Seeking Examples of Senior Leaders Flattening Organizations

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This topic contains 6 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  Rei Tang 8 years, 9 months ago.

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  • #94258

    Bob King

    An instructor from the Army’s Command and General Staff College, and former colleague of mine, send me this question today:

    We were discussing flat organization efforts by today’s leadership. I ran into someone who is working on some course work on a similar subject. Can you give me some references where a senior leader is trying to bridge the gap and get subordinates to “jump” the systems road blocks.

    My initial response to him:

    Examples are very difficult (if not impossible) to find. I say that because I do not know of any direct examples, I only have the senior leader vision statements.

    I’ll work on getting you some examples.

    Applicable Videos – I put both of these videos in the “MUST VIEW” category on this subject. It’s not just the words they use but the tone and passion behind them. That is especially true with the VCSA’s video. I’d urge you to watch the first half two or three times (about a minute) and really focus on what he’s saying and how he’s saying it.

    GEN Dempsey (TRADOC Commanding General interviewed by McGill’s Karl Moore)

    GEN Chiarelli (Army Vice Chief of Staff on Communicating Effectively)

    Now I’m following through on my commitment to work on getting him more examples. Thus far such examples are elusive. Does that mean they do not yet exist? If any senior leaders are actively promoting such a change, by actions, within their organization one would think they’d be using these same tools (social media & so on) to share their experiences.

    Unfortunately for those of us on the leading edge of these efforts, without such actions those words and vision only result in friction and misunderstandings in the work force. Another former colleague summed it up very well with a pithy quote. I’ll paraphrase it ’cause I’m still a bit old-fashioned when it comes to sharing such information in a public forum:

    Vision without action is mental censored [self-gratification]

    What are your experiences? Is anyone else getting the “beat down” because they understand and are trying to implement their senior leader’s vision when those in between resist the change?

    Can anyone provide concrete examples of not just talking about, but actually encourage and supporting these changes through action and policy? Although my personal experiences are strictly within DoD, I’m open to leaning about examples from any organizations or agencies.

  • #94270

    Rei Tang

    We can find a mix of leadership styles across the US government, but many of the star leaders we have today, especially in the military and in other operationally-minded places, have adopted a flat approach to organizing their staffs. If you read any of the profiles of Gen. McChrystal when he was appointed Commander, ISAF, there are several mentions of his preference for a small, flat staff. We have quite a few highly effective small groups closely associated with a particular senior leader, and they will often provide a lot of value to whatever they are working on.

    You also hear McChrystal and Petraeus talk a lot about letting the troops in the field take the initiative and learn. In Linda Robinson’s book Tell Me How This Ends, there are several examples where Petreaus meets with captains and lieutenants for a run or a briefing and he tells that they are empowered to do what they think is best, despite the military bureaucracy. He knows they understand how to fight the war in Iraq better than many people in Washington, because they’ve learned so many lessons by being there, and they use places like to spread the knowledge.

    Unfortunately, we haven’t seen whole organizations and departments adopt flatter approaches to managing their people. It’s very hard to break the boundaries between policy offices. Richard Holbrooke has put together an interesting group of people in the form of an interagency team, but it’s hard to tell how they fit into the whole Afghanistan (and some will say Afpak) issue, given the plethora of players surrounding it. But if you can find information about how it is managed, you’ll find that it’s a small and flat team with people from across the US government.

    In terms of using social technology, I think ODNI and CIA have probably gone the furthest, with A-space and Intellipedia, thanks to the leadership of Mike McConnell, Michael Hayden, and Dennis Blair. The initiative to use social technology in the intel world came from a guy named Michael Wertheimer: However, as we saw with the Christmas bombing attempt, there is still a lot of work to do.

    Basically, people are stepping out of the box, but just barely. Where they do, it’s very encouraging though. I think that’s what you’ll find in your examples.

  • #94268

    Bob King

    Thanks for the response thus far. Based upon a discussion at milBlog (behind the AKO/DKO/CAC firewall), I’m adding some additional information. I realize people may respond without viewing either of the linked videos. That is unfortunate as the discussion is set within the context of cultural change as proposed by GEN Chiarelli.

    Addendum: The words “flattending organizations” are not mine, they are derived from GEN Chiarelli’s video. They are also derived from the message in GEN Dempsey’s video with excerpts such as:

    — I think that you will see us evolve into an organization where trust is as much the coin of the realm as control is.
    — We are seeing that there’s real potential in decentralizing
    — So, I think where we’re heading is to more trust than control.
    — But we’re communicating with our soldiers in ways that I think maintain that sense of purpose, allow them to see what we’re trying to do, even in some cases take their advice. But I think it’s the power of their knowledge; what inspires them is their access to the knowledge. And so we’ve just got to continue to find ways to do that.

    I realize there may be people here [referring to Army networks] that are not able to view these YouTube videos. I know, for example, that there are organizations at Fort Leavenworth that still have YouTube blocked from their work computers.

    So I took the time to transcribe the VCSA’s video linked above, as well as another related video. This is not an official transcript. Emphasis added is my own to tie it back to the discussion. I would still encourage all to watch the videos, to see his body language and to hear the passion behind his commentary. The words below do not do justice to his message.

    GEN Chiarelli on Communicating More Effectively
    December 17, 2008

    Summary: GEN Peter Chiarelli speaks about how the Army can communicate more effectively. He also talks about the value of using technology to collaborate.

