Mission Driven Tactics and OKRs

Between World War I and World War II saw the development of one of the world’s most formidable fighting forces. It was an army with 4,000 senior commanders. It was the German Wehrmacht.

If I was a soldier in the British or Russian Army at that time and we were approaching a riverside town, my commanding officer might tell me to attack a specific outpost or take the square. Once I had completed that task I would radio in for new orders.

If I was a soldier in the German army at the time, the officer might tell me that the objective is to quickly secure the bridge to the other side of the river. I might need to take the town square to do that. If things didn’t go to plan I could think on my feet and figure out my next move knowing the intent of the commanding officer without knowing his precise instructions and without asking for permission to change direction.

This is mission driven tactics, also known as Auftragstaktik.

Auftragstaktik encourages commanders to exhibit initiative, flexibility and improvisation while in command. It was developed by the Prussians in the 19th Century after their defeat at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte and took a century to mature.

With knowledge of the mission (the “why”) the unit leaders had more freedom to pursue the “how” and react in real time.

Here's how the doctrine is described by the German army,

Auftragstaktik is the pre-eminent command and control principle in the Army. It is based on mutual trust and requires each soldier’s unwavering commitment to perform his duty....The military leader informs what his intention is, sets clear achievable objectives, and provides the required forces and resources. He will only order details regarding execution if measures which serve the same objective have to be harmonized, if political or military constraints require it. He gives latitude to subordinate leaders in the execution of their mission.

This method, if employed well is extremely effective in times of uncertainty. It's counter-intuitive to top down command and control hierarchies, typical of 20th century industrialised western economies.

It seems to me that business in the modern age is fraught with uncertainty and whilst we may not be an army fighting a war, the ability to adapt to change quickly will be the make or break modern companies.

That's why I'm encouraging our team to think clearly and agree the Objectives (O) that we are trying to reach and the Key Results (KRs) that will determine whether we got there or not (OKRs). That gives teams more freedom to adapt and make decisions on how best to reach their objective without asking for permission.

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