Command & Control & Empowerment

Many object to the notion of Command & Control. But not me.

I have embraced what I saw as the real need for clients to have some measure of control over projects that I was involved with – so that they were “taken” on the journey – “used” as needed for their project – and had the overall buy-in necessary for post-project Implementation support – which simply is a shift/segue into Command & Contol of that effort. Implementation.

After all, how many times did a project turn unsuccessful simply because it didn’t get implemented correctly?

In any event – I would tell my assembled Project Steering Teams (or whatever my main client wanted to call them) that the function of the Project Steering Team that they were on, was to give them Command & Contol that they wanted as stakeholders – and then after a slight pause and even louder (for the back row) – to give me the Empowerment I needed.

I knew that I needed to be empowered by the “powers that be” to do their project.


We all have heard or experienced the difficulty of getting the right people to do the right things at the right time. The people that we need for our efforts – for my efforts anyway – require the best of the best – and they are usually quite busy when I come knocking.

I need to be EMPOWERED to represent someone in their chain of command – or seen as a powerbroker – to break the people I need free to join our efforts on our schedule for the planned tasks.

Which necessitates having a detailed (and feasible) plan and schedule – which is a whole other issue.

Back to “Empowerment” – the flip side of the coin of “Command & Control.”

Adapted from my article – “Empowerment is Work, not Magic” – The Journal for Quality and Participation  (September 1993)

The Problems with Empowerment

Let’s look at a fictitious situation. A problem-solving team has a recommendation turned down by management after months of hard work and much internal wrangling with the data to determine the root cause of the problem and formulate a solution.

The empowered and uber-engaged team spent months utilizing both work and personal time, enthusiastically battling their own biases and predispositions to arrive at an informed consensus. Using data and not opinions, they determined the most likely root causes and the most promising solution set to address the causes. They even calculated a probable return on the investment worthy of executive management’s attention and praise.

The empowered work team engaged with many others – the engineers and all of the other downstream operations organizations in an effort to ensure that all appropriate stakeholders were represented and also engaged in this empowerment. All were fully engaged – but then not so empowered. Hmm.

Middle management sat patiently on the sidelines, ready to support but not disempower the team. It was as “blue sky” an occurrence as anyone on the team could have wildly envisioned. It seemed that the poster slogans were true. Quality was up to them. Empowerment was the path of the enlightened. Engaged people were more fulfilled at the workplace.

A formal presentation was painstakingly prepared by all team members and no one interrupted or otherwise dis-empowered them or disengaged them. The presentation was practiced to perfection with much guidance and feedback provided by the engaged and enthusiastic and empowered team members to each other – using all the new interpersonal skills learned in the classroom and between them in informal learning. Cross-organizational bonds were formed that would transcend the heat of the future moments when the inevitable crises struck. The big day finally arrived.

Management’s response seemed unexplainably cool during the smooth presentation. The proposal for spending $350,000.00 in capital upgrades over a three-month period, for a calculated return of $3.5 million within 12 months, did not seem to excite the executive steering team.

Management offered faint praise for a project and presentation that were obviously well done. Then they moved on to the next opportunity presentation.

The final word came down days later. No investment was to be made and no further explanation was offered. The team was stunned.

What the…!?!

Talk about DIS-engagement and DIS-respect!!!


What management knew, but couldn’t share, was proprietary information regarding the planned discontinuance of the existing product. New production capacity is being secretly geared up for a radically new replacement product. The new product is expected to take the market by storm and set the competition back three years. With the anticipated jump on the competition, the payback period is expected to be short and the cash flow projections for four years out would allow for funding many more business opportunities. But right now it’s all a highly proprietary secret.

Management can’t share information it knows because it would not be consistent with their legal and fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders of the company. If they shared their strategic product plan with the workers, that would increase the chance of an information leak to the competition. If the competition got wind of the plans in the early developmental stages, all the advantages that could be gained by being first to the market with the new product will be lost. The investment payback period would be extended, and there could be a significant loss in the potential growth of shareholder value. Management cannot risk those results.

And, therefore, management risked upsetting the newly empowered and very engaged employees and being the object of their wrath. Employees might reach the conclusion that management has again lied to and deceived them or that their management is incompetent or politically motivated. All their hard work, conflict resolution, and consensus-building seem for naught; a wasted effort, a frustrating experience. The employees have learned a lesson that they will remember. And when asked to approach another problem or opportunity, they will do so much less willingly and much less enthusiastically, much less engaged, much less empowered.

Some employees may be so upset by the apparent deception that they all suffered that they will retaliate and try to sabotage future attempts to initiate improvements – deliberately or inadvertently via their new attitudes.

My 1993 Published Article

Empowerment is Work – Not Magic – JQ&P 1993 – 6 page PDF – published in the Journal for Quality and Participation in September 1993 – originally titled Empowerment as a Process.

Past Posts on This

One comment on “Command & Control & Empowerment

  1. Pingback: C&C&E: You Can’t Always Fix What You Want* | EPPIC - Pursuing Performance

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