Lessons from Brandenburg Business School

The Art of Action

There is a vast literature on strategy, both in a political/military context and around the younger discipline of business strategy. However, most books focus on one area of strategy and it is a rarity to find one that addresses both: Lawrence Freedman’s magisterial history is an honourable exception1, though written from a theoretical perspective. As a practitioner and learner attempting to synthesise military history and doctrine with business experience through this website, I was full of admiration for Stephen Bungay’s The Art of Action, which combines both fields with a superbly practical approach and an elegant writing style.

The author is a business school lecturer, former management consultant and acclaimed military historian. His starting point is the difficulty of formulating and executing strategy in unpredictable and unstable environments, and in particular the gaps between plans and outcomes, plans and actions, and actions and outcomes. These are brought to life though a series of business vignettes and an exploration of Clausewitz’s concept of friction (to provide a short and practical summary of Clausewitz’s thinking is in itself no mean feat)2. Bungay’s proposed solution to these issues is to look for inspiration from a highly successful, innovative organisation: the Prussian army, and in particular its pioneering Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke.

The Prussian experience is of particular interest to businesses because instead of relying on exceptional individuals in positions of authority, it concentrated on improving decision-making throughout the organisation. Moltke famously stated that “no plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength”3. In such a volatile environment, strategy should therefore be based on not attempting to plan for the unforeseeable, communicating purpose and intentions as broadly as possible, and giving junior leaders freedom of decision and action within those bounds. This approach, known to the Prussian and latterly German armies as auftragstaktik, remains part of modern military doctrine and is known as “mission command”. In a business context, Bungay describes it as “directed opportunism”.

The Art of Action lives up to its title in focusing on execution. Many books on business strategy focus instead on analysis and frameworks, which Bungay assesses as follows: “useful though they are, they do not produce strategies. They help to sort out information, simplify the complexities of reality, and focus attention on the essentials of the situatiom, internal or external. They are only effective if they generate insight into the basis of competition.” In contrast to this sort of sometimes reductive strategy work, there is a fascinating analysis of one of Moltkes’s orders during the Franco-Prussian war, in which not a single word is wasted but every subordinate commander is left clear how to achieve decisive results4. This historical case study is supported by detailed notes on how to implement this approach in business, again backed up by case studies and references to real business decisions.

This model presupposes the selection and training of high-quality leaders. Bungay outlines how the transformation of the Prussian army from defeat at the hands of Napoleon to the military triumph of the Franco-Prussian War was fundamentally about people and culture, not least the move from entirely aristocratic leadership to a cohesive, professional officer corps based on promotion on merit and shared values5. The instrument of this change was the Prussian Staff College. With no military background myself but having attended business school as an experienced manager, I was particularly struck by the similarities that Bungay outlines between the pedagogy and experience of the Staff College and many MBA programmes (hence the somewhat whimsical title of this review): the selection of high potential students through structured assessment; the mix of academics and experienced practitioners on the faculty; a curriculum bringing together practical and academic skills; an emphasis on debate between lecturers and students; and augmenting classroom time with exercises and Staff Rides6. The MBA Staff Ride is more likely to take in Silicon Valley or an emerging economy than the Silesian marches, but the principle is the same.

As a business strategist I found the book exceptionally interesting and have been recommending it to colleagues. While the central concept will not be new to military readers, for those from a commercial background it is a refreshingly different approach to business strategy. As someone interested in business wargaming, I had one minor frustration with the book. Wargames were fundamental to the development of the Prussian officer corps and a source of significant competitive advantage (Caffery, 2019)7, and I had hoped that Bungay would say more about them: if the overarching principles of Moltke’s approach to strategy apply to business, so too might the use of games as a supporting tool. Bungay raised my hopes with a reference to personal experience of wargaming in the introduction, and later in the book comments on the benefits of creating “controlled situations in which you can test how much trust to place in people”8, a neat summation of the value of business wargames for capacity building and assessing managers. However, in comparing military and business approaches to training, Bungay notes that businesses do not need to spend time on synthetic experiences as the situations they need to simulate are everyday occurrences, unlike (thankfully) war9. In my view this risks understating the value of business wargames, particularly as a means of developing strategy in the face of the sort of uncertainty and disruption that may be outside the day-to-day experience of a management team.

  1. Lawrence Freedman, Strategy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013 

  2. The Art of Action, p35 

  3. The boxer Mike Tyson was evidently thinking along similar lines when he stated, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” 

  4. The Art of Action, p125 

  5. The Art of Action, p56 

  6. The Art of Action, p178 

  7. Matthew Caffery, On Wargaming: How Wargames Have Shaped History and How They May Shape the Future, Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2019, p278 

  8. The Art of Action, p189 

  9. The Art of Action, p186 

Written on June 28, 2019