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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Learning from the Prussians
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...
Published on 14 Dec. 2010 by Peter Acton

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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Can you apply Auftragstatik to Business?
Although it is not very clear from the cover of the book and the blurb (particular there is no Look Inside) this book is about applying the Prussian-German Army Auftragstatik (Mission Command) to business. Mission command these principles are being applied to a greater or lessor extent in the US and British Army and the Israeli Defence force (see Eitan Shamir Transforming...
Published on 21 Sept. 2011 by A reviewer from London


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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Learning from the Prussians, 14 Dec. 2010
By 
Peter Acton (Melbourne, Australia) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results (Hardcover)
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.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Different sort of business book, 28 Dec. 2010
By 
ASTJOHN Brown "StJohn" (East Grinstead, UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results (Hardcover)
I have largely given up reading business books because most of them seem to have one big idea which they advocate as the panacea for all, or nearly all, problems. Bungay is an excellent historian so I read this hoping for something different, as well as his insights on the Prussian/German military machines of the second half of the C19th and the first half of the C20th. I'm pleased to say I found it.

What is refreshing is the degree of humility in the book - which is appropriate given van Moltke's humility. There isn't a "one size fits all", there is - as Bungay himself says, a lot of applied common sense and even the Blindingly Obvious. Discussing the issue of friction (Clausewitz's word) is a good starting point in acknowledging all of the things that can go wrong with any plan, however well intentioned the executants might be. He doesn't use Rumsfeld's description of "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns", but "friction" is a nice way of summarising them. His view that there are often 3 "gaps" (Effects, Knowledge, Alignment) was new to me - and appears right - rather than the usual focus on what he calls the Alignment gap - the difference between Plans and Actions. His emphasis - from the Prussian military - on action and moving in roughly the right direction, rather than waiting for more and more information is also refreshing. His description of strategy as a framework for decision making and a guide to thoughtful purposive action also seems to sum up elegantly what its real role is. The quotation of van Moltke's directive to his commanders on 30th August 1870 (p125) needs framing in all strategic planning departments as a model for all communications.

Having stopped working for large companies a number of years ago partly because of the amount of useless internal processes - strategic plans that weren't, budgets that weren't believable, HR reviews that were politically correct - I have become uncertain how to develop a strategic plan in the small businesses I am now involved with. Thanks to the book, I am now clear in my own mind what I need to do to clarify what we, as a business, are trying to do (his boiler manufacturer example is brilliant), which gives the staff the clarity they want as well as the space to do what they do best, whilst enabling the strategic direction of the business to develop as circumstances change. The idea of writing a short brief does force one to really think (Richard Feynman's great response to a correspondent "Don't you have time to think ?!), which can be forgotten in the maelstrom of daily work. The backbrief is also an excellent suggestion for workaday use.

As I said at the start, I am somewhat out of touch with modern management literature, so can't compare his thinking with others. I suspect he wrote this book for an audience of mainly large company managers and leaders. Where I think the book may have a real impact is with the managers/entrepreneurs in smaller businesses, where the need for a strategic plan - as Bungay describes is real - but not for a strategic plan as practised by many Strategic Planning departments.

An excellent book that I read in two sittings, as I really wanted to understand how to use the insights.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fresh Ideas on Getting From Strategy to Action, 31 Jan. 2012
This review is from: The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results (Hardcover)
If you are a business leader, an executive, a manager, or even a humble employee, you probably have a nagging feeling that our organisations were designed for a slower and more predictable world than the one we find ourselves facing today. So we know we need to make our companies much more agile. But this risks of losing control, of having people frantically "chasing their tails", or blundering around a minefield, often dissuades us from easing up on the tried and tested tools of command and control. The result is so often disappointment: strategies that seemed sensible, or even brilliant, just don't seem to get executed the way we had hoped, despite all those fancy presentations and a barrage of targets and performance measures that today's technologies allow as to track almost in real time.

In the Art of Action Bungay tackles this problem head on. He sets out to find the answers to how we can create organisations that can adopt a clear strategic goal and then have the flexibility and good judgement at every level to achieve it in a fast-changing and uncertain world.

