Do You Have to Control Everything?

If there is one thing that upsets me…

Really upsets me it is being controlled.  Being told where I have to be, when I have to be there, what I need to do, which meeting I need to go to… I hate being controlled.

Of course it cuts both ways.  If I am hell-bent on upsetting my team then a little micro management goes an awfully long way.  And therein lies the dilemma, if I hate being controlled, then why do I feel the need to control my team?  Why is it that sometimes I think they just need to be told?

Do we need to control?

What would happen if we relaxed a little?  Could a complicated system work without multiple layers of control and governance?  Maybe it could …

Do you need lights to control traffic?

When the traffic lights fail at the cross roads on your way into work does everything grind to a halt?  No it doesn’t, the cars get to their destination, people still get to work; just as long as:

  • We know where we are going
  • We slow down a touch
  • We show a little courtesy

Then the traffic flows.

But a cross roads is a simple scenario, how about something a little more complicated?

Do you need an agenda to control a meeting?

Can you run a conference without a formal agenda?  Conventional wisdom says it is a must, otherwise the whole thing drifts aimlessly — you know how bad that is.  But you can run a very successful meeting without an agenda.  Try an open space meeting.  It works beautifully just so long as:

  • You are clear what the meeting is for
  • People want to be there
  • They expect it to work

Then you can have a truly innovative discussion.

Now, what about something really complicated?

Do you need a hierarchy to control a company?

This is the big league…  Can you run a whole company without hierarchies and job titles?  Do you to need command and control? The textile manufacturer W.L. Gore proves you don’t.  Instead of a formal management structure they have:

  • Shared values
  • Joint ownership
  • Deliberately small business units

Of course it’s not perfect, but their employees love it, and they always turn a profit.

So do we need control?

Maybe not, but we do need a clear goal, a trusting environment and the ability to leave our egos at the door.  All of which is hard work.

Which is why I find a little command and control is a whole lot easier — and to hell with the consequences.

There are no cheap tickets to mastery ~ Donella H. Meadows

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Command and Control

Read another opinion

Image by Davide Simonetti


  1. James,
    Semco, featured in Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick, provides an interesting perspective where their company gives much, if not all, of the ‘control’/decision-making powers to their employees.

    They are loved by their employees and always seem to be growing faster than the market.

    Maybe it’s about what and who has the control that matters just as much as the amount of control.


  2. James:
    Two observations.

    First, the idea of shared values is quite a bit deeper. The roundabout works because of courtesy (i.e. we all agree to a common set of rules) and W.L. Gore works because of “shared values” which is a way of saying that we share a perspective on the rules for tradeoffs to be made within the organization. In other words, the common element is shared rules. Logan and King in their book Tribal Leadership make much the same point, suggesting that high-performing organizations can do so because of shared rules about how they will make decisions. Blair Singer goes at the same issue and describes it as a Code of Honour: the things that everyone in the organization agrees will drive behaviour. In all cases there is mutual consent and there is an underlying agreement to some fundamental rules. The trusting environment you speak of is really a reference to an environment in which we can trust that others will be held to account if they make decisions at odds with the shared values previously stated.

    Second, your reluctance to submit to control is highly tied to your performance. As Daniel Pink points out, outstanding performance is associated with three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. The autonomy doesn’t mean do whatever. It means that within the agreed framework (those pesky shared values or Code of Honour) you’re free to do what is needed. The mastery allows for continued experimentation to, hopefully, one day, arrive at perfection. And purpose – well that’s like the meeting where we’re all clear why we’re there or the roundabout in which we know where we’re going.

    The image I like in this comes from the Four Seasons hotel chain, where they have carefully worked out standard procedures for everything from how to clean a toilet to where the chocolate gets left on the bed, but the staff are given one other “rule”. From their magazine: (

    “All new staff are instructed on “core standards,” including step-by-step procedures on everything from how to make a bed to how to serve a bottle of wine. Far from feeling like strict rules, these standards are seen as guidelines in the art of doing each small thing very well. They’re a proven way to demonstrate quality and caring.”

    “At the same time, all staff are encouraged to be perceptive about each guest’s individual preferences—and to anticipate any possible requests. That might mean a housekeeper noticing that you prefer to sleep on the left side of the bed, so your slippers are placed there the next night. Perhaps, you like to leave the cap off your toothpaste. Or that you always eat apples but never touch bananas. The next day, you might get more apples!”

    “When the opportunity arises, staff are empowered to go beyond the call of duty and make independent decisions to assist guests—whether that means offering the house car for the drive to an important meeting, replacing a missing button on your jacket or giving your child a teddy bear.”

    This creates a wonderful balance between consistently amazing service (wish I could experience more of it) and the flexibility for staff to take initiative and control when it’s needed to achieve the organization’s shared values.

  3. Hello James,

    It occurs to me the best-strongest control is through no control. What kind of control is that? Control through ideology and cultural practices. Have you tried to convert a Christian to Islam? How did it go? How about the gun lobby in USA to give up right to carry arms? Didn’t go too well. My understanding is that the pro gun folks have successfully lobbied to have more firearms in more places to reduce the kind of killings that left 25+ children slaughtered. If your are British then try cutting the cue and going straight to the front,

    I say every thought-action has side effects. That means that when we control others we introduce side effects. Watch 12 Years A Slave to see what I am pointing at. When you are successful in exercising control you are also successful at killing creativity and innovation. Why? In an a context of control thought-experimentation is not needed nor allowed. Which is why that which is disruptive almost always occurs on the fringes.

    All the best

    • James Lawther says:

      It is a tight balance I guess Maz, too much control and things stagnate, too little control and you have anarchy

      I have a degree in Genetics, the same problem exists in evolution. If the body is able to mutate like crazy then all you get is cancer and death. However without mutation there is no raw material to evolve with.

      A difficult balance I suspect.

  4. James,

    I don’t mind a little command and control… the key is to ensure you have a vision and a goal and to communicate them. From there, go for it.


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