Succeeding in chaos: some lessons from the history of war

In June 1982, the British Army's Parachute Regiment advanced across bleak open country in mid-winter and captured an Argentinian garrison three times its size. Colonel H Jones, the commanding officer, seeing his men stalled by the enemy defences, personally intervened and was killed trying to clear an enemy trench. Can modern business learn from this?

by World Business web exclusive
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Is there something useful to be gleaned from the British disaster at Gallipoli in 1915, or failure in the Boer War at Spion Kop in 1899? What can the victories at Trafalgar in 1805 and Jutland in 1916 teach the modern boardroom? Today's businessmen and women may have more in common with soldiers than they might think. After all, they share the central activity of achieving goals with scarce resources in a dynamic or hostile environment through the agency of people. So it surely follows that the techniques which offer the best prospect of success must be applicable in some measure to both.

The idea of businesses learning from war is not new. The works of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz have been widely aired in the commercial context, but perhaps not so widely or so easily applied. Less well known are the concepts first articulated by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in the early years of the 19th Century. From these two gentlemen came the doctrine which turned first the Prussian, and then the German Army, man-for-man, into the most consistently combat effective army in the world for 140 years.

At the heart of their thinking is the concept which is today called "mission command". After being defeated by Napoleon at Jena in 1806, the Prussians realised that to cope with chaotic, fast-moving, unforeseeable circumstances, there was no point in giving detailed orders based on rigid, inflexible plans because no plan survived first contact with the enemy. It was far better to tell your people what you were trying to achieve and why, give them missions, priorities and the necessary resources, and let them get on with it.

The Prussians bred a new type of officer. As commanders they no longer insisted on their right to control, but rather saw it as their duty not to interfere. At the lower level this new breed thrived on delegated responsibility and was ready to use their initiative. The doctrine required everybody to act in support of the mission concept of their boss, regardless of whether they had detailed orders or not, or whether their latest orders applied in a changing situation. In this way, decision taking was placed with those in the best position to take decisions.

The natural corollary of mission command is the concept of the "main effort". In battle there is usually some key activity where the commander seeks to bring about a decision in his favour. When he has identified that activity, he will then say who is going to conduct that activity, and allocate resources accordingly. He will also make sure that everyone knows what the main effort is so that all can do their bit in support of it. The main effort might be the destruction of enemy armour, or winning the hearts and minds of people. But it informs the behaviour of all concerned. Nelson said that "no captain can do much wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy". Thus no-one should ever "not know what to do".

So the Prussians taught people how to think, but not what to think. In this way they shrank their decision circles and they and their successors developed an army that was always able to respond to fast-moving situations and to back-foot their enemies again and again.

The mission command concept has a direct application in the commercial sector. "Most companies have centralised structures and need to work out how they can become more responsive……how you ensure everyone understands the strategy and is pointing in the same direction - this is one of the big management challenges," said Sir Martin Sorrell CEO WPP in World Business April 2006.

Developing the behaviour and practices consistent with mission command does not come overnight. It has to start at the top. Boards and CEOs need to think in the clearest and most precise terms of the end state they are seeking to achieve. It is fashionable in some quarters to curl one's lips at mission statements, but only because so many companies have not taken the trouble to think them through. The best mission statements imply subordinate objectives and priorities which can guide staff in the absence of other instructions.

A commander going into battle without a clear mission need only expect confusion, and possibly defeat. Commercial concerns are no different. Tomkins's "to achieve long-term sustainable growth in the economic value of Tomkins through the strategic development of our engineering business", or Personal Assets Trust's "to protect and increase the value of our shareholders' funds over the long term" give clear compass bearings to all interested parties. On the other hand, "to improve the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better, and live longer" from GlaxoSmithKline has a cuddly, soft-focus harmony to it, but as a starting point indicating how people should act, or what the company is actually trying to do, it leaves something to be desired.
And then, what is the critical activity - the main effort - upon which your company's success depends? Where are you going to bring a decision in your favour? If you are selling a product, it is likely that your main effort is 'sales'. If you are creating new products or services, then your main effort is possibly ‘research and development'. If you are in the hospitality business, then making every guest feel that you are taking him or her seriously could be your main effort. But once you have identified it, you can then make sure that resources are appropriately applied, and that people know to act in support of it.

As for the Parachute Regiment, although a gallant and inspirational leader, Colonel Jones insisted on sticking to his - by now - irrelevant plan, and although his subordinates could see what was necessary, he wouldn't give them their heads. After he was killed, they then went on spectacularly to win the battle. At Gallipoli, troops landed on some beaches unopposed and cooked breakfast while they waited to be told what to do next. This gave the Turks time to react to the landings, and a campaign that could have been won in the first few days was finally abandoned nine months later. At Spion Kop, the commander-in-chief, Sir Redvers Buller, delegated responsibility for capturing the hill to General Warren. But at a key moment in the battle, Buller interfered and prevented some of Warren's subordinates from pressing through with a potentially battle-winning initiative of their own, and the battle was lost.

