“Beyond Command and Control” (Book Review)

4 min readJan 13, 2023

“It is the system that governs the behaviour”

John Seddon et al, “Beyond Command and Control”

“Beyond Command and Control” starts off with clarifying the two main words in the book title. ‘Command’ means that managers make all the decisions and workers do as they’re told. The authors — John Seddon, Ibrar Hussain, Toby Rubbra and Barry Wrighton — argue that even empowerment isn’t the successful antidote to command-and-control. This is because of the second key word in the book title: control. Empowerment of people and teams isn’t going to help if the ways in which the work is being controlled don’t change.

Beyond Command and Control explains about faulty methods for control and decision making, and offers an alternative approach, namely the Vanguard Method. This approach is steeped in systems thinking and is centred upon studying current organisational performance. To truly deliver value to customers we need to understand how well or badly the current system does provide this value now (learning the “”what and why” of current performance).

Paradoxically, to understand what goes wrong, leaders first need to work out what right looks like. This means studying so called ‘value demands’ — the things customers want from a product or service. For each value demand we then need to define the ‘value work’ — the work that has to be done to give customers what they want.

This will create a shared understanding of how organisational performance is a consequence of patterns of (command-and-control) behaviour — how interactions and relationships between parts affect the whole.

Image Credit: Hannah Joshua

Rational vs Normative Strategies

In the book, the authors explain the distinction between rational and normative strategies. A rational strategy, they argue, often creates a tendency for the recipient to map what is communicated on to his or her current mental model rather than change or challenge constructively the strategy that has been shared. In contrast, normative strategies intentionally create ‘double-loop learning’: identifying and reassessing our assumptions behind outcomes generated and actions taken.

Image Credit: Brian Hinken

Different thinking about control

Image Control: Sivani Bandaru

Instead of the traditional activity and cost based approach to management, Seddon et al single out three things to help improve means of control:

  • Demand
  • Value work
  • Achievement of purpose in customer teams

Failure demand is a “demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for the customer”. Beyond Command and Control points out that failure demand is often systemic, created by the faulty system that has been designed.

The key to effective system design is to understand customers’ value demands — the things customers need from the service, in their terms. Understanding the type, frequency and predictability of value demand enables organisations to train the service agents to deal with customers’ needs. In the book, the authors describe what they see as the biggest issue with how companies have adopted Agile: not grounding plans in actual knowledge of what customers want and how the current system fails to deliver on these demands.

To enable companies to fully understand the variety of customer demands, the authors recommend an “outside-in” approach (that is, standing in the customer’s shoes) rather than top-down. They outline this approach in this ‘effective service design’ archetype:

Image Credit: John Seddon & Brendon O’Donovan

Work is designed according to the principles of demand, value and flow (doing the value work) instead of being divided into functional specialisms within the organisation. Management focus thus shifts from managing people and budgets to managing value — designing services to ensure customers get what they need. Control happens at the point at which the work is done, with the controls being focused on demand, value and achievement of purpose.

Main learning point: Changing the way in which work is controlled by moving away from traditional budgeting and goal setting methods. Instead, control is underpinned by a strong understanding of customer value and demand.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://cfobookshelf.com/beyond-command-and-control/
  2. https://whatisthevanguardmethod.net/about-vanguard-method/
  3. http://www.mas.org.uk/uploads/100flowers/john_rethinking_lean_service.pdf
  4. https://www.selfleadership.com/blog/double-loop-learning-survive-thrive
  5. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/rethinking-transformation-tobias-mayer/
  6. https://beyondcommandandcontrol.com/the-vanguard-method-and-systems-thinking/




Product person, author of "My Product Management Toolkit" and “Managing Product = Managing Tension” — see https://bit.ly/3gH2dOD.