It's a big ask. But his answers are convincing. The book develops them with rigour, humour and a good dose of common sense. Years of practical experience as management consultant, described in the preface, shine through. What is surprising and so refreshing is where the inspiration for these insights ultimately comes from. Not from the within mountains of business literature and ex-CEO "how I did it" biographies, but from soldiers and their commanders. And not from "Desert Storm" either, but from the Prussian Army of the 19th Century.

The first time you encounter Helmuth von Moltke and his directives to troops in battles back in 1870, its hard not to be sceptical. As you read on, however, it becomes clear that the environment business needs to thrive in today is a lot more like a fluid battlefield where, as Moltke put it: "no plan survives contact with the enemy" (roughly translated) than the stable world of Fredrick Winslow Taylor's humming, organisational machines. And on reflection its not surprising that the military took the problem seriously and expended a lot of time and energy to find the answer; failure after all was a matter of life and death, not just a missed bonus or a falling share price.

The book looks at the lessons of military history in a new light - emphasising the types of organisations that successful generals built as the real key to their success, rather than command genius. And it brings these lessons into the heart of today's business reality: whether its enabling a check-in agent at British Airways to make judgements about how to deliver service to a late-arriving premium passenger without bringing the airline to a standstill; through to making sure a new product-development manager in Asia can help his team work out what to prioritise and how to speed up the cycle while reducing costs - decisions that will make or break the strategy of a company that needs to reverse its fortunes in a hurry.

Reading this book completely changed the way I was thinking about how to balance targets and constraints with the need to allow for the right kinds of discretion and enabling people to use their judgement and creativity to execute a strategy in today's volatile environment. For me it "did what it said on the tin": it helped me understand how to close the gaps between plans, actions and results in a new way.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best business book ever, 31 Dec. 2013
By 
T. CHAPMAN (London UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results (Hardcover)
This is a fascinating read - a superb bringing together of business leadership theory with the military equivalent. As I read it, I kept on excitedly spotting things that need to be improved in the organization in which I work. It goes beyond the trite business management fare and reveals that between "leadership" and "management" there is a much more important facet called "direction" - which makes excellent sense. The book offers many other similar insights that has greatly helped me to understand how organizations should thrive, and how to enthuse everyone to contribute.

It is also very engagingly written - Mr Bungay is also a great story teller, and so unusually for a management book, it leaves you wanting to keep turning its pages. His two historical books are also excellent reads too, and very revealing of the underlying strategic issues about how those battles were fought and won.

Not only is it the best business book I've ever read, it is the only one I've ever finished!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Corporate Battlefields o Art of Action, 18 Jun. 2011
This review is from: The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results (Hardcover)
Stephen Bungay has delivered a gem to those who read his book ..... Those leaders who do and endeavour to follow the 'Misson Command' leadership model advocated will enable their people to deliver a 'can do' organisation. Managers concentrate on complexity whilst leaders focus on change. The wise ones in both domains concentrate on their people and through empowerment deliver the intent via flourishment.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Learning from History - a lesson in common sense, 4 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results (Hardcover)
It's often the case that the answers to today's problems can be found in the past. In this book, Stephen Bungay bridges his work as both a management consultant and a military historian to look at the ways in which the Prussian (and later German) armies performed so effectively and shows how the same approach can be applied to make organisations more effective. Rather than expound a single 'big idea' as a 'silver bullet', the solution set out is - quite literally - common sense.

In a world where organisations seek to exert more and more control by setting performance metrics, KPIs etc as well as exerting control over staff 'behaviours', this book suggests the common sense alternative. Set the objectives at the top of the organisation (the 'what' and 'why') and let teams and individuals work out how best to achieve them, allowing them to react to changes in circumstances, opportunities etc without waiting for permission to be granted from 'above'. The examples provided and the suggested approach provide a fascinating insight into how team performance can be improved by putting responsibility back into the hands of individuals.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Can you apply Auftragstatik to Business?, 21 Sept. 2011
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This review is from: The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results (Hardcover)
Although it is not very clear from the cover of the book and the blurb (particular there is no Look Inside) this book is about applying the Prussian-German Army Auftragstatik (Mission Command) to business. Mission command these principles are being applied to a greater or lessor extent in the US and British Army and the Israeli Defence force (see Eitan Shamir Transforming Command for this.

