The Art of Action with Stephen Bungay
Join Murray Robinson and Shane Gibson as they engage in a fascinating discussion with Stephen Bungay on what managers can learn from military history and modern NATO tactics for leading in uncertain conditions. Here are some key takeaways from this thought-provoking episode:
Predictive Plans & SOPs: Understanding their efficacy in repetitive tasks but their limitations in uncertain, friction-filled, or competitive scenarios—common in software product development.
Mission Command: Learning how this military concept allows leaders to specify the intent of the mission while giving teams the latitude to decide how to achieve it.
Mission Briefing: A deep dive into the mission briefing process that empowers teams to align on objectives and approaches.
Back Briefing: Stephen elucidates the process of ‘back briefing,’ where team members re-articulate the mission and plans to ensure mutual understanding.
Review Process: How a systematic debrief can offer valuable insights and opportunities for improvement.
Military History Stories: Stephen spices up the discussion with captivating stories from military history to further illustrate these principles.
Tune in to learn how mission command and other military-derived principles can make you a far more effective leader in uncertain conditions, something that is especially relevant in today’s fast-paced, ever-changing business landscape.
Read along you will
Shane: Welcome to the No Nonsense Agile Podcast. I’m Shane Gibson.
Murray: And I’m Murray Robinson.
Stephen: And I’m Stephen Bungay.
Murray: Hi Stephen. Thanks for coming on.
Stephen: My pleasure.
Murray: We want to talk to you about the Art of Action, which is a book you wrote a few years ago. It’s become popular in the Agile community. Could I get you to tell us a bit about who you are and what your background and experience is to start with?
Stephen: Yeah. Well, I’m a rather. Strange individual who ended up straddling two worlds. I started my business career back in 1980s when I joined the Boston Consulting Group which at the time was a strategy consulting boutique and stayed there for nearly 20 years I got involved in the course of that with the organization practice group there that sort of dealt with organization change, leadership and all this other stuff. So not pure strategy. And the question that interested me most of all as time went on was not developing strategy itself, but how you actually turn into action, how you actually manage to execute. I left just before 2000 because I reckoned that I could add more value to clients by acting on my own and focusing on these ideas than actually trying to sell large case teams to people to do process work and so on, which bored me. But before I set off by myself, I actually took some time off and indulged a hobby of military history. And I wrote a book about the Battle of Britain. And then another one about the North African campaign. And it was in doing that, that I came across an operational model that was used by the German Army. It was quite interesting because the British Army at the time, this Commonwealth force had been given the runaround for about two years by the Germans under Rommel, who were smaller and under resourced.
Nobody could understand why. And they all attributed it to this one guy, Erwin Rommel, who’s supposed to be a military genius. And he managed to turn what were taken to be. About 45,000 very rigid Germans who liked teutonic thoroughness and detailed plans into this fast, agile, adaptive organization that constantly outmaneuvered us.
And I thought, oh yeah. So one guy transforms 45,000 guys in one week and bang, got it. And I thought what a load of shit. So I looked for another explanation and discovered that in fact, what Rommel did was to use this operating model that had been developed by the German army. And in fact, as I traced it back, found out that it had been developed by the Prussian army in the middle of the 19th century.
And he was just very good at using it. They called it Auftrags Taktic. People after war got very interested in why it was the Germans were so good at this stuff and it turned into English as mission command. And the principle there is essentially that you make very clear what your overall intent is, what you need to achieve and why. So the outcome’s clear. You give people boundary conditions and then you encourage them to use their own initiative to seize opportunities in what is a chaotic environment or technically a semi chaotic environment of the battlefield. And rather than try to manage the chaos of the battlefield, which is what the Britts did, they try to exploit it and it was extremely effective.
It is now become a doctrine, which is taught all military academies across nato. And I thought to myself hang on. The environment of business has now become not complicated, but complex. It’s very similar to , the military environment. In the middle of the 19th century. It’s Napoleon who changed that environment, actually the scale went up. People could no longer command everything that needed to be commanded to everybody. You had to be able to delegate and the question was how you delegate without avoiding chaos. And the Prussians came up with a technique for doing that. So it was interesting because the environment’s the same. And the Prussians didn’t just talk about some general principles.
They actually had some techniques that you could apply, and I thought, why can’t we do this in business? And I started working with some military guys, Royal Marines, in fact. And we tried it out in two or three cases and found that we got some good results. And then we developed the techniques further. And the result was the book, the Art of Action that came out in 2010. And since then I’ve been working with companies across a range of industries in turning those principles into action. And it seems to work which didn’t surprise me greatly, but I think you need to think about things at the right level of generality in order to see the commonalities between business and warfare. And just a year or so after I published the book I got invited to give a talk at the Lean Kanban Europe Conference in Munich. And there were all these agile coaches and Lean Kanban software developers around. I’d never had any contact with before ’cause almost all of my clients have been large corporates.
And again, to my surprise, they were really interested. And I got a sort of flurry of responses from this one hour talk. So I work with a number of these groups across Europe now. Trying to address the issue of how these two approaches my approach, which I call leading through intent. And linking it in to people in the Agile community as well as addressing the question of strategy. I think they got excited because they found someone who was using a different language to talk about things that they were quite familiar with but they worked down at the level of process and new product development.
And I was coming down from having been a strategist really into answering the question how do you turn strategy into action? And we met somewhere in the middle. So that’s the basic story of how all this came about.
