Stephen Bungay and the Art of Leadership

Summary of Stephen Bungay’s session in the Leading Complexity Program 2022.

Leadership and direction setting are essential components of any successful business strategy. One of the very best thought leaders on business strategy that is well familiar to Crisp is one of last year’s Leading Complexity keynote speakers Stephen Bungay. Not only is he an expert on strategy. He is also very knowledgeable on military history, which he draws heavily upon. Further, he is very entertaining. 

This being said, let’s see what the main points of his presentation were.

Learn from military history.

The discussion starts with Stephen saying that the history of management theories is probably the greatest intellectual disaster of the 20th century. It is either obvious advice or packaged concepts that become the latest fads. This results in that management problems keep repeating themselves. Traditional management is based on the view that management is a science and that organizations are machines and therefore assumes outcomes are predictable. However, leadership and management is a complex challenge.

Therefore, Stephen returns to learn from broader historical events, particularly military history, where outcomes are unpredictable and organizations are organisms (or complex adaptive systems). He draws from military leaders such as Clausewitz. Who realized the complexity of war and why execution is so difficult? The difference between real war and war on paper. Clauswith refers to it as “friction.” Most organizations try to deal with friction by increasing control, asking for more information, and giving detailed instructions. All of which only makes the problem worse.

Alignment vs. Autonomy

In the middle of the 19th century, the Presusan army had gone from highly Aligned to extremely Autonomy. Individual responsibility, taking action, and decisions had gone to the border of this obedience. Rather than going back to more alignment, it was then that “Uncle” Helmuth von Moltke introduced the idea of both high alignment and high autonomy. 

Simply put, leaders should be armed with the intent of what they want to achieve and why they want to achieve it and then give operational control on how to achieve it. The more alignment on the WHAT, the more Autonomy on the HOW you can give.  

Here he refers back to Henrik Knibergs’ talk on how this is a key principle of how Spotify works today.  This is what Stephen calls leading through intent. In the military, this is referred to as “mission command.” This is how to overcome “friction” and lead in complexity.

Leading Through Intent

Leaders state their intent, what problems to be solved, and then get out of the way.  A key aspect is to build in learning and adaptability. This is done through a brief back process to close the communication loop. 

Leading through intent is useful in complexity. It replaces the plan with an act of will. A direction, a compassheading rather than an endpoint. It is a framework for decision-making. Enables alignment throughout an organization.

The intent must be very clear but still high level. Stephen refers to his five favorite management gurus. Those are The Spice Girls. “Tell me what you want, what you really, really want”

“The most important thing to remember is that intent provides direction and purpose.” 

By having a clear intent and constantly assessing the situation, leaders can make informed decisions and guide their organization toward success.

Making Decisions with Limited Information

The discussion continues, with Stephen pointing at one of the critical challenges in leadership. And that is setting direction when less information is available than needed

You need knowledge about the context and the specific situation to make good decisions. So what do you do? If you let lower levels decide, not knowing the overall context, it might work but it can also be a disaster. If lower levels escalate to the boss and the boss doesn´t have the details, the boss will be overwhelmed and take a long time. 

The better solution is to provide the lower levels with the overall context beforehand. So they can make decisions based on local information with the overall context in mind. This can be achieved by creating clarity through the Intent and back-brief process.

Stephen then refers to Joe Justice’s talk about Tesla as a good example. They have a clear intent. (Accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy). They have a very high level of autonomy and set constraints with clear rules. E.g., If someone comes up with a better solution, copy it. If something works well, scale it. However, this model isn´t very new. Actually, it predates humans. These self-organizing principles can be found in nature. It is a model that is very natural, but it is very radical. It is also very rare but doesn´t have to be.

In conclusion, effective leadership strategies require coordination, learning, and acting with intent. And this applies even in the face of limited information. By embracing these principles and learning from history, leaders can create a culture of independent thinking and adaptability. And doing so will allow them to set their organizations up for success in the long run.

2 responses on “Stephen Bungay and the Art of Leadership

  1. Mission driven often becomes a proxy for projects. What’s good for mission driven teams might not be optimized for the product. What’s optimized for the product might not be optimized for the organization. Many a time most work doesn’t add up to winning. Flow is extremely hard work.

    1. The idea with Leading Trough Intent is that is supposed to be inclusive. Higher level intent set the constraints for lower level intents. This is checked through the back-brief process. The higher level product intent (or mission) will encompass team intent/mission. This said it is not easy, but as you say hard work.

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