Auftragstaktik is the need of the hour

Culture  Leadership
22 June, 2020

Why this results-driven leadership style is best suited to dealing with unpredictable business scenarios

During these tough times, is your team feeling inspired, creating new solutions and getting things done? Or are they feeling demotivated and struggling to cope? Has your leadership approach, that worked well under normal circumstances, been put to the test over the past few months? Now is a good time to assess if you need to adapt your leadership style to help your team flourish in this challenging environment.

The market demand and supply situation remains very volatile. Plus, most of our team members are still working from home. In this situation, it’s easy for leaders to feel overwhelmed and adopt a dictatorial “just follow my orders” approach. There is also a temptation to micromanage every single detail of the work to exercise more control over teams.

This kind of authoritarian leadership is counterproductive: it decreases engagement, motivation and creativity. The need of the hour is mission command, also known as Auftragstaktik. This results-driven style of leadership is uniquely suited to complex and unpredictable environments, such as the current business scenario.

So, this week, my message focuses on Auftragstaktik and its potential usefulness for leaders. How can you deploy this philosophy to engage your team and produce great results?

Auftragstaktik (literally meaning “mission tactics” in German) has its roots in the 19th-century Prussian army. After a humiliating defeat at the hands of Napoleon in 1806, Prussian military leaders decided it was time for reinvention. Instead of moving around the battlefield in large blocs under a single commander, soldiers began to operate like small, independent units with a high degree of autonomy. The goal was to enable efficiency and agility. As Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, the implementer of these sweeping reforms, explained, “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. Today, many organisations across the world have implemented this leadership model.

Under Auftragstaktik, leaders communicate openly with their teams: they tell them what they need to accomplish, and why.

The “how” is left up to the individual, enabling a high degree of ownership and flexibility. Leaders also outline the big picture, so their team members can understand precisely how their sub-mission fits in with the group mission. In his TEDx Talk, Marine Corps Commander Jan Ten Hove captures the essence of mission command:

To know that you are making a distinct contribution to a collective purpose.

Auftragstaktik is valuable as its decentralised decision-making model fosters innovation and allows teams to operate nimbly in a fast-changing environment. It has also been shown to improve ownership and engagement, resulting in better outcomes. A famous example of mission command is Walmart’s response during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, when CEO Lee Scott sent out a simple yet powerful message to all employees in the affected area:

A lot of you are going to have to make decisions above your level. Make the best decisions that you can with the information that’s available to you at the time, and above all, do the right thing.

Auftragstaktik is also at the heart of our multi-local model at GCPL. Our efforts are to provide a clear direction from the centre and empower our cluster CEO’s and local teams to make the operating decisions and execute accordingly. The focus of the centre is on aligning our teams on the “what and the why”; the cluster is responsible for the “how”. This model enables us to be more nimble, more responsive and more relevant to the needs to the local consumer.

In theory, the Auftragstaktik model isn’t complicated. The hard part is putting it into practice because it calls for leaders to take a step back and enable their teams to take charge.

Here are seven suggestions for those who would like to adopt mission command to tackle the unique challenges we’re facing right now: 

1. Set the parameters

The leader’s most important task is to set objectives for team members and convey the reasoning behind them. In other words, define the problem that needs to be solved and identify the criteria you want in the solution. And fully empower (don’t just pay lip service) your team to define the plan, address the roadblocks and get things done.

2. Simplify, simplify

Auftragstaktik forces you to make things simple. In the TEDx Talk mentioned above, Hove explains why this is crucial:

What is simple is clear,

What is clear is understood,

And what is understood gets done.

Break down large, complex goals to their essentials. Minimise ambiguity and jargon; instead, create as much clarity as possible around each individual mission and how it fits into the broader framework.

3. Create space for innovation

To boost creativity, avoid giving ironclad instructions and micromanaging the work process. Under Auftragstaktik, an order is no longer considered binding if the situation has changed – what’s important is maintaining the intent of the commander. Team members are free to show initiative and improvise in order to achieve their missions. Resist the urge to step in and take over: remember, it’s not your plan; it’s theirs.

4. Trust your team

Trust and delegation are at the heart of mission command culture. A lot of responsibility is given to all individuals, starting at the junior-most level. As a leader, you need to first trust your team members with vital information, and then demonstrate belief in their ability to execute their personal missions. Enable them to solve problems independently, without having to report back and get your approval at every step.

Of course, a leader can only do this if they have a good grasp of each individual’s strengths and competencies – the foundation of effective delegation. So, that’s yet another reason to build and maintain strong personal connections with your team members.

5. Enhance decision-making

If you’ve been following more of a top-down leadership approach, your team members might not be used to making big decisions on their own. Training can help. Start by using mission command for simple tasks to familiarise everyone with its application, then move on to more challenging objectives. Regular practice strengthens the skills required to make independent, real-time decisions. It also reinforces team members’ confidence in each other’s capabilities.

6. Learn to fail well

Another critical piece of Auftragstaktik is the acceptance of some failure – this is the price we must pay for greater innovation and agility. Genuine autonomy means that mistakes will be made, so leaders need to get comfortable with that. Instead of insisting on perfection (which is a sure-shot way to dampen creative thinking), help your team members to fail better. Every mistake should be reframed as an opportunity for learning growth: Where did things go wrong? What steps could have changed the outcome? What would you do differently next time?

7. Enable a feedback loop

Mission command leadership is often paired with Fingerspitzengefühl to create a two-way flow of vital information. This German concept (which translates as “fingertips feeling”) refers to situational awareness. In a business context, it can be understood as keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s happening on the ground. When leaders actively solicit knowledge from the front lines, they can respond quickly and appropriately to local-level changes. Without Fingerspitzengefühl, you run the risk of making key decisions based on over-filtered information that is disconnected from the real world.

Mission command offers us a seemingly simple yet highly effective way to lead our teams through these times of uncertainty. Certain pre-requisites are needed for this strategy to succeed, including the ability to trust your team members and a keen knowledge of their strengths.

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