What Managers Can Learn From the Army’s Antidote to Micromanagement

Picture a military leader, and picture their management style. If you’re anything like I was (without much exposure to the military) you’re probably imagining top-down, centralized decisions being made in an authoritarian way and handed (barked?) down to subordinates who are expected to just act without thinking. Because that’s what we’ve seen in movies and such.

It turns out that this sort of management style doesn’t work well, even in the military. The US Army did a lot of research and a lot of thinking, and realized that strictly top-down, centralized decision-making has a lot of downsides:

  1. It results in worse decisions. Due to the high degree of ambiguity and unpredictability, folks closer to the action tend to have a more nuanced view of their local reality and can make better decisions and can make better local decisions. At the same time, having leaders constantly involved in local decisions undermines their ability to make the right broader/strategic decisions.
  2. It slows down decision-making. Top leaders are often both organizationally and geographically disconnected from reality on the ground, so even if they do understand all the on-the-ground nuances, communicating back and forth takes time. Leaders also have to operate with a broader view, which means their decision-making “event loop” is often slower.
  3. It lowers morale. For all the obvious reasons, being told what to do isn’t a very empowering leadership style. It dulls creativity, ingenuity, and innovation.
  4. It prevents subordinates from growing. If people aren’t allowed to make decisions, they never learn to make decisions.

So, with this all in mind, sometime around the 2000s the US Army formally adopted a leadership philosophy called Mission Command. Mission Command means that “subordinates, understanding the commander’s intentions, their own missions, and the context of those missions, are told what effect they are to achieve and the reason that it needs to be achieved. Subordinates then decide within their delegated freedom of action how best to achieve their missions.” Under Mission Command, commanders focus on high-level strategy, and while they do provide a top-down commander’s intent, the doctrine specifies that an order “should not trespass on the province of a subordinate”. In other words, “never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity”.

(It’s important to note that this wasn’t a new idea, and that a lot of the ideas behind Mission Command itself came from Prussian ideas called “mission tactics“… and that the Prussians were certainly not the first to discover that you can empower and decentralize to get better results).

Much of all this may sound obvious. Obviously, micromanagement is bad, and centralization tends not to scale. So many management books and blog posts have been written on the topic. So why do so many companies, so many managers, so many leaders, still practice top-down, centralized, micro-management?

We’re going to dig further into the Army’s literature to better understand what we can learn, and why delegation breaks down. After all, their ideas are battle-tested.

Lesson #1: Mission Command Doesn’t Negate Hierarchy

Mission Command does not negate hierarchy, and does not mean an organization can’t operate in a top-down manner at all. What it does offer is a template for organizations, no matter how top-down they are, to decentralize decision-making and to tap into their full potential. In other words, Mission Command still leaves room for management—just not micromanagement. It acknowledges that no one person can think both broadly and deeply (that space is just too large for one person to do well).

The US Army is still a very hierarchical organization, with ranks that go from highest to lowest and are worn on your sleeve. And in reality, most organizations end up embracing some sort of hierarchy. Depending on the organization, it can take different forms, but as a general rule, there will be people in leadership positions thinking broadly and people in acting positions thinking deeply.

Your organization will decide how top-down or hierarchical it wants to be, and there are a lot of trade-offs there, but that’s a subject for another post.

Lesson #2: Mission Command Does Not Abdicate Responsibility

“While commanders can delegate authority, they cannot delegate responsibility.” Mission Command does not allow leaders to abdicate their responsibility or hand it off to subordinates. Leaders are still accountable for the end results, whether they delegate or not, and in fact, that leads us to lesson #3.

Lesson #3: Not Everything Should Be Delegated

Since leaders are still accountable for end results, they must practice good judgment around when and how they delegate. Depending on the situation, and depending on the capabilities and experience of a subordinate, a leader may choose to delegate less or more. Over-delegating is not effective and sets a subordinate (and the team) up for failure. Over-delegating is just as much a poor leadership approach as under-delegating.

While delegation is, at the end of the day, a judgment call, the Army publication does provide a handy chart for helping leaders decide when to practice less or more control. So, for example, an unpredictable situation with high team cohesion and trust would warrant less control than a predictable situation with an inexperienced and undertrained team.

Interestingly, some leaders fall into a “pendulum pattern” where they simultaneously under-delegate and over-delegate (or swing rapidly between the two extremes). To understand that piece better, let’s talk about Lesson #4.

Lesson #4: There Are Requirements for Successful Mission Command

The Army found that forcibly imposing Mission Command on teams could lead to dramatic failures. So they dug in, and proposed seven principles required to implement the philosophy successfully:

  1. Competence: Leaders and subordinates must both be competent enough to achieve success.
  2. Mutual Trust: Not only should leaders and subordinates trust each others’ competence, they must trust that they can “rely on” each other. Without trust, commander’s don’t delegate. Without trust, subordinates don’t take initiative or make crucial decisions.
  3. Shared Understanding: Agreement on both the “operational environment” but also on purpose, problems, and approaches.
  4. Commander’s Intent: A clear, concise expression of the purpose and desired end state.
  5. Mission Orders: “Directives that emphasize to subordinates the results to be obtained, not how they are to achieve them”.
  6. Disciplined Initiative: Subordinates who are willing to exercise initiative, but still act with discipline and within the agreed upon intent.
  7. Risk Acceptance: An understanding that risk cannot be avoided, it can only be managed and mitigated, especially when delegated.

Without these seven principles, delegating is generally doomed to fail, and you can see why. If we don’t trust each other, or we aren’t competent, or we don’t have a clear vision of what we’re trying to accomplish, there’s no way for you to hand off a task for me and expect me to be successful. And if we try, we can end up back at that pendulum, where you give me a task, you perceive me to have not done it well, and so you have to step in and micro-manage the situation—and we just swing back-and-forth.

Putting It Together

So how do we put it all together? First, it is a leader’s primary responsibility to foster an environment that enables something like Mission Command. We can arrive at what that entails by mapping the Army’s seven principles and adapting them to any organization.

For example, for a typical startup, leaders might:

  • Build a highly-competent team, with the right amount of experience and raw talent.
  • Invest in trust up-and-down the hierarchy, and across different teams/groups.
  • Crystallize a clear vision of what the future should hold—for the company, for the product, for each person on the team.
  • Create constant opportunities for alignment with some cadence. A typical start-up might have a very stable mission that is written down and constantly referenced. There might be also be a high-level vision document that is updated every few years, a strategy document updated once a year with more detail, and some sort of rough quarterly planning. This should all cascade in an orderly way, and ideally, this is not done in a totally top-down way.
  • Empower the team by accepting risk and delegating appropriately.

As a broad rule, if you (as a manager or someone working with a manager) feel like delegation isn’t happening effectively, I’ve found the Army’s seven principles to be a good starting point to debug what might be missing.

If you’re curious to read more about Mission Command and the Army’s approach, I highly recommend The Army’s ADP 6-0, which goes into a lot more detail!

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