Making sense of it all

We’ve been arguing that perspective is a principle managerial task. Of course managers need to have perspective themselves – but the actual point here is that a major responsibility they shoulder as managers is to make sure that the organization as a whole has it as well. They do this in two broad ways, and we will take a brief look at the first today and next week.

This is the manner in which management disseminates the general organizational mission and specific instructions.

As mentioned periodically here, the extraordinary circumstances in which military commanders operate make their widespread use as individual models for the rest of us fraught with pitfalls, to say the least. But the same circumstances, as it happens, make military organizations particularly well-suited for study by managers. With respect to our present topic, the way that orders are transmitted in the modern military is of interest.

There is an unhappily stubborn presumption in the “civilian” world that the military is the archetype of a mindlessly hierarchical system. The belief, often reflexively offered to me when a civilian manager learns I have military experience, is that service men and women know how to follow orders without hesitation, without exception, and without question (Oh, they add with what they imagine to be a compliment, how they wish they had such employees!).

The discipline implied in assumptions like this is in fact expected, of course. But the suggestion that execution in the military is robotic or drone-like is decidedly off the mark. Indeed, the very method used to deliver orders to subordinate units turns out to be one of the very best illustrations of this point.

For example, the “mission-oriented” aspect of military orders is frequently singled out as their principle constructive distinction. Yes, their fundamental aim is to present specific actions to be performed. However prior to that the purpose for those actions is clearly laid out: the mission is concisely but completely detailed. And there’s still more before we get to the assignments themselves. First their way is prepared by describing the overall “commander’s intent” and the general “concept of operations.” Only then, finally, are the specific tasks delineated.

All of this both makes sense of the prescribed actions and enables the executing unit to adapt them as necessary in changing circumstances. Its members know the mission and that the real point is not their delivery of a pre-choreographed set of behaviors, but mission accomplishment – that is the point of it all, and it has priority. Moreover, due to the “intent” and “concept” sections, the unit also knows the commander’s interpretation of and approach to the mission, making their adjustment of their actual actions on the ground more fully informed and more likely to attain the desired end despite the inevitable and often profound changes in the environment that occur between mission assignment and execution.

This method of delivering instructions (and, importantly, the necessarily implied expectations as to how they are carried out) is obviously useful for application in non-military settings as well.

For our present purposes, though, there is another aspect of these military orders that is even more meaningful. And we’ll go over that next week. See you soon!
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