Murray: There’s this underlying theme about the problem of uncertainty and friction, which is very much what we encounter in software development and product development. So can you talk about what is going on in warfare? Why can’t you just develop this super detailed plan and then implement it.
Stephen: Yeah. I think it’s really important if you come up with a solution to something that you really understand what the nature of the problem is. Otherwise, the solution’s not gonna work, or it’d be superficial. And actually the story goes back, not to military practice, but to one of the greatest theorists of war Carl Von Clausewitz.
Now Clausewitz was a staff officer during the napoleonic Wars he was in the Prussian army and then became a tutor in the Berlin War Academy After Waterloo 1815, he died in 1831. His wife published this massive book called On War in 1832. and in it, he takes issue with a number of theorists of the day, in particular, a Welshman called Lloyd and a German called Von Buelow who thought that war was all about making perfect plans and it could be turned into something scientific. So if you, for example were correct in measuring the angle between your logistical base and the place where you are conducting operations, you could overcome your enemy with some degree of certainty. So essentially they were Talorists more than a hundred years before Taylor and Clausewitz thought this was a load of nonsense.
And he spends a lot of time in the opening books trying to understand the nature of war. And essentially it comes down to saying there are three critical variables that you need to take into account. The first is the political goal. The second is that when you indulge in military operations, you are entering the realm of chance. And serendipity. And thirdly there is the passion of the people. So you’ve got rational and irrational elements interacting. And as those three elements interact, you cannot predict outcomes. So the consequence of Clausewitz is that you cannot make perfect plans. And he describes that in a detail which people actually conducting operations would recognize as to why when you make.
Plans you can’t be sure that people are actually gonna do what you want and that even if they did do what you want you can’t determine what the outcomes are gonna be because of chance and unpredictable events. And the fact that you’ve got an opponent who’s gonna react in unpredictable ways to what you do, maybe sensibly, maybe not , and you don’t have enough knowledge at the beginning to able to make perfect plans in any case.
And he calls this phenomenon friction and he says it is universal. And in the second chapter of the book, I go through his concept of friction and say that what this does is to create three gaps between plans, actions, and outcomes. A gap between the outcomes you want on the plan, I call the knowledge gap, which means that you don’t have perfect information.
And then the next one, between plans and actions, I call the alignment gap, which is that people don’t necessarily do what you want or what you thought they were gonna do. And the third one I call the effects gap, which is that even if they did there’s no predicting exactly what the outcomes are gonna be because of chance events and the reactions of whoever it is that you are competing with.
External players in the environment, they could include your customers. So the problem of execution is how to close the three gaps. So Clausewitz lays out the problem. Then a remarkable individual called Helmuth von Moltke the elder born in 1800 reads kovitz.
And Von Moltke became Chief of the Prussian General Staff in 1857, and he started introducing a set of principles that he derived from Clausewitz, but he actually turned them into practical ways of running an army on operations. And his solution to the knowledge gap is not to plan beyond the circumstances you can foresee, but be very clear about what ultimate outcome you want to achieve. In other words, what to achieve and why.
You then have the task of passing that message on down through the chain of command. So you brief your subordinates, telling them what the overall context is, and then saying, this is the kind of role I want you to play. And then you shut up and you ask them to go away and have a think about what you’ve said and come back and tell you how they’re gonna go about that.
So that’s a technique I call briefing. You get briefed down and then you brief your commander or your boss back. So there’s a back brief, and that’s a cycle. And it’s only when that cycle’s been completed that you go and when you go, everybody has an area of freedom. Freedom of decision and action, which they need to be encouraged to exploit so that as the situation changes, they change their actions, they change how they go about things, but are still trying to achieve the original intention. The what to achieve and the why and follow any boundary conditions that have been set down.
So in principle, it’s all quite simple. And he put it into action first in 1866 in the war against Austria Hungary, which he won about six weeks. That was the original BlitzKrieg. And then took on an even more formidable opponent, the French Army in 1870 and did the same thing. He won about six weeks using all of this.
And then those techniques were then picked up by what had then become the German army and developed further. They were refined. Originally, Moltke did this down to about the level of Army, army Corps and division. It gradually filtered down until by the 1930s. The Germans were practicing it right down to the level of non-commissioned officers. So sergeants, there was a rule that you had to understand the intent two levels up. So you could step into the shoes of your superior if he was absent or became a casualty. But it’s arming people with sufficient context that they can take good decisions on their own without coming back and saying this has happened. What should I do now, sir? Which of course, waste time. And how is Sir supposed to know? Because the guy on the spot is the guy who has the most relevant information at that point. And of course, if you lose time in battle, you are gonna tend to lose. So I reckon this could be put into practice and we have put into practice.
I think the reason that Moltke fascinates me so much is that he adopted the principles in operations that he derived from Clausewitz but he realized that this was not the whole truth, and he could also be quite tayloristic when he was able to.
So he adopts two sets of principles. It’s quite interesting. In his essay on strategy, he makes this distinction very clear right at the beginning. So he says The first thing a commander has to do is to assemble the forces, the initial deployment. And he says there’s a range of factors, but you know what those factors are and you can deal with them. There’s plenty of time to consider these arrangements. He says. And assuming the troops prepare for war and the transportation system’s been organized, they have to lead unfailingly to the intended result. Now, this is Taylorism, and he used it during the mobilization. And very interestingly during the mobilization in 1870 one person who observed all this was an American engineer who later became well known for his work on railroads called Harrington Emerson.
