The problem of business leaders failing to implement strategy is widespread and well documented.
“There is one business problem that, if solved, makes solving all other problems easier. Knowing how to plan and execute, while overcoming “today’s surprises” is the most foundational leadership capability any organisation can have. The inability of leaders to do this is the problem that business leaders must solve. With the capability to plan and execute continuously, they gain control of their businesses. Without it, their businesses adopt a reactive, firefighting existence. “
But why can’t we get the important strategic stuff done?
It’s an old problem which has been around for many years. Indeed recent survey’s highlight that senior management remains concerned that their organisations fail to execute and further add that their teams lack alignment with the organisational strategy.
This old problem also has an old solution. The solution is not only old but also relatively simple. In fact, once understood, it feels like little more than common sense. Unfortunately, being common sense does not make something common practice.
So, if the solution has been around for a long time and it is relatively simple to understand, why isn’t it standard practice?’
At NorthCo we believe the reason why the solution has not been adopted is down to four main reasons:
The first reason is that the history of management thinking in the 20th Century has been conflicting.
In the decades following the industrial revolution, many businesses were built up around factories which were essentially machines, and the people needed to operate them were integrated into them like the proverbial cogs.
The machine became the model for business as a whole, and the job of managers was to keep them well-oiled. For example, in 1909 Frederick Taylor published “The Principles of Scientific Management”.
Taylor believed that all workers were motivated by money, so he promoted the idea of “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” In other words, if a worker didn’t achieve enough in a day, he didn’t deserve to be paid as much as another worker who was highly productive. Effectively promoting the idea that the best workers were those that behaved like a machine, without thinking or feeling – automotons. This model is still surprising well engrained into many organisations.
In the 1960s, social psychologist Douglas McGregor developed two different conflicting theories that explained how managers’ beliefs about what motivates their people could affect their management style. He labelled these Theory X and Theory Y.
Theory X and Theory Y were first explained by McGregor in his book, ‘The Human Side of Enterprise,’ and they refer to two styles of management – authoritarian (Theory X) and participative (Theory Y).
If you believe that your team members dislike their work and have little motivation, then, according to McGregor, you’ll likely use an authoritarian style of management. This approach is very “hands-on” and usually involves micromanaging people’s work to ensure that it gets done properly. McGregor called this Theory X.
On the other hand, if you believe that your people take pride in their work and see it as a challenge, then you’ll more likely adopt a participative management style. Managers who use this approach trust their people to take ownership of their work and do it effectively by themselves. McGregor called this Theory Y.
The second reason is that, while it is reasonably clear what we should not do, there is so much theoretical advice about what we should do that things have become unclear.
Investors in People and other such programmes of the 90’s had management writing vision statements akin to a miss world contestants pitch. Add to that; TQM, Kaizen, and a plethora of other programmes and theories, Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory, McClelland’s Human Motivation Theory, Sirota’s Three-Factor Theory, and Amabile and Kramer’s Progress Theory. The world of management and leadership has become a very confusing one indeed.
When the pressure of modern organisational life becomes prominent and things don’t go according to the plan, managers revert to an authoritative leadership style and their trusted task lists.
The third – VUCA. We live in a rapidly changing world.
The speed of decision and rate of transition from one activity to another required within modern organisations must have been unimaginable to Taylor, or McGregor. Our modern, rapid change world of 24-hour news, instant communication and innovation can and does create VUCA. Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity, our world is full of VUCA.
VUCA causes fear, and fear causes inaction because when people don’t know what’s coming next, they tend to dwell on the dangers and hazards of what might happen. You can read more about the effects of VUCA here.
The fourth reason and in our opinion the most influential
The solution has its origins in military doctrine and as such is misunderstood because it has not been adequately explained, instead, being given misguided labels such as “command and control” such that the misunderstanding has built up barriers to adopting the solution.
The overwhelming perception of military leadership is that it relies heavily upon a combination of fear of the leader, fear of the system, fear of the consequences of disobedience or the blind obedience of its personnel, which in fact couldn’t be further from the truth. Perhaps, many years ago this was true, but it is not so today. What the military does rely upon is a combination of motivation, teamwork, belief in the cause, the will to win, trust in each other and discipline, discipline to do the right thing.
Fortunately, others have been here before. They realised that, in a fast-changing unpredictable (VUCA) environment, organisations do not work like well-oiled machines. The winning players behave like organisms and are able to act more effectively within complex situations than their rivals.
An organisation of that type, the type we are searching for now, began to be developed more than 100 years before Taylor created the problem.
Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, born in 1800, was both a practitioner and thinker in the fields of strategy, leadership, organisation and what we would today call management. He developed the Army’s basic operating model, which has become known as Auftragstaktik.
This solution to the problem von Moltke identified in his 1868 Memoire is simple but remarkable. The principles of Auftragstaktik were so effective that they have been adopted into official NATO doctrine as “Mission Command”.
Contrary to the misguided idea that command and control is to bark out orders to be followed blindly, Von Moltke emphasis on alignment, quite simply that the more alignment you have, the more autonomy you can grant. Instead of seeing them as the end-points of a single line, he thinks about them as defining two dimensions. Alignment is achieved around what to achieve and why.
Furthermore, trying to get results by directly taking charge of things at lower levels in the organisational hierarchy is dysfunctional, as a leader thereby “takes over things other people are supposed to be doing, more or less dispenses with their efforts, and multiplies his own tasks to such an extent that he can no longer carry them all out…It is far more important that the person at the top retains a clear picture of the overall situation than whether some particular thing is done this way or that.” Detail is not the same as clarity. In fact, it is its enemy.
Autonomy is granted about what to do and how. The basis of Moltke’s method was the articulation of an ‘intent’ in the form of a mission or Auftrag, which consisted of a task and a purpose. Accordingly, the approach became known as Auftragstaktik.
Whilst other armies sought to manage chaos by controlling “How”, Moltke sought to exploit chaos by commanding “what and why”.
This implied a new concept of discipline. Discipline was not about following orders but acting spontaneously in accordance with intentions. They coined the phrase‘selbstständig denkender Gehorsam’ – ‘independent thinking obedience’. The moral and emotional basis of Auftragstaktik was not fear, but respect and trust. A German officer’s prime duty was to reason why.
The result is that the organisation’s performance does not depend on its being led by a military genius, because it becomes an intelligent organisation. Rather than relying on exceptional individuals, this solution raises the performance of the average.
The origins of our process, Mission Focused Leadership® come from Auftragstaktik albeit adapted to suit today’s commercial organisation.
Mission Focused Leadership seeks to create a competitive advantage by exploiting chaos (VUCA).
A Mission Focused mindset is a state of mind – Be the cause, not the effect.
NorthCo Management are Strategy Execution Experts; we help clients’ to pursue their most significant opportunities. Aligning operational strategy with organisational ambition is our centre of gravity at the core of everything we do.
Combining strong analytical skills with clear operational focus, Strategy facilitation, Strategic Coaching, Strategic Support and Strategic interim management to help leaders achieve ambitious goals.