Human management

Why Should You Use Workstation Management If A Pivot Is In Your Near Future

I always take a kick watching the control room scenes in Apollo 13, the 1995 film about NASA’s aborted lunar mission. It’s a tense period room with lots of lit cigarettes, old-fashioned coffee mugs, and horn-rimmed glasses. But I particularly like his portrayal of command post management, which I find myself emulating every day as CEO.

The management of command posts is not suitable for all situations, for all companies or for all leaders. It doesn’t always adapt well to large organizations. But three decades and five jobs after learning it as an Air Force search and rescue pilot, I still find reasons to use it. This is our day-to-day management structure in my current company, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company, and it just helped us execute a great pivot at breakneck speed.

There are other organizational management structures, but the two most commonly used are hierarchical and flat.

Hierarchy is Business 101 – layers of junior, senior and executive executives with no more than seven direct reports. Most businesses and organizations use it in one form or another. It’s clear, it’s changing, people are used to it, and for the most part, it works. If you have a lot of employees and have been in business for decades, you probably don’t need to reinvent the management wheel.

Of course, structures can be adapted to needs and circumstances. Matrix management helps some organizations cope with complexity by overlaying functional, project and geographic reporting relationships, although an insightful 1990 HBR piece notes that their success stems more from the “state of mind” than from the structure itself. Dotted relationships abound in the real world, if not always in formal organizational charts. And teams can be used across various organizations, sometimes to create oases of flatness in otherwise hierarchical structures.

As a team-based approach, command post management tends towards flatness, working best for self-managed organizations like C-level teams and NASA mission control. It is an option wherever fast, quality decisions are essential, such as starting a business, managing in a turbulent environment or dealing with a crisis. Fast-paced, knowledge-driven companies where agility is paramount can often do the trick.

However, a command post requires certain conditions to function properly. If your business or situation doesn’t tick these boxes, this might not be the right model for you.

Senior talent and mutual trust

Everyone in the room should be very experienced – a leader in their own right, or at least someone with the soft skills to make decisions, work independently and make a substantial contribution to the direction of the business. And they have to trust each other, so it’s crucial to hire great people and find ways to keep them connected. Although there is a boss, decisions of the command post are often made by consensus. It is only when this is not possible that the flight director or CEO should intervene. If this happens often, something is wrong.

In my experience, this approach encourages the right kind of collaboration and builds mutual trust, also helping an organization retain talented people. When everyone in the room has the seniority and agency to work quickly and decisively, they have a genuine interest in running the business and are more likely to stay, even when the going gets tough. One of my best people is an absolute star who gets calls from headhunters every week. He tells me he’s staying because he likes our science, but also our management atmosphere.

This emphasis on seniority also allows us to hire only a few middle managers. I have 18 reports, but they all run their own show. In large line organizations, middle managers often serve as integrated trainers and supervisors. There is a lot of learning in a command post, but relatively little comes from direct supervision.

Information and systems

Everyone in the room needs the same information for a command post to work. The defense secretary, research scientist or vice president of marketing needs the same information as the CEO in real time, or at least at the same time. This requires a significant investment in systems and careful implementation.

At Mission Control in Houston, they have rows and rows of system consoles and wall-sized information screens. In the west wing, the situation room is full of secure digital communication links, video streams, data streams, sensors and maps. The management of my own company is dispersed internationally; we’ve been working together virtually since 2016. We couldn’t do it without the right communication technology, document management software and technical support. We are all in different places, but we are looking at the same things. As you can imagine, the capacity of this system has served us particularly well during the pandemic.

A clear objective

Finally, everyone in the room needs a clear, common goal. As an Air Force junior search and rescue pilot, my goal was the same as the squadron leader: to find the missing plane. There is no ambiguity about organizational priorities in a battle or fire.

It’s the same in our business. In the critical world of drug development, we recently found ourselves forced to pivot our flagship drug from a market focused on chronic pain to acute pain, which could help reduce postoperative opioid drug use. The pivot will result in shorter clinical trials and faster time to market. We barely slept in the 10 weeks it took to perform our pivot. But we had the right team and the right systems to do it quickly, and we all knew exactly what we were working towards.

A successful business doesn’t always pivot, of course. But even when there is no crisis, our goal is so clear – to get our flagship drug across the finish line – that my main concern is not to get on our own path, introducing mistakes. strategic or unnecessary complications.

This imperative brings me back to Apollo 13, where NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) focuses his all-star team as they go from moon landing to rescue mission. “Let’s work on the problem, people” he says. “Let’s not make matters worse by guessing.” You can minimize unnecessary guesswork and other pitfalls while making fast, high-quality decisions – you just need the right people in the room, knowledgeable, trustworthy, and ready to lead.

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