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Last week I blogged about mission command – auftragstaktik – a philosophy of command-and-collaboration developed by the German General Staff over a period of about eighty years, beginning in the 19th Century. Today its elements can be found in the field manuals of the world’s leading armed forces. While one finds the words in the manuals, however, the habits and behaviours that underpin mission command are more difficult to emulate. Mission command is not just a set of tools and techniques that can be learned and “applied”. If humans and their organizations were “blank slates” – computers that could be programmed – then such a cut-and-paste approach might work, at least in principle. But they aren’t and it doesn’t. One has to adopt the whole philosophy that supports mission command and take the time to develop the individual habits and institutional disciplines that allow it to work effectively.
At the Drucker Forum this year I had the good fortune to meet Peter Starbuck, who did his doctoral thesis on the work of Peter Drucker. After discussions with him about his book, “Drucker’s MbO”, and while writing the last three blogs, it struck me that Peter Drucker’s Management By Objectives suffers from the same complexities as mission command. That is, it is not a set of tools and techniques that can be overlaid on any organization and be expected to work effectively; one has to adopt the philosophy that underpins it too. So one has to ask: “What is the philosophy that underpins MBO? What was Drucker’s intent?”
This is the third blog in my series of reflections on the 5th Drucker Forum held in Vienna November 14-15, 2013. Among the many things that make this event so stimulating and memorable to attend is the numerous conversations that “bubble” up during the coffee and meal breaks among people who may never have met before. There are a lot of senior folk among the participants, with a wide range of experience, and they don’t hesitate to express their views! An additional bonus is that, unlike in many other conferences, the major speakers don’t fly in “seagull-style” to deposit their views and leave; they are usually there for the duration and are easily accessible during these informal sessions. As a result, while one may come out of the Forum physically tired, one is intellectually invigorated!
My blog this week is inspired by a question on our project management panel, when the discussion turned to project implementation and one participant asked “What about the leaders’ intentions?” What ensued was a discussion about mission command, the approach developed by the famed German General Staff in the 19th Century and espoused, if not always practiced, by all the leading armed forces around the world. This concept is now making its way into management. It seems that we may not be moving, as many pundits claim, from an era of “command-and-control” to one of “communicate and cooperate” but to a more creative, paradoxical condition of “command and collaborate”.
My blog this week is an extended version of a comment I made a couple of days ago on Adrian Wooldridge’s (the Schumpeter columnist) report on the 5th Drucker Forum in The Economist. It also picks up from last week’s blog, in which I reported on the project management panel in which I participated.
The overall theme of the 5th Drucker Forum was “Managing Complexity” and one of the inadvertent spins that title may have put on the sessions was that complexity was something to be coped with and reduced rather than a phenomenon that could also be embraced and explored. Thus one of the themes that emerged from a comment from the floor of the Forum was that while complexity is certainly a challenge, it is also an opportunity.
A fundamental source of complexity not mentioned in the conference plenaries, but which was discussed on our project management panel, is fractal or scale complexity. Benoit Mandelbrot in his book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, illustrated this kind of complexity by asking “How long is the coastline of Britain?” It turns out that the answer is scale-dependent – the length of the coastline depends upon the scale at which you measure it. For example, the CIA World Factbook records it 7,723 miles (no scale mentioned); the U.K. Ordnance Survey measures it at 11, 073 miles (scale 1:10,000). If one measured it with a micrometer, it would be much longer still. At the limit the length of the coastline zooms to infinity.
This is not just a geographical oddity; it applies in many areas. Consider the challenges of managing a modern car manufacturing process, where the tolerance of skin panels in the best plants is less than 0.5mm. Compare that with a British car manufacturing process from the 1950’s, where body tolerances of 0.5 inches were considered good going! The former is a much more complex, fine-grained process requiring a highly sensitive system that detects errors quickly, learns and responds rapidly. It has to stick as close to the root of the error as possible. The result is a lean production process of the kind pioneered by Toyota, which demands the engagement and attention of everyone on the shop floor. In the coarse-grained 1950s plant all it took was a worker with pot of molten tin at the end of the line to fill in the gaps! No learning on the shop floor was required…
Over the weekend I got back from Vienna, where I attended the 5th Annual Peter Drucker Global Forum, the theme of which was “Managing Complexity”. Last year I attended my first of these extraordinary conferences on the strength of my prize-winning essay, which I had entered for the Peter Drucker Global Essay Challenge. This year I returned and a few weeks before the session was asked to be a panelist on the topic of “Project Management, Systems Thinking & COMPLEXITY”.
I must confess that my heart had sunk a little when I saw the words “project management”. Almost everything I have read about the topic over the years has depicted a process that seemed to flow like a Cartesian cascade in a hard-rock canyon. All the thinking appeared to be done by the folk at the top and all the work was done by those at the bottom, where their behaviour was constrained by a straightjacket of action plans and deadlines imposed from above. This impression had been matched by my experience in the companies I had worked for, where I came to think of “project management” as a tool for corporate oppression. “Stretch goals” were handed down from on high with arbitrary deadlines from which there was no appeal. “Administrative practices” were applied to get them done. Deviations from those action plans were likely to show up in one’s performance review. “Make it happen” was the corporate mantra.
Last Thursday I was the opening speaker at the International Forum for Future Europe held November 7- 8 in Vilnius, Lithuania. The theme of the conference was Sustainable Development and Harmonious Society and the title of my talk was “European Renewal and the Ecology of Sustainability”. I had been given 20-30 minutes, which is the shortest time I have ever had to get across an ecological perspective, especially when dealing with such a large complex system as the European Union. I decided to express the central message in terms of three memorable artifacts (see picture):
- An image of a forest in springtime as a reminder of the value of nature as a model of how to achieve sustainability through continual renewal
- A symbol of constant change in the form of a golden Moebius strip or infinity loop to remind us of the processes of ecological change
- A quote “Nothing lasts unless it is incessantly renewed” by Charles de Gaulle. He was writing about the French Army in 1942 but the thought has much broader application!
The presentation was very well received by the approximately 300 attendees in the Lithuanian Parliament buildings and kicked off two days of presentations and discussions on a wide variety of sub-topics related to the overall theme.