Mission Command
By Michael Hedgpeth · January 19, 2015
Mission Command

In the past whenever I found myself micromanaged, I complained that I’m not in the military, and I should have freedom to operate in my best judgement to solve the problem. I viewed the military as a command and control environment where orders were specifically given and followed to the T. I then reasoned that this is not how successful organizations operate.

The excellent book Lean Enterprise has debunked this myth with a concept of Mission Command that I’d like to share with you. From the book*:

In reality, command and control has not been fashionable in military circles since

1806 when the Prussian Army, a classic plan-driven organization, was decisively defeated by Napoleon’s decentralized, highly motivated forces.

Sounds a lot like a startup vs. a large company. Except this is two hundred years ago. The authors continue:

Napoleon used a style of war known as maneuver warfare to defeat, larger, better-trained armies. In maneuver warfare, the goal is to minimize the need for actual fighting by disrupting your enemy’s ability to act cohesively through the use of shock and surprise. A key element in maneuver warfare is being able to learn, make decisions, and act faster than your enemy.

Once the Prussians were defeated, they studied what went wrong and how they needed to innovate their military strategy in order to regain dominance. Their thought leadership came up with the concept of Auftragstaktick, or Mission Command:

In 1869, Helmuth von Moltke issued a directive titled “Guidance for Large Unit Commanders” which sets out how to lead a large organization under conditions of uncertainty. In this document, von Moltke notes that “in war, circumstances change very rapidly, and this is rare indeed for directions which cover a long period of time in a lot of detail to be fully carried out.” He thus recommends “not commanding more than is strictly necessary, nor planning beyond the circumstances you can foresee.” Instead, he has this advice: “the higher the level of command, the shorter and more general the orders should be. The next level down should add whatever further specification it feels to be necessary and the details of the execution are left to verbal instructions or perhaps a word of command.” This ensures that everyone retains the freedom of movement and decision within the bounds of their authority “the rule to follow is that an order should contain all, but also only, what subordinates cannot determine for themselves to achieve a particular purpose.” [emphasis mine]

So with lives on the line leaders implemented a sophisticated framework for implementing strategy while preserving freedom. This happened 150 years ago. It’s still difficult to implement today, though. We either overdo it with too much control because the leaders know best, that’s why they’re leaders. Or we give everyone autonomy and everyone ends up going in different directions.

These kinds of ideas are what I love about the Lean Enterprise book in particular and the lean movement in general. Software seems so new to everyone, that you can get caught up in solving problems in new ways and giving crazy names to them, like scrum, agile, TDD, etc. But the lean movement says, “Hey, we’ve had a few hundred years of solving problems with technology and enlightened thinking. You’ll probably find a lot of answers from those who have gone before you.” This concept of Mission Control is a great example of that.

  • the book also credits The Art of Action for developing these ideas. I haven’t yet read this book, but it’s on my short list.