Where Do I Start with Decentralized Command?

By: Jason Gardner,

Being an Echelon Front instructor, I get asked a lot of common questions. A department head at a U.S. government agency approached me once and asked:  “Where do I start with decentralized command?”  The fourth Law of Combat, Decentralized Command is a situation where everyone leads. A leader defines the mission or goal and explains the roles and responsibilities of each team member and the parameters they can operate within. The leader delegates as much decision-making authority as possible to the team, keeping in mind some decisions still need to be made at their level. The team is empowered with the ability to decide how they achieve the goal within the parameters. This leverages the different and fresh perspectives of the team on how to solve problems.

The advantages of decentralization become immediately obvious. The department head is free to lead the team strategically while subordinates aren’t waiting for the boss to make every decision. But where does a leader start to implement Decentralized Command in an organization? More specifically, where can they start to create a decentralized organization within the bounds of a government agency where bureaucracy and wielding authority through rank is the norm? 

Step One: Implementing Decentralized Command

For Decentralized Command to work, everyone on the team needs to know not only what they are supposed to be doing, but why they are doing that. Everyone from the head of the agency to frontline workers needs to understand the why behind their duties. Without understanding the overall strategic goal that needs to be accomplished, an organization can get stuck or worse yet begin to move in different directions and get out of alignment with the goal. 

On the other hand, if everyone in the organization understands and is aligned with the strategic goal, they can make decisions that move the whole organization closer to that goal, and they can harness the power of their different perspectives to achieve that goal in new and innovative ways. Start by defining the mission to everyone. It doesn’t stop with decentralization in management; everyone up and down the chain of command needs to understand the why. Make the mission personally applicable to each person on the team. 

Step Two: Decentralized Organization 

Once the strategic mission is understood, clear roles and responsibilities need to be defined for each member of the team, along with the type of decisions they can make at their level. Remember that delegating decision-making to the lowest possible level creates a team with more eyes looking for solutions to problems. The person closest to the problem will likely come up with the best solution as long as they understand the parameters they have to work within.

Break that down into a few parts:

1. Create Multiple Lists Showcasing Team Members’ Responsibilities

First, as the leader, make a list of each team member’s roles and responsibilities. The agency head should have a long-term, strategic view; that is going to be different than how subordinates from middle management to frontline workers view things. Then, have each team member make a list of what they think their roles and responsibilities are. Decentralized Command begins when these are aligned to each other and to the strategic mission.

2. Merge Your Lists & Note Misalignment

Next, merge the lists you and each of the team members have created, discarding the parts that don’t apply. Take note of where there might be misalignment regarding each person’s perceived and actual responsibilities. As a leader, you can catch and correct misconceptions before they become an issue if someone thinks they have more or less responsibility than they do within that organization. 

3. Brief Team Members & Form Decentralized Command

Finally, brief each member of your team on their roles and responsibilities, the decisions they can make at their level, and what decisions need to be made at your level. Each individual will now understand the strategic objective, their role in accomplishing that objective, and the scope of decisions they can make on their own toward achieving that mission. That is Decentralized Command.

Decentralized Leadership at Every Level

Decentralized Command requires aligning everyone on the team to the same strategic goal, delegating tasks and responsibilities to achieve that goal, and a clear understanding of the scope of that responsibility. When everyone is a leader, when everyone is given ownership of their role a team problem solves quickly and at its greatest potential to innovate and succeed.

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