June 18, 2013

Centralized and distributed command

"Why in hell can't the Army do it if the Marines can. 
 They are the same kind of men; why can't they be like Marines?"
Gen. John J. Pershing

The special forces of different military organizations and the US Marine Corps, in particular, have been the darlings of the Agile software development movement. During the informal discussions at the agile conferences and seminars the marines are mentioned invariably as an example for software development teams. And for good reason that is. The Marines are trained to operate independently in uncertain, complex situations, so they are the ideal model of self-organizing teams. They are the first to be deployed in conflicts or humanitarian crises and are the ones responsible for the high profile and highly dangerous operations run in hostile territories.

With so many good arguments for being like the marines, why aren't the armies more like the marines? This post includes a naive (I have no military training) attempt to answer the question.

First, the army is nowadays more like the marines. The professional army units of today are trained to operate in uncertain, complex situations. Comparing a professional military group, like the marines, with conscription soldiers who go through limited training is not a fair comparison.

Second, the job of other branches of the armed forces is of a different nature than the marines'. The marines are a lightweight force, designed to act like a spearhead in case of conflict. Apart from fighting the enemy, the task of the army, navy or the air forces is to move large number of people and amount of resources from point A to point B, over land, sea or air and prevent the enemy from doing the same. The people and equipment have to arrive at the same place and at the same time, otherwise they will be an easy target for the enemy.

In the battle of Normandy the Allies deployed more than 150 000 troops in two days. In the Gulf War the US alone sent more than 500 000 soldiers and the campaign to liberate Kuwait included more than 150 000 soldiers and 1500 tanks. The synchronized deployment of large groups of people looks like the natural candidate for centralized command structures. The solution needs to be coherent across the whole group and that is easier to ensure with a centralized plan. Central planning has made the architecture of Paris more coherent that the organically grown Rome. Working for a company that resulted from several mergers and acquisitions, I could see first hand how much effort is required in order to integrate different IT solutions and cultures into one business. Local coherence does not translate into global coherence. While centralized command may give you global coherence, it does not guarantee success. GalipoliThe Charge of the Light Brigade or the Battle of the Somme are atrocious example of catastrophic failures of centralized command structures. A centralized command structure is as good as the people who are in the command positions.

Is there an alternative to centralized command, when organizing large groups of people? The March on Washington used a combination of centralized and distributed command structure to bring more than 200 000 people to Washington DC in 1963. 1989 Eastern Europe revolutions and the recent Arab Spring are examples of loosely coupled structures that organized massive protests. Ideas seem to be a powerful catalyst for human cohesion. In all these examples, however, the distributed structures have disintegrated as soon as the immediate goal had been achieved. The time needed to achieve a common, coherent solution seems to be longer for distributed organizations. Organizing an event like the March on Washington would be a walk in the park for a military organization, although the result might not be as inspirational as the original.

The tension between centralized and distributed control has been constantly present in the history of government. Although human societies have experienced both centralized and decentralized forms of government for millennia, the discussion about which form is better or what is a good balance continues to our days. Some activities are better handled in a central way (e.g. defining air corridors) while others are better handled at local level (e.g. what type of flowers to plant in a park). To complicate matters, in domains like the health system the right balance is still under heavy debate.

Organizing activities that involve large groups of people is a problem that needs to be solved in many software development organizations. The debate over centralized vs. distributed management has been split many times over ideological lines: "centralized is good, distributed is bad" or vice-versa. The examples from other human areas show that both approaches have their applications. It requires experimentation and rather frequent changes in order to find the right place and balance for one or the other and to find the right people who can drive such a dynamic structure. However, experiments with command structures have a powerful obstacle to overcome: once people get into a position of power they tend to consolidate their position and try to extend their power, rather than explore paths that could diminish it, even temporarily.