In the previous articles Dr Mike Bagnall from Worcester Business School reflected on the subject of Trust
and the Rail Alliance’s Robert Hopkin focused on Empowerment
. In this article I am going to take a look at a cornerstone of military thinking and see how it brings the fundamentals of Trust and Empowerment together. It would be a mistake to see Mission Command
as a modern phenomenon; it was first really developed as a tactic by the Prussians in the 19th Century (‘auftragstaktik’ vs ‘befehlstaktik’). However, like many such doctrines it has undergone many revisions and interpretations and I want to focus on the basic principles in this article and to take a look at how in the modern, and rapidly evolving business environment it is both relevant and indeed critical to the success of companies, agencies and government departments large and small.
First though, what is it that we are talking about? At its most basic, Mission Command is the process by which an organisation enables its teams, at all levels to act independently; using their initiative, judgement, skills and abilities to be innovative. To achieve this state, there are certain building blocks that need to be in place if you are not to end up with an unstructured ‘free for all’!
Fundamentally this is a process which relies upon leaders and managers at all levels understanding what the overall corporate goal is, the context within which they are operating, and their own leader’s intent. Essentially it is of paramount importance that the individual receiving direction from his or her ‘boss’ fully understands the intent behind those instructions, and for that individual to be able to act in a way that achieves that goal even though it may risk cutting across previous instructions and the ‘received wisdoms’ present in many organisations.
At this point I can almost hear a chorus of disbelief echoing an entirely normal concern that this is Chaos Theory brought to life in the board room. It could be! This is not a charter for the maverick or the lazy (i.e. for those who cannot be bothered to lead or manage properly and so just ‘let the team get on with it’). For Mission Command to work there are a number of building blocks that MUST
be in place:
On one side of the coin, the subordinate leader or manager must:
- Genuinely understand the INTENT behind their instructions
- Be given proper GUIDANCE and EMPOWERMENT
- Be TRUSTED to act independently.
On the obverse of this same coin, the leader or manager must:
- REFRAIN from giving detailed orders and instructions on ‘how to’
- Be METICULOUS in communicating CLEARLY and CONCISELY his or her INTENT
- Accept without reservation RESPONSIBILITY for his or her subordinates’ subsequent actions.
So far so good in terms of what could easily be viewed as an impossibly over-optimistic piece of management speak. What does this all really mean at the point which rhetoric meets reality?
In my personal experience the full benefit of Mission Command is unlikely to be realised outside of the ranks of the Special Forces world and similar elites. However as a guiding principle and ideal there is much to be played for and ANY organisation can aspire to the excellence, efficiency and success that come from employing it.
In his most recent publication the business author Stephen Covey (he of the 7 Habits fame) and his co-author Greg Link make a clear case that what they call SMART TRUST
creates prosperity and energy in organisations and individuals.
If SMART TRUST
is the adjective then MISSION COMMAND
is the verb that is the embodiment of it.
No business large or small could risk a wholesale adoption overnight and this is however neither a ‘one size fits all’ or an ‘all or nothing’ process. Provided there is clarity
in what is being done, it is perfectly possible for companies, teams and individuals to dip in and out of the philosophy but, and I make no apology for repeating myself, this does rely on clarity
. At its most basic, the adoption of Mission Command can almost be restricted to the senior or key management team. In Robert’s conclusions to his article on EMPOWERMENT
he made a compelling case for the practice of ‘letting go’ or ‘delegation’ as it is more dryly known. One of the most useful by-products of the adoption of this process is that it demands that you spend some time reflecting in detail on what you are trying to achieve. For you to communicate your INTENT
clearly and concisely you must first fully understand it yourself… if not, this becomes a charter for hoping that a half-baked hunch might work if you tell someone else to do it!
What is then the up-side, why bother taking such an apparent risk, the company ‘ain’t broke’ … so why fix it? Well in my opinion there is no room to stand still in business. My own modest successes have come from the ability to keep topping up the energy levels in my businesses and to keep hungry. At a very simple level the acceptance of the MISSION COMMAND
philosophy enables you to put more energy into your teams, to work smarter and to get much more from the same or even less. By encouraging, supporting and rewarding staff at all levels to think and act for themselves, you harness their latent innovative abilities and provide a more rewarding place to work. This process will be more effective in some parts of the organisation and team than others and without some leaders and managers will be found wanting. All of this is there to be managed and lead… BY YOU
…whoever you are at whatever level you are!MISSION COMMAND
is not a set of rules or procedures to be slavishly followed, it is as the old proverb says a set of “rules for the guidance of wise-men and the obeyence of fools”. It is an essential component of anyone’s tool kit which, when used well, WILL
transform performance, profitability and prosperity … if the right people are your biggest asset then it is the judicious use of MISSION COMMAND
that will really empower them to build the business…
Covey, S.R. (2004). ’The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, Simon and Schuster Ltd.
Covey, S.R. and Link, G. (2012). ‘Smart Trust’. Simon and