And he said, Moltke has understood the basic principles of scientific management. And he talks about this well-oiled machine. So that all the trains are running to a pre-scheduled timetable and all the troops arrive on the border at the right time. And so you would think that Malka was told before his time, but what he didn’t see was what happened after that. Malka goes on in the next paragraph, say Things are different. However, in the next main task of strategy, the military use of the available forces. Here, our will very soon encounters the independent will of an opponent. If we’re ready and willing to take initiative, we can constrain the enemies will, but the only way we can break it is through means of tactics. The battle. So Malka understands that he’s operating initially in one system, which we could say is complicated, but you can master it in advance. And he realizes that when action starts the previous rules no longer apply. And you have to use a completely different set of operating principles because you’ve moved from complicated to the complex. And there you can’t predict anything at all. So you don’t have a plan. You just have to have prepared minds, a clear intent and an organization that’s ready, willing, and able to sense and respond to the situation as it develops in order to achieve the overall goal.
There aren’t many people, who can grasp these two worlds in the way that Malka did. Taylor had a tremendous impact on productivity as we all know, and his principles he used today because, his ideal really was a worker who was a robot.
And we’ve introduced real robots into doing all this stuff where you need predictable outcomes . Every piece of manufacturing these days, it’s almost obvious. But Taylor’s mistake was, he thought that was the whole truth and he got a partial truth.
Moltke understood the boundary between them and that there were a lot of tasks in businesses which are not open to a tayloristic approach. And our problem today is that we’ve got Taylor so set in our minds, we are unaware of it and we don’t know where its limits are and we don’t know where we have to introduce an alternative and the best alternative I know of is actually mission command. And I think the Agile community discovered that worked so much better at the level the product software development processes. And it could work at operational level as well.
Murray: We know when we are developing software or developing products or services that we are encountering the same problem. We’re working in taylorist organizations all the time where managers have a model of the organization as a machine. Strategies set by executives and workers, including, highly skilled knowledge workers are just cogs in the machine doing what they’re told and not to ask questions. The Taylorist machine model that’s still a very common idea. And the thing is that we know from experience that software development, product development, any type of new development, there’s a considerable amount of uncertainty about what the problem is in the first case, what the customers and users want. And managers will often tell you , with a great deal of certainty, exactly what they want. And then you find out that they don’t want that at all. And then there’s a considerable amount of uncertainty about how to solve that problem. There’s these really big gaps between what you’ve done and the outcomes that you achieved. So we see this constantly. The whole industry’s experienced that forever. Whenever you’re developing something new, there is this big gap of knowledge, alignment, and effects. And therefore the Tailorist machine model just works badly. And we see this down at the team level, a team of five or 10. We see it at the team of 50 or a hundred. It’s not just at the level of, organizational units of thousands of people. It’s all the way down. And I think that’s why the agile community are quite interested in discussing the art of action with you. Because we have come up with a lot of similar ideas around, outcome focused, just in time planning, alignment, empowering people.
Stephen: Yeah, you are right to focus on uncertainty because essentially what friction does is to create uncertainty across the board. And you’ve got that when you are trying to innovate, when you’re trying to do something new. I think it’s probably not chance. A lot of work I do is with pharma r and d. If you are gonna go for creativity, which is what it’s all about, then Taylorism’s gonna kill you, right from the word go whatever level you are operating on. I think where we’ve got Taylorism now is in robotized production processes. If you’re trying to produce a few million Mars bars a week, then you know that’s gonna work but if you’re trying to do anything new it’s not.
And organizations need to draw those two things together. One of the most interesting cases I had was working in Formula One. I worked with the Mercedes team from 2014 to 2018, and one of the things that interested me about them is that they have two extremes.
You have the pit stops where everything is honed to perfection down to the last millisecond. And you don’t want some guy turning up and say, oh, I got, I just come up with a new idea for how to change the cars a bit faster when Lewis Hamilton is just coming in for his star change. I actually saw that happen once, there was a race some years ago when Ferrari had decided to introduce a set of lights instead of the little lollipop man that told people when to go.
And they thought this was quite clever. And I think a masser, I drove off with a fuel pipe still stuck in his car. They tried it once, I think that was Singapore, and they never tried it again. They all went back to the same method that everybody had been using for ages and just practiced and practiced to get that efficiency.
That thing at the other end of the scale is actually designing the car where you have a set of constraints imposed by the rules, and it’s all about creativity and trying things out and testing things in wind tunnels and with simulations and goodness knows what, and the same thing actually happens on the racetrack.
So despite a vast amount of information that they have about the car or the temperature of the track and all the rest of it, they don’t actually know what’s gonna happen at the first corner. And they do their planning, so called as a scenario. There’s a sort of bell curve and discuss before each race.
So what happens if fettle jumps are at the first corner or something, they maybe go pit on lap 18, silhouette 22 and so on. They’re already in and when shit happens, as it always does, they’re absolutely calm and absolutely ready for it. So they took to this idea of mission command like ducks to water unlike many corporates. They’ve got so many processes which are designed around tayloristic principles that actually you can’t empower people ’cause nobody’s got any power to give away anyway. The organizations are sucked all the power out of them. And I think in order to make this work first of all, you’ve gotta have competent people, which you can generally assume is the case in businesses today.
