Organizational Agility: Building Organizational Agility: Lessons from General Moltke on Autonomy vs. Alignment

Organizational agility requires decision-making autonomy and quick action in response to changing situations. Achieving an organization’s goals requires alignment. Leaders intuitively think that autonomy and alignment are at loggerheads (i.e. more autonomy leads to less alignment and vice versa).

The Prussian (and later German) army achieved outstanding results in its campaigns by adopting management principles attributed to Helmuth von Moltke (Chief of the General Staff, Prussian Army). His approach, dubbed Auftragstaktik or Mission Command, balanced the conundrum of autonomy and alignment well.

A German campaign on May 10, 40, which sparked World War II, is illuminating. Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium was considered impregnable and housed 1,200 troops. A German attack team of less than 500 men conquered this fort in 32 hours. What is instructive is not the victory itself, but how the well-laid German plan unraveled during the campaign.

The German army had formed glider teams to land on Eben-Emael to defuse 17 artillery guns in 10 minutes (to prevent a counterattack by Belgian forces). The chief found himself 100 km from the fort. A staff sergeant (junior rank), who landed on the fort, took command and accomplished the mission. This kind of initiative-taking and escalation of subordinates consistently makes the German military one of the best fighting forces in the world. Auftragstaktik, which Moltke defined as “the actions a subordinate took in the absence of orders that supported the commander’s intent”, was key to this. There are several elements that have gone into Auftragstaktik that are relevant to building agility in organizations today.

Communicate only the what and the why and not the how

Moltke’s guideline on leadership communication is clear – only share the what and why and leave the how to subordinates. A few of his quotes are instructive:

  • “Do not order more than is strictly necessary, nor plan beyond the circumstances you can foresee. In war circumstances change very rapidly, and it is rare, indeed, for instructions covering a long period of time in great detail to be fully carried out.
  • “The higher the level of command, the shorter and more general the orders should be. The next level should add any other specification it deems necessary’

Once a platoon was tasked with destroying a bridge over a river. The intention (as communicated to them) was to prevent the enemy from gaining easy access to the other shore. When the team reached the bridge and destroyed it, they realized there was another bridge several miles upstream. The team also took it upon themselves to destroy the second bridge, as they were clear on the “why” of their mission.

Encourage and celebrate independent thinking

All officers were encouraged to exercise independent judgment. Stories of officers exercising independent judgment (against the superior’s wishes) were regularly widely publicized. For example, during a campaign, the king sends word to the general on the warfront to attack. The general decides that the moment had not come and abstains. After some time, the king again sends a message urging the general to attack and the general still does not. On the third time, the king’s messenger serves an ultimatum that if the general does not attack, the king will have his head. To this the general replies that the king can have his head after the war, but as long as the general has it, he will use it.

Build a competent team

Auftragstaktik requires competent teams. Rigorous selection and comprehensive training have made it possible to achieve this objective. Some key dimensions were:

  • Cross training: Officers were exposed and trained in different army weapons. This allowed officers to have a good understanding and ability to lead any division (e.g. artillery or cavalry) when needed.
  • Emphasis on liberal arts and critical thinking in training: Officers were encouraged to critique and debate past wars, many times in front of the generals who led them. This has cultivated both a culture of critical thinking and an anti-elderly viewpoint
  • Scenario planning: War games were used to expose officers to uncertainty. Extensive preparation was devoted to major campaigns – for example, the Eben-Emael campaign included several attempts to have gliders land on a false fort

Cultivate a culture of mutual trust

A key enabler was a culture of mutual trust at all levels. When things went wrong, commanders supported their subordinates, if they acted sensibly to further the commander’s intent, even if the actions taken by the subordinates were not what the commander had envisioned. Likewise, subordinates have trusted the superior to have given the appropriate direction and resources for the campaign and have the back of the subordinate exercising the initiative.

The overall effect of all these organizational elements was that each person was prepared to operate two levels above their position and take charge when needed.

A question that arises in knowing the outcome of World War II is why Germany lost the war. First, all the other world powers had to subjugate them. Second, as the war progressed, Hitler began to centralize decision-making, going against the principles of Auftragstaktik.

Each element of Moltke’s Auftragstaktik is applicable to organizations seeking to cultivate agility. Some are easy to implement (eg, cross-functional training and job rotation) and others will take time (eg, nurturing a culture of trust). Transformation into an agile organization is a journey. So start now.

(The author is Managing Partner and Country Head, Kearney India)

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Aubrey L. Morgan