The biggest challenge in any organization is translating its strategy and overarching goals into action at all levels that is fully aligned with its vision, mission and intent. In his latest book, Strategy and the Fat Smoker, David Maister calls this the “fat smoker” syndrome. We usually know what needs to be done, but more often than not, we don't do it. Just like the man who knows he needs to improve his diet and stop smoking, but who can't seem to change his habits, organizations often know what they need to do, but can't translate it into effective action that leads to the results the senior leaders want.
Experts in organizational development usually attribute this inability to inappropriate incentives and ineffective leadership, but I think the reasons are much more mundane. Most executives and managers want to achieve the vision of the organization and execute on its mission. However, they are often pulled in different directions and have to focus on day-to-day matters. Business schools excel at teaching high-level corporate and business strategy, but they fail miserably when it comes to developing critical thought processes for breaking a problem down into manageable steps, giving cogent and clear direction, and analyzing one's own responsibilities and the expectations of supervisors. As a result, the plans and actions of executives and managers at all levels of an organization are not fully aligned to those of the strategic leadership. In many cases, they are at odds with what the CEO and board are trying to accomplish.
Military forces have developed a very effective means of creating organizational alignment. This is because armies have to contend with psychological and systemic problems that, if not countered, can lead to failure and defeat. Orders can be misunderstood or miscommunicated. The terrain, weather, and enemy actions can play havoc with the best plans. And those two great bugbears of military planners throughout history, friction and uncertainty, only add to the mix of potential confusion and misalignment.
To overcome this state of affairs, armies rely on something I call “nested hierarchical planning.” Every commander and his staff must develop a scheme of manoeuvre and assign specific roles and tasks to subordinate elements. The division commander gives specific orders to his brigade commanders for the coming operation. The brigade commanders do the same for their battalion commanders. The battalion commanders for their company commanders, and so on down the line. Conversely, commanders at every level have to create a mission and plan for their unit that conforms as much as possible to the intent and scheme of manoeuvre of the higher grouping. In that way, a company commander's mission and plans must fit into those of his battalion commander. A battalion commander's must fit into those of his brigade commander. The brigade commander's must fit into those of his division commander, and so on up the line.
This creates an unbroken chain of authority and, more importantly, accountability that in the military is appropriately called the chain of command. Subordinate commanders use a process called “mission analysis” to analyze and correctly identify the expectations that have been laid upon them. There are many variants on this, but the simplest articulation requires leaders at all levels to answer the following questions before setting their overarching objectives and developing a mission statement that will frame all of their planning and operational actions:
• What is the intent of my superior's superior?
• What is my immediate superior's intent and concept of operations?
• What specific tasks, roles, and responsibilities has my immediate superior assigned to me?
• Are there other implied tasks, roles, and responsibilities?
• Are there limitations on my freedom of action, such that there are things that I must do and others that I mustn't?
• From the answers to these questions, what must my organization and I accomplish to contribute to the success of the whole organization? How is our success absolutely essential to the success of the whole organization?
The answer to the last questions will provide the organization's mission. That is what that particular commander must lead his organization in achieving. If they don't achieve it, the success of the whole operation could be compromised. In western armies, field commanders are given fairly wide scope to achieve their missions. Leaders and soldiers at all levels are expected to show maximal initiative in accomplishing their mission so that they contribute to the success of the whole organization. This is called “mission command.”
Companies and other organizations can benefit greatly from this kind of leadership and management philosophy. Some already do, but in my experience, most don't. This may stem in part from ineffective leadership and overzealous micromanagement. But I think the real reason is that the processes of nested hierarchical planning, mission analysis, and mission command require a culture change. They also require the skills and processes to achieve this level of capability. The good news is that most managers and organizations already have the basics. It's more a question of adapting existing processes and approaches and following through with these in a disciplined and systematic manner than in trying to invent something completely new. The benefits for any organization are significant, because they mean that the strategic leaders would know that everyone has done everything possible to pull in the same direction towards the achievement of its mission and vision.Back to newsletters