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Are will still a nation of decision-makers?
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Forsyth County News
Many military historians have drawn parallels between the decision processes within the German and U.S. armies during World War II, concluding that the latter was a substantial factor in our success. In both cases, major decisions were made at the top and were then transmitted down through the chain of command. It is what happened in the middle and the bottom that differentiated the two.

The German structure was rigid, with relatively little room for deviation. U.S. and allied troops soon learned that breaking that chain of command (e.g. killing an officer) often led to major disruption as those below, waiting for orders, became rudderless boats in a storm. The U.S. pattern turned out to be quite different. If something happened to the captain (and his orders), the lieutenant stepped in to take command. If the lieutenant was gone, the sergeant made what he felt to be appropriate decisions, and so forth. In essence, individuals felt empowered to take command and create new micro-command structures when the formal command structure failed. The decision-making pattern often changed according to local circumstances.

We find something similar in U.S. industry. Virtually all of the job creation experienced by the economy over the last few decades came from small, entrepreneurial firms. The closeness to the market, the ability to move with great flexibility and the stimulation of creative ideas has made small business the driving force. Many of those entrepreneurs are “refugees” from the more stultifying environment in large corporations where they felt their ideas would not be heard. (It’s ironic, however, that it was mainly the actions of large corporations which brought the growth to a halt over the past two years and created the recession from which, hopefully, we are now recovering.)

Large organizations, be they military or civilian, have major communication challenges. Keeping people excited about goals and objectives, motivating creative actions and fostering risk-taking is not easy in an environment often dominated by polices aimed at uniformity, where highly-structured chains of command predominate.

I recently completed an exercise which I found extremely interesting in this context. It is dangerous to draw broad conclusions from a small sample, but I thought this was worth a few moments of thought. The task was delivering small posters to all of the businesses and offices in the community relating a major activity that was about to be launched to address important elements in the community’s future -- issues of great importance to these organizations. The posters announced the forthcoming effort with the intent of building interest and increasing the participation rate. Each of the establishments was asked to prominently display one or more of these posters. Attempts were made, through multiple channels, to reach these organizations to let them know what was about to take place.

Probably the most important observation was how difficult it is to communicate effectively, even within a small community (multiply this by a factor of 50,000 times if you want to think in national terms). Reaching the primary decision makers was tough enough. But the assumption, even in small organizations, that the message would be passed on to employees, proved to be extravagantly optimistic. Advance notice had but a small impact.

The reception received was different. In small independent entities, if the key decision-maker was there (usually the owner), the result was quick and positive -- i.e. consistent with the role that small entrepreneurs have played within the nation as a whole. The idea was embraced by virtually all, a quick decision was made, and one left with a sense of accomplishment, with the poster already prominently displayed.

But the story was different when that key individual was absent. A few daring employees took the initiative to display the posters and ask permission later. Most felt that they did not have the authority to make any decision in the matter. Almost all took one or more copies posters with the promise that they would talk to the owner. A return check of several of these businesses, several days later showed: a) no posters displayed; b) the message had never been transmitted to the owner; and c) the posters that were left there two days before could not be found. Interestingly, in most cases, the owners expressed puzzlement.

In establishments owned by large corporations, the situation was even more different. Here, invariably, the managers quoted “company policy” prohibiting such displays. They felt they had no discretion to evaluate the situation and decide what would be best, in the context of the community in which they operated. It may have been an excuse not to be bothered or have to face a sticky dilemma (e.g. permit one and you have to permit all). But the blanket response clearly moved any decision-making authority out of the local scene and shifted it to corporate headquarters, thousands of miles away.

Finally, the most difficult situation arose within a large corporation where several levels of management are present, but corporate policies, also formulated many miles away, still predominate. Local management was supportive, but after five days, the decision was finally made to follow corporate guidelines and not to “participate.” All of this over a decision as to whether or not to display a poster! Extrapolate these patterns to truly meaningful matters, and see what you get -- perhaps this partially explains why Congress is as dysfunctional as it is today.

In summary, the large corporate structure was clearly the most unable to deal with a local situation and to act in any sort of timely basis. The local entrepreneur was the quickest to respond and the most likely to do so on the basis of local conditions. But it was also clear that unless employees are informed and empowered to take action, much of the flexibility and decision-making power of the small enterprise can be lost.

There is always danger in drawing conclusions from a small sample, but I believe there is food for thought here. This nation, in the last several years, has lostabout eight million jobs. They will be restored when confidence in the future is rebuilt and when businesses are able to harness the creativity and initiative of all their employees. Large corporations have a special problem and need to make heroic efforts to overcome bureaucratic processes. But small businesses need to learn as well -- how to communicate better and utilize the initiative and energy of all their employees.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at