Strategy lessons from the 19th century Prussian army? Who’d have thunk it?!

What can military history teach us about effective strategy? Quite a lot, actually, though not in the way most traditional management thinkers might imagine…

I met Stephen Bungay – management consultant, military historian and director of the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre – a couple of months back and was sufficiently intrigued by our conversations to pick up a copy of his book, The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results.

Under normal circumstances, the use of military history to illuminate strategy would be a complete turn-off for me – conjuring up, as it does, the usual images of “business as war”, rigid, top-down, command-and-control management structures etc. that are totally inappropriate in an ever more complex and interconnected world.

But what if military history were being used to illustrate something entirely different, within an entirely different construct?

What if the stories it told, and their underlying principles, actually crossed over with a lot of the stuff that tends to occupy my thoughts these days – framing wars as complex adaptive systems; understanding strategy as intent rather than lengthy action plans; and an appreciation of armies, not as military machines of precision, but as organic organisations subject to the same frailties of human finitude as any other?

That might be worth a closer look, right?

It is.

Stephen’s examination of the nineteenth-century Prussian army – above all, the characteristics of Auftragstaktik and its translation, in a business context, to what he describes as “directed opportunism” – provides an illuminating backdrop and rationale for an approach to strategy that, whilst it might seem blindingly obvious (as Stephen is the first to admit), nevertheless tends to get derailed by organisational structures and cultures that, wittingly or unwittingly, perpetuate Taylor-esque models of scientific management.

The goal of strategy, says Stephen, should be to close, or at least reduce, three critical gaps – those of knowledge (what we would know in an ideal world vs. what we actually know), alignment (what we would like people to do vs. what they actually do) and effects (what we expect our actions to achieve vs. what they actually achieve). Ultimately, this boils down to:

1)  Deciding what really matters. You can’t create perfect plans, so don’t even attempt it. Don’t plan beyond what you can foresee. Formulate strategy as an intent rather than a plan. As Helmuth von Moltke wrote in 1871, “Strategy is a system of expedients… the evolution of an original guiding idea under constantly changing circumstances.”

2)  Granting people autonomy to act. Recognise the distinction between intent (what we want to achieve and why) and action (what to do about it and how). Simply, the more alignment you have around the former, the more autonomy can be granted around the latter. Much as my CommScrum chum, Geoff Barbaro, advises in his upcoming 55-minute guide to leadership communication, the trick is to create a framework that’s crystal clear about the why, then ask people to tell you what they’re going to do as a result.

3)  Giving people space and support. Don’t try to predict the effects your actions will have, because you can’t. They don’t exist in a vacuum, but are subject to the independent wills of multiple agents. Instead, encourage people to observe what is actually happening and adapt their actions accordingly to realise the overall intent.

To which I would add/clarify:

4)  Think “safe-fail” rather than “fail-safe”. One of the upshots of all of the above is that we have to lose our obsession with being right (another recent read I’d highly recommend is Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error). Failure is to be expected and – when strategy is approached as Stephen suggests – can be positively embraced as a learning opportunity. Mistakes made in good faith (i.e. in pursuit of the overall intent) should never be seen as wrong.

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