What is a C-Suite?
It's the place senior managers gather to deliberate.
It's the place where the most pressing decisions are made.
What's the metaphor that best captures the C-suite? Is it the bridge of the ship where pilots and "captains" gather intelligence and issue orders. Is it a conning tower, the place from which the corporation can examine the horizon, looking for opportunity and danger? Is it a kind of court room, where grave men and women gather to deliberate. Is it a citadel, the place where beleagured managers retreat for refuge from all those "stake holders," people not just holding stakes but brandishing them?
All of these metaphors are apt. But how's this for perfection?
All of the data from all the different sensors in the aircraft are fused. The F-22 has one big display in the middle of the cockpit, so you are kind of sitting in the middle of that display, and all of the sensors run on their own. And tracks show up all around you, 360 degrees, and all of it in color. So the red guys are bad, the green guys are good, and the yellow guys–we don't know who the yellow guys are yet. So without the pilot doing anything, you have this 360-degree picture of the battle space around you. With the F-15, you might be able to achieve this level of awareness. (Corcoran as quoted in Bowden)
Bowden offers a wonderful review of the F-22 in the March Atlantic. This is a plane surrounded by controversy, and there are those who wonder whether the F-15 isn't plenty. Bowmen begs to differ. The difference between the F-15 and the F-22, he says, is the difference between the earliest personal computers, the ones you controlled with written commands, and the new ones, the ones that respond to "point and click."
This too is metaphorically useful. The current C-Suite is cumbersome in just the manner of these early computers. What is called for are streams of information that are so beautifully organized that their significance is visible at a glimpse. What we want is a visual array identifing opportunities and threats in real time, where to see the data is to know how to act upon the data. What we have instead is a place where the data is flawed, too often forced through the sieve called a spreadsheet, and the levers of action are limited and flawed.
So a thoroughgoing retrofit is called for. The C-Suite can not serve the corporation in its present condition. It is yesterday's technology. I wonder if someone somewhere is working on this. It is a daunting challenge. Indeed, it's a much larger intellectual and technical challenge than anything mastered by the F-22. The data streams that we must feed into the 360 C-suite are many and various. Much of what we need to know, especially the cultural matters, don't have metrics representing them. And the decisions we must make are not so straightforward as chasing down the enemy.
[Mixed metaphor advisory!]
The good manager is a little like LeBron James, keeping several possible outcomes in his or her head at once. Indeed, the American corporation is so fantastically complicated and it must be primed for so many, radically different outcomes, that the good manager must keep several models of the same corporation in mind. This model must be fitted with a variety of opposing assumptions and the ability to leap between alternatives. (It's enough to make an airman's head spin.)
Good luck, then, getting everything on a single screen. Good luck finding all but only the right data streams. Good luck finding the levers that will operate on the world with exactly the right interventions in exactly the right moment and exactly the right place.
In my dream world, this is a job for the Santa Fe Institute. Smart people in the desert. Don't we know that this is a very good way to solve big problems?
Bowden, Mark. 2009. The Last Ace. The Atlantic. March. p. 67.
I love the metaphore, but don’t we need to consider the “pilot” part of the equation. Don’t we need people in the C-suite who have the skills necessary to take that multi-aspect screen of information and interpret, react, etc. with reflex speed? If the F-15 is the analog of computers that responded to “code’ and the F-22 is the “point and click” – our organizations need to shift to synthesis-capable folks piloting, and not rely on coders swapping old solutions in and out.
There are several companies offering these so-called “dashboard systems” along lines in the direction you describe. BMA Group, the company of my former colleague Neill Haine, in Australia, is one I would recommend:
As I’m sure you realize, a key challenge is making such systems future-proof. It is usually straightforward technically to collect, clean, assemble, analyze and display all the data needed to make yesterday’s decisions correctly, but a whole lot more difficult to do so for tomorrow’s decisions! So these systems are more common, and have more value, in tactical situations than in strategic ones — ie, in situations where the nature of decision-making, the available decision-options, and the necessary supporting data, do not change much from one decision occasion to the next, or change only in predictable ways.
If I may be permitted a second comment! You say:
“In my dream world, this is a job for the Santa Fe Institute. Smart people in the desert. Don’t we know that this is a very good way to solve big problems?”
With respect, I would say this is precisely what we DON’T want! The people designing these systems need to get their hands and knees dirty, being (or becoming) very familiar with the actual decisions to be made, the actual environments in which the supporting data is generated, and the actual environments where the consequences of decisions take place — ie, in the middle of the factory floor or the suburban retail outlet, not in the rarified air of isolated research communities. Downtown Shanghai or Mumbai or the East Village, not Santa Fe.
If we ever get to the point “where to see the data is to know how to act upon the data” we won’t need the managers at all, at least not highly-paid senior types. All actions of this type could be implemented by software or by lower-level employees. Soon, unmanned and remotely piloted vehicles will take F-22 style data and use it to operate without moment-b-moment pilot control.
It is a fascinating question whether this kind of automation of top executive decisions might be possible any time soon. Basically, we’re talking about developing a coherent and stable theory of an individual firm’s performance as a function of known environmental factors and specific choices. I’m personally doubtful, but the vision in this post might turn out to be right in the end. Then the top executives would have to go meta and become programmers and designers of the data stream and decision software.
Great post. I might suggest we let go of metaphors which are just one step beyond the cult of personality (the cult of the c-suite, the cult of mission control?) and embrace the network, the wisdom of the crowd (with its real principles, not superficial meaning) and manage our companies more like W. L. Gore. Check out Hamel’s The Future of Management for a nice critique of the C-Suite style of management and thinking about how we might change our perception and ideas of management and decision-making.