Two Ways to Lead: Detailed Command vs. Mission Command


image“A leaders is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” — Lao Tzu

The military identifies two distinct ways to deal with uncertainty.  One is Detailed Command.  The other is Mission Control.

Detailed Command is leading through detailed instructions.  It can feel like micro-management. Mission Control is leading through vision and empowerment.  The idea is to give people the information they need and the authority to take action.

Of course, each approach has its place.  The key is to balance them and know when to use each one.

In the book, The Future of Strategy: A Transformative Approach to Strategy for a World That Won’t Stand Still, Johan Aurik, Martin Fabel, and Gillis Jonk share insights on the difference between Detailed Command and Mission Command.

Two Different Ways to Deal with Uncertainty

With Detailed Command, the idea is to gather all the information at the top, and then tell people what to do.  Mission Control is more action-oriented where people take action and reduce uncertainty by sharing information, while driving the mission and realizing the vision.

Via  The Future of Strategy:

“The U.S. Army, in this formal theory of warfare, contrasts ‘detailed command’ with ‘mission command.’  Conceptually, these reflect two different approach to dealing with uncertainty.”

Detailed Command Provides Detailed Instructions to Follow

The idea behind Detailed Command is to get all the information at the top, and then flow it down through the ranks.

Via  The Future of Strategy:

“Detailed command is focused on information and data.  It aims to reduce uncertainty within the ranks of the upper echelon by collecting more and better data and by increasing the information processing capability.  It trades speed for completeness of information.”

Detailed Command Limits Creativity

As you can imagine, Detailed Command creates all sorts of challenges.  Aside from the fact that some people don’t like to be told what to do, detailed instructions limit creativity.  Also, people don’t get the information they need to do their jobs, or they are in the dark on how decisions were made, so they don’t really buy in.

Via  The Future of Strategy:

“It often results in greater uncertainty at the lower levels because people at these levels do not have the information on which decisions are based and therefore are not committed to those decisions.  As a result, implementation requires greater control of lower-level managers and more detailed orders, which in turn limit the creativity that staff members can contribute.”

Certainty at the Top is Often an Illusion

Things might look good on paper or sound good in the halls.  At the top, it might seem like there is certainty and clarity, but the gap between conception and execution breaks this down pretty fast.

Via  The Future of Strategy:

“Because of the difficulty of getting accurate, up-to-date information about the situation on the group, and because of the gap between conception and execution, the appearance of more certainty at the top is often an illusion.”

Mission Command Provides Vision and a Focus on Action

Mission Command empowers people by reducing uncertainty and involving them in the vision.

Via  The Future of Strategy:

“Mission command is action-oriented.  It aims at reducing uncertainty evenly throughout the organization.  Leaders educate their organizations to co-develop a widely understood strategic vision and manage a set of strategic missions as part of normal operations.”

Mission Command Uses Everybody’s Talent

Instead of waiting for detailed orders, people are empowered with authority and are provided the information they need to take action.

Via  The Future of Strategy:

“They delegate authority for decision making to those levels that can acquire and process information and move into action quickly without waiting for detailed orders.  The process makes full use of the organization’s talent.”

Mission Command Creates a More Agile Organization

Mission Command creates better understanding of the vision and the mission, which empowers everybody in the organization to be more effective.

Via  The Future of Strategy:

“The mission command approach to strategy leads to a more flexible approach to management, leading to a greater understanding throughout the organization and, overall, a more agile and effective organization.”

More Leaders are Shifting to Mission Command Strategy

While Detailed Command an work for technical or procedural tasks, Mission Command is more effective for driving and conducting daily operations.

Via  The Future of Strategy:

“While the two approaches are a continuum, not a dichotomy, it is important to recognize that in the twentieth-century military, the conduct of operations steadily shifted from information-based strategy to mission command strategy.

In the military, detailed command is increasingly being seen as appropriate for technical and procedural tasks, while mission command is viewed as the more appropriate approach to the actual conduct of military operations.”

If you want to empower people, push decisions as close as possible to where the action is, and give people the information they need to be able to think for themselves, while providing a guiding vision and mission.

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