Friday, 19 February 2016

Which works better, delegation or control?

How about this as a vivid description of one way of doing work? From Garrett Mattingly’s Defeat of the Spanish Armada, it conjures up powerfully the stultifying atmosphere in which lived the King, Philip II, who sent that Armada against England:

When a diplomatic pouch reached the Escurial, its contents, however urgent, were receipted by the appropriate clerk, and placed along with the originals on the appropriate corner of the long table in the cheerless little room in which the King now spent most of his waking hours. All sorts of official papers lay piled on that long table. It held the correspondence of ambassadors, the reports of viceroys and governors, of customs and treasury and municipal officials… Nobody since the beginning of history had ever ruled so much of the earth’s surface as Philip II of Spain… nobody, surely, had ever had so many papers to read. Sooner or later Philip read, if not all, at least a very great many of them, leaving in his spidery scrawl in their margins shrewd statesmanlike comments and trivial corrections of spelling and grammar, each annotation a witness to posterity of his appalling, his stupefying industry. Naturally, he sometimes got a little behind…

Yes. It’s hardly surprising he wasn’t always entirely up to date. A state of affairs probably not helped by what Mattingly calls “his habit of second thought.” Sometimes Philip delayed responding to a dispatch, which might already have waited some time to be read at all, because he wanted to take longer making up his mind.

As Admiral Nelson took his fleet into what would become known as the Battle of Trafalgar, against a combined French and Spanish force, he told his captains:

…in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.

In other words, Nelson believed his ships’ captains knew what was needed of them in battle: to sail alongside their enemies vessels and fire on them until they went down or surrendered. He didn’t feel that they needed constant direct orders from him, to sail towards one ship or the next, to turn one way or another, to open fire or cease firing. Those were matters they could decide for themselves, on the basis of their knowledge and experience, and their clear understanding of the overall goal of the fleet action.

Spanish Aramda (lfet): a crushing defeat
Battle of Trafalgar (right): a stunning victory
And guess which approach is more widely applied
Trafalgar remains one of the most famous victories at sea of all time.

The Armada’s attempted invasion of England has become an exemplar of how not to attempt a naval campaign. It failed lamentably to achieve its aims – not a single soldier was landed on English soil – and the fleet itself was forced to flee for home. What’s worse, because the direct route through the Channel was blocked, less by the Engish than by the weather, the Spaniards were obliged to sail up the East coast of Britain and over the North of Scotland, with tragically high losses on the way: over a third failed to return to Spain.

Doesn’t that sound like a striking vindication of the management style known as delegation, where power of decision is moved downwards to the lowest possible level? That’s in to its opposite – authoritarianism, or perhaps simply control freakery – where nothing can happen without the explicit say so, to a numbing degree of detail, of the person in charge.

So here’s the million-dollar question: why is it that so many executives in organisations, public or private, seem so intent on emulating Philip II rather than Admiral Nelson?

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