Controlled Anarchy

Photo by Fail Blog

I have been delving into two sources of great management success stories in the last few days, trying to wrap my head around what exactly they have in common. Suddenly, I encountered the picture above and it suddenly made sense. Controlled Anarchy.

The first story was featured in a great podcast from the HBR Ideacast series. In this podcast they interviewed Jonah Keri, sports and stock market writer. Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First. This is the book description from Amazon:

In The Extra 2%, financial journalist and sportswriter Jonah Keri chronicles the remarkable story of one team’s Cinderella journey from divisional doormat to World Series contender. When former Goldman Sachs colleagues Stuart Sternberg and Matthew Silverman assumed control of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2005, it looked as if they were buying the baseball equivalent of a penny stock. But the incoming regime came armed with a master plan: to leverage their skill at trading, valuation, and management to build a model twenty-first-century franchise that could compete with their bigger, stronger, richer rivals—and prevail.

In the interview Keri talks about many things that helped this amazing turnaround to happen, but a few themes emerge – trust, attendance to disciplined process, focus on hiring and open-mindedness.

At the same time, I am reading A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All by Wendy Koop, founder and president of Teach for America. The stories of the schools that actually work, the schools that are able to take children from underprivileged neighborhoods and propel them all the way to college, show similar characteristics: trust, attendance to disciplined process, focus on hiring and open-mindedness.

In both these stories, between the lines, you read about a delicate balance:

1. A high dedication to numbers balanced with a focus on the people who drive them.

2. Focus on outcomes balanced with discipline to keep on the right process when the outcomes don’t come.

3. High accountability for results balanced with amazing trust in people to find their own best way to do what needs to be done to succeed and open-mindedness to their new approaches.

The last balance of the three, which is the most important in my eyes, is why I thought about the idea of Controlled Anarchy. These two success stories (and more I encountered in the past) seem to revolve around leaders and managers creating a very wide-set of boundaries and trusting their people to succeed in these boundaries. Instead of spending time and effort on micro-managing how people do their work, they focus their efforts on hiring the best available people, giving them the support and resources they need, and trying to learn from them while holding them accountable for the outcomes they produce. In other words, these leaders allow Anarchy in Controlled boundaries.

This Anarchy has another upside. As Steven Johnson illustrates in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, mistakes, failures and noise are an important factor in innovation:

The history of being spectacularly right has a shadow history lurking behind it: a much longer history of being spectacularly wrong, again and again. And not just wrong, but messy. A shockingly large number of transformative ideas in the annals of science can be attributed to contaminated laboratory environments…

Good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error.

Is there Anarchy in your organization?

Elad

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One Response to “Controlled Anarchy”

  1. Nick Black Says:

    You cannot count on humans. We as a species are unreliable, there will be natural governments that rise and countless deaths.


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