But people who are also ready to use any space you give them and step up and make decisions, and they usually need to be encouraged to do that. But you also have to have an organization which can create the space in the first place. So if you’ve got a great mass of entangled processes, then clearing away that undergrowth actually getting rid of things and saying that we’re gonna trust our people is one hell of a job. It can be done, but as the scale increases, it gets more and more difficult.
And you’ve also gotta have a structure. Which enables you to identify decision points, areas of accountability and some matrixed structures are so complex that you can’t actually identify who’s responsible for achieving any particular outcome and how they fit together.
You’ve gotta be able to turn things into a situation where you’ve got high alignment created by this briefing, a back briefing process, and high autonomies, you have a series of semi-autonomous teams or areas within the business, they might even be functional, that can then work together because everybody is focused on achieving the overall outcome for the unit. And in some places it’s not really possible. It’s gonna take so much work. It’s not worth it.
A lot of guys who used to work for big pharma have set up biotechs for that reason. Trying to change the way pharma works with all its approvals and committees is too much of an ask. Let’s just throw it away and start again.
Murray: What’s the structure of the strategy briefing? So if you are a leader and you are going to brief your reports, what is the structure of it?
Stephen: Okay. There are five questions. Question. One is, what is the context? So this is what’s going on in the outside world. These are the things that are affecting us now. And there may be some things internally as well, which are gonna affect what you wanna do. And leaders are quite surprised at this enormous thirst for context when they pass these messages down. So the people, even one level, let alone two levels below really don’t know what’s going on in the world. Because they’re used to being given tasks. So that’s the first one.
You then need to sharpen that up by saying, what is the higher intent? That’s question two, the higher intent. So what does my boss want and what does my boss’s boss want? So you are aligning around two points. And quite often you’ve got multiple goals. You might have conflicting goals. You wanna straighten those out. This happens particularly in a matrix and say, okay, so for this period of time anyway, it’s gonna be this one that’s gonna drive my decisions and what I do. And then the third question, the key question is, okay, on the basis of that, what’s your intent for your particular unit?
What is the unique contribution that you are gonna make to achieving the outcomes desired by the unit as a whole? And how are we gonna measure that? So how are we gonna know whether we achieve those outcomes? And the intent is an outcome. It’s expressed usually in two statements or sentences. This is what we’re gonna achieve and why we’re gonna achieve it, the higher purpose into which it all fits.
And the why should be the what of the level above you. So you’ve got a sort of series. it’s like sort of unpacking Russian dolls. I like to talk about this as a translation process where each level, if you go down, gets more specific rather than a cascade.
Then you need to think about, okay, so what am I gonna get my team to do? What are my guys’ individual responsibilities? And you just say, so here’s an outcome. If we do all of this, we’ll achieve our intent, which will help us to achieve the intent level above. And then you give them some boundary conditions.
So resources and constraints. So everybody has two resources and constraints, time and money. So we’ve got a certain amount of time, but we’ve got a deadline. The deadline’s a constraint. The time we have is a freedom to use. And the budget forms a constraint. Usually you can’t overspend it.
But that is a resource that’s available to you. And then the next level down thinks through all of that, you have to have discussions around this. You can’t just do it on PowerPoints. Because what you need to do is to achieve a common shared understanding of what really matters and why, and given friction the opportunities for misunderstanding of legion.
And so we quite often have a, we might spend two or maybe three hours actually discussing the boss’s statement of intent. And it almost invariably changes because people will have questions that the boss hasn’t thought about. That’s the normal state of affairs. It usually takes about three, goes to make this good.
It’s an literature process. And then people go off and they work on their own, and then they come back and there’s a back brief. And it’s supposed to do it collectively because everybody needs to be looking to each side. And I now is fairly standard practice to have an explicit session on interdependencies between the different units at any one particular level. So what kind of support do I need from others? And we try to achieve a situation ideally where there’s no gaps and no overlaps between the tasks.
Murray: And the structure of the back brief?
Stephen: So the back brief consists of everybody going round. Sometimes I do it, if we’re doing it in a sort of workshop one or two day workshop, we have a poster session, so everybody produces a draft, and then everybody goes round for about 15, 20 minutes looking at everybody else’s. And somebody stays at the post and explains it all and they take questions and so on. And then there’s revision and then we pull it all together. Take it back up to the boss and go through the interdependency issue as well. There’s always confusion that organizational interfaces. So I insist on that being done explicitly.
Murray: We’re not talking about months of planning, are we?
Stephen: No, no. The usual thing is I’ll spend some time having maybe a couple of one hour zoom calls with the leaders on their initial statement until we got something that’s good to go. I don’t aim for perfection. There’s no such thing. I tell people if it’s 80% good, let’s go with it. And then we’ll have the workshop where everybody, has read that already and we’ll spend some time discussing that. Then everybody goes off. They might already have prepared a draft of their own and revises it. And then we have these poster sessions of going round so that everybody knows what everybody else is gonna do. That workshop is a day and a half, maybe two days.
So it’s not a huge long planning process, we try and do this as quickly as we can, but it does require a lot of thoughts. Answering those five questions is very demanding. Actually, nobody gets it right first time.
Murray: But then once people have spent, this week going through developing their plan, then we don’t expect the plan to be implemented exactly as it was written down either, do we?
