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Breaking Free From Top-Down Tyranny: Embracing 'Sense and Respond' Leadership The 'Sensing and Responding' approach saves time and grants greater freedom to employees to innovate and experiment, crucial in a constantly changing business scenario. This approach breaks from traditional corporate hierarchies.

By Gagan Singla

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Some continue to hold on to the belief that an organization would disintegrate into chaos without a top-down leadership approach. This belief has its roots in the way traditional businesses used to be run. Employees down the line were expected to follow orders without questioning their rationale. Sounds quite similar to the way the military used to operate in conventional forms of warfare.

This brings back Tennyson's "Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to question why, Theirs but to do and die," to memory. The poet had written these lines in memory of those 600-odd British cavalrymen killed in a mindless charge against a strong Russian opposition in the Crimean War.

Even the way the military thinks has changed today. Personnel down the ranks are often encouraged to give their opinions about how a certain situation is to be tackled in a most effective manner. After all, nothing is conventional any longer. Neither war, nor business.

In today's fast-paced, rapidly changing business environment where flexibility and responsiveness are the key, top-down leadership could be the recipe to disaster. The top management should no longer set direction or vision of a company. Top-down management limits creativity and slows down problem-solving. Ultimately, overall team morale is impacted and they "Ride into the Valley of Death" as did the 600 horsemen in Tennyson's 'Charge of the Light Brigade.'

Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) use a blend of management styles, including Ethnocentrism, Polycentrism, and Geocentrism. Ethnocentrism centralizes decision-making at headquarters, similar to a military approach where orders from the top are to be followed. Polycentrism focuses on local solutions for local issues, respecting foreign market nuances. Geocentrism combines elements of both.

However, MNCs are not truly democratic. Even in Polycentrism, they remain rigid in their overall vision while allowing some flexibility in execution. In contrast, Consumer Internet Companies are expected to factor in customer needs and value inputs from on-ground managers because, getting customers to keep coming back on their platforms forms the epicenter of their business and service model.

Top-down management runs a heavy risk of failure. There are several process problems that are only visible at the lower level. If the top management refuses to invite feedback from team members, projects are likely to get delayed, resulting in losses. Another area that suffers is inter-departmental collaboration. Ideally, broader objectives should be set by the top management while leaving Key Results (KRs) to teams and individuals.

This can only happen when one considers an organization to be a living organism. The business environment is getting more complex by the day and companies need to adapt to change just as a living organism does. How does the brain learn? For effective learning and intelligence gathering, greater interconnections are required between neurons. When faced with a threat, the eyes and ears have to coordinate with the limbs for effective action. Similarly, the eyes and ears must spot opportunities and coordinate with the limbs to take full advantage.

After all, the brain can only act if it receives messages through neurons. And the brain's performance will only be effective so long as there is interconnectivity between the neurons. It's the same for any organization. Collective organizational intelligence and its speed of learning is directly proportional to the interconnections between members of the group as well as their relations with outsiders.

Take a car manufacturer for instance. It is the sales team on the ground that will get the first indication if business is gradually moving away to the closest competitor as its affordable hatchback offers more space in the boot. What should ideally follow is intelligent discussion on how to woo back customers. Apart from those in sales and marketing, there need to be members from the design and production teams as well as those from the finance department. The top management needs to be in the loop but should allow the others to work out a solution. After all, that is why they are there in the first place.

That is exactly how a living organism would work. A long-distance runner would adjust his pace to overtake his competitor while interacting with the lungs to reserve enough power for the final burst of speed. The brain will ensure proper coordination based on the signals it receives.

While transparency is the key here, trust is crucial. Assessments made at the bottom rung have to be shared with those above without fear of being reprimanded. Just as those on top will have to trust the judgement of subordinates.

Returning to the example of the car manufacturer. An effective management will have to sense the demand of the customer based on what the sales team reports and respond accordingly. It will have to empower teams to work out solutions which may include work on a new design that not only provides the luggage space customers demand but a better entertainment system for long drives.

The 'Sensing and Responding' approach saves time and grants greater freedom to employees to innovate and experiment, crucial in a constantly changing business scenario. This approach breaks from traditional corporate hierarchies. Unlike military and MNC cultures, it empowers employees to independently make decisions, promoting agility in a rapidly changing business environment. This decentralized model fosters innovation, allowing quick responses to market shifts, showcasing a cultural shift toward individual ownership and adaptability. In challenging situations, employees' adept decision-making not only contributes to their personal growth but also becomes a driving force for client satisfaction and overall organizational advancement, demonstrating the power and efficacy of the 'Sensing and Responding' model.

While top-down management did have certain advantages in the past, things have changed. With organizations employing professionally skilled people at all levels, it should be left to them to decide how to operate for best results. Greater coordination between departments need to be encouraged and trust is crucial. After all, no sailor in the right frame of mind would want to sink a ship while he is on board.

Gagan Singla

Managing Director, blinkX, an initiative by JM Financial.

Gagan Singla is a Managing Director at BlinkX, a next-gen fintech started by JM Financial. Gagan has worked in various roles across multiple organizations, including HDFC Group, PwC UK, Deloitte US, IIFL, Angel One/Broking, Simplilearn US, Quikr,and Hughes. A Computer Science graduate from IIT Delhi and an MBA from IIM, Gagan has applied his expertise in analytics, data science, digital marketing, product management, and new-age technology to deliver multiplier business growth. 
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