Request a demo
Back to Blog

What are decentralized organizations?

April 20, 2021 - 15 min read

two people at whiteboard - decentralized organizations

Jump to section

What is a decentralized organization?

Decentralized vs. centralized management

Advantages and disadvantages of decentralization

Advantages and disadvantages of centralization

2 examples of decentralized management


Every company has to decide how to approach management and decision-making. Changes in technology, customer expectations, and workforce expectations make the decision more important than ever.

Will upper management take the lead, or will mid-and low-level managers lead the way? Will low-level team members have a say? Who will be responsible for decision-making, solutions, and new ideas?

Generally, companies choose between two main types of management structures: centralized management and decentralized management — although they may opt for a combination of the two. 

The right answer for a company depends on the markets it’s in but also on the skill and capabilities of its leaders and employees. You can’t just rely on the received wisdom of last century’s leadership gurus if you want to deliver value and have success over time. 

In this article, we’ll explore the differences between centralization and decentralization in management as well as share some examples of each organizational structure.


What is a decentralized organization?

Decentralization in business is when daily operations and decision-making power are delegated by top management to middle-and lower-level managers — and sometimes even team members. 

Organizations with a decentralized structure allow upper management to focus more on growth opportunities and major decisions, rather than day-to-day duties. 

Traditional decentralized approaches may still apply rigid frameworks with checks and controls, while radical types of decentralization extend the scope of decision-making. 

The key idea behind a decentralized approach is giving authority and responsibility to those who know best — since they’re closer to stakeholders and have relevant information available to them.

For example, a personal banker who orders debit cards every day for their customers will be able to spot debit card issues faster than upper management could.

Rather than sending customers with debit card issues to top management, they can use the information that’s readily available to them to solve the customers’ problems directly.

Decentralized vs. centralized management

decentralized vs centralized management

A centralized model, on the other hand, is when a small handful of individuals make the majority of decisions for a company.

For example, a family-owned catering company probably uses centralized management. The family decides who to hire, what to offer on their catering menus, and they probably order their own inventory. 

As they grow, they might have mid-and low-level managers that follow strictly defined roles and answer to a superior. 

Centralized approaches are also commonly seen in highly competitive industries such as tech and SaaS companies. But any business in any industry can decide which model they prefer.

In the next few sections, we'll explore the advantages and disadvantages of centralized management and decentralized management.

pros and cons of centralized and decentralized management

Advantages and disadvantages of decentralization

The advantages of decentralization are: 

Organizations are self-sufficient 

Since team members and managers are used to working independently, a decentralized organization is more capable of maintaining self-sufficiency if situations arise where business owners need to be away from work. 

This means business owners and top management can take a vacation, use sick days, or tend to emergencies without having to worry about their organization falling apart while they’re away.

Scaling is easier

Businesses interested in scaling up can facilitate the process easier if they’re decentralized. For example, if a restaurant decides to open another location in a different state, decentralization can give the new location freedom to operate independently. As a result, they’ll be able to customize their approach to better meet the needs of the new market. 

Faster decision-making

While centralized organizations have to wait for decisions to be approved, decentralized organizations are independent enough to make decisions quickly. 

This is especially important when fast solutions are necessary to prevent losing a customer.

Happier team members and business owners

Team members crave meaning and purpose at work, and part of that is being able to make their own decisions and feel like their input and ideas matter. 

Decentralized structures empower team members to use their knowledge, experience, and expertise to make meaningful contributions at work. This approach also relieves some of the burdens from business owners, so they can spend less time on daily operations and more time on expansion. 

Strengthens leadership skills

Centralized structures leave little room for leadership practice, but decentralized structures remove the pressure from upper leaders while allowing mid-level and low-level team members to step up their leadership game.

The disadvantages of decentralization are: 

Poor leadership can damage a company’s reputation 

Decentralized organizations with strong leaders can do wonders for a company’s reputation, but decentralized organizations with lower-level managers who lack leadership skills or competence can do the exact opposite. 

This is less likely to occur in larger organizations with a talented group of middle managers.

Communication barriers

When you have independent team members, all responsible for their own roles, workload, and schedules, it can be difficult to communicate without confusion. 

Each manager may have their preferences, opinions, and ways of doing things, which can confuse processes, rules, and general questions. 

Difficulty collaborating 

With so many different leaders, opinions, and schedules, it can be tough for two different departments to collaborate on a new project or coordinate functions together.

Expensive teams

Decentralized organizations call for more managers to take responsibility for team members and the overall organization — which means they have to be paid more. 

This can add up quickly and cost way more than just hiring a few managers.

Service functions can waste resources

For each department to be self-sufficient, service functions (like accounting and marketing) must be provided for each department. 

This can be a wasteful drain on resources. 

But, centralized organizations can use the same service functions for all or most of their departments.

Advantages and disadvantages of centralization

The advantages of centralization are: 

More standardization

Centralized organizations keep external and internal messaging consistent. 

They also standardize policies and procedures, along with materials, products, and services. 

This helps speed up preparation, procurement, and production processes. This also helps to create more efficient systems and teams and fewer communication barriers.

More control 

Top management at centralized organizations has complete control over training, offerings, and ensuring the business’s core values and goals will be maintained and promoted.

Quality managers

Managers at centralized organizations come with training, experience, and expertise. 

As a result, the company has more qualified managers that make quality decisions and can boost the company’s reputation. 

Less expensive

Since centralized organizations use the same service functions for their departments, they don’t need to hire extra service functions for other departments. They also have fewer managers than decentralized organizations.

Better collaboration and communication

Centralized organizations have standardized leadership responsibilities, schedules, processes, and procedures. As a result, there are fewer communication barriers and easier collaboration between departments.

