on the perils of the “hub and spoke”

“Hub-and-spoke” conjures up an image of an old-style wagon wheel. It also refers to a management style where the boss is in the middle (the hub) and all information and decisions are run back up through the middle and disseminated back out to the staff, administration, or department heads (the spokes). If the hub is tireless and tenacious, the theory goes, the wheel will run smoothly.

Here’s when it might be a useful, albeit temporary, approach:

  • You’ve just launched your own business and have to take on all the roles in the service of survival. It’s only as the business grows that the process of delegation and letting go can begin.
  • You’re a brand-new leader and you want to assess the individual operators.  This may be useful if you think there is a failure in say, the widget department, and need to get your head around it.

And that’s it.

In every other case, it’s inefficient, demoralizing, and divisive. If you’re the boss, it will grind you down. And above all else, it will give you a false sense of being educated about the business and about being in control. And if you’ve ever been on the staff of someone who is a committed “hub,” you know that your innovation and enthusiasm wanes as quickly as your frustration mounts.

It’s inefficient. If everyone needs the boss’s permission and approval to act, all effort to innovate must come from the boss, not an empowered staff. Productive action grinds to a crawl when everything is generated from a central point. Cross-functional decision-making is hampered.

It’s confusing. Not only is it inefficient for the hub boss to have to tell multiple “spokes” the same thing over and over, but the mission loses coherency quickly. Each “spoke” loses the benefit of hearing instructions to the others that would’ve deepened their understanding of the project. They have less empathy for their colleagues’ role in implementing it. The shared expertise of colleagues is lost, along with a united message. And the boss at the hub misses out entirely on the opportunity to hear viable questions from other “spokes” that would better the final product.

It’s demoralizing. Under a hub-and-spoke model, you can hire a staff, but you can never build a truly collaborative team. Confusion and wearying detours arise when one “spoke” finds out that her colleague has been working on a similar, but slightly different, set of instructions. Hub-and-spoke management might get you people who just show up and do precisely (and nothing more than) what they’re told, but the innovative, morale-lifting, cooperative work never flourishes.

It’s divisive. If everyone in the unit is centered on the hub, even senior staff members compete for the boss’s attention, affection, and approval. Sharp elbows develop when the wrong behavior gets rewarded. Information gets hoarded. Seeking the boss’s approval becomes more important than team excellence and implementing mission-driven ideas.

It’s exhausting. If everything has to run through the hub boss, it is simply not sustainable. Even the most high-octane leader needs to have an empowered, inspired staff to grow their business. I often ask clients, “How does your team function in your absence?” If the answer is, “I’m not sure they can make good decisions,” or worse, “I’m not sure that I can trust them,” there’s a problem.

It’s fake control. If you’re a hub manager, you might feel like a star and you might think you’re on top of everything this way, but this approach hides the fragility in your business or institution. Every spoke is trying to win your approval, not join with you and your colleagues to make things work. The truth about the organization is hidden from you.

If you’re at the center of a hub-and-spoke operation, how do you begin to implement another style?

First, truly recognize the costs of doing business this way. Don’t judge yourself for leading with this model; instead, calmly acknowledge the perils. Once you start to notice the inefficiencies, frustrations, and lack of coherent messages, for instance, you’ll be inspired to change.

Second, at every decision point, bring all the stakeholders in the conversation together to strategize. If you’re going to trust them to implement decisions, trust them enough to consult transparently with them along the way. Some of the stakeholders might be lower in the chain of command than you normally would invite to a discussion, but the people who have to implement the strategy will often ask the savviest questions.

Finally, reward collaboration and inter-departmental problem-solving. The hub-and-spoke style, which might have initially made you feel like a star, will wear you down and undermine your success. Clear direction, training, and an understanding of the mission are all well and good, but to really build a business, build connections among colleagues first.