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The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results

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Examining the gap between what managers plan, what they do, and the outcomes they achieve, Stephen Bungay uses the nineteenth-century Prussian Army—and the unpredictable environment of the battlefield—to show business leaders how they can build more effective and productive organizations. Bungay provides a fresh look at how managers can turn planning into execution, and execution into results.

289 pages

First published November 1, 2010

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Stephen Bungay

11 books24 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 70 reviews
Profile Image for Tõnu Vahtra.
550 reviews81 followers
March 18, 2018
Definitely not your average bedside reading and requires significant focus to reflect on what is said and understand those things in the context of your everyday work. The most useful book I have read this year so far and I have probably never underlined/commented any other book so extensively. I realized that I have been advocating "The Art of Action" myself for years already and I had come to those principles from various sources ("Start with why", "From Good to Great", "Built to last", "First, ignore all the rules.", "The Advantage" etc.). Seeing more comprehensive and structured overview of the three gaps and directed opportunism I increased my own clarity about the topic and will be able to deliver my message in a more convincing manner. "Scientific management should be dead" (Taylor et al) and we need to manage in complexity and chaos AKA I also saw multiple similarities with Cynefin framework.

"Most managers see the key problem of strategy execution as getting people to do what is in their plans. Actually the problem i usually in the plans specifying the results and the actions, not in the people.

When we aren't getting the results we want, we tend to react by going into more detail and exercising tighter control. This just makes things worse. What we need is not more detail but more CLARITY, not tighter control but better DIRECTION.

To execute effectively 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."

1. We are finite beings with limited knowledge and independent wills.
2. The business environment is unpredictable and uncertain, so we should expect the unexpected and should not plan beyond the circumstances we can foresee.
3. Within the constrains of our limited knowledge we should strive to identify the essentials of a situation and make choices about what it is most important to achieve.
4. To allow people to take effective action, we must make sure they understand what they are to achieve and why.
5. They should then explain what they are going to do as a result, define the implied tasks, and check back with us.
6. They should then assign the tasks they have defined to individuals who are accountable for achieving them, and specify boundaries within which they are free to act.
7. Everyone must have the skills and resources to do what is needed and the space to take independent decisions and actions when the unexpected occurs, as it will.
8. As the situation changes, everyone should be expected to adapt their actions according to their best judgement in order to achieve the intended outcomes.
9. People will only show the level of initiative required if they believe that the organization will support them.

"Most people, sometimes in their lives, stumble across truth. And most jump up, brush themselves off, and hurry on about their business as if nothing had happened." - Winston Churchill

Unfortunately being common sense does not make something common practice.


KNOWLEDGE GAP - It is the difference between what we would like to know and what we actually know. It means that we cannot create perfect plans.
ALIGNMENT GAP - It is the difference between what we would like people to do and what they actually do. It means that even if we encourage them to switch off their brains, we cannot know enough about them to program them perfectly.
EFFECTS GAP - It is the difference between what we hope our actions will achieve and what they actually achieve. We can never fully predict how the environment will react to what we do. It means that we cannot know in advance exactly what outcomes the actions of our organization are going to create.

Addressing the three gaps:
*Decide what really matters
*Get the message across
*Give people space and support

A gap in alignment is often indicated by top-level frustration and lower-level confusion.

In complex matrix organizations when initiatives come from all directions they usually clash, creating dilemmas over what to do. Senior people begin to intervene directly personally in details, throwing those actually responsible off course. Such behavior sends general message that junior people are not trusted to make decisions. They therefore begin to delegate upward as a matter of course, ending in senior executives being asked to decide about such weighty matters as which color to paint the meeting room.

Clarity and detail are not the same thing at all. The pursuit of detail actually increases noise and so makes it less clear what really matters.

"Great companies excel at realignment". They listen to employees and customers "and they use that information to craft and recraft their strategies."

Without theory, all one can do is to observe what goes on in the companies. What you see is a lot of people doing a lot of things which do not achieve very much.

IN ANY CASE, a leader who believes that he can make a positive difference through continual personal interventions is usually deluding himself. He thereby takes over things other people are supposed to be doing, effectively dispensing with their efforts, and multiplies his own tasks to such an extent that he can no longer carry them all out.

