The Principle of Mission

NapoleanSo I’ve written a few posts to date about ‘purpose’.

This post explains a related term, ‘Principle of Mission’, by taking us back through military history (sadly the source of much of our breakthrough learnings).

The phrase ‘Command and Control’ as applied to the common form of organisational management is associated with the military and how they traditionally functioned.

I expect most of you have seen some classic war films/documentaries of a bygone age and you can paint the picture of the following scene in your mind’s eye:

  • A large area of land, perhaps outside a castle/ fortified town or out on the plains;
  • Various units of men drawn up in formations on either side
    • perhaps divided into infantry, cavalry, archers and artillery (where the technology available would depend on the age – from catapults through to cannons);
  • …and a small huddle of officers up on a hill (and a safe distance from ‘the action’), surrounding their General seated on a white stallion.

The General has an objective and a detailed plan of how he is going to achieve it!

“Roll cameras, action”, and we see the General giving orders (Command), watching the melee (perhaps via the help of a telescope), receiving reports ‘from the front’ (Control) and adding to and/or revising these orders.

battle scene

And so to 14th October 1806 and the twin Battle of Jena-Auerstadt , at which Napoleon’s far smaller French force faced the might of the Prussian Army. However, Napoleon won a decisive victory and he did so because he did far less of the commanding-and-controlling thingy and, instead, used a different way of thinking.

In the aftermath, the Prussian military performed what we might call a retrospective to work out how they were so convincingly beaten and what they should learn from this.

Their post-mortem noted that Napoleon’s system provided his officers with the authority to make decisions as the situation on the ground changed and, crucially, without needing to wait for approval through a classical ‘chain of command’. Thus, they could adapt rapidly to changing circumstances.

If a French regiment got stuck in the proverbial mud, there was no wallowing around waiting to see what Napoleon thought they should do about it! Conversely, the Prussians in that same quagmire would be cannon fodder.

In the decades subsequent to the Battle, General Scharnhorst and then Helmut von Moltke built a new Prussian military culture, aimed at leading under conditions of uncertainty. Von Moltke wrote1.:

  • “in war, circumstances change very rapidly, and it is rare indeed for directions which cover a long period of time in a lot of detail to be fully carried out”;
  • “[I recommend] not commanding more than is strictly necessary, not planning beyond the circumstances you can foresee”;
  • “[instead] the higher the level of command, the shorter and more general the orders should be. The next level down should add whatever further specification it feels to be necessary…this ensures that everyone retains freedom of movement and decision within the bounds of their authority.”

And perhaps to the key point: Military orders must always clearly explain their intent i.e. the purpose of the order. This means that anyone carrying them out is focused on the intent and not blinded by any prescribed method.This new military way of thinking has been adopted widely though, perhaps surprisingly, the old command-and-control logic has lingered.

Hence why we get the best selling book ‘Turn the Ship Around!’(2012)2. in which Captain L. David Marquet eloquently writes about how he turned the fortunes of a U.S. Navy Nuclear submarine around by turning followers (his officers and staff) into leaders. A major theme in his story is about enabling his staff to think in terms of intent instead of merely waiting for, and following orders.

“What happens in a top-down culture when the leader is wrong? Everyone goes over the cliff.” [Marquet]

Bringing this together, The Principle of Mission is for leaders to describe the intent of the organisation’s mission, clearly communicate why it is being undertaken and then let the people get on with working out how to achieve it …and this is instead of, not as well as, making highly detailed plans and then controlling their execution.

And so to organisations:

We aren’t ‘in the army now’ but we all work with organisations that can learn from the above. We should be clear on each of our value-streams and their (customer-driven) purpose.

Such purposes set out clear intent to the system and its people tasked with delivering it.

…and a reminder that profit is not the purpose (or at least it shouldn’t be).

The role of the leader:

John Seddon wrote a fascinating book in respect of the UK public sector called ‘The Whitehall effect’3. In his chapter ‘Getting a focus on purpose’ he writes that:

Politicians* should get out of management. But they should have a lot to say about purpose….

[this] means a shift away from the central dictation of operating specifications such as targets, standards and activity. Instead, service leaders must be free to make responsible choices about the measures that will best enable them to achieve the purpose…Freed from the obligation to deploy the paraphernalia of [dictated methods], it will be up to the service leaders to choose how they improve their services against purpose, placing value on ‘better practise’ which is dynamic (anything can be improved) rather than ‘best practise’ [Ref. Benchmarking] which is static (as well as misleading). They will be guided by the rudder of efficacy, not the rudder of compliance – and they will be judged by the same token.”

* The Politicians in this quote are the leaders of what has been termed ‘UK Plc’. I am asking leaders of organisations to substitute themselves for the politicians in this quote.

Thus, the leader-service manager feedback question changes drastically:

  • From: “Have you done what I told you to do?”
  • To: “How do you know how well you are doing in achieving the (customer driven) purpose of the service?”

This is a radical shift and opens the way for true adult – adult coaching conversations.

An aside: Steering committees

I have seen a fair few high level steering committees over the years. Most fall into the command-and-control trap. Picture the scene:

  • A Project Manager reports back to the steering committee;
  • The committee discuss what is before them and, using their opinions, dictate how the Project should proceed;
  • The Project Manager is uncomfortable with this outcome but chooses to carefully manage his stakeholders (i.e. doff his cap to them)…so he takes the committees ‘decisions’ back to the team;
  • …and the team quickly and clearly explain why following such a path would be quite mad;
  • …and so the Project Manager has to commence an impossible juggling act.

In short: Committees should not dictate the ‘how’, but they should be absolutely clear on the ‘what’* and ‘why’ (the principle of mission).

* this is referring to a target condition, not a target date.

A HUGE clarification:

It doesn’t matter how clearly Napoleon, or any other leader, articulated intent if their people don’t want to follow.

Setting out a clear and meaningful purpose is but one (key) part of the overall system. The rest comes down to management’s beliefs and behaviours, and the environment that this creates.

…and finally, if you like the military discussion above, here’s a link to a short and highly related post called Why don’t you just written by ‘The Lean Thinker’.

Notes

  1. Source of quotes: von Moltke’s ‘Guidance for Large Unit Commanders’ as quoted by Stephen Bungay in his book ‘The Art of Action’.
  2. Marquet’s book is an excellent, easy read.
  3. For those of you who don’t know too much about the UK, Whitehall is a road in central London on which most of the government departments and ministries reside. When someone talks about ‘Whitehall’ they are usually referring to the centre of the British government and its civil servants.

The catalyst for writing this post was reading about the term ‘Principle of Mission’ within the book ‘Lean Enterprise’ by Humble, Molesky and O’Reilly.

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