The Art of Action

How Leaders Close the Gap between Plans, Actions and Results

Stephen Bungay

Publisher: Nicholas Brealey, 2011, 285 pages

ISBN: 978-1-85788-559-0

Keywords: Leadership, Management

Last modified: Sept. 15, 2021, 1:35 a.m.

"What do you want me to do?"

This question is the enduring management issue, a perennial problem that Stephen Bungay shows has an old solution that is counter-intuitive and yet common sense, The Art of Action is a thought-provoking and fresh look at how managers can turn planning into execution, and execution into results.

Drawing on his experience as a consultant, senior manager and a highly respected military historian, Stephen Bungay takes a close look at the nineteenth-century Prussian Army, which built its agility on the initiative of its highly empowered junior officers, to show business leaders how they can build more effective, productive organizations.

Business is highly competitive, complex, risky and fast-paced — like combat. Both share the three main impediments to achieving true dynamism and leadership: the knowledge gap — the difference between what we would know in an ideal world and what we actually know; the alignment gap — the difference between what leaders want people to do and what they actually do; and the effects gap — the difference between what we expect our actions to achieve and the actual results.

To close these gaps we need to abandon multiple objectives and decide what we really want: get the message across by telling people what to achieve and why, and asking them what they are going to do as a result; and give them freedom of action within defined boundaries. Based on a theoretical framework which has been tested in practice over 150 years, Bungay shows how the approach known as "mission command" has been applied in business as diverse as pharmaceuticals and F1 racing today.

The Art of Action is scholarly but engaging, rigorous but pragmatic, and shows how common sense can sometimes be surprising.

  1. The Problem
    • What Do You Want Me To Do?
    • An unanswered  question
    • An undiagnosed disease
    • Getting things done
    • Legacy thinking
    • The discipline of execution
    • A route map
  2. The Cause
    • The Three Gaps
    • Clausewitz and friction
    • Friction and nonlinearity
    • The three gaps
    • Quick recap
  3. Elements of a Solution
    • Directed Opportunism
    • Culture change
    • Helmuth von Moltke and Auftragstaktik
    • From Auftragstaktik to mission command
    • From mission command to directed opportunism
    • Quick recap
  4. The Knowledge Gap
    • What and Why
    • Von Moltke on strategy
    • Strategy, planning, and preparing
    • Intent and main effort
    • Quick recap
  5. The Alignment Gap
    • Briefing and Backbriefing
    • Von Moltke writes a directive
    • Tracy's dilemma
    • Structuring the organization
    • The story of Joe
    • Strategy briefing and backbriefing
    • Quick recap
  6. The Effects Gap
    • Independent Thinking Obedience
    • Building the organization
    • Developing people
    • Drivers of behavior
    • Aligning processes
    • Keeping score
    • Quick recap
  7. Leadership that Works
    • From Common Sense to Common Practice
    • The three levels
    • Strategy, tactics, and execution
    • The executive's trinity
    • Impact
    • Conclusion
  • Appendix: On Strategy, 1871
  • A Template for Strategy Briefing