Each level will know less about the overall context and more about the specific situation than the level above. So the higher level should tell the lower level what it needs to know about the situation of the organization as a whole, the overall purpose, the immediate intention of the higher level, the specific role the unit is to play and the roles of other units around it, the freedoms it has, and any constraints it has to observe.

The more ALIGNMENT you have, the more AUTONOMY you can grant (breaking the linear compromise between the two).

Intent is expressed in terms of WHAT to achieve and WHY.

An argument between those who want to manage (?) chaos by controlling how and those who wanted to exploit chaos by commanding what and why.

Experience suggests that every order which can be misunderstood will be.

"Missing analysis" (in military) is to help subordinates to draw out the implications of what they have been asked to achieve. The subordinates then go through a process of "backbriefing" their superiors to check their understanding of the intent and its implications before passing it down the line to their own subordinates in a cascade.

Management is not a science but a practical art. Practicing it skillfully means applying general principles in a specific context.

The key is not to plan the whole journey but to set direction and allow the organization to navigate.

Strategy is about fighting the right battles, the important ones you are likely to win. Operations are about winning them.

Operations are about doing things right. They involve reacting to problems and eliminating weaknesses, because in conducting operations you are as strong as your weakest link. You can improve by imitating others, because achieving operational excellence means adopting best practice.
Strategy in contrast is about doing the right things. It involves proactively shaping events and investing in strengths, because in creating a strategy you have to make choices, to decide to do some things and not to do others. You can shift the odds in your favor by differentiating yourself from others, because a good strategy seeks uniqueness. Doing strategy means thinking, doing, learning and adapting. It means going round the loop.

Because friction is rooted in human finitude, ignoring it is to play at being God.


Innovative strategies tend to come from people of long experience who have an unusual capacity to reflect on that experience in such a way that they become aware of the patterns it shows. This awareness enables them to understand how all the elements of their experience relate to each other so that they can grasp and articulate the essentials. Because of this, what to others is a mass of confusing facts is to them a set of clear patterns making the answer to many problems obvious. Hence they have the courage to act.

Led with directives:
*An account of the situation
*A short statement of the overall intent
*An extrapolation of the more specific tasks implied by the intent.
*Any further guidance about boundaries (constraints). Constraints do not only define boundaries, but also help to clarify what is wanted by making explicit what is not wanted.


As the strategic message is passed on, it may need to be modified and made more specific. The first thing that needs to be in place, then, is a channel of communication. This is provided by the reporting lines of the organizational structure. Sometimes the reporting lines facilitate the passing on of the message; sometimes they make it difficult; sometimes they make it so difficult that they block the message. When that happens the problem has to be addressed.
Every organizational structure makes doing some things easy and doing other things difficult. IF the structure makes doing some things so difficult that there is a conflict between structure and strategy, the structure will win. So if you are serious about the strategy, in case of conflict you have to change the structure.
Nothing happens unless they key people involved in it want it too, and if the top team does not stand four-squarely behind the strategy, it is doomed.
Curiously, people's convictions tend to correlate with their interests. Their interests are largely determined by the structure and the compensation system. Both, therefore, must be examined in order to identify and remove any conflicts.

1. Can we identify organizational entities which can be made wholly or largely accountable for executing the key elements of the strategy to the extent that controls are in place to measure how well they are doing so?
2. Are the leaders of those units skilled and experienced enough to direct their units on a semi-autonomous basis and they are committed to the strategy? A consensus is adequate when everyone agrees to give the strategy their best shot and not get in the way.
3. Is there enough, but not too much, hierarchy, and does each level of the hierarchy have the decision rights it needs to play its part? Decision rights are appropriate if the person or group with the best knowledge and expertise in any given area is able to act in a timely manner without asking for permissions.

As margins also fell, the inevitable came and corporate began a series of cost-cutting rounds.
Our competitors have matched us - it's a service game now.
Look, I'll make a commitment to you. I will renegotiate the targets for this group (there was mismatch with intent).
He would need to create a temporary cross-functional team to identify the critical products, and form another one to address costs.

BACKBRIEF. The first obvious thing is that the unit being briefed checks its understanding of the direction it has received or worked out. Secondly, and less obviously, the superior gains clarity for the first time about what the implications of their own directions actually are, and may revise them as a result. Thirdly, it provides an opportunity to ensure alignment across the organization as well as up and down it.
It is important to identify the main effort and everybody should understand the intentions of everybody else two levels up in the hierarchy. E.g. in matrix structure two bosses might point in different directions. Understanding the level above them usually resolves the issue and allows action.