Stephen: So the next thing you have to do is to create a review system. And I call it an operating rhythm. Set up an operating rhythm. I’ve just been through one of these with a one client of mine actually. And they designed a very simple summary format for each of the units within this r and d organization. They look at the portfolio and then there are topics like how we’re working with others outside the organization ’cause that’s quite important. What are the critical things that are getting in our way? And we go through all that. And we had one of these sessions that lasted about two hours and each person had just 20 minutes to go through it all and it was very productive.
Now I call it an operating rhythm because it needs to reflect the heartbeat of the organization. So in some cases you could do this every six months. In some cases you might wanna do this as much as monthly. I suppose the default is usually some sort of quarterly review. Everybody has these sort of quarterly reviews, but that ain’t necessarily the right rhythm. To adopt. It’s like animals, heartbeats, right? Elephants, heartbeats go boom. And the mouse heartbeat goes boom. So you’ve gotta know what kind of animal you’re, that depends on the nature of the business.. You need to experiment to get the actual heartbeat, right?
And also what needs to be discussed. And the other critical thing is that the first question each person needs to answer is not how are we doing? What do the numbers look like? And therefore, by implication, if they’re not looking good how do we get back on track? But has the situation changed? So that needs to be the first question. Then you ask about the track. If you start off with, Are we on track? You are making the assumption that the plan you made originally is perfect and nothing has significantly changed. It becomes backward looking. It usually turns into some sort of blame game.
‘Cause if people use traffic lights and we focus on the red ones and didn’t mind about all the others. But the critical question is what is the track going forward? In other words, what actions are we gonna take in the future? What not, what the numbers look like in the past, that’s important and that’s just background. And so if you just change things around and say, has the situation changed? If yes, do we need to alter how we were going about this? And if they’ve changed radically, is our intent still valid? Maybe we’re gonna have to go in a quite different direction if there’s been a radical change
Murray: What I was trying to get at Steven, is during the quarter, the leaders of those teams are encouraged to use their initiative to achieve the outcomes, even if it’s different to the plan that had been discussed. Is that right?
Stephen: yep. So they may come back and say by the way, we were gonna do this, but actually we’ve gone about this a different way. We were putting all our resources into Compound X. But the latest results show that we think that’s not gonna make it. So we shifted them onto compounded y.
It’s a good idea to tell people when you do that, but essentially you have the power to make that decision. And at the review session, part of the operating rhythm, you able to explain to people what the consequences are. You’ve gotta mind that people know because you may be depending on others for something, and we’ve had real examples of that happening. So you don’t just wait to get permission of the next review, you get on with it. You can always intervene and you can say hang on, I wanna know a bit more about this, why that happened. But that should be the exception rather than the rule.
Murray: So in the middle you are informing people. I am doing this. I’m not asking for permission. I know what the intent is and the objectives and the constraints. So I have decided to do this, and I’m letting you know, I’m doing this now.
Stephen: That’s right. Yeah, you don’t waste time.
Murray: yeah. Yeah. So this is very similar to what we talk about in Agile, except we would normally do it on a two week operating rhythm.
Stephen: There we are. Yeah. Yours would have to be very fast. You’re more mouse like. ’cause it was an elephant like,
Murray: Yeah, that’s ’cause we’re dealing with, teams of eight to 10 people or teams of 50 to a hundred people. Sometimes up to a few hundred. But I’ve certainly done this sort of thing in an operating rhythm with, 50, a hundred people on a two week cadence. And it worked very well.
In the Agile community today, there’s a lot more discussion about outcomes than there used to be because software development teams, tend to have an order taking mentality. The business will tell us what to do and we’ll do it. So our goal is to just get it done, whereas we have realized that first of all, we are the business as well, and secondly that the business people don’t know a lot more than we do about whether something’s gonna work or not.
Stephen: That takes us back this central theme of uncertainty. And I think in that area, you’ve got a situation where the customer doesn’t fully know what they want. And so the supplier don’t fully understand how to go about it before being told what the customer wants. And there’s a process of discovery whereby the supplier and the end user gradually come together, rather than order taking,
Murray: Yeah, so we talk about empowered cross-functional product teams that contain everybody required to get an idea, into user’s hands from beginning to end. So that would include customers, users, designers, analysts, developers, testers, everybody who’s required to take the idea from start to finish. And we try and do it as quickly as possible in small incremental pieces, building it up over time. So it’s all about getting feedback quickly. We think we know enough to be able to plan a few weeks or maybe even a few months, but not no more than that. So it’s very much what you were saying about just planning based on what you really know. What I would call just enough planning, just in time.
Stephen: Yes. Do not plan beyond the circumstances you can foresee. Was Moltke’s phrase,
Murray: Your foreseeing of the circumstances is often wrong anyway, so everything really has to be tested.
Stephen: Yeah. I mean, the big constraint on what he could foresee what the biggest single one was. What are the other lot gonna do? And of course that’s how it applies in competitive strategy. Which is maybe a difference with agile product development. But his default assumption was always that the other side would make the best possible decision from their point of view. And until proven otherwise, he would make his own dispositions on the basis of that assumption. So in a way, he set up a situation where he only gets nice surprises.
During the Franco Prussian war of 1870, the French actually never did what he was expecting them to do. They always made a worse decision, which is one of the reasons that he was able to wrap things up in about six weeks. And the way in which the Prussians were trying to work out. So what are they up to now?
Why is this army moving north and east and not falling back on Paris. This is crazy. And working out well, that is actually what they’re doing. And are we getting false information? Own cavalry scouts are not telling us what we were expecting. And over two or three days everything gradually changed.
