In October 1854 at the battle of Balaklava in the Crimea Lord Raglan issued an order. It read "Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate."
The order was delivered to the waiting cavalry by a rather gung-ho officer called Captain Nolan who, when questioned as to precisely which guns were to be advanced on, gestured vaguely towards the Russian guns. The result was, of course, the Charge of the Light Brigade – an act of stunning folly in the history of the British Army which has, of course, been presented as a glorious, heroic charge celebrated in art and bad poetry.
Until that point the Light Brigade had sat waiting for orders and had made no contribution to the battle. This method of command and control was the de facto approach in most armies and certainly the British Army until after the Falklands War in 1982. There are many similar instances of gloriously futile gestures such as Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, Napoleon's invasion of Russia and the siege of Stalingrad. All instances of over reliance on Command, a focus on results rather than process, poor communication – mostly one way – and a refusal to contemplate defeat and to plan for it.
As a consequence of the post conflict analysis which took place after the Falklands the British Army, not noted previously for its willingness to embrace change, was determined that to have resources effectively located in specialist areas and simply wheeled into place to carry out tasks in a prescribed manner was wasteful, inefficient and a positive hindrance to the achievement of objectives. The British Army then introduced a concept they called 'Mission Command' which was, in business terms, a sort of Agile approach to warfare.
In an organisation which employs talented and resourceful individuals the idea of simply issuing an order without any context tends to stifle initiative and resourcefulness which might be applied in achieving an objective. Explaining the objective and the rationale and giving the talented the opportunity to display their ability without the command and control by upper management defining the approach is more likely to result in a successful outcome. This is because those individuals are empowered to make decisions and, as they understand why they are being tasked and what the purpose of the task is, can devise efficient ways of achieving the objective which they all buy into because it is their plan.
Consequently managers in larger organisations are increasingly using Agile-type techniques in business processes. The development of self empowered teams with the resources they need has proven to be a far more efficient way of achieving objectives than simply wheeling in resources to achieve part of the process then having them more or less marking time until the next set of instructions arrives from on high.
This leads us to the question of 'Command and Control.' These are not the same thing; they do not mean that Command sends out instructions and Control tells people how to carry them out. Part of the Control function is, in fact, to rein in the Command function by, for example, ensuring that objectives are realistic and achievable, that resources are available and committed, that objectives can be achieved within an appropriate time frame – all the aspects of planning which means that a plan might actually work.
What Command and Control is not is interfering. The idea of senior managers scrutinising progress and monitoring the work of teams set up to achieve an objective can be very counterproductive. Research indicates that the first emotion often felt by lower level managers and team members when a senior person shows up is fear. This is particularly true in organisations where personal performance is the yardstick for promotion and failure is, effectively, punished by stagnating careers or even being 'counselled out'. This is far more prevalent than might be supposed. Senior managers may overtly support the idea of devolving responsibility downwards but covertly be unable to resist micromanaging.
This often results in the loss of talented and ambitious individuals who move on to employers who give them more freedom of movement or less fear and is not conducive to the idea of self managed teams working within an agreed strategic framework. The principles of moving to a more Agile approach to management rely on using the talents and skills of the workforce without them being tramlined by more senior managers with prescriptive ideas or engaged within traditional systems which fail to use the benefits of technology or change with social attitudes.
If an organisation built on a rigid hierarchy like the British Army can recognise the need to adapt to a different way of doing things it is perfectly possible for any other organisation to make changes too. Clearly this requires a degree of trust on the part of managers who are used to managing through much more formal command and control hierarchies. The process is evolution not revolution but the resulting improvement in corporate resilience – being able to adapt swiftly to change may prove to be a great benefit in uncertain and changing times.
This approach is not a panacea and may not be suitable in every context but the principles are powerful and worth considering. If Lord Raglan had adopted Agile principles he would not have issued such an ambiguous and poorly defined order in the first place and if the Light Brigade had adapted a more Agile solution it is highly unlikely that the favoured course of action would be to charge the Russian guns head on.
There would have been no poem, no old paintings and no battle honour on the regimental flag but 278 casualties and the lives of 335 horses would have been saved and the outcome of the battle, which was ,after all, the primary objective, would probably have been exactly the same.
John Taylor is an author for accountingcpd. To see his courses, click here.