Have you created a “bias for action”?

How does your organization communicate your direction, your azimuth? How do you set your teammates up for success?  How do you set the conditions to encourage initiative?  How do your team members respond to the question, “In my company, is it better to ask forgiveness or permission”? Do you create a “bias for action” in your culture?

At the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in Saxony on 14 October 1806, Napoleon’s Grand Armée handed the Prussians under Frederick William III a major defeat.  Fundamentally, the Prussian command structure was very hierarchical and lacked initiative. Prussian leaders would respond only when told to do something, often through confusing, dysfunctional, and unresponsive lines of authority.  Bottom line, initiative was not in the Prussian lexicon.  In comparison, the French command structure was decentralized and Napoleon expected and rewarded initiative.   You can guess what happened.  The French decisively carried the day with commanders “marching to the sound of the guns” on their own initiative, well inside the Prussian decision cycle.   In the aftermath, the Prussians went to school on what went wrong and adapted the philosophy of “Auftragstaktik” in the 1820’s which relied on mission-type orders which spelled out the “who”, “what” and “why”, but left the all-important  “how” to junior leaders.  Over a 30-year period, Field Marshall von Moltke changed the Prussian and later German Army culture.  In his view “an order shall contain everything that a commander cannot do by himself, but nothing else.”  These are insightful words and apply equally to the U. S. military and corporate America.

Fast forward and the U. S. Army adopted Moltke’s approach in the 1980’s as the centerpiece of our strategic and operational doctrine.  A generation of Army officers were taught and encouraged to seize the initiative.  “Give me clarity of mission, intent, and the resources I need, then get out of the way.  Don’t tell me how to suck an egg.”  In our experience, the fundamental building blocks for any strategy or task are mission and intent.  We brought this philosophy into corporate America.

Fast forward again to today after 16 collective years leading for profit and not for profit companies, and our conclusion is that the same principles apply.  Indeed, decentralization and empowerment result in amazing results.  Team members in this special culture thrive with a passion for the business.  They act like owners and can’t wait to get to work.  The secret to setting the conditions to make this happen starts with clarity of mission and intent.  This is serious business and requires the CEO’s full support and direct attention.  The mission statement is crafted to address the “who, what and why” and the intent defines the “key task(s), purpose, and end-state.”  In our world, intent replaces vision, which too often is condensed to a tag line which is nothing more than marketing slogan.  Vision statements today do not provide the descriptive clarity needed to decentralize.

Writing mission and intent statements requires practice to get it right.  A clear mission statement can be condensed to a couple of sentences.  An effective intent statement may take five or more sentences to clearly define a company’s key task(s), purpose, and end-state.  Once these concepts are engrained into the ethos of a company, you will find team members well on their way to being empowered to seize the initiative to take advantage of opportunity.  Team members often find themselves at a decision point and if they really understand mission and intent, they will instinctively know the right answer.  This is empowerment.  Why waste time seeking permission when action can be taken immediately to achieve the company’s objectives and run circles around the competition?  Why act like a Prussian at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt?

All of this, of course, must be taken in the context of the CEO’s capacity for empowerment and decentralization, your company’s values and culture, the talent of your team, and where you are on the journey to embrace strategic planning.  We’ll develop these concepts in future blogs, but for now, consider the importance of mission and intent.  This is fundamental.  In our world, the construct of intent replaces vision.  Armed with clear mission and intent, team members know what the end state looks like and can fill in the blanks for themselves.  We trust and empower.