Organizational culture resilient to drastic changes with help of Simon Sinek and German military tradition

All figures are important when played right

I guess we can agree that 2010s were about disruption. It is hyped and overused word but nevertheless it is main trend in 2010s. In everchanging environment when rules of the game change in real time, it is normal that a lot of small players confronted head on with large players. And won. Then those small players became large players and get confronted by new small players. This situation kept everyone on their toes. Self-confidence developed that organizations are ready for anything that comes their way.

In late 2019. Covid-19 emerged as “icing on the cake”. This brought new levels of disruption. The disruption so great that we named the new situation “new normal”. Being on your toes for a decade you start to think that you can manage to survive always. Truth is that no one was ready for new disruption, but some adapted faster than the other. What is the catch? Organizational culture.

Edgar H. Schein in his book „Organizational culture and leadership“ offered dynamic definition of culture:

“The culture of a group can be defined as the accumulated shared learning of that group as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration; which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, feel, and behave in relation to those problems.

This accumulated learning is a pattern or system of beliefs, values, and behavioral norms that come to be taken for granted as basic assumptions and eventually drop out of awareness.”

Strict organizations in stable situations behave like steam roller. They grind forward relentlessly. They are complex machinery in which every little cog knows its role and tasks. The tasks are broken down in simple steps that ensure everyone knows what to do in any previously anticipated situation. This approach is called “command and control”. “Command and control” organizations develop culture where employees are relying on predefined procedures. “Command and control” culture does not create tools to manage transitions and unknown situations. In other words, organizations that rely on “Command and control” culture have issues managing new situation but also, and Covid 19 showed that it is very possible situation, when managers fall sick.

The challenge here is that you cannot introduce a new culture by “decree”. You need to work on the culture for years to change “way to perceive, think, feel, and behave”. Well, if it is a long process, let’s think what we really need to incorporate into our culture!

I suggest two, at first sight diametrically opposite, approaches:

1. Implementation of “Mission command” doctrine (ger. Auftragstaktik)

2. Define our “Why” and build it in everything we do

Mission command

Mission command” (ger. Auftragstaktik) is military doctrine. I do not like militarization of society or even military approach in business. Please bear with me since it is not about army or shooting. The doctrine was developed by Prussia after losing battles with Napoleon (imagine angry Prussian that lost against Napoleon, again). The goal was to develop systematic combat approach against brilliant commanders (usually very creative commanders). The idea was developed by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. His conclusion was that strict military hierarchy and center strategic control are far less efficient comparing to definition of strategic mission goals to well-trained operatives in the field (officers). This allows flexible and independent actions and tactical decision making independent of central management (or paperwork). In other words, idea is to improve performance against creative opponent with flexibility. Right now, situation looks like very creative opponent is creating conditions to crush us

There were many historians that believe that one of the operational and tactical advantages of Wehrmacht comparing to allies was Auftragstaktik. Again, I do not like militarization and specially do not want to glorify Wehrmacht. But even allies military leadership saw advantages of the doctrine when they understood that some of the bravest tactical moves were done without or against central commands. Partially this doctrine implemented into United States ground forces after D-Day.

Some of the interesting examples of Auftragstaktik are:

Fort Eben Emael attack

https://www.historynet.com/hitlers-secret-attack-on-the-worlds-largest-fort.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Fort_Eben-Emael

Battle of Tukkum

https://www.quora.com/Why-was-the-German-military-so-successful-during-the-first-three-years-of-WWII?page_size=10#!n=12

https://erenow.net/ww/devils-general-life-hyazinth-graf-strachwitz-panzer-graf/21.php

Auftragstaktik is often mentioned in context of modern organization. Logic behind it is that management of the organization defines strategic goals and defines mission. Development and definition of tactics is done by team leaders and teams. With this approach we empower teams, increase employee engagement, and encourages taking responsibility for the outcomes. Team members need to be highly professional and trained. Micromanagement of teams and team members becomes unnecessary.

Auftragstaktik is not approach where everyone does what he / she wants. Fortunately, it is not so. The goal of the team leader is to encourage professionalism of his team members. In return team members get freedom of action but in line with the mission. And that is winning combination: professionalism, empowered and engaged team members with focus on common goal — mission.