    We’ve got to find a way to flatten out our organizations and pass information, faster than we’ve ever passed it before, take advantage of these tools. But there’s a natural tendency not to. There’s a natural tendency to go back to our hierarchical nature, our bureaucratic ways. Make sure it’s read by 5 or 6 staff officers before the General sees it, sometimes before the Colonel sees it. Then the Colonel sends it out and then 5 or 6 more Generals have to see it before the Commander has to see it. And our ability to pass information at the speed of light turns into the same old two-month drill of getting watered down, staffed, chewed like a cud information to a leader about six weeks after he needed that information to make a decision that he needed to make.

    The most illuminating exchanges of information that I have that allow me to use my job to the fullest extent don’t come from, normally don’t come from, officers directly below me. They come from individuals way (emphasis) down the chain of command I’ve given my email address to who provide me with information that allows me to take action to really solve the problem in a short period of time.

    I had to fight it, yea, to beat down the bureaucracy, to ask why. To force it to change. I mean, I think that’s absolutely essential when they see those things. I’m not for anarchy, I’m not saying anarchy. I’m just saying I, it’s, it’s, I find it very, very sad when we have some of the abilities we have today to move information and to make better decisions because of the ability to collaborate.

    This concept of collaboration is huge. And if you go down range today, and if you go to Iraq and Afghanistan, and you go down to the individual level you’ll find Soldiers using a system called Tiger, TIGR. And it’s a virtual notebook that allows individual Soldiers down at the lowest levels of our formations to pass information, and more importantly knowledge, between each other, between their higher headquarters in ways that makes them their own intelligence. Non-commissioned officers and Soldiers. Allows them to make decisions based on knowledge or information that 2 years ago, even 12 months ago they would have never had.

    We have to empower that.


    GEN Peter Chiarelli on Training Doctrine
    December 17, 2008

    Summary: The Vice Chief of Staff of the Army spoke about the new training manual when he visited the Combined Arms Center for the CGSC graduation.

    [FM] 7.0 to me is just one example, albeit probably one of the most important examples because it tells us how to train for Full Spectrum Operations. But it’s one example of the amazing work that Fort Leavenworth, under both General Petraeus and particularly now under General Caldwell has done to update our doctrine. To really grab hold of this concept of Full Spectrum Operations and everything it means.

    To have a, to help engender a debate in the Army and give us time to read these manuals, and comment on these manuals. And come out with some doctrine that I think is probably unsurpassed in our Army.

    I don’t think, at least in my career, I can’t remember a time when our Army has had such rich doctrine. Such doctrine that really captures the essence of what we’re doing, that can be used, can be discussed. Making use of information technologies to… and Bill was telling me about, and I don’t know if it was 7.0, but this idea of putting a doctrinal manual online and collecting (from audience, 7.1), 7.1, and colleting comments and updating it online, that’s, that’s where we need to go.

    He was also telling me there’s a tremendous bureaucracy that fights (laugh) that kind of change. But that kind of change is really where we need to go.

    I, I, hats off to what Fort Leavenworth, what CAC, what General Caldwell and all the fantastic folks that work with him to make sure our Army has the doctrine that it needs.


  • #94266

    Rei Tang

    From Robert Kaplan’s recent article in the Atlantic Monthly:

    The idea is to put the American and Afghan military leaders, as well as low-ranking commanders, down-range together socially, and create a flat, fast organization. As with a similar effort in Iraq, top-down guidance from high-ranking officers gets bottom-up refinement from captains and sergeants. To wit, Rodriguez’s operations center is a vast hangar-like building with no walls or partitions, very much evoking a newsroom environment. “It is an atmosphere in which you error towards sharing what you know,” said Navy Commander Jeff Eggers, a McChrystal adviser.

    “I learned at JSOC,” McChrystal explained, “that any complex task is best approached by flattening hierarchies. It gets everybody feeling like they’re in the inner circle, so that they develop a sense of ownership. The more people who believe that they are part of the team and are in the know, the more you don’t have to do it yourself.” As Brigadier General Scott Miller, who runs the Afghanistan-Pakistan Coordination Cell at the Pentagon, told me about McChrystal and Rodriguez’s philosophy: “Decentralize until you’re uncomfortable, then scrutinize, fix, and push down and out even further, to the level of the sergeants.” Precisely because of the commander’s ability to reach down to the junior noncommissioned officers, a flat military organization puts—in the words of one admiral I interviewed—“performance pressure on everybody.”

  • #94264

    Bob King

    @Rei – Thanks for sharing this. I’ve heard quite a bit of anecdotal information about how GEN McChrystal uses collaboration and decentralization within his organizations. It would certainly make for an excellent case study if someone in the know could write that up for Joint Forces Quarterly, Military Review, Harvard Business Review, etc.

    Unfortunately, because of his special operations background, I think people are reluctant to put much in writing regarding his management & leadership approach.

  • #94262

    Rei Tang

    I know some people who are working on a case study of JSOC and the HVT teams during McChrystal’s time in Iraq. You’re right it’s difficult because of the SOF/intel background. Very cutting edge stuff, though.

    I don’t know for sure, but the Haiti earthquake response might produce some interesting insights as well.

    By the way, what GEN Chiarelli said is very interesting, especially the contrast between the 5 or 5 staff officers clearing something and him providing junior officers with his personal e-mail. GEN Dempsey’s stuff is interesting as well.

    Someone else: the VCJCS, Gen Cartwright, has been talking a lot about pushing knowledge and information to empower the edge, and building the right technology for it.

  • #94260

    Kitty Wooley

    Bob, Josh, Rei –

    I’ve been following your interesting conversation because I’ve been thinking about the intersection of hierarchy and network for several years. Sometime, go to, look up “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations,” and read the Publishers Weekly review. I think it sheds some light on this conversation. I first heard about the book through the Highlands Group.

    Best wishes,
    Kitty Wooley

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