Decentralized Governance ... in the Military?

Humans are social animals whose brains have evolved to support highly-complex social interactions. These interactions were more easily managed when we lived in smaller hunter-gatherer groups. Anthropologists even suggest that our brains are of a size to handle close social relationships in groups that are roughly the size of a military company (100-250 people, with a commonly-used value of 150). This concept is known as Dunbar’s number.

As civilization has evolved, humans have increasingly aggregated in complex organizations that outgrew tribes, culminating in the nation-states that make up today’s world. The success of nation-states as organizational structures has led some to believe that more and more top-down control is needed to deal with the growing complexity of the world we live in.

An alternative view, instead, is that the complex world we live in requires a great deal of widely-dispersed transactional low-level trust. Our employer transfers money to our bank account that we withdraw at will. Excellent food choices magically appear at our grocery stores, giving us a wide choice of variety, price, and quality. The energy we need for our homes and transportation is there at the flip of a switch or activation of a gasoline pump. We rarely think about how these things got there.

One of the most complex and well-functioning organizations that has been studied by organizational theorists is that employed on US naval aircraft carriers. The characteristics of aircraft carrier organizations are well documented in an interesting study published in 1987 entitled: The Self-Designing High-Reliability Organization: Aircraft Carrier Flight Operations at Sea.

On the face of it, organizing a modern aircraft carrier has so very many things going against it. There are thousands of personnel carrying out mission-critical tasks, many of which could result in death or injury if done incorrectly. Add to that the high level of turnover and the diversity of tasks required on a carrier, and one might conclude it was an impossible organization to manage. But it’s not. This organization is remarkably successful for a few key reasons. 

  • Dispersed authority and responsibility. Though there is a formal top-down chain of command, individual officers and sailors have a high degree of authority over their individual areas of responsibility. From the above study:

Even the lowest rating on the deck has not only the authority but the obligation to suspend flight operations immediately, under the proper circumstances, without first clearing it with superiors. Although his judgment may later be reviewed or even criticized, he will not be penalized for being wrong and will often be publicly congratulated if he is right.

  • High turnover. Paradoxically, what would appear to be a negative turns out to be a positive. Moving personnel from position to position allows a great deal of flexibility, especially under adverse conditions. Naval personnel are purposefully assigned to multiple job classifications, usually on multiple ship assignments. This creates the ability of the organization to respond to crises or suddenly unavailable specialties with a minimum of disruption and a maximum of efficiency.
  • Redundancy. Redundancy allows for critical units and components to continue to function in ways that create a high-reliability organization. Although physical redundancy is important, so is the ability of an organization to adapt under stress. Most of the personnel on carriers are familiar with several tasks and can execute them in an emergency.

This is a fantastic model for how complex societies can, and in reality do, operate. Our most truly free commercial markets certainly embrace these characteristics.

One of the beauties of our federalist system’s constitutional bias toward the lowest levels of government and individual authority is that this model is already built in. Unfortunately, the increased authority that has been relinquished to centralized governance has meant that we too often look to top-down command-and-control approaches to solve our problems. This was a mistake. 

As we do so, centralized modes of governance erode society’s ability to deal with the complex mission-critical issues not too dissimilar from those faced on aircraft carriers. The temptation of top-down structures is their supposed efficiency. Redundancy seemingly means wasted resources. Turnover seemingly means poorly-trained workers. And dispersed authority seemingly means lack of control and substandard outcomes.

US aircraft carriers found just the opposite! Think about it.

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