I learned about autonomy, distribution, decentralization and killing silos while consulting for one of the most respectful counter-terrorism organizations in the world. Yes, you heard it right, Army and counter-terrorism.
I worked for many organizations in different parts of the world as an Enterprise Architect consultant. One of my engagements was with a counterterrorism agency, which considered being one of the respectful counterterrorism organization in the world. But, as I started to work with this agency, they began to experience a growing wave of suicide bombers.
This suicide bomber’s wave was painful for the country as the death toll was high. The wave was also very painful for this organization, as they didn’t have a clue how to deal with this wave. They couldn’t stop or even decrease the attacks number, frequency, or quality. I can testify that their inability to change the negative momentum created a lot of tensions, which formed a vicious circle that makes it even harder to resolve the challenge they faced.
The tipping point of this agency’s success started when we invited to hear from the leader of the organization, who was a well-decorated army general, how he planned to change the former status quo. We all gathered in a big auditorium with no windows and with green walls (that were common 20 years ago) covered with classical army slogans. Nothing in the atmosphere indicated the shock this room is about to experience in less than twenty minutes.
When he entered the room. From the humming noise of thousands of chats, suddenly you could hear the breath of people around you. Then he started his speech. “There is one reason that we are losing in this battle. We are not fighting anymore against countries or well-established terror groups supported by nations,” he said. “We are fighting against small and autonomous groups. Groups that don’t have any silos, where everyone is self-managed and can perform many tasks. Those groups are running with no centralization or hierarchy. What unified them is one common purpose, to destroy us. If we want to win this war, ” he said and took a long pause.
“If we want to win this war, we need to operate like them! We need to break our silos. We need to create hybrid teams. Teams that have a clear purpose and autonomy and authority to reach their purpose.”
As I mentioned, you could see the shock on people’s faces, that turn into cynical smiles, and after that into sarcastic comments. The Q&A session after the speech didn’t take any time. No one knew what to ask and everyone was still afraid to say what was on his mind.
After one year of hard work, this organization changed from central hierarchy with command and control to distributed, autonomous and self-managed teams. Those hybrid teams found creative solutions and overtime to reduce and then stopped the suicide attack wave. The change was so profound as you could see how mediocre teams are adopting those new ideas and becoming highly functional teams.
This is how I learned about decentralization, distributed and heterogeneous teams. Now, when I have more perspective, I understand that decentralization and distribution will always win for a simple reason; they are the rule of nature, not a rule invented by humans.