Author Maps a Path Toward Success
In The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results, author Stephen Bungay makes an audacious claim: Business in the 21st century age of globalization and the Internet can learn much about strategy, leadership and management from the 19th century Prussian army — and specifically two of its great generals, Carl von Clausewitz and Helmuth von Moltke. Bungay is in a unique position to write such a book as a long-time consultant with the Boston Consulting Group, Bungay is also an acclaimed military historian who has published books on the battles of Britain and Alamein.
The Three Challenges
In studying the effectiveness of military strategy, Clausewitz, in his seminal tome, On War, blamed failures in military strategy on internal friction — which caused a gap between planned actions and actual actions — and external friction — which caused a gap between desired outcomes and actual outcomes. In other words, because of internal friction (lack of leadership or poor communication, for example), people didn't do what they were supposed to do; and because of external friction (which can be anything from bad weather to unexpected reactions of the enemy), the actions undertaken by military units didn't lead to the expected results.
Bungay adapts and refines Clausewitz's approach. When a company develops a strategy for success, he writes, it develops a plan that describes what actions the company will take in order to achieve its desired outcomes.
The problem is that there are gaps between these three elements: plans, actions and outcomes. Because of a knowledge gap — the difference between what we need to know and what we actually know — our plans don't lead to the intended outcomes. An alignment gap occurs between plans and actions when people don't take the actions that we planned for them to take. Finally, there is the effects gap between actions and outcomes: Our actions don't lead to the outcomes we had expected.
To close these gaps, Bungay turns to von Moltke, who created the Prussian army's basic operating model — still in effect today in Germany and the model for America's mission command model. Bungay adapts von Moltke's principles into an approach he calls "directed opportunism."
With directed opportunism, the plans created at the upper levels of companies are not detailed strategies with often multiple objectives based on extensive knowledge. Instead, they define and communicate a clear but more general intent or objective for the company.
Communication is key because it's at each of the levels below that intent is translated into specific actions. In other words, each level receives a message from the next level up that explains what needs to be achieved and why (the intent), but it is up to the people at that level to decide what actions to take. Thus, they decide how to align their actions to the strategic intent. Finally, in implementing the actions, individuals have the freedom to adjust their actions to adapt to different circumstances, although always guided by the overall intent of the strategy. As a result, actions have a greater chance of leading to the intended outcomes.
The principles behind directed opportunism are clear. There should be less control from the top and more flexibility allowed for initiative and adjustment to take place at the lower levels. However, there must also be clearly defined and communicated goals or outcomes from the upper levels so that lower-level initiatives do not take the company off the intended path of the strategy.
Directed opportunism is exemplified in an essay written by Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia, the commander of the Prussian army. A staff officer carries out an order without question. A high-ranking general takes him to task, saying, "The King made you a staff officer because you should know when not to obey." This is a key lesson for leaders at any level of an organization to take away from Bungay's teachings.
The Art of Action is a fascinating read, and a thoughtful, learned analysis of corporate strategy and leadership today. Although based on history, this is not a book about the past. It is a guide for creating and managing the future.