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Think Like an Octopus : The Case for Decentralised Decision-Making
Embracing the Power of Decentralized Decision-Making: Lessons from Robotics and Octopuses
In the world of business, there's often a tug of war between centralized and decentralized decision-making. The traditional model of top-down management may seem the safest, but is it truly the most efficient and innovative? Today, I want to share an intriguing story that might make you reconsider.
In the early 70s, MIT was home to an experiment that continues to resonate in today's business world. This experiment involved two small robots named Attila and Genghis. While they may not have been as fearsome as their namesakes, these robots provided invaluable insights into the power of decentralized decision-making.
Attila was designed with a centralized 'brain' that communicated with each of its 'legs.' On the other hand, Genghis had 'brains' and sensors in each leg, lacking a central brain. Each of its legs had an independent objective: to learn how to walk and maintain stability.
On the surface, Attila seemed to have the upper hand. Its centralized system could quickly navigate through a maze, while Genghis kept tripping and falling. However, over time, Genghis learned from its mistakes, adjusted, and began to complete the maze much faster than Attila. When the maze was altered, Attila was back at square one, while Genghis adapted seamlessly to the change.
This experiment is a metaphor for how teams can operate. The Attila model represents a top-down hierarchy where all decisions are made by a central 'brain,' while the Genghis model represents a decentralized team where each member has the autonomy to make decisions.
But the robots aren't our only source of inspiration. Look to nature, and you'll find the octopus, a creature that thrives thanks to its decentralized decision-making process. Like Genghis, each of an octopus's legs has its own 'brain' and can operate independently. This allows for a fluid, efficient style of movement that a centralized system could never achieve.
So, what can executive business leaders learn from robots and octopuses? Here are five takeaways:
Decentralization fosters innovation: Just as Genghis mastered the maze by learning from its mistakes, teams can innovate and adapt when given the freedom to experiment.
Patience pays off: It may take time for a decentralized team to find its rhythm, but the resulting efficiency and adaptability are worth it.
Don't rescue, enable: Instead of stepping in whenever there's a problem, empower your team to find solutions. This will build resilience and problem-solving skills.
Communication is key: In a decentralized team, everyone should be talking to each other, not just to a central authority figure.
Set the stage, then step back: As a leader, your role should be to create an environment where your team can thrive, then allow them to do their best work
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