People should not be judged in such approach and only constructive critics should be used. People only show independent thinking obedience if they have the means to do so and are operating within a network of trust.

The REAL CHALLENGE is how to create an organization which enables average people to turn out above-average performance.

People types not suitable for directed opportunism:

*People in one group who like being told exactly what to do and following procedures.
*People in other group consist of natural authoritarians who only feel safe if they have total personal control. They are uncomfortable with uncertainty and lack the trust in others to delegate. So their default behavior pattern is to micromanage and punish deviation from set procedures. The most serious problem is a chronic micromanager who is also an authoritarian. The more extreme of them are also cynical about human motivation, aggressive towards those who challenge the hierarchy or deviate from established procedures, and like to appear "tough". As individuals they are unpleasant to deal with. If they gain positions of power, they become a social problem. Within organizations they are dysfunctional, and if they reach the top they can be destructive.

If you want to change the way people think and act even if you do not want to found a religion, you need to create disciplines to send among the people as well as preaching to the people yourself.

Measuring. If targets do become end in themselves, you can get very strange behavior.

Balanced scorecards. A scorecard is fundamentally a control system, whereas the primary purpose of strategy is command; that is , setting direction.

To exercise command is to articulate an intention to achieve a desired outcome and align a system to behave in such a way that the outcome can be expected to be achieved. To exercise control to monitor the actual effects resulting from the behavior, assess the information, and report on the system's performance with respect to the desired outcome. It is then the function of command to decide what to do; to adjust the behavior of the system, take some other action outside the system, or indeed to abandon the original intention and change the desired outcome.

There is no substitute for direct observation. An executive needs an up-to-date mental picture of what is going on in an around the business.

In an adaptive organization, everybody is looking at the measures and beyond them, and always asking why.


Operations is the realm of free thinking that translates strategy into action, requiring strategic thinking and operational direction.

We might say very broadly that strategy involves business units, operations involves departments and functions, and tactics involves subunits, whether in support roles or with direct customer contact.

Leaders have to balance their attention between defining and achieving the specific task of their group, building and maintaining the team as a team, and meeting the needs of and developing the individuals within it.

Profile Image for Stefan Kanev.
125 reviews215 followers
June 8, 2019
It's a book about execution in organisations. And a fairly good one too.

The title is a reference to The Art of War. The author is a British historian and a management consultant. He makes a lot of parallels between how armies operate efficiently and how organisations should follow their example. Initially that felt wrong to me. Then I learned I didn't know anything about armies.

It's about operating in uncertainty, about giving clear direction instead of detailed instructions and about empowering people to make decisions and change course when the situation calls it. It's not specifically about software development, but it echoes a lot of the Agile ideals.

There are four points in getting something done: (1) figuring out where you want to be, (2) making a plan, (3) performing some actions and (4) getting a result. He identifies the three gaps inbetween and how to bridge them. The intuitive solution people have is often counter-productive and a different approach should be taken.

* The Knowledge Gap is the difference between what you know now and what you need for the perfect plan. You don't have perfect information, however. Waiting to get more information is rarely a good idea. Instead, one should plan to the horizon one can observe and be prepared to improvise. In military terms, "no plan survives the first contact with the enemy".
* The Alignment Gap is the difference between what people have been planned to do and what they actually do. The intuitive (and counter-productive) "fix" is to give people more detailed instructions. However, that rarely works. Instead, one should be very clear about the desired outcome (providing goals and anti-goals) and let people own how to approach it.
* The Effects Gap is the difference between the result you wanted and what you actually got. The intuitive (and counter-productive) "fix" is to implement more controls. What gets measured gets done, but there is a lot of risk in measuring the wrong thing and thus getting the wrong thing done. A better approach is empowering people, even junior ones, to take initiative and change course. Knowing the objective and being closer to the situation, they are better positioned to make the decisions that can lead to the desired result.

A big theme in the book is strategy. What it is and the role it plays. It should be clear, short and have no unnecessary detail. It should enable execution, not tell people what to do.