And that led to the decisive battle at Sedan . But Malka had to take an absolutely critical decision about his own line of march change due West and North on the basis of all these fragments of information. And it was eventually a newspaper article published in Paris that swung him to the conclusion that actually they were making a huge mistake and we got a massive opportunity in front of us. And then he acted accordingly.
Murray: In Taylorism, which is what most organizations are still using, even if they deny it. There is this big difference between strategy and tactics, isn’t there? The executives do the thinking and everybody else, do the doing. And I think what you are saying and what von Malka and the, mission command is that there isn’t a separation between strategy and tactics. They’re interlinked. Can you talk about that?
Stephen: Yeah, the strategy tactics distinction goes back a very long way. And people used to deal with tactics by creating standard operating procedures. If. Line up a load of musket none faster and move them around the battlefield faster than they can fire, faster than everybody else, then you’ll win. And therefore you practice all of that and hone your skills. It’s like the F one pit stop.
And Malka realized the huge limitations on that, and we can’t have that at the level of strategy. And so he introduced a third level in between them, which he called the operational level. I just call it the executional level, which is this area of freedom where outcomes are gonna be unpredictable.
And that’s where the development and execution of strategy becomes a distinction without a difference. So everybody’s having to think strategically in terms of, so what is the higher level intent and what is my intent? Right the way down and then, There will be some area where actually how you go about things.
Okay. We can standardize that. We can ize that perhaps depending on the nature of the business, how you run clinical trials or whatever, the protocols you have to follow and so on and so forth. But what’s actually in them is at the discretion of the managers who are actually running the process.
And so you have 3 levels rather than just two levels. And you’re absolutely right. The old principle of taylorism that managers think and workers do has to be cast aside and everybody has to do some thinking and some doing at the same time. The thinking’s higher level, , further up you go. But everybody has to do it.
Murray: Now you talked about how all this was developed in the 1850s in germany and used very successfully, but then it wasn’t adopted by other countries until much later. And I think you said the Americans didn’t adopt it until after the failures of the Vietnam War. And corporates have never adopted it generally speaking, I think corporations are still working on a World War I British model for the most part.
Murray: What is going on there?
Stephen: When you read the explanations that British writers at the time and shortly after the war came up with for the behavior of the German army, it’s actually very funny. They just can’t get their minds around this idea that the Germans of all people should have been so undisciplined as to allow their middle and junior officers this freedom of action.
And so they come up with this theory that it’s all about this lone genius at the top. But they realized there was something wrong with this. And after the war, the Americans in particular spent a long time interviewing some captured German generals and finding out about how they did it.
And it blew them away. The reason they did it actually was that these guys had all been fighting the Russians and the Americans NATO in general, wanted to know so how do you do that? Because we might have to do that sometime in the future. And they came up with this. And the US Marine Corps in particular started to try to adopt this. The Airborne do.
There are these little pockets within the Allied Armies in the Second World War that seem to use something very close to Mission Command. And the Airborne do it because once you’ve dropped out of an airplane at night, you haven’t got a fucking clue where you are, let alone where your mates are. But you do know we gotta take out this battery on the coast, so we better find it and do something about it. So the plan goes to hell when you jump out the airplane, which is probably in the wrong place anyway. And so they used to talk about Airborne initiative, and so the British and American Airborne Forces tended to use this. Marines tend to use this. Getting the infantry, let alone the the armor, the cavalry to do it is God’s own job because, they’re all standard operating procedure guys.
And whilst they had this set of ideas coming from the Germans, they struggled with how to make it actually work because they realized they’re gonna have to train people differently in the first place. And NATO’s plan for dealing with the Russians has been described to me as a sort of like a ballet score. Everybody knows which trench they’re gonna be in and what’s gonna happen when and where the artillery is. And it’s all a choreographed right from day one. And some people realized that this was a recipe for disaster. And one of them was a chap called Ginger Bagnall, who was commander of the British army of the Rhine and he threw this away. And he said, we’re gonna use mission command, we’re gonna use the German method. But in order to make that work, he didn’t have to just change the army in the field. He actually had to train them all differently. And that’s where they set up the Defense Academy in Shrivenhem to teach mission command. So that’s the joint services command and staff colleagues. So this is the sort of middle around kernel, upwards up to generals. And they found they had a huge turnover. So the senior guys were pushing this. They were forcing the organization to adopt it. The junior guys, the captains and lieutenants loved it. Ah, thank God, we can use our brains at last. But the people in the middle hated it because they had a fear of losing control. They didn’t really trust their own subordinates, and there was very high turnover in the middle rank. That was all established in the eighties. So that has now become established.
But I think it’s really interesting that in the same way Malka took control of the training of his staff offices at the Berlin War Academy in the middle of the 19th century. So Bagnall took control of the training of his officers in the 1980s in Britain. I don’t think myself as anything particularly German about this approach. There are some people who argue that. I think it’d be adopted by anybody anywhere.
Murray: And then it seems like the allies implemented this approach with great success during the first and second Iraq war.
Stephen: Well, Gulf one, I suppose 1991 was the first time that it was really put into action right across the board. There are some units in the Falklands did this. The leader makes a big difference actually. The famous action of two parrot goose green, it was all going wrong. And h Jones, got the VC for leading this suicidal charge on the machine Gunness, but he was a control freak and he got a detailed plan and once he went down his number two took over and he delegated authorities to the company commanders. And it was the company commanders who actually won that engagement. So it really depended on, and he was in control at that particular time.
