Leadership Teams and Enabling Constraints

Michael Norton’s
Leadership Teams may be a smell” is a thought-provoking read. As I went through it, I found myself thinking of examples from my own experience that bear out his hypothesis. Here’s a summary of his idea:

Right now, I think of a leadership team as an organizational smell. Like a code smell, an organizational smell potentially indicates a deeper problem in the system. The smell itself, in this case the existence of a leadership team, is not technically a problem. A leadership team doesn’t prevent an organization from functioning. But the existence of a leadership team may indicate perceived weaknesses in the overall system. Maybe we’re attempting to compensate for these weaknesses by centralizing authority and decision making.

As I thought about the topic more deeply, I realized I didn’t fully agree. I don’t think a leadership team should be considered an organizational smell, but the attributes Michael Norton ascribes to them (centralized authority and decision-making) should be. I hope to build on his thinking.

Professional organizations are complex adaptive systems. They improve, adapt, and learn through constraints. Some constraints, like markets, act mostly from the outside; others are introduced internally. These two basic types of constraints interrelate and influence each other.

Beyond this categorization, there is another way to think of constraints. Some are “enabling” because they encourage creativity and self-organization. Enabling constraints help to channel activity and focus it. Examples abound in natural systems; the arteries of the circulatory system are one of the best; they channel nutrients to cells, allowing larger and more complex bodily structures. Arteries are analogous to the enabling constraints in a Kanban system, the work-in-progress limits and visual workflows, which help channel the delivery of value to customers.

Other constraints are imposed “top-down.” These constraints limit creativity and inhibit self-organization. They are generally human creations. Having to fill out a progress report every week, or mindlessly summarizing the day’s status to satisfy a Scrum Master are examples of top-down constraints.

The key organizational smell for me is not whether the leadership team exists, it is whether its members are using constraints well. Are they centralizing decision-making and imposing decisions? Or are they experimenting with structures and approaches that encourage teams to self-organize more effectively? Are they introducing top-down constraints that inhibit creativity? Or are they encouraging experimentation with enabling constraints?

I believe this holds even in the most challenging environments. If we consider the Cynefin Framework’s complex domain, for example, I agree with Norton that the optimal organizational design pattern is a decentralized network. There is value in having a mechanism in that network that watches for patterns and trends, so that positive experiments can be identified and exploited. This is what I would expect a leadership team to do and it can be done through effective use of constraints.


CIC on USS Independence

Fortunately, it is not just theory. This is the exact approach taken by the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet in 1942. Existing shipboard information systems were being overwhelmed by new data coming from radars and radios, preventing effective decision-making in battle. Admiral Chester Nimitz, the fleet commander, recognized the problem, but refrained from imposing a solution. Instead, he and his staff introduced an enabling constraint; they ordered each ship of the fleet to develop their own solution. This triggered multiple parallel experiments throughout a large (fairly decentralized) network. The staff observed the results and selected the most successful experiments for future development, resulting in the revolutionary Combat Information Center (CIC).

To put it in terms of Cynefin, Nimitz and his staff successfully moved the problem of managing shipboard information from the Complex Domain to the Complicated one through the use of multiple parallel experiments and constraints. In doing so, they acted as an effective leadership team. I believe today’s leadership teams could have similar successes, so long as they keep the details of complexity in mind, and approach problems with an eye towards enabling constraints.