If you're running an organisation (or are interested in how to run one), this book is worth reading. It's has a lot of proper thought about when things work and then they don't. It takes a stab at Taylorism and dated approaches to management. It genuinely addresses knowledge work in an organisation.

The only caveat is the style. While not hard, it could be easier to read and more engaging – it often felt like a history book. But if you endure it, you'll be rewarded a lot of valuable insight. I certainly can benefit from a rereading.
Profile Image for Jens Comiotto-Mayer.
16 reviews2 followers
June 26, 2019
"The Art of Action" is one of the most edutaining books I've read so far, and it still bears some new insights reading it a second time. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Justus.
626 reviews77 followers
April 16, 2019
This hybrid book is neither fish nor fowl. The basic thesis is "the German military from ~1870-1945 was awesome and businesses should learn from how they did things". The problem is that the military history part of the book is so deep it is likely to alienate anyone who isn't a military history fan. But it is too shallow to be really satisfactory for a military history fan. They're probably better served by something like Robert Citino's The German Way of War. Likewise, the business side of things is too shallow to really satisfy a business leader.

It doesn't help that, in the first few pages, Bungay admits that nothing in his book is new or novel. That business people since at least Jack Welch in the early 1980s have been drawing the same comparisons between the German military and business.

Ultimately, the lesson is to try to create an organisation that is loosely coupled but highly aligned. Make sure everyone has the same vision -- knows what the overall big goals are -- but then give them the freedom & resources to achieve those goals however they think is best. Above all don't micromanage with detailed orders because you won't be able to predict every eventuality and your people won't feel they have the ability to take initiative on their own when problems arise.

This is hardly groundbreaking advice. I think it is what every business I've been part of in my three decades (so far) of working tries to do, especially in the post-Peter Drucker knowledge worker economy. Or at least, gives lip service to. So what we really need is a more in-depth treatment of why this is so hard -- Bungay admits that despite everyone thinking the German military is awesome, virtually no militaries around the world (except some special forces) have really adopted their methods. Likewise, there is surprisingly little examination of the problems that occur under this philosophy -- German generals ignoring high command & strategic objectives and causing problems in order to pursue their own initiative is practically a stereotype at this point.

I ended up fairly disappointed with this because it all felt a bit too theoretical. I think it would be better if the detailed German history stuff was stripped down substantially and there were more case studies from real businesses in the modern world.
Profile Image for Eduardo Xavier.
113 reviews1 follower
January 9, 2022
This is not like other leadership books though the author encompasses war’s history. This book shows how a Prussian General Clausewitz was the first military in history who change from command-control to mission-command and then won battlers against Napoleon forces. He also describes how modern military embrace mission-command and shows how and organization should organize plans and action throughout a chain of hierarchy or levels. The author also discusses about how to detail in each level and how to use metric right.

This is the most important leaderships book I read to this day. Not just because the leadership concepts but make it clear about how to deal with lot project management issues.
112 reviews14 followers
November 17, 2015
The Art of Action by Stephen Bungay covers a story going back some 200 years. It's the story of the Prussian Army which, according to the author, "followed precisely the evolution trajectory we are on, but with a head start of about 150 years." It's a story about others who have been here before for a surprisingly long time, and what we can learn from them.

From my perspective, it's really a story about an organization trying to become agile. The starting point is a catastrophic October day in 1806 when two French forces destroyed the Prussian Army in the battles of Auerstedt and Jena. The changes that subsequently were embraced by the Prussian Army are based on insights that our knowledge is always limited, and a view of organizations as organisms rather than machines.

I think Stephen Bungay has done a great job in trying to spot the essentials. He seeks to define the principles which enable organizations to realize their goals in a complex, uncertain, and changing environment. He identifies key principles and put them into our own contemporary business context. Here is a summary of the arguments in the book:

- We have limited knowledge and independent wills.
- We should not plan beyond the circumstances we can foresee.
- We should strive to make choices about what is most important to achieve.
- We need to make sure others understand what we are trying to achieve and why.
- We need to explain what we are doing and check back with others.
- We need to have necessary resources.
- We need space to take independent decisions and actions.
- We need to adapt our actions according to our best judgment.
- What has not been made simple cannot be made clear and what is not clear will not get done.

