Book review: The Art of Action, by Stephen Bungay

Insights gained in battle can be usefully applied to the world of business, not least knowing when to lead and when to delegate.

by Colonel Tim Collins
Last Updated: 01 Feb 2011

The Art of Action by management consultant and historian Stephen Bungay is a must-read for those who strive to understand how to keep up in the cut-throat world of business. Business, like war, is a vicious, competitive human creation where there are no prizes for coming second. As such, raising and leading successful armies has much in common with building a thriving business and succeeding in commerce.

In my work reforming organisations, I frequently look back on the inspiration of an old boy from my regiment, Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, who successfully birthed the nation of Malaya. Bungay's muse takes the form of Prussian Field Marshal Von Moltke and his musings on Auftragstaktik, known in the English-speaking world as 'mission command'.

For Templer, the steps to getting it right were sixfold: establish beyond doubt the aim and purpose of your enterprise; get the organisation right; get the right people into your organisation; get the right spirit into your people; get your communications with them right; and then let them get on with it. Bungay distils all this to three concise steps: 'Decide what really matters, get the message across and give people space and support.' It is essentially the same thing.

The Art of Action goes on to extrapolate the theory and punctuates it with useful examples and anecdotes to illustrate Bungay's points. At the heart of the book is an examination of the problem that prescriptive direction and overcommand can't work in commerce at anything above a small scale. It is certainly no way to leverage the scale of a modern business if it is to survive and compete.

The text explores how, like armies or indeed navies which rely on strict central direction, a business's fate is written as soon as it comes into first contact with competition. The Art of Action reminds us of Von Moltke's maxim: 'No plan of operation can extend with any degree of certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main body'. Or, as we used to precis it at staff college: 'No plan survives the first five minutes of contact.'

Hence the direction quoted at the beginning of chapter three, 'Elements of a solution': 'Do not command more than is necessary, or plan beyond the circumstances you can foresee'. The emphasis is instead on delegation - while telling people what to do. This may seem a glaring contradiction, but it is not. It is Auftragstaktik.

Auftragstaktik can be seen as a doctrine within which formal rules can be selectively suspended in order to overcome 'friction'. Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and prolific writer on strategy, said: 'Everything in war is very simple but the simplest thing is difficult.' Problems will occur with misplaced communications, troops going to the wrong location, delays caused by weather etc, and it is the duty of the commander to do his best to overcome them. Auftragstaktik encourages commanders to exhibit initiative, flexibility and improvisation while in command.

In what may be seen as surprising to some, Auftragstaktik empowers commanders to disobey orders and revise their effect as long as the intent of the commander is maintained.

In military terms, one can see clearly that the advantage Nelson's captains had over their opponents was freedom to act - within guidelines issued by Nelson - while their French and Spanish adversaries waited, under crippling bombardment, for central orders that would never come. The Art of Action brings to life many examples of how armies and even empires fell to the freedom of action practised by more agile and dynamic foes, and examines the essence of that flexibility and freedom.

Beginning with a summary of what Bungay describes as his 10 BGOs or 'blinding glimpses of the obvious', each subsequent chapter has a useful recap at the end. In the appendix is a short piece on strategy followed by a template for strategic planning.

I must admit that I found much of the book very familiar, and as a long advocate of examining military experience for inspiration in commerce, I found myself in distinct agreement. The Art of Action explains why and how the chaos of the commercial world, like conflict on the battlefield, can be harnessed. He explains the difference between managing chaos by controlling how, and exploiting chaos by commanding what and why.

There are plenty of 'get rich quick' books and tomes on management out there. And, as is observed in The Art of Action, war has been with us for centuries and studied and recorded more fully than almost anything else. It is remarkable, then, how much there is still to draw on for these lessons, yet how simple it all really is. And yet, as General von Clausewitz would attest, it is not at all easy ...

The Art of Action: How leaders close the gaps between plans, actions and results
Stephen Bungay
Nicholas Brealey Publishing £20.00

- Colonel Tim Collins made his name in the second Iraq war with the eve-of-battle speech he gave British troops in Kuwait in 2003. He's now chief executive of New Century, an intelligence-led security company

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