But the experience of Vietnam was a trauma for the, for America as a whole, but for the armed forces in particular. It’s been described by one historian as an example of the pathology of information. So they didn’t have an intent of a set of outcomes. They just had some metrics, which is very tayloristic, so body count as if that mattered. And the story goes there be some lieutenant somewhere in the forest trying to work out what to do and his majors in the helicopter above him telling him what to do. And the colonels in the helicopter above the major and the four stars in the helicopter at, 30,000 feet all pushing these orders down. It was ridiculous. But, again there are constraints on this. I mentioned competence as being a constraint. So a lot of the soldiers, the American’s sent to Vietnam were conscripts and they didn’t think they were well trained enough to be able to use their own good judgment. And so the desire for control took over. One of the hardest things leaders find is actually letting go, knowing when to shut up. And do I actually trust people? Some of them, go to it like a duck of water, and others have real difficulty and even, they think they’re doing it and they’re not.
Murray: We have this theory that silicon valley organizations developed after 2000 have naturally adopted this approach. We’ve talked to a couple of people from Spotify and they use this sort of approach a lot. But old organizations seem to be still very tayloristic with a mental model of the organization as a machine. And we are wondering how are we going to implement this in the corporate world when we’re developing products and services?
Stephen: So yes, there is a broad correlation of size, age of organization and being bound to tailor. And if you are very big then you created a legacy, which is gonna be very hard to escape. I generally find within these behemoths that there are actually people in certain business units or in certain areas who are up for this and they can get it to work.
In One Pharma Co we decided to work with some development project teams on this. And the site leadership actually signed a contract with the project team saying they will protect them from corporate. It was a rather surreal meeting. I’ll never forget it. It’s the unique and say your careers will not suffer. The goal is to get this drug to market as soon as we possibly can. Everything else is completely secondary. We want you to go for it. If you miss some training days that someone in HR said you’ve gotta do by a certain date or you’ll lose your bonus, we’re gonna override that. And your evaluation will be written by the project manager, not your functional head.
And so they agreed and we got results. One of the three cases were quite spectacular in fact. Didn’t persuade corporate to give up control. So it you can be pragmatic there, you can do some good in some areas, but in, in that particular case we decided quite early on that we weren’t even gonna attempt to change the organization as a whole because it was a battle we were bound to lose. On the other side of things, is it easier with a smaller organization? Yes. But I do find having worked with some entrepreneurs, That quite a lot of them are control freaks actually. And they don’t need a lot of structural process to start off with because they have a lot of acolytes and followers. They follow the vision of the leader. And a critical point comes that well-known flection point of between 80 and 120 people where they do have to introduce some process and structure. And there are two transformations that have to take place. One is that the founder has to step back and the other is that the followers have to step up. And that can often be a problem. And no, there are plenty of cases where the founders, no, I want it done like this. They’re jobs like maniacs. They wanna know every detail and control every detail.
You’ve gotta see what actually happens in practice. I had a case last year was just like that. If you are starting off with just a few hundred people, rather a few tens of thousands, then of course it is easier to get it to work.
Murray: We better go to summaries. Shane, would you like to kick us off with your reflection.
Shane: Alright, so another good one on mission command. So that idea of set intent, set some boundaries and let everybody get on to do the job that they’re paid to do. But reinforcing that message that, the people need to be competent to be able to work within that way of working.
So you talked about, going from plans to actions to outcomes and that the friction points are really the gaps. So when we talk about going from action to outcome if there’s a knowledge gap, then we’ve got a problem. When we talk about going from plans to action, if there’s a alignment gap, then we’ve got a problem. And both of those kind of go into this idea of chance affects everything. So that’s the third gap.
This Idea of briefing down and then briefing back up. I liked and especially like the idea of two levels up. In theory the senior leadership team won’t get taken out maybe by a bus. But if you can actually understand two levels up what the intent is, then that’s useful.
I was intrigued by this idea of complicated versus complex systems and the step change when you cross the boundary. So the idea of the F one pit stop being a complicated process, but it’s repeatable. So when we have a complicated but repeatable process, we focus on repetition, we focus on muscle memory, we focus on reducing waste all those good lean behaviors. And then from a design point of view, we are looking at innovation. So we are actually using a whole different set of patterns. I like that idea of which system are you in and therefore what patterns are you applying?
Then you talked about this idea of the five questions. So, what is the context? First thing we should explain, what is the higher intents of the two ups? What’s important to the organization? What’s the team intent? How will we measure it? How will we achieve it, and what do we need to achieve it? And then what are the boundary constraints. The poster workshop that you talk through, that one and a half day sounded a bit too close to that, PI planning from safe for my taste.
Then you came back and said, the first time we do a review, instead of saying, are we on track? We should say, has the situation or the context changed? Yeah, if it has, cool. What does that actually mean? If it hasn’t , which is pretty much never true. Are we still on track with the things we set in place when that situation and that context was set? So I wonder how many people actually ask that question first. And then to close it out, this idea of a training academy. So if we’re going through massive change, we wanna change the way we work, we wanna change the way the teams work. We already have an incumbency in terms of our processes and our people. Rather than just going, Hey, we’re changing the way we’re working, we’re adopting agile. Good luck. Actually say, right? We actually need to put some things in places like a training academy to reeducate people to show them this new way of working. And key thing about that is to bring it back to competency. Bringing the people’s skills up to the level that they need to be to be able to set the intent, set the boundaries, and let them get on with it. They need the skills to get on with it. So that was me. Murray, what do you got?
