Some managers use a method that I call “hub and spoke management.” I am not a fan and here’s why. In this approach, the manager is the hub of all communication and the manager communicates with each direct report (and sometimes other employees) in separate private channels. In hub and spoke management “team” meetings, most interactions are between the senior manager and each individual in the meeting.
Interactions among the members of the meeting are rare and when they happen tend to look like a performance for the benefit of the senior manager. In this model it is not uncommon for several direct reports to discover they have all been given the same assignment separately and the senior manager has chosen which solution he or she thinks is best without group consultation. Since there has been no collaboration among the direct reports, the best solution probably isn’t even one of the options.
I am not sure what motivates a manager to select this form of operation, but my hypothesis is that it is a preference for the “all roads lead to Rome” control strategy. If you must go through Rome to get anywhere, then it is difficult for the “provincial governors” to organize without Rome knowing in advance. If you are “Rome” and have a reason to distrust the “provincial governors,” this may be a good strategy. However, the problems I have observed with hub and spoke management pose some serious dangers to company performance:
1. Coming up with solutions to complex problems that require interactions among different specialities and perspectives is difficult. Communication is slow and heavily filtered. Decisions are made without important data, and then reversed or revised in ways that undermine the confidence of the people who must implement them.
2. When the “hub” boss is not available, no decisions get made at all. This frequently leaves clients waiting for important actions to be taken and creates a bottleneck that is difficult to clear even when decisions begin to flow again. As a side effect, a cottage industry develops in speculating on what the boss is thinking or might do and rumors are rampant.
3. Hub and spoke management also creates the illusion that the boss is the smartest person in the room on every subject. That’s not likely, and even if true, speaks to a deeper problem with hiring practices that will kill the company sooner rather than later.
4. Perhaps the most damaging scenario plays out when the “hub” has to be replaced. There is nothing to hold the “spokes” together. There is no “rim on the wheel” and the spokes simply fall into a pile when the hub is removed. This can have devastating effects on company performance whether the hub is the founder in a small business or a long-serving senior executive in a large organization.
What if you find that you are a spoke in a hub and spoke system? Start immediately to build a rim around the wheel by opening up direct communication among the spokes. The most efficient approach is for the spokes to meet as a group to solve problems, but if that isn’t possible, even some regular bilateral communication among the spokes helps. If you think one of the spokes can get through to the boss on the need to change things, that person can get things started by talking to the boss as a “spokesperson.” (Yes, I just couldn’t resist that pun.)
Although you might not like what you uncover at the beginning, a little transparency goes a long way. You will find that the wheel rolls a lot more smoothly once you have a good rim on it and maybe even a tire to absorb some of the unexpected bumps along the way.