When I advise organizations, they often ask if I have written down or somehow codified my perspectives on leadership and operations. Until now, the answer has been a polite not yet. I simply didn’t believe I have accumulated sufficient experience to warrant writing something from a position of authority on the topic of leadership and operations in organizations. After much consideration and gentle prodding from advisory clients, I have come to understand that my perspective may be flawed. I have long known that leaders benefit from sharing knowledge and experiences, and although I may never view myself as an authority on leadership, I can understand the value in having a summary of my philosophy available for distribution. If taking the time to share my experiences is something which can be helpful for others, then I am happy to do so.
This text essentially introduces both my leadership philosophy and also provides personal experience (where possible) to help with clarification. I do not claim to have invented any of these concepts or approaches, and surely people who have far more experience than I do will have additional valuable perspectives, sometimes differing from my own.
Organizations have varying levels of complexity. This can be due to the structure of the organization, the size or number of employees, the geographic dispersion, or any number of factors. If we want to understand the nature of leading organizations, we are well served to consider which organizations have been dealing with these problems the longest, and therefore have many lessons learned from which we can draw. The organizations which have done so are, arguably, the militaries of the world.
Humans have been forming groups for the purpose of fighting likely since the first clans of us banded together. Conflict and the prosecution of violence has been present in our society from the beginning, and military leadership theory has evolved to meet and fulfill the requirements of forming people together as a unit to accomplish an objective under the most difficult circumstances and with the direst consequences for failure.
When many people think about command and control, they think about micromanagement, but nothing could be further form the truth. The modern version of military command and control in the post-Prussian-Auftragstaktik world, is all about establishing and encouraging autonomy while simultaneously maintaining alignment. When reworded in this language, it is familiar and desirable to the same companies who would be quick to dismiss anything from the militaries of the world as bureaucratic and micromanaging.
So instead of dismissing thousands of years of continuously-refined leadership knowledge, let’s dive into it a bit and summarize what is useful in a business context and how we can apply the same leadership principles in such an environment.
Literally “mission tactics”, auftragstaktik is a system for providing direction and vision for achieving objectives. It was originally developed and applied with great success in the Prussian military, an organization renowned for its efficiency, innovativeness, and adaptability. It is such an effective approach that it is still in use today, although in the US and UK it’s now called mission command instead.
Modern startups which reach a scale beyond which a couple of co-founders can manage are always striving for autonomy, innovation, and progress among their teams, and auftragstaktik is a great way to go about that. In this article I’ll just provide an overview of the six principles of Misson Command as described by the US Army.
The US Army defines Command as “the creative and skillful exercise of authority through timely decisionmaking and leadership” and the concept of mission command is discussed at length in Army Doctrinal Publication 6-0 (ADP 6-0). They also define leadership as “the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization” (ADP 6-0, Paragraph 23).
Mission Command is relatively straightforward, with the main requirement being that teams understand the desired end-state of their work, why the desired end-state is important, and any constraints imposted on the achievement of the desired end-state.
First, the teams need to know where they are supposed to go. Without an understanding of the direction, they cannot make progress. Additionally, when teams are doing work to make progress towards an objective, there are thousands of tiny decisions they need to make along the way. In a micromanaging environment, they will have to ask the manager to make a decision each time. In a mission command environment, they will use the desired end-state as a guide to make those decisions themselves, which allows the team to maximise its autonomy and make continued progress towards the objective at maximum speed.
Secondly, when people understand why something is important they are able not only to identify with the objective and increase the chances of success, but they also have a broader perspective, which allows them come up with additional ideas, suggestions, or courses of action which could work better than the original plan. These efficiencies and increased speed are something startups are constantly trying to cultivate.
At this point, the group understands where things are going, and why we are going there. They should also be fully informed of any constraints on achieving the objective. Is there a deadline? Are there technological requirements? Are there security concerns which require the solution to meet some criteria? Are there regulatory requirements which must be managed? All of these things should be made clear to the team. However, it’s important to note that the goal is to communicate the absolute constraints. If something is a preference and not a requirement, then it should not be mentioned. The essence of the process is that the team must figure out how to achieve the objective.
Once the team has been fully informed, now they can get to work on figuring out how to solve the problem. They may come up with multiple solutions and in those cases should present the benefits and risks of each solution to the leader. Together the leader and the team can decide on the course of action.
This process maximally involves the team as the owner of the solution, and in an ideal world the entire solution is their idea. This ownership results in more personal commitment to the goal than if the team were simply given a painfully-detailed process to execute.
At this point, the job of the leader is to handle communication and to remove impediments for the team in order to make sure that they are achieving their objective as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Again, it’s important to note that Mission Command is supposed to be the opposite of micromanagement.
A fantastic perspective on this is contained in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 6 - Command and Control (MCDP 6) on page 137:
The reality of technological development is that equipment which improves the ability to monitor what is happening may also increase the temptation and the means to try to direct what is happening. Consequently, increased capability on the part of equipment brings with it the need for increased understanding and discipline on the part of users. Just because our technology allows us to micromanage does not mean that we should.
The US Army sets out six principles of Mission Command in their doctrine:
Build cohesive teams through mutual trust.
Create shared understanding.
Provide clear commander’s intent.
Exercise disciplined initiative.
Use mission orders.
Accept prudent risk.
These principles, if internalized in an organization and implemented well, almost guarantee the organization will have consistent and efficient progress towards their objectives, so let’s examine them each in detail.
It is obvious that if there is no trust within a team or teams, then there will be a lack of cohesiveness and therefore a lack of mutual support. Building trust among teams is often the product of shared experiences and history of working together, especially if those experiences involve shared struggle. Working towards a difficult objective together is arguably the best way to build unit cohesion.
