Davies Consulting

Strategies for Complex Organizations

Kings and Ants

By Tom Ryan

When feudal kings set up their command and control, all decisions were made by the king and he led his kingdom 365 days a year, whether at war or in peace.  Every decision came down to the King’s opinion, and every choice was made based on his personal knowledge base and limited perspective on events. But the limitations of an individual leader trying to “do it all” can lead to unintended consequences that hinder mission achievement.

A successful ant colony presents a different story. Ant colonies are much more egalitarian. Each ant in a colony has a job and operates according to a pre-defined role. A highly evolved and specialized society, the colony functions well in a decentralized manner, with ants communicating with the broader group only when necessary.  Amidst the surface chaos of the colony, ants carry out their jobs with minimal direction from their leaders. Job responsibilities are delineated by function (foraging, defense, colony management, breeding, etc.), but all are coordinated with unified discipline based upon well-understood roles.

We can see positive parallels at work in management models like the function-based Incident Command System (ICS).

The Utility Kingdom

Historically, utilities have functioned more like kingdoms, with a central decision maker maintaining strict hierarchy of command and control 365 days a year.  This model challenges utilities in times of emergency.

Many times, emergency response work must be managed differently across business units to maintain operational continuity and enable teams to respond to events as they unfold. While emergencies are by definition unpredictable, impacts can be contained within a specific area of operation if dealt with quickly and effectively. More often than not, the “King” need not be involved.

In fact, today’s leading utilities function more like the ants, where each team has an assigned role that they can confidently perform even if they are out of touch from the centralized leadership. This means:

  • Decentralized response organizations empower decision making from the ground up, enabling rapid emergency response while keeping the central leader informed, even if not personally engaged, in the response;
  • Roles established ahead of time and sanctioned by the central leader bring order to the chaos and connect team activity to the overall mission; and
  • When effective responders are able to contain an emergency, the central leader remains focused on managing the broader organization, continuing day-to-day operations through the normal ‘blue sky’ hierarchy and processes.

The Case for ICS

The use of Incident Command System in emergencies is growing in the utility industry, even though it can seem initially daunting to utility staff. We find that utilities can adopt ICS principles, assign roles and train staff so that they are comfortable in their responsibilities, and establish a culture that enables solid emergency preparedness and excellent response.

  • Roles & Responsibilities: In emergencies, some ICS jobs require qualifications that are specialized to an essential function. (For example, linemen are in the Operations function and corporate communications is a Public Information function.)  However, many functions do not have a specific qualification requirement, so they can be filled by any industrious and trained team member. In either case, ICS functions must be assigned to insure maximum value for the response team.
  • Hierarchy: ICS requires a temporary shift in hierarchy, which also can be a challenge since there is a tendency at some utilities to defer to corporate executives. Utilities that successfully use ICS recognize the importance of leaving corporate titles behind during times of emergency.  These companies define and prioritize all of the functions necessary during crises and emergencies, and then train and exercise their teams to fill the critical roles. Once ICS is stood up, it becomes the default hierarchy until the response and restore mission is complete.

The traditional utility command-and-control approach is evolving, allowing ICS to stand up alongside it, which has been critical as utilities mature their emergency preparedness and response.

ICS is helping utilities establish highly functional, decentralized response organizations, which enables the corporate hierarchy to continue day-to-day operations without missing a step.


Tom Ryan is a partner and the Emergency Management line of business leader for Davies Consulting. He will be attending the Marcus Evans Utility Response & Restoration Conference in Atlanta, October 21-22, 2015.

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