I fully agree with the author that how we spend our waking hours working for different organizations matters. This book is about how to turn all this activity into purposive action. It's important not only for the organizations themselves, but also for the people working in them and for the society at large, since it allows the remarkable potential of human beings to come into fullness. I highly recommend this book! It's a fascinating story.
Profile Image for Jack Vinson.
740 reviews39 followers
February 27, 2019
From my blog. https://www.jackvinson.com/blog/2015/...

I've had Stephen Bungay's The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions, and Results on my reading list for some time, as it has shown up in a number of overlapping communities as relevant thinking. Most recently, his name came up in my last post with respect to the Spice Girls Question.

The book is a study of military history as a guide to seeing how leaders might deal with uncertainty - in particular the German military thinker Carl von Clausewitz (18th-19th Century). Of course, while the military angle is interesting, there are clearly parallels into the business world. And that is why Bungay wrote the book in the first place.

A lot of the discussion in the book had to do with the sources of uncertainty. In war, this is classically the "Fog of War" and more. It isn't clear what the enemy are doing. Even more, it isn't always clear that your own people and equipment - and the plans for them - will do what you expect. And doesn't this happen in business too?

Of course, the opposite of accepting and working with uncertainty is to try to remove it. While there are good concepts around reducing the sources of uncertainty, sometimes the effort required to do so is more expensive than simply expecting and working with the uncertainty. This is the direction Bungay goes in the book. Dealing with uncertainty and various knowledge gaps is the reality of any business - businesses need to move forward, regardless of those knowledge gaps.

There is a quote about one of the military leaders described in the book, "He remained calm and unruffled because he never expected his predictions to be correct." This eventually led to a discussion of the idea of Leader's Intent and strategy and tactics. And how these things should be discussed and communicated within organizations. Bungay's claim is that many organizations spend a lot of time on strategy and tactics without clearly articulating the intent behind them. He also suggests that many people find themselves being overly-specific in giving direction to their people, and this then leaves those people without much flexibility and power to make their own decisions. It is as if the managers in these situations believe if they force certainty (in the form of specific direction), then everything will work out fine. But this doesn't acknowledge the fact that we can never know everything - nor can we wait until the level of uncertainty becomes "acceptable."

This was a good read, as it coalesced many of the concepts and ideas I've been hearing and reading about elsewhere. With some colleagues, we had even been using the "intent" language more often, though it is nice to see it brought together with the other elements discussed in the book.
20 reviews1 follower
December 27, 2019
This was a difficult one for me. The content is spot on and I went away with reinforced and new principles, that make a lot of sense to me. I liked the systematic approach of laying down the 3 fundamental gaps and the friction that’s invited by them and then providing possible ways to close them.

Much of this reiterated what I took away from other books on leadership in the military realm like “extreme ownership” and “turn the ship around”. On top it added new dimensions and provided an angle different enough to allow mental compaction of what I knew before.

I also took some very practical advise for me which I am going to try out in the field.

Why only 3 stars then? Well, the content is great but the delivery is not for me. I think this could have been condensed a great deal and the key points could have been driven home more succinctly. I found myself reading page after page at some point asking myself what relevance this all had. It may ultimately be me and how my brain works though.
Profile Image for Denis Vasilev.
648 reviews93 followers
January 11, 2020
Книга начиналась как провал, а вышла на хорошую орбиту. Смесь исторических и бизнес историй с выводами по применению военного оперативного искусству к бизнесу. По военной стратегии и оперативному искусству понятно есть намного более дельные книги. У автора же получилось задать и попробовать ответить на один, но важный вопрос - что находится между благими пожеланиям, когда сотрудники не понимают что в итоге делать и микроменеджментом не оставляющим возможности подчиненным быть менеджерами и соучастниками, а не винтиками
Profile Image for Ahmad hosseini.
277 reviews65 followers
August 23, 2021
Executing strategy is main theme in the book.
Most of the time, managers know right strategy. Based on selected strategy, they plan, specify actions and tasks but they cannot achieve the desired outcome at the end. Based on the book there is three gaps that prevent you from achieving the desired outcomes:
KNOWLEDGE GAP - It is the difference between what we would like to know and what we actually know. It means that we cannot create perfect plans.
ALIGNMENT GAP - It is the difference between what we would like people to do and what they actually do. It means that even if we encourage them to switch off their brains, we cannot know enough about them to program them perfectly.
EFFECTS GAP - It is the difference between what we hope our actions will achieve and what they actually achieve. We can never fully predict how the environment will react to what we do. It means that we cannot know in advance exactly what outcomes the actions of our organization are going to create.
And author provides some principles for addressing these gaps:
Decide what really matters
Get the message across
Give people space and support
Author explains these topics based on a very easy and simple model at the first chapters of the book. In the following chapters, he examines each of the gaps separately and describes the solution to overcome each of them.
The book also has its weaknesses. The book contains a lot of information about historical wars and most of the points made about the strategy are explained based on them. That's why you need to study very carefully and understand the relevant tips and information yourself. On the other hand, this style of writing makes the book look like a historical book at first glance.
But the book is so informative and I recommend you to read it.
Profile Image for Pedro.
74 reviews25 followers
June 8, 2022
A very solid 4.5 stars.

