Top-down, centralized organizations are under the illusion that they have total control.

It might seem counterintuitive, but our most trusted organizational structures – such as the top-down model – continue to make a great number of mistakes.


The hierarchy for top-down decision-making effectively silences the dissenting opinions of experts – opinions that would help organizations to learn from their mistakes. The top-down model consists of three things: a high-level view compiled from all available information; an absolute chain of command; and a unified team sharing a unanimous vision.

Top-down organizations’ propensity for making mistakes is especially clear in the army. During the second Gulf War in Iraq, for example, military knowledge acquired on the ground often had no influence on government policy.

For example, one US army general demanded more troops, while another advised the United States to win over, rather than eliminate, the low- and mid-level employees of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime.

But Donald Rumsfeld and his advisers ignored this feedback and the military experts were overruled by the politicians. Though Rumsfeld – who was near the top of the hierarchy – may have had a broad strategy in mind, his refusal to consider the dissenting opinions of experts on the ground harmed the American mission in Iraq. Chaos broke out.

In contrast to a centralized, distant authority, the generals on the ground were able to make better decisions because they could capitalize on local knowledge.

Once it was clear that America was facing failure in Iraq due to an untameable insurgent uprising, the politicians changed their strategy: train the Iraqi army, then return home. What they didn’t take into account, though, was that the complex mix of stakeholders in Iraq – Sunni, Shia, American, etc. – made it difficult to halt ethnically charged violence.

However, there were a few individuals on the ground who ignored the official strategy and achieved results in their own way. One was H. R. McMaster, an American colonel who’d arrived in dangerous Tal Afar in 2004 and taught troops to interact with the locals.

McMaster’s actions resulted in cooperation between citizens and troops, which helped to accomplish the common goal of driving insurgents out of the city.