Strangely enough there I couldn't find a definition for Mission command in Bungay's book so I am borrowing the definition from from Shamir: it is decentralised leadership .. a philosophy that requires and facilitates initiative on all levels of command ....it encourages subordinates to exploit opportunities by empowering them to take the initiative and exercise judgement in pursuit of their mission; alignment is maintained through adherence to the commanders intent"

The book is is essence three parts, although they are intermingled throughout the book.:

- How the Auftragstatik developed and and what is is intended to solve.
- A brief critic of existing theories on strategy
- Applying Auftragstatik to the business, essentially through mini cases.

These ideas are not new, I came across them originally in Mike Davidson's The Grand Strategist.

I thought that the description of how Auftragstatik was developed and what is is designed to solve very clear, from the defeat of the Prussian army at Jena, through Clausewitz, Moltke the elder and to its success at the unit level in WWII, although I admit I am interested in military history. Bungay uses the three gaps identified by Von Moltke, which he calls the alignment gap, the knowledge gap and the effects gap, as the basis for the bulk of the book. I think the description here is far easier to understand than the comparative section in Shamir's book. My only regret is he mentions Nelson used a mission command system but did not provide more details. However, if I am wondering if this level of information is really required for a business book.

This is because I found the part where he applied the principles to business weaker and not as convincing. One reason is that in most of the cases the companies were not named or the cases are composites. Although he briefly mentions SAP and how it imposes a standardized set of operating procedures on a company, it didn't answer the question I had on how you can apply a system that allows people to make individual decisions within in line with intent to a business environment that is constrained by a centralized IT system, tight regulatory environments, and last but not least tight profit margins. In fact Shamir shows that these are some of the factors why Mission command has not been fully successfully adopted in the US and British Army.

One of the examples is of Tracey, a desk agent for BA in 1995, leaving her desk to sort out a gold card customer who had arrived at the desk late for check in, so that he got on the flight. This was based on her training to put the Gold card customer first. This example does of course illustrate Auftragstatik in action. However 1995 is along time ago, my experience is that BA doesn't demonstrate this level of service today so what went wrong.

I think the book is worth reading, hopefully you will not be as pessimistic about applying it as myself.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Perceptive analysis of what's wrong with most business strategy advice, 11 Sept. 2013
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There are very few good books on business strategy and Bungay's isn't the best of that small list. But it is probably the only one that talks about how things need to be organised for strategy to be effectively implemented.

Bungay's insights, derived from military history, undermine a great deal of shallow conventional thinking on business strategy (his precision demolition of many very popular ideas is very welcome). It is particularly good to see a clear analysis of why too much planning can be bad for organisations and why "just follow the plan" is such dangerous advice. Great organisations are not machines that precisely follow instructions: they are adaptable to circumstances at every level.

How you organise makes a great deal of difference to how much success you are likely to have.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lessons for the modern business leader from the Prussian Army, 28 Nov. 2010
This review is from: The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results (Hardcover)
It has become a commonplace for management books to refer to military thinkers on leadership, but normally these thinkers are ancient Chinese writers, such as Sun Tzu. Here, Bungay has taken Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, architect of Prussia's astounding victories over Austria in 1866 and France in 1870.

Bungay shows that the system of command developed by Moltke addressed the problem of 'friction', first identified by Clausewitz, in ways that are fully applicable to modern business - and which show how incorrect is the traditional view of the German Army as rigid and inflexible. The explanation of friction presented here is the clearest I have seen in any work, and I would recommend the book for this alone, as it sheds light on a central factor in the problem of converting strategy into action that seems to escape most leaders. Bungay then goes on to discuss its implications for business in a straightforward and relevant manner, contrasting its core tenets with much of the management literature, which pulls in quite a different direction. Reading the book has certainly caused me to review my own approach as a senior leader, which must be the ultimate litmus test of any management book.

I should end by declaring an interest, in that Bungay references my own historical studies on Moltke.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A novel and valuable book, 23 Nov. 2010
This review is from: The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results (Hardcover)
This is a very thought provoking, well researched but yet practical guide to implementing a strategy. Businesses often struggle to do this well - but Bungay draws his inspiration from the military, who have been working out how to make things happen in chaotic and unpredictable situations for centuries. He describes how the Prussian army learnt to manage in conditions of uncertainty, and creates a usable approach for managers in today's organisation to deal with uncertainty.

The result is a very readable and useful guide to strategy that will give any thoughtful practitioner plenty to chew on. I particularly like the simplicity and richness of the three gaps model.
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