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Is Transformation Too Slow And Ineffective In Your Organisation?

Insights From The Military For Successful Change

Butterfly change Chrysalis
Written by:
John Hall
John Hall

I have several friends and professional acquaintances in large corporations entering formal transformation programmes now. Many of them find themselves in Kafkaesque situations, such as being called into company-wide change workshops where, because the transformation programme has no defined goals and no key messages yet, it is substituted with a placeholder workshop on the ‘principles of leading through change’. I imagine one of the principles would be not to hold reorganisation workshops that give no details of the intended change!

As a consequence, what are the options for those engaged middle and senior managers, who are quarterbacking all the delivery of the organisation and about to enter this change?

  • Option 1
    Return to their normal work and consciously ignore the fact that much of what their teams are delivering may be wasted effort, whilst in the dark on the new intended direction
  • Option 2
    Enter ‘safety first’ mode and start gaming the possible outcomes and some paths to personal survival through the change
  • Option 3
    Try to prepare their teams for the coming change, whilst risking spreading further uncertainty, given the lack of messages and direction to share
  • Option 4
    Disengage and activate routes to progress their careers outside of the organisation

Possibilities With A Mission Approach To Transformation

So how can we engage people in a way that speeds up the transformation and makes them feel more in control of their destiny? Mission command is a doctrine “Auftragstaktik” that emerged in 19th century Prussia and has been continually updated by modern militaries to deal with the fast-changing situations of the battlespace. The famous military strategist, the Prussian general Von Moltke, remarked:

A favourable situation will never be exploited if commanders wait for orders. The highest commander and the youngest soldier must be conscious of the fact that omission and inactivity are worse than resorting to the wrong expedient…

For Mission command to work, the leader gives subordinate team leaders a clearly defined objective that the teams need to accomplish and a time frame within which it must be reached. The subordinate leaders then implement the order independently. Each subordinate leader is given a high degree of planning initiative and freedom in execution which allows a higher degree of agility and flexibility at team levels of command. This approach also keeps senior leaders from descending into detail and micro-managing.

There are times where orders issued to subordinate leaders will not achieve the intent or objectives of the commander, General McChrystal advises, “When you find out the order we gave you is wrong, carry out the order you should have been given”.

Change is both time consuming and frustrating for organisations. What appeared simple in some consultants’ presentation collides with local reality and therefore progress slows and morale declines. So why not harness peoples’ creativity and energy in the meantime? The evidence base on change highlights respect for individuals and their skillsets, and the opportunity to experiment with ways of working, as two repeated factors behind successful change. Mission command is thus a highly relevant doctrine for change.

Creating A Clear Path For Change

The organisation’s leaders may be uncomfortable with their people fully following Von Moltke’s prescription above, but here is where these leaders can buy time and start moving the organisation in a beneficial direction immediately, well before the change can be worked up in detail. By trusting that involving their people will harness their engagement, the following principles of mission command can help:

  • Share the intent early with the wider organisation; what are we intending to achieve and why are we doing it?
  • Set clearly the allowable boundaries and constraints you expect (these can be refined as detailed planning proceeds)
  • Set up networks that encourage people to begin to solve the problems in their space and experiment in line with the intent, whilst respecting the defined freedoms and boundaries
  • Use the networks to harness the learnings and feed that back into the deliberate transformation planning

Our experience at Skarbek shows that similarly agile approaches to change, when done well, can fuse the detail being worked up in necessarily small cells, with the energy of the wider organisation. Thus, the often months-long pregnant pause can be exploited in the same way the best militaries unleash the initiative of their people to gain advantage.