Massive flocks of starlings, known as murmurations, exhibit a rare combination of speed and scale. The birds coordinate themselves with remarkable agility to find food and avoid attacks. Schools of fish do the same.
What’s noteworthy in these murmurations is the lack of a leader. Instead, each bird follows three simple principles: 1) move to the center, 2) follow your neighbor and 3) don’t collide. The rules enable each bird to act independently while ensuring the group acts cohesively.
Every organization today wants to achieve both alignment and autonomy. Can what works for birds and fish also work for people? The answer comes from a surprising place: the battlefield.
Over centuries, the military has developed an approach to managing “the fog of war.” Generals need to ensure alignment to the strategy, while soldiers need autonomy to respond to changing conditions. The military’s solution has two parts:
Commander’s intent declares the purpose of an operation and the conditions for success.
- Doctrine determines how soldiers make decisions towards the fulfillment of that purpose.
The formal definition of doctrine (from NATO) is important: “Fundamental principles by which the military forces guide their actions in support of objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgment in application.”
For a flock of birds, the intent is to reach their breeding grounds. This means finding food, staying on course and staying alive. The three simple principles are the doctrine for the flock. They don’t tell the bird which way to go, but rather guide them on what action to take (move to the center, follow one’s neighbor). In terms of doctrine they are the “principles [that] guide actions in support of objectives.”
Turning to business, we find doctrine to be noticeably missing. Every organization has its mission, goals and strategies to tell people where to go. They also have rules, policies and procedures that tell people what to do. But few organizations have comprehensive, communicated and contextualized doctrine to empower decision-making across the organization.
Without doctrine, it’s impossible for managers to let go without losing control. Instead, leaders must rely on active oversight and supervision. The opportunity is to replace processes that control behavior with principles that empower decision-making.
It’s important to know the difference between values, goals and decision principles:
Values are what’s important to you
Goals are what you want to see in the world
- Principles are what help you make decisions
For instance, “frugality” is a value. “Saving money” is a goal. “Spend others’ money like your own” is a principle.
One difference between values and principles is their specificity. Principles are more specific than values and can nest inside other principles, like Russian dolls.
For example, Amazon’s fundamental principle of “customer obsession” and working backwards from the customer means different things for product development, marketing and customer service. Wikipedia has specific principles for authors that nest inside the more general five pillars. The Agile Software movement has general principles that apply universally, and specific principles for practices like kanban and scrum.
The shift to doctrine and principles-based management is more than a tactic: it’s a new way of thinking about management. Instead of making decisions for others or delegating decisions to them, it’s creating principles with others which enable them to make decisions for themselves. It’s a distributed governance model for networked organizations.
Ultimately, good doctrine becomes embedded in the culture. Touring a command post, a general came across this sign: “In the absence of guidance or orders, determine what they should have been and execute aggressively.” Good doctrine provides the empowerment, autonomy and direction to make this not only possible, but effective. For business leaders operating in fast-moving and uncertain environments, doctrine dispels the fog of business.
To get started on the journey, take these steps:
2. Principles: Start with your existing values. Transform them into decision principles. Then find real-world decisions and reverse-engineer the most effective principles.
3. Catalysts: Find internal catalysts who can help evolve the principles and help people apply them to daily decisions. Connect the catalysts to learn together.
Keep in mind that this is an iterative process. When decisions are made that don’t align with the mission or strategy, take a look at the situation. It may be that the person is responsible. But chances are you are simply missing the right principles and need to create some new doctrine. The goal is to manage principles more than people.
Here are some principles of developing doctrine:
See where you might already have some elements of doctrine.
Do you have principles that guide decision-making throughout the organization? Sometimes informal precepts are passed along as part of the culture. Other times they get codified, as Reed Hastings did for Netflix.
Identify areas conducive to doctrine-based approaches.
It may be where the front line is calling for more authority but managers are afraid to give up control. Or where centralized operations can’t keep up with the amount of information or the variety of local conditions.
Involve your broader team in creating doctrine.
When the military rewrote its doctrine on counter-insurgency, it brought together a cross-functional team of soldiers, civilians, experts and leaders while gathering feedback from hundreds of front-line personnel. When IBM rewrote its values, it engaged 50,000 employees around the world.