My point of view, and in line with 4th industrial revolution, is that with this approach instead of a cog our team members become nano bots. They can change roles and functions, but always working in team’s and organization’s best interests which are aligned with their own interests.

Why

What happens when we are left alone? The mission is clear to us. Our goal is also clear. We are faced with two options that are diametrically opposed in the grand scheme of things. How to choose the right option. As in navigation, we need a “real north”. In addition, I believe that Mission Tactics is too militant at its core (and history) and needs a counterweight that will bring humanity back to what we do. No matter what we do.

Simon Sinek in his book “Start with why” develops this subject. He named the guiding idea “Why”. “Why” in practice answers the question why (any) organization exists. And no, the right answer is never “To make money”. Money is, according to Sinek, consequence and not the goal.

Simon Sinek develops the idea by strictly distinguishing “Why organization exists”, from “How the organization does what it does”, and specially “What the organization does”. The difference between those three is probably easiest to understand on examples. So, examples:

Why we exist: We want to bring more transparency to our society by digitalization

How we do it: We proactively define processes with all stakeholders and define and develop prerequisites. In same time we keep in our minds social and technological specificities of both processes and stakeholders.

Fun starts when we see “What” can we do based on defined “Why” and “How”:

- Software development

- Education of kids and elders

- Media management and content delivery

- Contact center that helps elders to adopt to digital terrestrial TV

- Consultation of stakeholders how to digitalize

- Software as a Service

The list can go on. That is the best part of Sinek’s “Why” — we define our organization with something that is bigger than a product, physical or virtual. Sounds easy but fact is that ALL organizations know WHAT they do, but rare know WHY they do it (aside from “To make money”). WHY is hard to define and even harder to maintain.

Trick is, Simon says, that when we invest money in any business, we expect return of investment and profit. When we are emotionally invested then we want to participate. Very few people in the world will get emotionally invested in a product or organization because of its characteristics (“I love my car because it has 6 gears”). People will get emotionally invested because of untouchables (“I love my car because it enables my freedom to move”). This goes both ways — toward customers and in same time toward your employees. So, if we define clear “Why” that will enable our employees to identify with it, they will invest emotionally into our organization. This clear “Why” will not only help the employees to identify and invest but also they will know what they must do in every situation. The employees will know the “True north”. For such employees you know they will do right thing and there is NO need for micromanagement. Our employees sometimes will make a mistake, but the mistake is part of the learning and will not repeat. Our clear “Why” will correct all our employees automatically.

Clear “Why” comes from the top — from management. Everybody from management to janitor must behave according to common “Why”. Up to the point where if there is a potentially profitable business and it is not aligned with our why — we must decline it. For example, if our “Why” is “Bring more transparency to society by means of digitalization”, we will not take part in a project that will introduce a stamp in city hall. That is how we keep our “Why” clear. That is how we use our “Why” as guiding light for whole organization.

The package

Examples that show employees as cogs and that they do not know the true north of their organization are visible in many situations. From medical institution that got overwhelmed and employees lost focus, to companies that employees are leaving because they do not understand the change that is undergoing. Building our “Why” into everything we do, together with implementation of “Mission command” doctrine help organization avoid situation when their employees do not know what to do and expect to be micromanaged. Usually those are times when you MUST react quickly. There is no time to micromanage. There is also no capacity for micromanagement. Changes are overwhelming. It is clear that employees are troubled with those situations as much as organizations.

What can we do to implement this combination? Every organization is specific so we can not define strict list of steps (and by the way definition of strict list would be in direct opposition with what I am saying). In general, I would start with this list:

1. Defining our “Why” and development of mechanisms for communicating our “Why” inward and outward

2. Introduction of “Why” in the decision-making process

3. Introduction of “Why” in the employment process

4. Emphasize employee development in a professional sense (education)

5. Using “Why” as a tool for employee involvement

6. Define companywide strategic goals aligned with “Why”

7. Empowerment of employees through participation in the organization of work and determining tactics based on strategic goals

8. Educating the leaders within organization about the harmfulness of micromanagement

9. Simplify reporting on all levels

10. Break barriers in everyday communication between employees and management

11. Develop mechanism that enables employees to influence strategic decision with improvement suggestions (organizational or customer faced)

12. Rewarding employees based on initiative, self-initiative, innovation and taking responsibility for results