Why You Should Use Command-Post Management If a Pivot is in Your Near Future

I always get a kick from watching the control-room scenes in Apollo 13, the 1995 film about NASA’s aborted moon mission. It’s a tense period piece with plenty of lit cigarettes, old-school coffee cups and horn-rimmed glasses. But I especially like its portrayal of command-post management, which I find myself emulating every day as a CEO.

Command-post management isn’t for every situation, every company or every leader. It doesn’t always scale well for bigger organizations. But three decades and five jobs after learning it as an air force search and rescue pilot, I keep finding reasons to use it. It’s our everyday management structure at my current company, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical venture, and it’s just helped us execute a big pivot at breakneck speed.

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

Hierarchy is Business 101 stuff– layers of junior, senior and executive management with no more than seven direct reports. Most companies and organizations use it in some form. It’s clear, it scales, people are used to it, and for the most part, it functions. If you have lots of employees and you’ve been doing business for decades, you probably don’t need to reinvent the management wheel.

Of course, structures can be tailored to suit needs and circumstances. Matrix management helps some organizations confront complexity by overlaying functional, project and geography-based reporting relationships, although an insightful 1990 HBR piece notes that their success derives more from “frame of mind” than from the structure per se. Dotted-line relationships abound in the real world, if not always in formal org charts. And teams can be used within a variety of organizations, sometimes to create oases of flatness in otherwise hierarchical structures.

As a team-based approach, command-post management tends toward flatness, working best for self-directed organizations like C-level teams and NASA mission control. It’s an option wherever rapid, high-quality decisions are essential, such as launching a company, managing in a turbulent environment or handling a crisis. Fast-moving knowledge-driven companies, where agility is at a premium, can often fit the bill.

A command post requires certain conditions to function properly, though. If your company or situation doesn’t tick these boxes, it may not be the right model for you.

Senior talent and mutual trust

Everyone in the room needs to be very senior– a leader in their own right, or at least someone with the broad-based skillset to make decisions, work independently and contribute substantially to the company’s direction. And they need to trust one another, so hiring exceptional people and finding ways to keep them connected is crucial. While there is a boss, command-post decisions are often made by consensus. Only when that’s not possible does the flight director or the CEO need to step in. If that happens often, something isn’t right.

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 the agency to work quickly and decisively, they have a real stake in the company’s direction and are more likely to stay, even when the going gets rough. One of my best people is an absolute star who gets headhunter calls every week. He tells me he stays because he likes our science– but also our management vibe.

That 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, hierarchical organizations, middle managers often serve as integral trainers and supervisors. There is plenty of learning at a command post, but relatively little of it 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 marketing VP needs the same information as the CEO in real-time, or at least the same time. This requires significant investment in systems– and careful implementation.

At mission control in Houston, they have rows and rows of systems consoles and wall-sized information displays. In the West Wing, the situation room bristles with secure digital communications links, video feeds, data streams, sensors and maps. My own company leadership is dispersed internationally; we’ve worked together virtually since 2016. We couldn’t do it without the right communications tech, document management software and tech support. We’re all in different places, but we’re looking at the same things. As you might imagine, this system’s capacity has served us particularly well during the pandemic.

A clear goal

Finally, everyone in the room needs a clear, common goal. As a junior pilot in air force search and rescue, my objective was the same as the squadron leader’s: Find the missing plane. There is no ambiguity about organizational priorities in a battle or a fire.

It’s the same at our company. In the time-critical world of drug development, we recently found ourselves needing to pivot our lead drug away from a market focus on chronic pain toward acute pain, which could help reduce the post-operative use of opioid medications. The pivot will mean shorter clinical trials and a faster time to market. We barely slept in the 10 weeks required to execute our pivot. But we had the right team and systems to get it done quickly, and we all knew exactly what we were working toward.

A well-functioning company isn’t always pivoting, of course. But even when there’s no crisis, our goal is so clear– get our lead drug across the finish line– that my main concern is that we don’t get in our own way, introducing strategic errors or unnecessary complications.

That imperative takes me back to Apollo 13, where NASA flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) focuses his star team as they shift from the moon landing to rescue mission. “Let’s work the problem, people,” he says. “Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” You can minimize unnecessary guessing and other pitfalls while making fast, high-quality decisions– you just need the right people in the room, informed, trusted and ready to lead.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.