The Detriments of a Command-and-Control Culture and the Power of Design Thinking

by Jul 24, 2023

Business Innovation Brief Best Article

In the competitive landscape of modern business, the approach we take to leadership can make or break an organization. Traditionally, some companies have adopted a command-and-control culture, with a hierarchical structure that emphasizes strict obedience and a top-down approach to decision-making. 

While this approach might have been effective in the past, it is increasingly detrimental to both people and businesses. In contrast, a shared authority approach, supported by Design Thinking principles, can create a culture of empathy and winners, nurturing an environment where businesses thrive.

Why Command-and-Control Culture Fails

Stifles Creativity and Innovation

A command-and-control culture tends to stifle creativity and innovation, as it leaves no room for employees to contribute their ideas or think outside the box. Employees become mere executors of orders, leading to a lack of engagement and motivation.

  • Example: Kodak, a once-dominant player in the photography industry, struggled to innovate and adapt to the digital age. A rigid hierarchical structure meant that fresh ideas from lower-level employees were often ignored. One famous case is the dismissal of the digital camera concept by an engineer in the 1970s. The command-and-control approach stifled this innovative idea, leading to a missed opportunity that contributed to Kodak’s decline.
  • Result: Kodak’s failure to innovate and adapt to digital technology ultimately led to bankruptcy in 2012.

Creates a Fearful Environment

This rigid structure often results in a fearful environment, where employees are afraid to speak up or take risks. This lack of trust leads to poor collaboration, hampers problem-solving, and ultimately affects the overall success of the company.

  • Example: General Motors (GM) was known for its strict hierarchical structure, leading to a culture of fear where lower-level employees were reluctant to voice concerns or ideas. This was famously evident in the delayed recall of faulty ignition switches, where information was not adequately escalated.
  • Result: The lack of open communication contributed to a delay in recalling the faulty parts, leading to accidents, and tarnishing GM’s reputation. This incident became a cautionary tale about the importance of fostering a culture where employees feel empowered to speak up.

Hinders Responsiveness to Change

In a rapidly changing business landscape, agility and adaptability are crucial. A command-and-control culture slows down decision-making processes, making it harder for a company to respond to changes in the market promptly.

  • Example: Blockbuster, the once-leading video rental company, failed to respond promptly to the changing market landscape with the rise of online streaming services like Netflix. The top-down decision-making process at Blockbuster hindered quick adaptation to new business models and technologies.
  • Result: Blockbuster’s inability to pivot and embrace the changing trends in video consumption led to its downfall. Despite having the opportunity to purchase Netflix in its early days, the rigid command-and-control culture prevented Blockbuster from taking this risk. Eventually, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010, while Netflix grew to become a streaming giant.

In each of these cases, the command-and-control culture hindered the organization’s ability to thrive in a competitive and rapidly changing environment. The reluctance to embrace new ideas, a culture of fear that stifled open communication, and an inability to respond promptly to market shifts led to missed opportunities and, in some instances, the ultimate failure of once-thriving companies.

Building a Culture of Shared Authority

Embracing a culture of shared authority, where decision-making is decentralized and every employee feels valued, is a more sustainable and human-centric approach. This kind of culture encourages collaboration, creativity, and innovation, fostering an environment where everyone feels like a winner.

How Design Thinking Can Help

Design Thinking, a methodology that focuses on empathy, collaboration, and iterative problem-solving, can be instrumental in fostering this culture of shared authority. Here’s how:

Empathizing with Stakeholders

Design Thinking starts with empathy, understanding the needs and perspectives of all stakeholders involved. By putting people first, businesses can create products, services, and processes that truly resonate with customers and employees alike.

  • Example: P&G used Design Thinking to redesign its Pampers product. By spending time with parents and caregivers, they developed a deep understanding of their needs and struggles. This empathy-driven approach led to the creation of Swaddlers and Cruisers diapers, which were more in line with the real needs of parents.
  • Result: This empathetic redesign led to increased market share and strong customer loyalty.

Encouraging Collaboration and Co-Creation

Collaboration is at the heart of Design Thinking. By involving employees in decision-making and problem-solving, they become more invested in the outcomes. This inclusive approach fosters a sense of ownership and alignment with organizational goals.

  • Example: IBM has embedded Design Thinking into its corporate culture, facilitating collaboration across different teams and divisions. They have used cross-functional workshops and co-creation sessions to solve complex problems, bringing together designers, engineers, marketers, and other stakeholders.
  • Result: This inclusive approach has helped IBM in developing innovative solutions and has fostered a culture of collaboration, making it a more agile and responsive organization.

Promoting Iterative Learning and Growth

Design Thinking encourages an iterative approach, where failure is seen as an opportunity to learn and improve. This nurtures a culture where taking risks and experimenting is encouraged, leading to continuous innovation and growth.

  • Example: Airbnb, the global travel community, employed Design Thinking to turn around its struggling business. They adopted an iterative approach, constantly testing and refining ideas based on user feedback. By embracing failure and learning from it, they managed to create a user experience that resonated with their audience.
  • Result: This iterative and customer-centric approach led to substantial growth, turning Airbnb into a billion-dollar business.

Building a Great Place to Work

By focusing on empathy, collaboration, and continuous learning, Design Thinking helps in building an environment where employees feel valued, motivated, and part of something meaningful. A great place to work becomes a great company to do business with.

  • Example: Intuit, a financial software company, implemented Design Thinking to foster innovation and build a positive workplace culture. They created Innovation Catalysts, a program where employees are trained in Design Thinking methodologies and become champions of innovation within the company.
  • Result: This focus on empathy, collaboration, and continuous learning has not only led to successful products but also made Intuit recognized as a great place to work. Employee engagement and satisfaction have increased, leading to better talent retention and more innovation.

These examples highlight how Design Thinking, with its human-centered approach, can drive success by aligning the company with the true needs of its stakeholders, fostering collaboration and innovation, embracing failure as an opportunity for growth, and building a positive and engaging workplace culture. 

By focusing on empathy, inclusiveness, and continuous learning, organizations can become not just great places to work but also highly successful entities in their respective markets.


A command-and-control culture may seem like an efficient way to run a business, but it’s a model that’s rapidly becoming outdated. In a world that values creativity, collaboration, and responsiveness, it’s time for organizations to move towards a shared authority model, guided by principles of Design Thinking.

Infusing empathy, promoting collaboration, and embracing iterative learning can transform the workplace into a culture of winners. The result is not only a great place to work but also a thriving business that attracts and retains the best talents, fosters innovation, and resonates with customers.

Embrace Design Thinking, and you’ll be embracing a future where power plays are replaced with meaningful connections and shared success. Your business, your employees, and your customers will thank you.

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