It’s funny how you can learn something new in the place where you least suspect to. This weekend I was at our annual gathering with the family on my fathers side, and I found myself trying to explain what I do for a living. That I am a consultant and specialized in agile methods. I still find it hard to explain agile methods in a nutshell to people not into software at all. The people I was talking to at the moment where my fathers cousins husband who is the head of purchasing at one of Sweden’s biggest grocery corporations, and my fathers aunts husband who is a politician, cantor and major in the Swedish armed forces reserve. How do you explain agile methods to these people? Well I often end up trying to explain how Toyota works, since cars are something everyone can relate to and there’s recently been some radio commercials here in Sweden, explaining some of the processes used by Toyota. I thought I’d lost them somewhere between trying to explain slack and self-organizing teams when one of them, the reservist major, suddenly says: “Yes, yes, that is mission-type tactics. You know when an officer only gives his subordinates a goal to achieve and the resources needed to achieve it”. This I needed to learn more about, so upon arriving at home, of course I looked it up.
What is mission-type tactics?
So apparently mission-type tactics (Uppdragstaktik in Swedish, Auftragstaktik in German) is something that the German Wehrmacht has been using successfully for over 100 years, and that is the basic leadership method used in the Swedish armed forces and in most of the special forces units around the world.
When I was a conscript in the Swedish coastal artillery I was taught that a Swedish soldier is worth more than any non Swedish soldier, since he or she is taught to think for himself and not rely completely on the orders from his superiors. If the soldier does not work on his own, whole units can be disabled simply by “taking out” the officers, breaking the chain of command. This will not work in the case of the Swedish armed forces and the reason for this being, at least in part, mission-type tactics.
“In mission-type tactics the manager states the task and action rules and divides resources but leaves as much of the implementation as possible to their subordinates. Coordination is ensured by the manager’s desire and the mission’s purpose and meaning being clearly expressed. Mission-type tactics requires a management philosophy that is characterized by initiative, decision-making autonomy, individual responsibility and mutual trust between managers and staff. Mission tactics further requires high level of training and discipline… Military units are forced to act in complex dynamic situations, often under great uncertainty and time pressure. The ability to act in chaotic conditions increases the chances of achieving leadership initiative. In such situations awaiting orders can lead to the initiative being lost. Decentralized management is therefor best in these situations.”
– Befäl, issue 6 of 2002 (Swedish magazine for officers in the Swedish armed forces).
Several sources state that it is vitally important for the person or team given the task to understand the true intent of the customer (oh, sorry, superior officer), since that would allow him/them to adapt when something changes and still work towards the given goal. The team or person might even choose to disobey orders from other officers if that will take them closer to achieving the goal.
I find it interesting that the military, an organization that is the definition of hierarchical and that is often thought of as being quite strict and slow in making decisions, in fact can be surprisingly agile and apparently has over a decade of experience in being so. We can probably learn a great deal from their experience, and who knows what other disciplines we can learn from. I’m definitely gonna keep my eyes and ears open.