The Art of Action – Stephen Bungay

The one-sentence summary

Gaps in knowledge, alignment and effects can be closed to create a closer fit between strategy and execution, by using learning from successful military leaders.

WHAT THE BOOK SAYS ART OF ACTION

  • This book is all about how leaders close the gap between plans, actions and results. It contains 10 GBOs (Glimpses of the Blindingly Obvious):
  • We are finite beings with limited knowledge and independent wills
  • Business is unpredictable-we should expect the unexpected and plan for it
  • Within our knowledge constraints we should identify the essentials of a situation and make choices
  • For people to take effective action, they must understand what they are to achieve and why
  • They should explain what they are going to do and check back with us
  • They should assign tasks and specify the boundaries within which they are free to act
  • Everyone must have the skill and resources to do what is needed, and the space to take independent decisions when the unexpected occurs
  • As the situation changes, everyone should adapt their actions
  • People will only show initiative if the organisation supports them
  • What has not been made simple cannot be clear and will not get done
  • Friction and nonlinearity prevents things happening smoothly in three ways:

1. Knowledge gap – the difference between what we would like to know and what we actually know: leaders need to limit direction to defining and communicating intent

2. Alignment gap – the difference between what we want people to do and what they actually do – allow each level to define how they will achieve the intent of the next level up and ‘backbrief’ – repeat back what they think they are doing

3. Effects gap – between what we expect our actions to achieve and what they do – give individuals freedom to adjust their actions in line with intent)

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT

  • There is a huge difference between stating your higher intent, and people actually doing it. Modern businesses need to set limited direction, and relinquish command and control
  • Directed opportunism is mission command in business
  • Swing a pendulum above three magnets and it gets pulled in all directions but the pattern is never the same twice – just like business activity
  • Top level frustration and lower level confusion usually results in asking for more detail, but this is the wrong thing to do and only makes things worse
  • Anti-goals are helpful: ‘whatever you do, do not allow this to happen’
  • The best approach is: a short statement of intent; outline of specific tasks; guidance about boundaries

WHAT YOU HAVE TO WATCH

  • It is heavy on military history so you have to wade through that.

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