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Denis Barnard

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Book review: The Art of Action by Stephen Bungay

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Once upon a time an entrepreneur was presenting a product to a large player in the software field…

After the meeting, one of the key heads from the vendor company approached the hopeful, and said: “All year long people come in here and say what they are going to do. You and your team have gone out, risked your capital, and actually done it. This is very rare, and I congratulate you”.

On reading this book, I was immediately reminded of this occasion.

Stephen Bungay is a currently Director of the Ashridge Strategic Centre, as well as lecturer on several executive programmes. Along with his experience as a consultant, he has drawn heavily on his work as an acclaimed military historian to present this extremely absorbing read. “The Art of Action” seeks to separate the fiction of apparent Activity from the truth of real Action.

The propositions in this book have their roots in the writings of von Clausewitz and von Moltke, 19th century commanders in the Prussian and Germany military respectively. Looking into the experiences in defeat during the Napoleonic Wars, they both sought ways to analyse and change the hitherto linear thinking that had caused those reverses (the very same poor thinking that was later applied to Allied tactics on the Somme.)

Bungay has studied these works in very considerable detail, and from a welter of military data has brought into the foreground some key reasons for success: understanding the ramifications of command, briefing and backbriefing and the granting of freedom to field commanders to exercise fluidity in approach to changing situations.

Although over a century old, there is much that 21st century organisations could take from these methodologies: Strategy, for instance, was considered to be broad direction rather than the infinitely detailed and prescriptive documents so beloved of modern managements:

“Conducting a campaign will involve continuous decision making, seeking not to take perfect decisions, any more than we should seek to create a perfect plan, but ones that are sensible given the circumstances”.

“Command” is a word that has become associated with “Control” in modern contexts, and has acquired a bad rap. The writer has redefined the term in a refreshing way. Read this for instance, and then think of everyone you know who rose to the top – or near to it- by never making a substantial decision:

“All commanders must always be aware that an omission or failure to act is a graver charge than making a mistake in the choice of means” (Bungay’s italics).

A statement like the above would be considered as the ultimate in recklessness – and career endangerment – by many of today’s management figures.

Or the following, exemplifying the “employee mentality” of some of today’s self-styled captains of industry:
“Leadership is a moral activity. It involves relating to people and generating emotional commitment…When companies set themselves the aim of growing…to a market leadership position in two years simply because doing so will boost the CEO’s share options, shareholders’ money is squandered on failed acquisitions and hopeless investments.”

The book is shot through with some very interesting scenarios which illustrate the thinking processes undergone by employees in varying situations, and how they react to them given the organisational structures under which they operate.

It is extremely entertaining to read how Bungay takes a very surgical knife to some of today’s sacred cows, contrasting organisational activity as opposed to action and deftly eviscerating the idea of slavish adherence to the Balanced Scorecard concept.  If ever you needed a case against the idea that ticked boxes must inevitably lead to positive results, you have it right here.

This is almost certainly the best work-related read I have enjoyed since Paul Kearns’ “The Value Motive”. Indeed Stephen Bungay and Kearns share a clear and uncompromising language which emphasises the logic and clarity of their assertions.

My lingering regret about this book is that for some who care to read it, it is already too late: they are in positions of command that they do not merit, and will tiptoe away in the hopes that they are not recognised.

This book, nevertheless, should be required reading for anyone who aspires to own or manage any organisation, or part of one. If individuals are imbued with the “right stuff” this read will fall on very fertile ground indeed.

And, dear readers, the entrepreneur at the beginning of this article was me.

Thanks to reviewer: Denis W Barnard, CEO, HRcomparison Ltd

You can buy The Art of Action by Stephen Bungay here

You can join in the book reviewing fun here

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