Mission Tactics: When Under-Specifying is Good

On my product engineering teams, I under-specify product requirements by design. That is, the work that engineers are asked to do is always left a little ambiguous.


I used to have a very naive view of how militaries made decisions. You had a formal chain-of-command, and detailed instructions were passed down that chain and implemented, no-questions-asked. If you questioned those instructions (or god forbid, decided to deviate from them), you would be reprimanded: yelled at by your superior officer or court-martialed (whatever that means) or something, idk.

It turns out modern militaries don’t operate that way (or at least, they try not to). In fact, over a century ago, the Germans developed a style of military tactic called Auftragstaktik, or “mission-type tactics”. Here’s how one German officer, Von Schell, described it in a 1917 military book called Battle Leadership that is popular until this day (it’s recommended on US Marine Corps Commandant’s reading list):

In the German army we use what we term “mission tactics”; orders are not written out in the minutest detail, a mission is merely given the commander. How it shall be carried out is his problem.

The Germans (or Prussians at the time, again idk) apparently developed this tactic of avoiding detailed orders in response to being beaten by Napoleon. Napoleon’s troops couldn’t be superior to theirs, they concluded, so he had to have just managed his troops better. Their detailed orders led to rigid tactics, and in the (at the time) modern warfare, there was no room for detailed, rigid commands. So, to give officers on the ground—who had the best knowledge of reality on the ground—the ability to adapt, they are given less detailed orders.

It turns out there is another benefit to less-detailed orders—a psychological one. Here’s our Von Schell again: “There is also a strong psychological reason for these ‘mission tactics’. The commander… feels that he is responsible for what he does. Consequently, he will accomplish more because he will act in accordance with his own psychological individuality”.

What Von Schell is describing, essentially, is what we could today call empowerment, though that term doesn’t come into existence until several decades later (and then it proceeds to get mis-used to death in the corporate world).

Big Waterfalls, Small Waterfalls

Now, in the type of software I’m involved in, we don’t have to defeat Napoleon and luckily, if we screw up, no one dies. But I’ve found that the idea of under-specifying works really well with my software teams.

In a traditional software development process, a product manager (or at many startups, the CEO who is the de-facto product manager) sets a high-level vision for what needs to get implemented. That product manager then works with designer(s) to translate that vision into more granular artifacts, like a product requirements document (PRD) and/or some visuals (mockups, etc). There might be user stories involved. Eventually, these get translated into “requirements” that are then given to the engineering team to build, maybe in the form of tasks in a tool like JIRA, Asana, etc.

You might recognize this as the “waterfall” method of software development, and it is the equivalent to my naive view of how militaries operate. It is rigid and instructions flow in one direction. The software industry recognized a couple decades ago, and movements like Agile were born. The spirit of Agile was to break the rigidity of the process and make things more light-weight and, well, agile.

But when not implemented thoughtfully, all Agile does is break the process down into smaller waterfalls. This is a definite improvement—smaller cycles and feedback loops are better than larger ones. But it still leaves a lot of room for improvement.

This is where under-specification comes in.

A Chance to Exercise Judgment

To summarize the benefits of “mission tactics” again, there were two benefits. The first is a tactical one: the people making smaller, on-the-ground decisions can make them faster and better. The second is a psychological one: mission tactics create a sense of ownership, which makes people more engaged and invested in the outcome.

This carries over into the software world. No matter how hard you try to specify everything, there will almost always be uncertainty. There will be edge cases you didn’t anticipate. Sometimes, it will become clear that an interaction or feature won’t work as designed only as it’s being built. And finally, things may end up being harder or easier to build than anticipated, which changes the calculus about which things are even worth building in the first place.

Any software developer working on a product needs to be constantly making micro-decisions around what they’re building. When something is unclear or doesn’t make sense, do they:

  • build it as designed?
  • halt, and flag it to someone on the product/design team but wait to get an answer?
  • improvise with something that makes more sense?
  • do some combination of the above?

These micro-decisions require an understanding of what they are building and why. They require an understanding of the users who will use the product, and the problem space. And, they require an understanding of the scope and likelihood of possible future changes. They require thinking holistically and strategically. But most of all, they require good judgment.

Good judgment is never engaged when detailed instructions are given. Good judgment is engaged and improved when there is room for it to grow.

Does this mean that specifications should be entirely ambiguous? Of course not. Without enough direction, it’s hard to build anything at all. A good overview of what needs to be built and why, along with some user stories and some visuals can help an engineer understand the “intent” of what needs to be built. Good visuals are especially important, because they remove the burden of thinking about how something will look, and let the focus be on how it will behave and how it will be built.

Does this work perfectly? Of course not, either. Mistakes will be made, details will be missed. But, it will be the details that are missed, not the big picture. And over time, as the team builds judgment and understanding, those missed details will tend to shrink.

Over-specifying

Unfortunately, I often see teams go the other direction: over-specifying. This can be an especially vicious loop to get stuck in, because it gets worse over time. Engineering tasks are heavily specified, so engineers don’t engage their judgment. They turn into literal “code monkeys”. They make obvious mistakes. The response to that? More specification the next time around to try and remove any opportunity for error. Which leads to less judgment, and more mindless coding. You get the point.

Does this always work?

It also turns out that many modern militaries adopted a variation of “mission tactics”, known as Mission Command. Mission Command swings the pendulum back a little from mission tactics. Instead of just communicating intent without details, superior officers exercise judgment in terms of deciding when to use more detailed instructions and control, and when to delegate. Officers are told that Mission Command requires “shared understanding, mutual trust, and high competence”. The literal chart given to officers to help decide how much detail to use in control looks like this:

https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/adp6_0.pdf

You can map that to software development as well. For under-specification to work well:

  • There needs to be a lot of ambiguity and lack of predictability.
  • The team is competent and experienced.
  • There is a high-level of trust and shared purpose.

These conditions are a lot easier to achieve at earlier stage start-ups, and it gets harder as a team grows to maintain these factors. Companies try to eliminate ambiguity and predictability as they grow. It gets harder and harder to maintain the same bar for talent (assuming that bar was there to begin with). And, of course, trust / intimacy starts to break down. And that typically tends to be when teams start to over-specify again.

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