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Peter Acton (Melbourne, Australia)

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The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results
The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results
by Stephen Bungay
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.59

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Learning from the Prussians, 14 Dec. 2010
One reason to maintain faith in human nature is the extraordinary number of senior business people who profess, and sometimes display, an interest in the humanities. For many, military history is a special interest and they are likely to have read Bungay's previous books which offered a management perspective on the Battle of Britain (The Most Dangerous Enemy) and Alamein. Bungay took Clausewitz's definition of war as "a clash of organisations" as a cue for a new approach to history. His scholarly analysis explained much of Britain's success in those campaigns in terms of logistics, information flows and organisation structure with a clarity not always found in traditional management case studies. Many managers would have drawn on Bungay's observations to guide their behaviour and that of their organisations.

In The Art of Action, Bungay addresses the demand for management guidance directly. He does not do this in the obvious way by laboriously reiterating the lessons about what Britain did right in the campaigns analysed in his previous works, but takes as his model the losing side - the Prussian command system inspired by Clausewitz and established by von Moltke in the Franco-Prussian war. In doing so he answers the question that one senses was nagging at him and many readers of his World War II books: how come, even though the management of their campaigns was hopeless in so many ways compared to Britain, the Germans frequently pulled off amazing successes against the odds by doing something quite unexpected that happened to be just right in the circumstances? The answer is The Art of Action.

Though his concern is with the practical, Bungay avoids the trap that catches so much management literature of drawing conclusions from anecdotes and common sense with no clear idea of the bounds of, or reasons for, their applicability. The Art of Action is firmly grounded in theory. It describes how Auftragstaktik or "mission command" evolved through reflection on experiences, how it struggled against reactionary forces within the Prussian army, what was learned and incorporated in subsequent campaigns and how it eventually flowered in the world's first "business school" - the German War Academy. Bungay identifies three gaps that cause divergence between plans and outcomes, shows how the German system addressed them and translates the implications into a management context. Each point is incisively illustrated with examples from his own consulting "war stories" or original case studies such as the delightful check-in lady Tracey, whose ability to do the right thing for an important customer rather than follow a rule book forms a powerful demonstration of how successful organisations need to be led and managed.

Bungay's title reflects his view that "creating great organisations and devising great strategies is not a science but an art." Just as no general can know precisely what it will be best for his men to do in the heat of a forthcoming battle, no organisation theorist can define a precise set of rules that will be applicable in all circumstances for every company. The book is an attempt, to use his own phraseology, to "direct the opportunism" of managers who want to adopt a proven model of effective command. It shows how planning detail must vary according to level of authority/information, but must still be based on robust analysis of demand and competition; it provides guidance on how to achieve true alignment, emphasising the importance of rigorous and precise briefings and the backbriefing process, and it demonstrates how actors must be able to respond to changing circumstances if they are to secure their intended outcomes. Business has been slower to pick these tools up than the military and some of the first management theorists to do so have tended to miss the point by defining rules to govern behaviour in circumstances that cannot be known in advance.

The true message of Auftragstaktik is much more optimistic. It has proved that the best results come from allowing individual autonomy and that the true challenge of leadership is to secure a genuine commitment to strategic objectives rather to monitor process compliance. Bungay sets a direction for aspiring leaders to follow; the most successful will be artists, not martinets.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 7, 2012 2:49 PM GMT

The Most Dangerous Enemy: An Illustrated History of the Battle of Britain
The Most Dangerous Enemy: An Illustrated History of the Battle of Britain
by Stephen Bungay
Edition: Hardcover

