Communication and Power

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I recently read an article about an email with the subject, “Communication within Tesla” from Elon Musk to the entire workforce at Tesla. I found the email interesting, but also dangerous – dangerous for Tesla. Mr. Musk’s email is, apparently, aimed at eliminating communication bottlenecks (a good thing) by specifically authorizing, “Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company. You can talk to your manager’s manager without his permission, you can talk directly to a VP in another dept, you can talk to me, you can talk to anyone without anyone else’s permission.”

Guy Higgins, Firestorm Principal – Firestorm Colorado

I’ve posted before about communication and how easily the exchange of words can be falsely assumed to be an unambiguous exchange of information and meaning. When that happens, the attempted communication can very easily be counterproductive. Beyond that, Mr. Musk’s email includes a couple of assumptions:

  • Everyone at Tesla shares a completely clear definition of “problem”
  • The purpose of communication is to solve problems. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it is not.
  • Managers want to control communication in order to enhance their personal power or authority. Again, sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it is not.

Mr. Musk goes on to mandate direct communication from anyone to anyone in Tesla (“Moreover, you should consider yourself obligated to do so…”). I appreciate his intent to streamline operations, but I think that, perhaps, he’s not thought this through as completely as he should.

Let’s take a look at why people communicate (I’m assuming that this is all about organizational operations and not a Monday-morning quarterbacking of Sunday’s football games):

  1. To exchange information relative to ongoing operations.
  2. To collaborate and resolve problems at the interface between one person’s work and another person’s work (if the problem exists solely within one person’s work domain, there isn’t a need to communicate outside that domain)
  3. To propose ways to make the organization more effective and/or efficient
  4. To propose new missions or goals for the organization
  5. To request assistance in resolving a problem
  6. To report a problem

Of those six reasons to communicate, only one of them, number 2, could require communication across organizational boundaries (the thing that Mr. Musk is endorsing). The other five reasons seem, to me, to be best handled within the organizational structure, although there are certainly cases where clearly and concisely reported information would benefit the organization if widely published. Mr. Musk’s memo doesn’t address any of those cases and can be read to broadly endorse any communication outside the organizational structure or chain of command. I understand that he’s endorsing that communication to help solve problems, but he doesn’t define problems. I recall a story about the CEO of a large corporation (multi-billion dollar annual revenue) who published a similar email telling his entire workforce that they could bring problems to him – an open-door policy. He eventually cancelled the memo because he began to receive emails recommending that the company remove the lights from vending machines to save electricity and therefore money. In fact, he came to feel “stalked” by the lights-in-the-vending-machine individual who was particularly distressed by what he viewed as a real problem to be resolved at the CEO level (since no one else would).

It seems to me that Mr. Musk is hunting elephants with nuclear weapons. The issue – bottlenecks in solving serious problems (caused by being restricted to chain-of-command communication) – doesn’t require risking the under-cutting of his management hierarchy. So, let me take a look at management hierarchies and why under-cutting them will be a problem.

Let’s look at why there even are managers (I prefer using the term, “leaders,” so I will substitute here):

  1. To establish an organizational strategy and the associated goals – a good leader will not do this unilaterally, but will enlist her direct reports as I’ve previously posted.
  2. To create an atmosphere within which all organizational employees can succeed and achieve their professional and personal goals.
  3. To allocate the resources needed to achieve implement the strategy and achieve the goals.
  4. To obtain and allocate resources necessary to solve problems.
  5. To solve problems that cannot be solved except by the leader (this can be difficult since the temptation is to solve problems that can be solved by the leader’s team).

All of these five general responsibilities require communication (the clear, concise exchange of meaning/intent). Therefore, it makes enormous sense to communicate within the chain of command (which Mr. Musk seems to denigrate as inefficient) for items 1, 2, 3, and 5. Item number 4 may very well require communication by the manager’s team/employees outside the chain of command. If so, it also requires parallel communication within the chain of command so that the manager knows and understands the problem and can obtain and allocate those needed resources. By authorizing communication outside his organization’s chain of command, Mr. Musk is risking disrupting the execution of these responsibilities. I will assert that there is a better way to address the problem. Let’s go there now, with a brief historical aside (solving problems without being hamstrung by the chain of command is not a new problem).

Over a century and a half ago, Helmut Graf von Moltke (the elder – not his high strung nephew a mere century ago) developed a professional educational system for the Prussian Army and, in parallel, a precise vocabulary. His intent, which he succeeded in achieving, was to ensure that communication within and outside the chain of command was concise and unambiguous. Everyone in the Prussian Army knew their responsibilities, knew how to communicate situations and knew that solving problems at the lowest practical level was always “the commander’s intent.” That philosophy is, I will boldly assert, completely consistent with my five general leadership responsibilities above. Leaders need situational awareness, but should act on that situational awareness only when item 5 above comes into play – part of that is because, having multiple people reporting to her, she will have a more complete picture across a broader range of authority/responsibility than will her direct reports. By communicating (in precise and well understood terms) within the chain of command to provide situational awareness and, in parallel, outside the chain of command with those most able to collaborate in solving the problem as quickly, efficiently and effectively as possible, von Moltke created an army that understood that problems don’t improve with age and how to resolve problems rapidly.

If Mr. Musk wants to streamline communication, for the purpose of solving problems, within Tesla (or more to the point, if any leader wants to streamline communication), there are needs far beyond a simple email that essentially says, “anyone can and should talk to anyone else about anything.” That risks subverting the chain of command. I agree with Mr. Musk that communication outside the chain of command can be beneficial – but not at the expense of subverting the chain of command. Graf von Moltke solved that problem 150 years ago. Mr. Musk is looking for a new idea to help make Tesla more efficient – perhaps he should read the graf’s old book and implement a more comprehensive approach to communication in problem solving. That approach should, I think, subsume Mr. Musk’s memo and address clarity in communication and an understanding of what a “problem” is – it’s not the lights in the vending machine.

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