Lets put this in historical context
In August 1942, General Montgomery arrived in the North African desert to take command of the British 8th Army. Within a few days he began replacing the existing senior officers with ones he knew from England. One of them was Brian Horrocks, who had last seen action in France in 1940 as commander of an infantry battalion. In the meantime he had been promoted to command a Brigade and then a Division. He now moved up to the next level of Corps commander, and within two weeks was put in charge of stopping Rommel’s last offensive at what has become known as the Battle of Alam Halfa. Montgomery explained his intentions, then let Horrocks get on with it.
Rommel launched his attack, but Horrocks’ defences held and Rommel was forced to withdraw. Horrocks was understandable pleased with himself until a liaison officer from 8th Army headquarters brought him a letter from Montgomery. The letter began:
“Well done – but you must remember that you are now a corps commander and not a divisional commander…”
It went on to list four or five things Horrocks had done wrong, mainly interfering too much with the tasks of his subordinates. As Horrocks thought about it, he realised that Monty was right. So he rang him up and said, “Thank you very much.”
Horrocks went on to become one of the most successful allied generals of the war. The American General James Gavin, who briefly served under Horrocks, later described him as the finest corps commander he met during the war.
Fast forward from 1942 to 2012
I was running a workshop with the executive team running the R&D function of a highly successful Danish company. They were very talented and doing very well, but wanted to ‘raise their game’. They were an ideal group to work with.
We devoted one session to what they called ‘innovation briefs’. These are some of the most important documents they produced. In them, they define what R&D projects they want to carry out, assign responsibility for them, and give direction to the next level down - the project managers - saying what they want from them. The team had brought along a couple of real ones so that we could improve them.
The briefs had a lot of good features. They gave the full reasons for embarking on the project, the user need, the value created, the fit with the portfolio, and a technical specification of the product, all on one page. The first thing that struck me though, was that the typeface was very small, which it had to be to fit it all in. There was a lot of detail, especially technical detail about the end product. It was as if the product already existed in their minds and the job of the project team was simply to build it, rather than use their creativity to come up with an innovative design.
I kept those thoughts to myself. Instead, I kicked off by reminding everyone of Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke’s definition of a good directive: it should tell people all but only what they need to know in order to fulfill the intention. What did they think of this brief in the light of that?
The discussion quickly became lively.‘Suppose you were the project manager,’ I said at one point. ‘Which elements of this document would be the most and which the least helpful in allowing you to do a great job?’ Before long there was a consensus that a lot of the detail was not very helpful. In fact it was decidedly unhelpful for two reasons: it made it difficult to identify the things which were really important, and it limited creativity. There were some technical problems to be solved, but the brief specified a set of solutions. What if the project team were to come up with alternatives? Were they to be rejected? The brief was confusing.
A different perspective
I threw in another question from the project manager’s point of view. ‘What decisions do you think you will face during the project? What possible choices could you face?’ This prompted more discussion. I made up an example: ‘According to this, the new product has to create superior user value and be ready in 18 months. Suppose the project team were to come to you in 15 months’ time and say that they could enhance the value by a further 20%, but it would take another 6 months. What would you want them to do: create a better product or hit the deadline?’ There was a furious debate. At first they were split down the middle. After 15 minutes of arguing, the matter was resolved: they would go for hitting the deadline. The timing was critical. Someone commented that they had not been clear about that themselves before having the discussion.
It was time for a break before dinner. I promised to continue this session the following morning. When we met at the bar an hour later, three of the group were missing. They were working on a new version already. They turned up for dessert with an air of exultation.
The following morning we compared their effort with the original. The new one was a fraction of the length. Everyone preferred it, but there were some questions about the content. So we set to work. An hour or so later, it had changed again and everyone was happy with it. It was clear and incisive. Someone said it was the best one they had ever produced.
It was good for two reasons: it left out a lot of the detail that the project team could decide for themselves during the project; and it added several things that only the Executive could decide, but had left out of the original. We discovered several critical questions that the original brief had failed to answer Everyone realised that by not making decisions about things like that, they had been neglecting to do their own job, and instead had for years in fact been doing the job of the next level down. It was the same mistake Brian Horrocks had made 70 years before in the desert: they had been working on the wrong level.
An easy mistake to make
They and Horrocks are not the only ones. It is easy enough to do, but once you realise it, changing is easy. Three of them went right on and did just that. Nevertheless, they only got it right the following morning.
There is a reason for that. Creating a good briefing has three steps. The first is a brain dump of what is on your mind. Get it on paper so that you can look at it as an outsider. The second step is to ask the right questions, which is what their new version did. The third step is to find the right answers to the right questions. That was the final version.
It is almost as if there is some force of intellectual gravity working in organisations which draws managers’ gaze down to the level below them and keeps them from raising their eyes and minds to their own level. In some companies everyone is doing the job of the level below. As a result the top job is not being done by anyone. Once you see what is going on, correcting it is not difficult, but it does take some work. It is work well worth doing.
Stephen teaches on the Strategic Decisions and Making Strategy Happen programmes at Ashridge Executive Education.