In Chapter 8 of Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink recalls an anecdote where his Navy SEAL unit had to engage with enemy snipers. They dealt with this situation by utilizing a new method of managing groups. SEAL leaders learned through training that a single leader cannot micromanage a large group; instead, the organization must be divided into smaller teams each with their own leader. The group was structured as a hierarchy, where a leader on a particular level only had to deal with subordinates one level below. There were other aspects of the way management was conducted that led to the unit’s success.
The principle of Decentralized Command outlines the roles and responsibilities of members on all levels of an organization. The commander on top is responsible for establishing the overall goal of a mission, known as the Commander’s Intent, and making sure the Commander’s Intent is understood by leaders at all levels. Commanders need to step back and focus on the bigger picture, and avoid being distracted by the minutia. Subordinate leaders are in charge of their smaller teams and are expected to make decisions on the frontlines. Subordinates must be made confident that senior leaders will support their decisions as long as they are intended to advance the mission, even if they do not result in the best outcome. Every leader works and leads separately, but in a unified way that contributes to the overall mission.
In previous jobs I’ve worked in organizations that were either too small to go beyond two levels of leadership, or too opaque to know what went on beyond my immediate team. Epsilon is the first company where I see Decentralized Command at play. My chain of responsibility can be described as such: the SVP of R&D who manages of the entire PeopleCloud suite of products, the SVP of Product Engineering in charge of a specific app called Discovery, the Director of Engineering responsible for the Audience section of the app, followed by myself on the ground level. There’s a singular force driving the entire organization, but individual teams operate with a certain level of autonomy.
On the top, the SVP of R&D conducts meetings quarterly to provide objectives for each product, such as a new feature or more stability. Then, our SVP of Product Engineering provides further detail into these initiatives. Lastly, our Director of Engineering comes up with a sprint-by-sprint plan of work and provides guidance on how tickets can be tackled on the code level. The leaders on each level must act in accordance with the objectives provided from up above, but they do have freedom on how to reach those goals once they receive them.
Leading an organization of hundreds of people may be appear to be a daunting task, but it can be more manageable if you structure your group correctly. Establish a hierarchy of command, let everyone know what the high-level mission is, and get each team to decide how to get the job done.