I left it as a 4, as getting fully into it requires a certain knowledge basis outside the usual business / methodology porn/literature.

But it's easy to make it into a 5*. It's never too late to have fun learning to do the Moltke :-D
Profile Image for Simon Hohenadl.
237 reviews10 followers
September 24, 2022
I did not learn much new from this book and found it a bit outdated. I probably read it too late.
I don't normally like much history, but did like the explanation of the evolution of leadership in European military.
Profile Image for Gerard Chiva.
65 reviews9 followers
November 5, 2020
The title could be misleading. This is a book about strategy around the three gaps which cause businesses to fail in defining and executing their strategy under unpredictable environments: the knowledge gap, the alignment gap and the effects gap.

The author explains how businesses can benefit from 200-year old teachings from the military.

In recent years everybody is talking about OKRs to fix the alignment gap, however most businesses still fail to do what is most important: to design and continuously evolve a winning strategy.

OKRs without a sound strategy becomes just fancy goal-setting.

The book contains some quite good advice and ideas I will be using, however to much history and text for my liking. I think I can summarize the key concepts in two pages ;)

Profile Image for Christina.
41 reviews10 followers
June 11, 2021
This book outlines a process for achieving success by adopting historical strategy methods rather than using more recent engineering methods. Engineering methods are not flexible enough to accomodate the dynamic world we live in today. It is better to teach your team to focus on the outcome and adapt their actions as necessary to achieve the outcome.
Profile Image for Scott Wozniak.
Author 5 books78 followers
May 27, 2022
This is a deep book--written in a very academic way. The sentences are very formal and the language is very complicated and full of corporate jargon. But it also spends entire chapters discussing other research papers, pointing out where they were right and where he disagrees with them. And it's entirely focused on really big organizations (e.g. multi-billion dollar companies and national armies) But buried in this dense writing are some really important ideas and even some really practical tools.

For example, as organizations grow, you need to switch from controlling quality through direct managed to empowering people with commander's intent and leadership development. Also, there are some good sections on how to communicate well, with specific examples of how other leaders have done it. This includes having your people "share back" what they heard from you in their own words, to make sure you actually got the message across.

Probably not a book most people will enjoy reading. But if you're responsible for running a large company or consulting to large groups, then it's worth the slog to get the insights.
Profile Image for Bjoern Rochel.
378 reviews71 followers
February 14, 2017
I'm always viewing these management books from an IT / software development perspective. Please bear that in mind when you read my review.

I like what this book brings to the table for the omnipresent question of how cross functional, mostly self directed teams align with higher management levels and strategy. A lot of it feels natural, obvious and as Bungay says "just common sense" to me.

Even if you just use his proposed Strategy Briefing only as a thinking tool and stakeholder management tool, I'm pretty certain it will add value to an existing "agile" initiative. At least it did it for me.

Bungays core insights about modern business, competition and human behaviour at the workplace also line up nicely with what I've read in other places like Appelos Management 3.0 or David Rocks books (Your brain at work and especially Quiet Leadership). I always consider this a good sign.

That being said, the book is not without problems. It's a bit dry sometimes. Other times it could have been a bit more focussed on the core points.

Last but not least, there's the grey area of things that doesn't necessarily fit into the current strategy, but are important nevertheless because they either handicap current execution efforts or could improve mid-term efforts on multiple levels. The book doesn't give any advice in that area, but I believe especially this one is critical for technology based organisations. My guess would be that Strategy Briefing also provides value if applied in reverse direction as a communication tool for that.

