Mission leadership - the missing link

Generals face two gaps: the gap between plans and actions caused by internal friction, and the one between desired and actual outcomes caused by external factors; in other words, the unpredictable environment. These gaps are largely mirrored in business. Both business and military organisations need to address both internal and external friction.

by The Ashridge Journal, Autumn 2005
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Back in the 19th century, the Prussian army began to develop a way of doing this. It has developed into an operating model that is now practised throughout Nato as 'mission command'. It is called this because it involves setting direction by giving people 'missions' that specify what to achieve and why, rather than what to do and how. These methods can be adapted for modern business under the term 'mission leadership'.

There are two sides to mission leadership - behaviours and process. The behaviours involve senior people being disciplined enough to simplify the complexities of their strategy so that they become very clear about their intentions and objectives. People lower in the organisation have to be ready to accept responsibility, use the freedom they are granted and not delegate it back upwards. This allows for risk. Running risks successfully gradually brings trust and as trust increases so does performance.

The other side is the alignment process. In this process, 'mission analysis' is a way of structuring people's thinking that enables them to ensure 100% clarity over the 'what' and the 'why' of the mission, work through the 'how' it implies and make explicit the boundaries within which they will work.

The behaviours and the process are brought together using a scorecard - the 'mission dashboard' - that provides leaders with a set of performance measures that provide a single-page overview of the business against which they can track progress. It creates a clear link between activities and results, and so can form the basis of performance discussions, of both the business and individuals.

Those who have started to adopt this philosophy and its methods tend to observe that the approach forms a link between elements of their businesses that was missing before. There is no need for more systems, plans or controls. What there is a need for is bringing together all those that are there already.

Acknowledging the inherent nature of friction is the first step towards first managing it and then using it to advantage. Just as engines need lubricants to overcome friction between moving parts, so organisations need to design plans with a discipline that creates the links needed to make the plan work. Those who use mission leadership to recognise, deal with and master friction will be able to act faster, more decisively and more flexibly than their competitors. As such, they will have an enduring source of competitive advantage.

Source: Mission leadership - the missing link
Stephen Bungay and Damian McKinney
The Ashridge Journal, Autumn 2005

Review by Roger Trapp

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