Why Almost Everything Should Be Refactored Out Of Central Control

Decentralisation in Business
Organisational Innovation
Management Strategies
Autonomous Teams
Corporate Culture Transformation
by Iwein Fuld
February 27, 2024

Central control is dangerous. Decentralisation is hard and counterintuitive. Still, decentralisation is essential for the survival of any organisation at scale. In this article, we unravel the arguments for central control and suggest how to decentralise without failing. 

I enjoy reading about malicious compliance. The retaliation of common workers against unhelpful rules and orders from on high is sweet. A great example is the story of a bike courier who booked 6 hours of overtime because of a central control policy that required them to park their bike in its designated spot after each shift. This act of defiance not only exposed the inefficiency of central control but also showcased the power of individual autonomy and decision-making. It is these instances that highlight the need for decentralisation, where trust is placed in the hands of those closest to the action, allowing for faster and more effective decision-making processes. 

The original post is short enough to include here.


So after every shift we have to park the bikes in the garage. Technically there are designated spots in the garage for each individual bike. But since people don't finish their shifts and come back in the exact time sequence that the bikes have to be parked in, in practice nobody actually parks the bikes in their "correct" spot. The first person back just parks at the back even if their bike is supposed to be parked further up front, and the next person to return parks in front of the first parked bike, and so on.

The shift managers know about it and are cool with it. They work in the garage so they understand. But new Karen from corporate who just joined a couple days ago did not. She came in suddenly at the end of one day to "check things out" and found that my bike was parked at the very front. I had finished last that day because I had a super long shift. But Karen called me immediately and chewed me out on the phone and essentially told me in no pleasant terms ["Your bike has to be parked correctly in the garage, and if you need to take out other bikes to park yours, you have to park them back correctly too."].

I called my shift manager right after and informed him. He said something like, "well, technically she is right so we can't oppose her directly. I suggest you just ignore her. I doubt she will be back to check."

Well, my petty ass did not want to let Karen have this win over me. So I did exactly what she told me to do. I waited a couple more days until I got another mega shift. I arrived early to claim the bike that was technically designated to be parked at the very back. You can already see where this is going. After finishing my route, I specifically drove back slowly to make sure I would be the last one back.

Once back, I took out every single bike in the garage by myself. Then I parked my bike and took my sweet time making sure it was parked perfectly centrally in between the lines as well, not just lengthwise. You can see how that would take a long time since the bikes work like semi trucks in movement mechanism. So it took me damn near 10 mins to take care of one bike.

I had only 59 more to go. I meticulously parked every single bike at their correct spots until the dead of the night that day. My shift manager caught on to my plan soon and chose to turn a blind eye since I was technically following orders from higher ups.

I booked 6 hours of overtime that day before I clocked out and was scheduled for a whole lot of payment. Next morning accounts suddenly call me to ask if I had forgotten to clock out and come back later to do it because it showed that I clocked out ~6 hours later than everyone else.

I told them exactly what happened and suggested that they watch the security camera feed inside the garage to make sure that I was actually working the entire time. They eventually folded and told me to not do it again. I politely declined and said that I will do the same thing again the next day because those were my orders. They said, "our managerial team will contact you with updated instructions soon. Follow those instructions." I said okay.

I received a slack message from Karen later that day before starting my shift saying I should follow my shift manager's directions to park my bike from now.

So I did the exact same thing again that day because the shift manager did say that technically the bikes were supposed to be parked in their designated spots. Had the same conversation next morning with accounts and received another Slack message from Karen saying I should park my bike according to what made sense realistically.

I'm still gloating over my W over corporate Karen to this day.

The original post contains a few helpful suggestions, among which one commenter explains that it realistically makes sense to do as you're told. And that is correct. In a centralised organisation, workers take the least risk of being fired if they simply follow the written policy and make a request for it to be changed only if they absolutely have to. Having worked for several large companies and government organisations and being fired multiple times for improving processes without being asked, I can confirm that it actually works like that.

This behaviour is obviously not great as you can see from the example, and if you have time to kill, you can find many more examples in https://www.reddit.com/r/MaliciousCompliance/. I also recommend /R/PettyRevenge for some gems of corporate bullshit that are often related to centralised control. But centralised control doesn't evolve directly from such examples of course. Lets list some common arguments for centralised control first: 

  • Efficiency and Standardization: Centralised control allows for streamlined decision-making processes and the establishment of standardised procedures across an organisation. This helps to eliminate duplication of efforts, reduces confusion, and ensures consistent quality in operations.

  • Resource Allocation: With centralised control, resources such as budget, personnel, and technology can be allocated more effectively. Decision-makers have a holistic view of the organisation's needs and can make informed choices to optimise resource allocation for maximum impact.

  • Consistency: With centralised control, there is a higher likelihood of consistent implementation of policies and procedures across different departments or branches, ensuring uniformity in operations. 

  • Risk management: Centralised control enables better risk assessment and mitigation strategies as decision-making power rests with a central authority that can analyse potential risks holistically.

Now let's counter those arguments:

  • Efficiency and Standardization: Businesses should be creative in solving problems effectively for their clients. Efficiency and Standardization often work directly against this by solving not exactly the right problem faster. For repetitive work, it is much better to have several automations that compete so teams or individual workers can learn which tool makes them most effective in working towards shared goals. Abstractions and automation can help a lot, but procedures and rules should be kept to a minimum.

  • Resource Allocation: The best systems for resource allocation (for example natural ecosystems, or children playing in a playground) are much more effective at effectively allocating all resources. The reason for this is easily understood by the metaphor of water. Water doesn't flow uphill. So if a top-down management decision is made that requires water to flow uphill, it might meet no resistance from subordinates, but it will most certainly not make the laws of physics go away. When we're right there, and can see the way the water is actually flowing, we can more sensibly change its direction. If –and this is the crux– we have the mandate to do so.

  • Consistency: A better way to achieve consistency is to focus on retention of the best people in your business, and encourage and empower people to move around. Even though eXtremeProgramming unfortunately defined this rule in a directive manner, the benefits of people moving from team to team are clearly worded and still relevant, even if the rule is almost 30 years old. Where people move next should be guided by the locals, not directed by a dictator far away. Obviously, right?

  • Risk management: risks are often felt first by those that could mitigate them best. If they are not, then this is an organisational design flaw that you should fix. The most blunt and least effective fix would be to take the autonomy to deal with risks away from those that know how to deal with it. The most elegant fix is to make the most likely mitigators also those that feel the problem most when the risk materialises. Put each UX-er on the helpdesk for half a day per week, and you'll see the useability of your user interfaces skyrocket. You might even see that problems become solved in a more holistic way as the people that build the solutions develop real empathy for the end users.

To me, all problems that centralised control tries to solve are solvable in a more elegant way in a decentralised system. Even our own body is decentralised in some profound ways. I would shudder at the thought that I would need to actively direct my breathing, heartbeat, and the intricate processes of my digestive system. Happy to just be writing this article, thank you very much ':)

The idea that any organisation is top down controllable is in my opinion at least simplistic, and at worst toxic. But apart from effectiveness, to me the more important argument is happiness and health. Life is just way more fun with free actors interacting with consent. When I work with people that are empowered to give feedback and design their own roles and responsibilities, I see much more happiness, motivation, and less burnout. This is an ecosystem I want to dwell in, and that's why I will help it succeed.