What Is Mission-Command Strategy?


Most books on business strategy acknowledge the military origins of strategy (including myself in a recent perspective on the History of Strategy. Yet there are key business insights military strategy can offer which are largely overlooked. Namely, that by the 19th century, military thinkers were cued into the realization that big strategic plans developed at the top didn’t work on a complex, fast-moving battlefield where the enemy kept doing unexpected things. Field Marshall Graf von Moltke the Elder (1800 – 1891) astutely observed, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.” This was later more memorably paraphrased by boxer Mike Tyson who stated, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Based upon this insight, military strategy evolved to more dynamic approaches which sought a balance between strategic guidance and on-the-ground flexibility and resourcefulness—a form of strategically guided autonomy.

Business strategy, meanwhile, went off on a tangent toward the big top-down plans. By the end of the 1960s, when business strategy had become a proper discipline with its own practitioners, tools, and methodologies, the set up for business strategy was modelled on its direct precursor — scientific management — instead of taking inspiration from its conceptual military parent. Strategy was and still is formulated at the top, often in a secretive fashion, to be handed over to and cascaded down the organization.

What can we learn from the military? Let’s consider the concepts of “detailed command” versus “mission command,” which the U.S. Army in its formal theory of warfare contrasts against each other as two different approaches to dealing with uncertainty.

Detailed command is focused on information and data. It aims to reduce uncertainty within the ranks of the upper echelon by collecting more and better data and by increasing information processing capability. Detailed command trades speed for completeness of information but often results in greater uncertainty at the lower levels because those people do not have the information on which decisions are based and, as a result, are not committed to it.

The effect is then that implementation of a detailed command approach requires greater control of lower-level managers and more detailed orders, which, in turn, limit the creativity that staff can contribute (and over stretches those in command). Moreover, because of the difficulty of getting accurate up-to-date information of the situation on the ground, and the gap between conception and execution, the appearance of more certainty at the top is often an illusion. This is especially worrisome in faster changing, more dynamic business environments—a situation many businesses find themselves in today.

Mission command is action-oriented. It aims at reducing uncertainty evenly throughout the organization. Leaders educate their organizations to co-develop a widely understood strategic vision and manage a set of discrete strategic missions as part of normal operations. They delegate authority for decision-making to those levels that can acquire and process information and move into action quickly toward the strategic missions without waiting for detailed orders. The process makes full use of an organization’s talent within the strategic guidance provided by the strategic missions.

The mission command approach to strategy leads to a more flexible approach to management and to greater understanding throughout an organization. It thereby results in a more agile, effective, and anticipative organization.

While the two approaches are a continuum, not a dichotomy, it is important to recognize that in the 20th century military, the conduct of operations steadily shifted from detailed-command strategy to mission-command strategy. Detailed command is increasingly seen in the military as appropriate for technical and procedural tasks, while mission command is viewed as the more appropriate approach to the actual conduct of military operations.

Businesses should take note. The business equivalent of a mission-command strategy—one which would strategically and continually guide an organization to make the most of first-hand experience of markets, customers, and operations and maximally leverage resourcefulness—sounds exactly like what is needed in today’s fast changing and dynamic business environment. Then, conceivably, businesses could take a punch in the mouth but still win the fight.

By Gillis J. Jonk

Original article here

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