When developing doctrine, focus on principles, not policies.
Doctrine shouldn’t be so specific that it tells people what to do, or so broad that it doesn’t help them make the right decision. What information do you need from them, and what information do they need from you, in order to create rapid, independent and effective action?
One way to bring these pieces together rapidly is to convene a “constitutional convention.” After all, a constitution is essentially doctrine for democracy, providing the enduring principles by which to govern a nation. The Agile software movement started with such a gathering.
By creating the missing layer of decision principles, leaders can let go without losing control and add structure without losing speed. Doctrine is a way to transcend the tradeoff between alignment and autonomy and create a culture based on principles over process. It works for birds, fish, and soldiers. Maybe it’s time to give it a try for companies too.
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Examples of Doctrine
Although rare, some companies have made the shift from process to principles-based management. Wikipedia has its five pillars. Red Hat has embraced open source principles. Visa was designed to achieve both chaos and order. Google has its nine principles of innovation. And Amazon has its own leadership principles.
Amazon says of its leadership principles:
Good decision principles help people make everyday decisions in diverse settings.
The US Constitution
We also find doctrine in constitutional democracies. For example, the U.S. Declaration of Independence contains the intention of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” There are also numerous laws, rules and regulations that specify what citizens can and can’t do.
In between, the Constitution serves as doctrine. It is “authoritative but requires judgment in application.” In fact, an entire branch of government is tasked with its interpretation and application.
TEDx Decision Principles
TED’s approach to scalable growth embodies a commitment to doctrine. Founded in 1984 by Richard Saul Wurman, TED became famous for its exclusive conferences and compelling talks.
The world discovered TED when Chris Anderson posted videos of the talks online. But how to give more people the experience of TED events, not just the content?
The solution was TEDx, which launched in 2008 to extend the TED mission of “ideas worth spreading.” In only a few years, TEDx has grown to 1,300 events in 134 countries with only a handful of employees.
What most people don’t know is that TED has no direct control over TEDx events. Instead, TED authorizes and empowers local organizers to create TED-like events in their own communities. How does TED ensure consistency instead of chaos? With what amounts to doctrine.
On its web site, TED publishes clear guidelines for organizers on how to run a TEDx event:
1. RULES, e.g. “Your event must maintain the spirit of TED itself: multidisciplinary, focused on the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.”
2. RESPONSIBILITIES, e.g. “Early on, you’ll need to decide who your event is for: Work colleagues? Friends? Kids? This decision will help guide all the decisions that follow.”
3. RESOURCES, or best practices from the community on designing, promoting, and sponsoring TEDx events
These guidelines are consistent with the definition of doctrine: “Fundamental principles by which [TEDx organizers] guide their actions in support of objectives.” These principles are “authoritative but require judgment in application.”
As another sign of their doctrine-based approach, TED recently had a problem with some of the TEDx events. Rather than step in to micromanage, they clarified and reinforced the doctrine.
Current, a digital power service from GE, is on this journey. Like many other companies, Current saw the need to evolve its company culture. They defined their values, put them in behavioral terms and built them into systems & structures. But as Bethany Napoli, global head of HR for Current says, “The action rested on the shoulders of leadership to implement. We were left with a system that measured what leadership defined as the ‘right’ way to behave.”
Current wanted a culture that could move faster and support exponential growth. So they shifted their focus from values and behaviors to cultural tenets and decision principles. According to Bethany, “The very act of creating the tenets and associated decision principles is what creates the promise of real and organic culture change. We are on a path to change from the typical pattern of creating culture by defining attributes and managing them through systems and structures to organically building it through dialog, empowerment, and engagement.”
The U.S. Military, Post-9/11
There is perhaps no greater hierarchy in the world than within the five sides of the Pentagon. Yet inside this massive structure is a surprising amount of innovation in the area of organizational design and decision-making.
The events of 9/11 led the U.S. military to realize that “it takes a network to defeat a network.” The new enemy was a light, agile and rapidly evolving network. The hierarchical models of post-Cold War design were no longer sufficient. The military was big, and now it had to be fast.
Four strategies were at the core of this transformation: build relationships, establish shared purpose, create shared consciousness and foster diversity.