At Jutland, the British captains of two of the most powerful warships in the world stood on the bridges of their battleships drinking cocoa and watching while German battleships fought with smaller ships behind them and break through the British battle line, thus escaping to safety. The captains were obeying the last order, which was to follow their commander-in-chief in line ahead. They were institutionally incapable of exploiting fleeting opportunities. The Navy at that time was fixated on drills, obedience and appearances. They had forgotten what they existed for: namely to fight and win.

On the other hand, Nelson's death in the first few hours of an eight-hour battle had not the slightest effect on the outcome. His captains won the battle for him, and his reputation remains untarnished to this day chiefly because he habitually empowered his subordinates to make decisions without referring to him. Nelson knew of the importance of "front-line empowerment" 200 years before the term was invented.

How does your company match up to the ideals of the Prussians Scharnhorst and Gneisenau? There are some indicators which you can start with today. For instance: what is your mission statement? Does it specify in simple practical terms what your company is doing, where it's going, and why? Is the word ‘profit' stated or implied in the ‘why'? Does everybody in the company know and understand the mission statement? Is it useful, or is it simply cosmetic?

What is the main effort of your department or your company? Is it something that everyone can relate to? Does everyone know what it is? Who is chiefly responsible for the main effort? Do the training and resources allocated to them reflect the mission critical nature of their duties? 

How does your organisation work when you are not there? Can you leave your subordinates alone for a week or two, confident that they will be able to run the show successfully in your absence? Do you regularly get contacted for decisions when you are on holiday?

Are decisions made in a timely and responsive fashion or are you always struggling to meet deadlines? If the latter, this could be because you are over-centralised. In an over-centralised organisation, where most decisions are made at the top, all information must pass up and down through the management chain. This tends to lead to delay and loss of opportunity. It also puts more pressure on the communications system and invites information overload. Do meetings drag on, often without producing useful results?

To benefit from mission command requires adopting a culture - a set of behaviours and attitudes. Above all it requires seniors to trust their people to operate in support of the overall purpose without frequent detailed instructions. It makes decision-makers out of everybody. This is not always easy but can be done if it is embraced from the top down. The British Army formalised its doctrine in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They did this by articulating it, publishing it and declaring it official policy. All training was aligned with it.

While it might at first appear akin to turning a supertanker, there are some simple steps which can be taken to set you on your way. For instance, take a look at your mission statements and see how the missions of those further down the management chain dovetail into them. Is there a coherent hierarchy of missions which supports the overarching purpose of the company?

Try writing a useful mission statement. "To [manufacture/sell/discover/provide a service/ etc] in order to [generate long term shareholder value/maintain market share/profit from niche expertise/ etc.] Then try analysing it in order to work out what tasks are stated, what tasks are implied, what constraints can be identified, what priorities fall out from it, and what areas need further clarification. Often the tasks that fall out of the mission will form the core for the missions of those at the next level down. To begin with this can seem an artificial exercise but with practice, it becomes routine.

Even simpler still: if you are going to chair a meeting, sit down before hand and write down in simple sentences what the desired outcome of the meeting is. Then publish this, making it plain that other attendees must come empowered to take decisions there and then.

Although it may not have been formally articulated as the main effort, an encounter with the staff on the floor of the revamped Sainsbury's or of Tesco makes it quite plain that every single person has been taught that the customer is their first priority, whatever else they might be doing at the time. No-one in Tesco "doesn't know what to do". Think what you can encourage your staff to turn to as a default activity which supports the overall purpose of the company.

Trust, unity of effort, decentralisation, mutual understanding and timely decision-making are all elements at the heart of this concept. If you can make it a reality, then you will have created a virtuous circle with its own highly beneficial momentum, making your decision-making nimble, relevant and responsive, and giving your people pride, self-respect, a sense of ownership, and a willingness to give of their best. Excellence does not come simply when you recruit and equip the best people. Excellence arises when you consistently get the best out of ordinary people. This will in turn help you to survive and succeed in your version of chaos, and make your organisation the one is found at the leading edge of your field, again, and again and again.

After a full career in the Royal Marines, Ian Gardiner is now a Visiting Lecturer at the UK Defence Academy and a keynote speaker on leadership and decision-making. His book, In the Service of the Sultan, a first-hand account of the Dhofar War in Oman, will be published by Pen & Sword in October 2006.



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