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Splendid New Edition, 25 Sept. 2010
In deciding to produce a lavishly illustrated but abridged edition of Bungay's definitive work on the Battle of Britain, Aurum Press set itself a considerable challenge. How was it to preserve the depth of scholarship and the passion of the original, while making it more accessible to new readers? How not to alienate the enthusiastic followers that this work and "Alamein" had inspired with a new understanding of these events?
Happily the challenge has been well met. The new edition is not only a pleasure to own (and another reason to delay buying that Kindle); it is immensely informative in a way more history books for laymen should be. The 12 pages of photographs of the original have been replaced by (literally) hundreds more, giving insights into the men and their machines that neatly complement the text. Maps are invaluable and well selected and placed. Most fascinating of all are the diagrams of tactics.
This has been achieved at the expense of some text, but most of what has been lost (the Preface, most of the notes and the start of The Eagles chapter, for instance) involves reflections that are not central to the development of the narrative. What remains tells the full story as Bungay told it and it remains a remarkable story, keenly told with a wealth of fascinating detail. Lost, sadly, are several passages that show the contribution Bungay has made to historiography by applying the perspective he brings from his career as a top-flight management consultant and educator, which enables him to distil operational causality in a way few have done before. For this, aficionados will not throw away the original when they acquire this complement to their drawing room, and will look forward to seeing Bungay develop this bridge between history and management disciplines in further works.

by Stephen Bungay
Edition: Hardcover

42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Alamein: Managing for Victory, 4 Oct. 2002
This review is from: Alamein (Hardcover)
Stephen Bungay's last book, "The Most Dangerous Enemy", broke new ground in military history by analysing the strategic and organisational elements of the conflict in terms of modern management thinking. By bringing a similar approach to the most important land battle Britain fought during World War II, Bungay again demonstrates the power and the versatility of the approach, while picking up some of the more intriguing themes from his earlier work.
Here again the analysis of organisational details is scholarly and precise. It is also immensely revealing, showing the effect on the battle of contrasting management styles: the German "mission command" approach offering enormous benefits in flexibility, motivation and creativity, compared with the more feudal British style, which appears to have managed to combine bureaucratic decision-making with "permission to whinge". It is in this context that Montgomery's leadership qualities and his deliberate rhetoric and self-glorification are seen as justified by their effectiveness... His caution and thoroughness contrast strongly with the personal nobility and flair of underrated heroes like Auchinlech and O'Connor but they could not have achieved the morale boosting impact Monty did; they could not have achieved at least some semblance of cooperation between tanks and infantry as Monty eventually did; most importantly they would not have emphasised training to the point where the British army was finally and permanently transformed into at least an adequate fighting machine.
Bungay's analysis of logistics is again painstaking and insightful, showing the importance of communications (particularly of Bletchley's brilliance at decryption) and the criticality of the large "overhead" that so disturbed Churchill. It is through this analysis that one gets an understanding of many of the individually determining features of the campaign, such as the importance of Malta, the impossibility of desert fighting without plenty of petrol and the impact of air superiority on desert supply capabilities.
In all this analysis, Bungay never loses sight of the human side of war. His descriptions of the soldiers' point of view (the flies, the terror of being burned alive in a tank, the general indignity of all forms of desert death) are exceptionally moving.
In a similar vein, Bungay takes us through the impact of the many personal clashes which characterised the war for both sides: Douglas versus Park (again), Rommel versus Kesselring, Montgomery versus Lumsden. Interestingly many of the British conflicts seem to have been about style - the archetypal British public schoolboy against the pragmatic modern concept of leadership - while the Germans' were more about substance. Rommel's frustration with Kesselring has a logic which seems to be lacking in Montgomery's distaste for Lumsden. Nor does Bungay omit the disastrous effect of lionising the air hero, Marseille, on Germany's effectiveness against British bombers, another theme that echoes his analysis of the Battle of Britain.
For all this analysis, Bungay, like the best type of management thinker, never loses sight of the big picture. The strategic emphasis on Russia that caused Germany to pass up the chance of domination in North Africa and the Middle East at the start of the campaign, the importance of a victory to the political support that enabled Churchill to continue to lead the war effort, and the fundamental incompatibility of Germany and Italy as allies, are all thoroughly documented and explained and their significance demonstrated.
The deep analysis and managerial insight Bungay has brought to this work has again shown itself to be a powerful framework for gaining a revealing and fresh perspective on historical events and a refreshingly original experience for the reader. It is to be hoped that there are more such works in Bungay's pipeline.

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