Wednesday, July 12, 2020

What's Your Doctrine?

In the military sphere, the word “doctrine” has a specific meaning: It describes the accepted way of handing military assets in warfare. For example, “carrier doctrine” means the way that naval commanders are expected to use and deploy aircraft carriers; “tank doctrine” means the accepted way to use tanks in battle. There are several reasons why the military use this concept. One is predictability: If all commanders adhere to doctrine, everyone knows how they will operate, so each commander can coordinate actions with the rest. It also saves time. The commanding general can issue orders, for example to send carriers north to intercept the enemy, without specifying all the attendant details, since these are contained in the current doctrine.

Of course, there are drawbacks as well. The enemy can learn your doctrine and become able to anticipate—and frustrate—what you are likely to do. But the strongest danger in adhering to doctrine is lack of flexibility. Times change and so do the tactics of the enemy. It’s often argued that generals always fight the last campaign, not the current one. Part of the reason for this is the use of doctrine to determine actions. Like all sets of rules or guidelines, it can only be based on the past: usually on reproducing what worked well last time and avoiding the most recent set of mistakes.

At the individual level, sticking with doctrine offers safety from criticism. If a commander departs from accepted doctrine, he or she is running a considerable risk. If the battle is won, there will still be those who will dismiss the success as luck, and point to the risks taken in operating outside accepted approaches. If a battle waged with tactics outside current doctrine is lost, there’s little chance the commander will escape censure. Doctrine therefore tends to work against taking risks, even where logic might show they are fully justified.

I’m explaining this concept in depth because it works in much the same way in non-military organizations. The difference is mainly in the formality of the doctrine. Corporations don’t set down such formal doctrines for use of their assets in, say, marketing or customer service. The correct ways to do things are more broadly implied in procedures and policies, though these rarely go so far as to specify exactly how managers should act in conducting a marketing campaign, or dealing with a customer complaint. Instead they tend to contain generalizations and broad statements of direction.

Nonetheless, organizations hold to doctrines, however informally expressed, and woe betide the manager who gets into a mess while departing from what senior managers see as “the right way to do things.” Once again, speed, the ability to omit detail in instructions, and predictability are the driving forces behind the use of these informal doctrines. And, once again, widespread use of informal doctrines by an organization produces a culture that is more rigid and risk-averse; a culture that focuses on doing what worked in the past, not what might reasonably be thought to be better for the future.

Haste and busyness produce the strongest tendencies to rely on doctrine. In the armed forces, part of the reasoning behind training everyone in current doctrine is precisely the need to be able to react swiftly and firmly in known ways despite the chaos of battle conditions. By indoctrinating subordinates in approved ways of thinking and acting, military leaders can ensure everyone follows instructions, even when no direct supervision is possible.

Many organizational leaders secretly enjoy the fantasy that they are commanders on some field of corporate battle. The truth is different. Business is not warfare. It does not have the same pressures, demands, or dangers. Organizational time scales are longer, most deadlines are self-chosen, not imposed by an advancing enemy, and no one’s life is threatened. There’s little real need therefore to constrain everyone into a single way of doing things, and good reasons for encouraging innovation and risk-taking.

Haste, addiction to busyness, and an authoritarian approach to leadership are endemic flaws in much of today’s organizational leadership. Each encourages the use of doctrine for controlling people’s minds and actions. Each produces risk-averse, rigid, and highly predictable approaches to business. Doctrine may not be named as such. It might be called “knowing how things work around here,” or “industry best practice,” but the process is the same: Subordinates are indoctrinated in approved ways of thinking and acting and constrained to stay within them, virtually regardless of prevailing circumstances, their own expert judgment, or the appropriateness of the doctrine in the light of unexpected changes. Where doctrine is most strongly held, individual leaders may not even allow themselves to register that external events no longer match their expectations and assumptions.

In a time of increasing competition from countries that never before posed any threat to business as usual, and continuing technological changes that sometimes revolutionize the nature of commercial threats overnight, it’s hard to see why organizations are not rushing to find newer, more flexible, and innovative ways of operating. But then, don’t organizational generals, as well as the real ones, nearly always fight old battles, not the ones now facing them?

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