Flexibility in Execution



Military strategists from times immemorial have agreed on decision making as a key attribute of leadership. Good decisions make good leaders, and vice versa. The Prussian military theorist Von Clausewitz considered three ingredients of sound decision making by a leader or commander -information, intuition and genius. While the first is external, the second and third are innate to the decision maker. When we juxtapose this on the frictions of war, the ‘noise’ (both literal and figurative) affects the quality and veracity of information. Also, the necessity of speed in decision making implies a much greater reliance on the intuition and genius of the leader.

Time is a luxury that may (or may not) be available at the stage of strategic planning. Yet, at this stage, the information or intelligence available may be of less than desired quality. Once the leader has evolved the plan and is committed to it, a ‘conformity bias’ sets in. The architects of the plan get wedded to it, and there is a marked reluctance to stray from it. Herein comes the pitfall in execution. As events unfold in the course of operationalization of the plan, more information becomes available. Also, situations emerge rapidly, circumstances change constantly. A good leader, at this stage, should be monitoring the informational and situational developments, and carry out necessary calibrations to the plan itself. The ability to do so effectively is what actually separates a leader from others. An indifferent leader tends to evaluate new information based on whether it confirms to the plan or not, and tends to reject any new piece of information that doesn’t.

Amongst the principles of war propounded by Clausewitz, ‘Selection and Maintenance of Aim’ is primary. A common mistake made is to confuse the ‘plan’ with the ‘aim’, resulting in a reluctance to tamper with the plan for fear of deviating from the aim. A good leader understands that the plan is merely one of the means of reaching the aim, and a tentative one at that. With his eyes fixed on achieving the aim, he is not reluctant to change the path towards it if the situation so dictates. Herein lies the importance of another of the principles of war that is seen as a poor cousin to others – ‘Flexibility’.

Selection and maintenance of aim should therefore always be considered in conjunction with flexibility. Failure to do so has often been the cause of downfall of many a brilliant plan at the execution stage.

Examples abound of battles lost due to reluctance in making mid course corrections. As do instances in the business world. The displacement of Nokia as the undisputed leader of the mobile industry is one such story. Faced with growing competition from Apple’s iOS based iPhone and Android based phones of other competitors, Nokia’s market leadership could have been safeguarded had it recognized the need to change its operating system to stave off the challenge. Instead, it continued along its path of hardware improvements, leading to its eventual takeover by the software giant Microsoft.

The ancient Chinese military genius Sun Tzu compared the execution of plans to the flow of water.

“Military tactics are like unto water, for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.”

These words, written thousands of years ago, hold true today, not only for execution of military operations, but for taking any strategy to its fruition.