The wrong doctrine—or one that is outmoded and ill-suited to circumstances—can cause disaster

All organizations have a “doctrine” for doing things, whether it is clearly stated or left implied by custom and tradition. Doctrine is that set of guiding principles that can be summed up by the phrase: “That’s how we do things in this organization.” But doctrines can become dangerously outdated, unless they are consciously taken out and examined for relevance from time to time.

In military circles, doctrine can be roughly summarized as: “the way we fight wars.” It’s a simple set of guiding principles that is drummed into every soldier, sailor, or airman—and every general at staff college. Here, as an example, is Admiral Lord Nelson, England’s greatest naval hero, explaining his doctrine in typically forthright terms.

“Whenever the Enemy can be discovered they are to be closed with and attacked with all the Vigor which is possible . . . Something must be left to chance; nothing is sure in a Sea Fight . . . but, in case Signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his Ship alongside that of an Enemy.”

Ships of that time fought by firing broadsides at each other at close range, then moving together so that a boarding party could cross to the enemy ship and attempt to capture it by hand-to-hand combat. Nelson’s doctrine was one of all-out attack.

When changing conditions out-pace doctrine

The armies in the American Civil War fought according to an outdated doctrine of formal battles, where opposing forces drew up in line opposite one another, then charged together for a show-down. Weaponry had made this approach obsolete, but the generals on both sides were so habituated to the same doctrine (after all, they had been in the same army before war broke out) that it was continued for the bulk of the fighting. America lost more men killed in that conflict than in all other conflicts before or since.

In the First World War, the British and French armies were committed to a doctrine of offense. They attacked, often with suicidal bravery. A measure of how suicidal can be seen by the casualties. The British army lost 60,000 men killed in one day at the start of the Battle of the Somme. That’s all the inhabitants of a medium-sized township killed in under 12 hours.

The point of these historical examples is to show how doctrine can become so embedded in the mind as to allow truly terrible mistakes to be made, on the basis that there is no acceptable alternative.

Doctrines at work

Everyone who works follows some doctrine of work. No one may have taught it to them deliberately, but it will be there just the same: an approach to work that is seen as more or less inevitable and obvious.

You have one. If you aren’t sure what it is (it’s often so unconscious we’re no longer really aware of it), try completing this sentence, based on Lord Nelson’s words above, with the first works that come to you; “At work, you can’t go far wrong if . . . ” Typical responses might be:
“ . . . you always do your best and work hard.”
“ . . . you’re always a good team-player.”
“ . . . you keep your nose clean and don’t rock any boats.”
“ . . . you’re the first there in the morning and the last to leave at night.”
“ . . . you don’t make mistakes.”
“ . . . you keep a close eye on the pennies.”
“ . . . you keep the customer happy.”

But does it still work?

I’m always surprised how powerful and long-lasting these semi-conscious doctrines are. Like the old generals who sacrificed tens of thousands of soldiers in frontal assaults across open ground against machine guns, people go on hurling themselves, over and over again, against the obstacles in their lives, never stopping to ask whether such displays of determination are likely to succeed. Action is what counts. And when you want to know what action to take, that automatic doctrine pops up with the answer.

Today, tens of thousands—sometimes hundreds of thousands—of people are committed to all-out, frontal assaults on the competition, using a tired old combination of excessive work and continual cutting of costs. As in past wars, there are thousands of casualties as a result, but the leaders persist in the doctrine drummed into them since their very earliest days as managers.

Instead of looking for less costly alternatives, they follow the same doctrine they learned so long ago: action matters, cut costs, cut more, work longer hours, make greater sacrifices!

One of the main reasons for slowing down is to allow time to think and ask such vital questions as: Is this doctrine still right for the world as it is today? Will it still work? Can I bear the cost?

Try in your own life. You may be surprised both to discover what a simplistic doctrine you’ve been following—and horrified to realize what it has been costing you.

Doctrine ought to be flexible, constantly renewed, and a matter of careful choice. That it often isn’t is due to people’s tendency to turn some pattern learned in the past into a rigid set of habits that they are afraid to break.

Then the cost in overwork, frustration, stress, and disappointment can rival, in a smaller, more personal way, those piles of bodies on the fields of France in 1915.

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