state of Connecticut, nicknamed ‘the land of steady habits,” responsibility for the use of resources and the health and wellbeing of personnel cannot afford to stand on ceremony based on tradition or the false security of what’s worked in the past. It cannot even rest on the strong shoulders of one or two supposed heroes who are ‘in charge.’  In fact, taking care of the important things to achieve a group’s mission is a distributed responsibility. And the power to carry out these responsibilities lies not at the center of an organization, but truly at its dynamic edges. 

The time has come to structure ourselves accordingly! 
Take a look at this fascinating read and let us know you YOU think it applies to today’s organizational leadership.

Cheers for Friday!

Elinor Slomba, Community Engagement Specialist, Red Rock Branding & Founder of Verge Arts Group

PS: Did you know you can book time with Gavin Watson to discuss how the principles of Conscious Capitalism are working inside your organization? It’s true – and while we cannot hoard these riches, supply is somewhat limited. Schedule your appointment now!

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