Overall I would give the book a 3.75
Profile Image for Toni Tassani.
165 reviews11 followers
February 16, 2018
The author uses the stories and learnings of two Prussian military men, Carl von Clausewitz and Helmuth von Moltke to explain his proposal about strategy development and communication, and its implementation.
There are very interesting and useful concepts throughout the book, like Friction, the three gaps, mission command, backbriefing or hte idea of Execution between Strategy and Tactics.
However, the author shows a set of beliefs that made me feel uncomfortable, like the ones related to hierarchies and obedience.

A few quotes will explain better:

"Hierarchy is valuable. It allows one to take decisions on behalf of many, enabling an organization to carry out different collective actions simultaneously and cohesively.
If there is not enough hierarchy, effort fragments, local interests are optimized, scale and focus are lost, and cohesion dissipates."
- Chapter Structuring the organization

"The two most important organizational processes are budgeting and performance appraisal."
- Chapter Aligning processes

"In the language of business, “command and control” has come to mean “micromanagement” with an authoritarian bent. In military thinking it is the means of setting direction and achieving specific outcomes."
- Chapter Keeping score
158 reviews4 followers
March 17, 2020
The commander in chief always develops a strategy to win the war. All though it is taken for granted that the soldiers in the field will obey the chief as planned to ensure they defeat the enemy. The chain in command and alignment becomes very important so that they know Why, What and How it has to be done. Business is an interaction between human organizations. It is competitive, highly dynamic, complex and risky. Organizations develop strategy and review it every year. Command is as unavoidable in the business world as it is in the military one. Strategy is dynamic as it only defines the path that management has chosen. At times the organizations fail to execute the strategy.

The Art of Action is a thought-provoking and fresh look at how managers can turn planning into execution, and execution into results. The book is based on the historical knowledge of military campaigns going back to Napoleonic times and moves forwards into the 21st Century military application of strategy in the Western world. The author draws parallels to application of the Mission Command approach in private and public sector organisations today. In war everything is very simple, but simplest thing is difficult as for the complex organizations. Creating great organizations and devising great strategies is not a science but an art. In science our knowledge grows and builds on the past. The big issue is not strategy, but executing strategy and times organization appear to reward compliance rather than initiatives or creativity resulting into non-participation and fear.

A strategy is fundamentally an intent; a decision to achieve something now in order to realize an outcome; that is a, “What” and a “Why”. The steps of the staircase define the organizations “main efforts: at a strategic level. Even if a strategy is not watertight, energetic leadership can make it work, however business strategy encounters frictions of uncertainty, errors, accidents, technical difficulties, the unforeseen and their effects of decisions, morale and actions. These result into 3 types of gaps (gaps in terms of expected results and reality: outcomes, actions, plans). The gap is described as the difference between what we know and we can do, as the gulf between plan and execution. They are
Knowledge Gap: The gap between plans and outcomes concerns Knowledge; it is the difference between what we would like to know and what we actually know. This means that we cannot create perfect plans. So the need is to formulate the strategy as an intent rather than a plan. Knowledge gap is to limit direction to defining and expressing the essential intent.
Alignment Gap: The gap between plans and actions concerns alignment; it is the difference between what we would like people to do and what they actually do. The need is to be clear on the intentions with the employees. The alignment gap is to allow each level to define what it would achieve to realize the intent.
Effect Gap: The gap between action and outcomes concerns effects; it is the difference between what we hope our actions will achieve and what they actually achieve. We can never fully predict how the environment will react to what we do. It requires the boundaries that are broad enough to take decisions for themselves and act on them. The effect gap is providing individuals freedom to adjust their actions in line with the intent. The result is to make strategy and execution a distinction without a difference, as the organization goes through PDCA cycle.
A gap in alignment is often pointed to top level frustrations and lower-level confusion. Top –level managers feel increased pressure to specify exactly what they wanted people to do. The lower level imitates and identify problems on their own, which results in local initiatives. These result in creating dilemmas over what to do. Junior people lose the trust in decisions of seniors and they start delegating upwards. Top level frustration goes up a notch as people thereby demonstrate that they really cannot decide anything for themselves and so the cycle goes on.
A gap of effect is typically responded by increase in control. The favourite control mechanism is metrics. Controls have a cost. Overhead builds up around the controllers, and the reporting burden increases for the controlled. Controls add costs, slow things down further, and increase rigidity. People become demotivated and keep their attention firmly fixed on their KPIs which they were supposed to measure.
People on the front lien are the ones who ultimately crate value since they are the one who determine the kinds of experience that the company generates for its customers. The higher the level of command, the shorter and more general the orders should be. The next level down should add whatever further specification it feels to be necessary and the detail of execution are left to verbal instructions or perhaps a word of command. This ensures that everyone retains freedom of movement and decisions within the boundary of their authority.
The real challenge is how to create an organization which enables average people to turn out above average performance. Most organizations could improve that performance significantly if they could unlock the potential to their existing people, whether or not they are unusually talented. Organizations can use OGSM technique, this starts with the corporate centre defining its Objectives and Goals and its Strategies and Measures. These are then translated down into business and functional levels instead of MBO.
High performing organizations tend to have a strong culture. The Morale drops when organization wastes people’s time. Using an effective briefing technique renders the motivational task of leadership far easier by making the connections between the individual and the collective and forming the basis of mutual respect.
The organizational culture is set by two most important organizational processes, budgeting and performance appraisal. They form part of corporate body language.
Scorecard is only one source of information from which that picture can be formed. A scorecard should be used to support strategy execution by monitoring the effects actions are realizing, not to supplant strategy.
Profile Image for Niki Agrawal.
55 reviews8 followers
September 2, 2018
If you like history and you like business, this book is 100% for you. If you like only one of those things, then half of this book is for you. The author compares history to business, chapter-by-chapter, but I would have preferred a focus on just one.