The disadvantages of centralization are:

Overworked upper management

Since upper management is overloaded with daily decision-making, they have less time to concentrate on more important functions. 

Lack of balance

Organizations with top-heavy management can result in an imbalanced organizational structure. 

Limited creativity

While decentralized structures give authority to team members who are closer to stakeholders, centralized management restricts new ideas and creativity to upper management. 

This can limit the company’s ability to keep up with changing markets, customer demands, and customer feedback. 

Slower decision making

Due to the chain of command and upper management controlling decisions, centralized organizations have to wait for decisions to be approved. This can result in snail-like processes and unsatisfied customers.

Powerless team members 

Centralized structures revolve around upper management and leave little room for employee initiative and leadership. 

As a result, team members cannot contribute meaningfully at work. Additionally, team members see fewer opportunities for growth and internal company promotions. 

By now, you should have a good handle on the differences, advantages, and disadvantages between centralized and decentralized management. In the next section, we’ll look at two examples of companies using decentralized management and examine their results.

pros and cons of centralized management


Ready to take your leaders to the next level? Try a demo of BetterUp.

2 examples of decentralized management

Here are two real-life examples of decentralized organizations:

1. Johnson and Johnson

Johnson and Johnson may be known for its consumer business of baby oil and bandages, but many people don’t know they’re also a medical device and diagnostics business, as well as a pharmaceutical company. 

With more than 130,000 employees worldwide, Johnson and Johnson has long been known as a decentralized company.

Johnson and Johnson has chosen local management to run its companies for a few reasons: 

  • They understand the consumer better
  • They understand the people they are directly working with
  • They understand the government and marketplace needs
  • If they make mistakes, it won’t cripple the whole organization

Johnson and Johnson knows it would be difficult for management in the US to run international locations since they simply don’t know enough about them.

Former CEO William Weldon said that while relinquishing control isn’t always easy for the company, they trust their managers to run the businesses. 

“The men and women who run our businesses around the world usually are people who grew up in those markets, understand those markets, and develop themselves in those markets. They can relate to the needs of the customer, whoever that customer may be.”

quote from Johnson & Johnson - decentralized organizations

2. Eventbrite

If you’ve ever bought tickets for local events, you’ve probably heard of Eventbrite. 

Eventbrite is an event management and ticketing website that allows users to browse, create and promote local events. 

The company has a decentralization model, where event creators work as managers for a few reasons:

  • Event creators are also event promoters
  • Event creators know how to attract ticket buyers better than Eventbrite
  • Eventbrite has development offices in many countries and would rather have local managers in charge who know the area and consumers

Eventbrite understands that event creators (also known as promoters) have a better chance at securing attendees than they do. As a result, they powered 4.7 million events in 2019 and served more than 949,000 event creators.

Personalized development helps leaders and their teams thrive.



Ultimately, every company has to choose the management structure that’s best for their overall organization, and most companies have a little bit of centralization and decentralization in their structures.

When trying to decide which framework is best for your business, consider your overall business objectives, resources, and the type of business you’re running. 

For example, if you own a remote company, you may benefit more from a decentralized structure. If you own a tech company, you may benefit more from a centralized structure. 

Or, if you’re a franchise company, you may find that having a centralized headquarters and decentralized franchisees is best for your business model. 

As long as you focus on the best leadership model for your business and team, you’ll be able to find the right balance that works for your entire organization.

centralization vs decentralization - decentralized organization
Need help boosting your team’s leadership skills? At BetterUp, we love equipping managers with tools to support their teams. Request a demo today to find out more.

New call-to-action

Published April 20, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

Read Next

Leadership & Management
25 min read | June 30, 2022

What integrity at work looks like and 5 ways to foster it

What does integrity mean in the workplace and why is it crucial? Let's examine examples of integrity, its meaning, and why it's important at work. Read More
Leadership & Management
14 min read | March 23, 2021

Handle feedback like a boss and make it work for you

Why is it important to receive feedback and criticism the right way? Here we cover how to handle feedback and move forward in a productive way. Read More
Employee Experience
16 min read | April 28, 2021

What are self-managed teams (and how can you create them)?

In this article, we’ll explore what self-managed teams are, the characteristics of self-managed teams, and how to start developing them. Read More
Leadership & Management
17 min read | November 30, 2021

How to tap into heart and soul to lead with more charisma

The charismatic leadership style can be extremely influential. Learn about what charismatic leadership is and how it’s different from other leadership styles. Read More
Employee Experience
16 min read | September 2, 2019

Josh Bersin on the importance of talent management in the modern workplace

Josh Bersin, Founder and Principal of Bersin by Deloitte, recently spoke at BetterUp Shift 2018, an event which brought together the most innovative leaders and thinkers in... Read More
Leadership & Management
16 min read | June 22, 2021

Emotional regulation: Skills, exercises, and strategies

Negative emotions are part of life — ignoring them won’t make them go away. Here's how to build emotional regulation skills. Read More
Leadership & Management
8 min read | April 28, 2021

Leading people as people, a conversation with Cynt Marshall, CEO of the Dallas Mavericks

Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall is a big believer in people-first leadership, but as she explained to me recently, before she could help her team bring all of themselves... Read More
Leadership & Management
22 min read | December 16, 2021

Multicultural competence: 8 ways businesses can work with culture

Find out what it means to culturally competent in the workplace and foster greater equality and a sense of belonging in all of your relationships. Read More
Leadership & Management
13 min read | September 1, 2022

Organizational structure: Your guide to configuring and growing teams

An effective organizational structure helps teams and departments align. There are a variety to choose from, so use this guide to find the best fit. Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.