Murray: Yeah, I think that nearly all of the corporations I’ve worked for over the last 30 years or so have been Taylorist organizations, banks, telcos, manufacturing companies all sorts. Management have a model of the organization as a machine.
Murray: Everything will be defined in standard operating procedures and then people will do them. Executives will give orders and subordinates will do the best to carry it out. And there’s a strong authoritarian undercurrent. Now, managers these days know that they’re not allowed to look like authoritarians. So they use all the language of empowerment and inclusion and diversity and equity, but they don’t act it. Taylor would be very happy with the way they act most of the time.
And I guess what you are saying is standard operating procedures is very good and very efficient when you’re doing the same thing over and over again, even when it’s quite complicated. So it’s very good for a factory producing, the same product a million times or a few variants. It’s great there, it’s super efficient, but that’s not what we’re doing when we’re developing software or products or services or strategy or anything new. We are in a very different domain where there’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of friction, and therefore we need to apply this mission command, commander’s intent model that you’ve been talking about. And I don’t think managers realize that. The managers I’ve worked for pretty much treat software development, product development as being a repeatable factory process. And it just doesn’t work. And just trying to get through to, CIOs or, general managers that we cannot be certain about what the users want. We can’t be certain about what the technical solution is. So we can’t be certain about what the outcomes are. They have a very hard time getting their heads around that and generally just reject it completely. They say you’re not trying hard enough. That’s the real problem.
So the Agile way of working is one that recognizes all of this. It says we need to be constantly talking to users and customers. We need to be developing plans, but we need to be giving people quite a lot of autonomy about how they implement those plans. If they’re competent and skilled people, and that’s who we should be hiring because we know that there’s a lot of decisions that they make every day as they’re implementing things and things are not what we expected.
So, aligning people through objectives, key results, things like that are something we talk about a lot. Very important. And then, Closing the loop by implementing things quickly, seeing what the effect is, seeing what the outcomes are, and then going through the planning cycle again.
So we do that all the time in, two weeks sprint. So we might do it continuously if people using continuous discovery and continuous delivery with cross-functional product teams. It works very well in the team of teams level. I’ve used it there too. But the biggest problem is just getting leaders to accept that there is this uncertainty and friction. And you can’t just apply standard operating procedures to, this complex work we’re doing, we’re developing new things. It’s a continual block. Some people get it, some don’t. I just think that the organizations that are run by leaders who don’t get it are just gonna be in slow decline because we’re in a very competitive market.
Stephen: Yeah, I would agree with you. I think that’s the way it’s gonna pan out. I think you’ve both summarized it very well. It’s about, giving people high alignment and high autonomy, which is what that that’s the thing that Spotify use actually talks so much about the three gaps. But they nick that idea from my book, which is absolutely fine. So they’re able to do it. ’cause Daniel Eck is that kind of guy. And at the heart of this is, as you say, recognizing the reality of uncertainty and recognizing that a organization that runs like a machine is not gonna be able to handle it.
You need to think of the organization as as an organism or a complex adaptive system. And Von Moltke was remarkable because he understood both. Dealing with this uncertainty issue goes into quite deep psychology. If you talked to any psychologists they say that human beings are programmed to dislike uncertainty. It makes ’em feel nervous. And there are two basic reactions to that. One is to ignore it, to assume it doesn’t exist and say, oh, I know what’s going on here? I’ve seen all this before. So we need to do X, Y, Z. And you usually end up on the rocks if that’s the case. And the other is to allow uncertainty to dominate you. To seek more information, in order to eliminate uncertainty. And the information never arrives. And so you basically just drift until you run aground at some point.
But there are some individuals who can overcome that. And generally they’re the ones who send me emails, say, Hey, we’d like to make this work. I have to say this cannot be pushed, this cannot be imposed. It has to be pulled in. So the successful cases I have are where some leader somewhere is gonna say I’ve had enough we are gonna do this and really drive it in. And and then we have to start off getting their team engaged in it, and then it’s pulled in. And, my solution to the, yeah, really it’d be great to have an academy, but nobody can afford those. So I tend to train up some sort of art of action or leading through intent black belts, if you like, who can work with operational managers to actually embed it because it does need repetition.
You need to keep at it for some time. You don’t need so many of those. But unlike most consultants, I like to be able to hand off and step back and let other, it’s gotta go down far enough that they can do it for themselves.
Murray: Okay. Let’s tell people how they can find out about you and your writings.
Stephen: I have the dubious privilege of having a very unusual name. If you put Stephen Bungay into Google you tend to find me because there aren’t many other Stephen Bungays in the world. I got a website called agile strategy.co uk and you can get me through that as well. That’s looking at this question of uncertainty and can you create strategy which is agile? An open question at the moment. Or you can get me on LinkedIn, of course, but the email address is very simple. It’s just firstname.lastname@example.org.
And the book is called The Art of Action. Yeah, there’s a new edition that came out in 2021 which explains the relationship with the agile community as well.
Murray: All right, great. Well, thank you for coming on, Steven.
Stephen: Well, thanks for inviting me.
Murray: That was the no-nonsense. Agile podcast from Murray Robinson and Shane Gibson. If you’d like help to create high value digital products and services, contact Murray@evolve.co. That’s evolve with a zero. Thanks. For listening.
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