There is also the trust that the team has for their leader, and this is developed in a slightly different way. It is reinforced through consistent and fair treatment, clear communication, and making sure that the people on the team know the leader cares about their individual welfare. If someone on the team doesn’t think the leader cares about them, then they will not trust that leader.
Additionally, leaders must seek ways to build trust outside of their direct teams. This is often called peer leadership or stakeholder management in the business context, but the result is the same. Elements outside of the leader’s direct control, referred to as Unified Action Partners in ADP 6-0, are the entities with which the team works. A primary example might be the IT Operations team and Software Engineering team, in companies where those are still separated. The VP Engineering (or person leading all of the development efforts) will need to make sure that there is mutual trust between their group of developers and the IT Ops group (a primary UAP). If this mutual trust does not exist, then there will be consistent and problematic resistance for software deployments, hardware upgrades, and all the other things which are required for a successful tech company to operate. Mutual trust with IT Ops as a UAP is critical. The goal of all these activities is to forge unity of effort, which is the coordination and cooperation needed to achieve objectives, even if the two groups are not on the same reporting line.
One thing leaders almost always struggle with is how to create alignment of effort within the organization. This alignment of effort is nothing more than shared understanding on the direction and why it’s important.
This shared understanding is created and maintained through consistent and productive dialog in all directions. Leaders must talk to higher leadership, peers, and subordinates consistently, and build a culture of collaboration. This is a difficult task, and requires constant tuning and attention, but it is critical to the functioning of an organization. This collaborative culture, and the consistent messaging from leadership, is required in order to ensure that the entire organization has the same understanding.
Commander’s intent is simply a clear, concise, explanation of what the leader wants accomplished and why. It is absolutely critical to get this right because if you want people to work autonomously, they need to understand the overall goal they are trying to achieve. This overall goal is the commander’s intent.
One problem I see in organizations all the time is that people don’t actually know what they are supposed to do without being told what to do. They may have a basic understanding of the direction of the company, but they don’t know how they as individuals are supposed to contribute to achieving that objective. This almost always results from the executive leadership forming some kind of strategy, and then the middle management thinking that all they have to do is repeat the strategy down to their subordinate teams. NO! Every leader, at every level, should start with the intent of their leader, then create their own intent for their team which describes how the specific team will make progress towards the higher intent, confirm this scoped intent with their leader, and then communicate the scoped intent down to the teams in a way the teams will understand. This translation of commander’s intent is absolutely critical and should take place at every level of leadership. If the teams don’t understand how the commander’s intent applies to them, there will be no unity of effort.
The secondary goal of the commander’s intent is to provide understanding to the teams so they can continue to function with increasing autonomy. It is impossible for a leader to know every possible outcome as a project is being undertaken, so the commander’s intent should provide broad guidance along with any constraints, so that teams can independently seize the initiative and make progress towards the objective. Since successful mission command requires subordinates to exercise initiative in the absence of direct supervision from higher leadership, a very clear understanding of the commander’s intent is required.
The Army defines disciplined initiative as action in the absence of orders, when existing orders no longer fit the situation, or when unforeseen opportunities or threats arise (ADP 6-0, Paragraph 16). This is precisely the autonomy and initiative which startups and other organizations always crave. So why do they struggle with achieving it?
The critical factor in enabling the exercise of disciplined initiative is whether or not the commander’s intent is clear. Providing a clear commander’s intent to your teams allows them to exercise such initiative because they understand the desired end-state, and the constraints. Within those constraints they should be encouraged to take initiative wherever possible in order to make faster progress towards the objective and/or continue to make progress towards the objective (if impediments arise).
With all that in mind, it is still the responsibility of the people on the team to discuss with leadership whenever they have deviated from any agreed-upon plan, and it is the job of the leadership to make sure their commander’s intent is sufficiently broad to allow such deviations to take place. If not, then they’re just micromanaging.
This one is critical. Mission orders are directives about what to achieve and not how to achieve it. The goal here is to provide as much direction as needed to achieve the objective, while simultaneously providing the maximum amount of freedom to maneuver. In this way, the team can use their more detailed knowledge of the situation in order to make the best progress towards achieving the desired end-state.
In the mission orders framework, there is maximum autonomy and leadership only gets involved if they need to somehow provide a modification to the constraints or if the desired end-state has somehow changed. Other than those situations, the role of leadership is to support the team and to coordinate up to higher leadership and out to other teams.
Prudent risk is considered here to be the deliberate exposure to potential loss when the leader judges that the risk of loss is worth the reward of progress towards the objective. The classic example of this in a technology company is incurring technical debt in the codebase in order to achieve earlier product launch, to meet a required deadline, or for other reasons. This technical debt should be a calculated and prudent risk accepted by the engineering leadership. It is something which could cause potential loss or problems in the future, but still makes sense to do when balanced with the benefits of having something shipped now.
Judging and accepting prudent risk is a primary function of a leader.
This is a basic overview of mission-type tactics, and it’s a clear translation from these basic foundations as used in some militaries (in this case the US Army) to the way larger teams and organizations can make use of these same principles. Although I used the US Army as an example in the post, the US Marine Corps are, as a general philosophy for a large military unit, the masters of the small-unit actions, on short notice, with maximum autonomy. I’ll be discussing their collected knowledge more in future posts.
Militaries have been learning the best ways to deal with groups of humans under adverse conditions for longer than any other type of organization. Although the stakes are certainly higher in battle, human psychology does not differ significantly between a military unit in the field and a technology team writing code at a startup. Don’t miss this opportunity to learn from thousands of years of organizational research.