For the business side of affairs (my cup of tea), there are several gems of wisdom on leadership with vivid examples you won't soon forget. How do processes at a company turn an average employee into an outstanding one? This is what this book will help you answer. I recommend (half of) this book to anyone who wants to improve company efficiency.
Profile Image for Joshua Francia.
33 reviews6 followers
April 2, 2018
A convincing argument for leaders to put more emphasis on how the communicate what they're trying to achieve and why in favor of letting the team to figure out the how. A great way, also, to relieve the burden of wanting more information all the time, and to bring attention on the do-and-adapt framework, by letting the execution analysis to teach us what we didn't know in order to either keep going or correct our path.
Profile Image for Bruno.
13 reviews5 followers
August 16, 2019
A very good book on strategy and how to make it happen.

I slightly disagree on some parts related to complexity. At times it sounds a bit too much adherring to current organizational structures, a bit too much top-down-and-back. Of course the 'and-back' part alone would be a vast improvement in many businesses, not to mention a focus on intent instead of orders.

The most important contribution are the 3 gaps (knowledge, alignment, effects), I'd say.
Profile Image for Boni Aditya.
313 reviews885 followers
April 16, 2022
The book is a good read overall.

The book starts off from the very roots of strategy in military and then draws parallels between military strategy and business strategy and then tries to drive the point of directed opportunism.

The author praises the prussian and later german strategy that allows the military to act independently, the same art that Napoleon has mastered before the prussians. With all that being said. The book has too many pages. The first half of the book is not completely relevant to business. The examples provided by the author are squarely off and very superficial. None of the examples really drive the point that the author is trying to make.

I can contrast this book with Good Strategy and Bad Strategy. The case studies provided in Good Strategy and Bad Strategy make each point crystal clear.

But with Art of Action it is more of a story, the author starts off from the origin on story and its evolution. Mechanical management to biological management and then armies and peter drucker.

The author starts off with an analysis of gap between the intentions in the plans versus execution.

Effects Gap, Knowledge Gap and Alignments Gap, which cause differences in actions, plans and outcomes.

The author introduces Directed Opportunism as his strategic approach towards killing these gaps.

The Author then spends, three full chapters talking about each of these gaps at length.

The author actually tries to derive strategy rather than focus on how to devise strategy, i.e. he tries to go to the history of strategy, to its very roots and demonstrate how the strategy evolved over a period of time.

The author talks about mission command, and then contrasts it with directed opportunism.

His answer to the knowledge gap was to limit direction to defining and expressing the essential intent; he closed the alignment gap by allowing each level to define what it would achieve to realize the intent; and he dealt with the effects gap by giving individuals freedom to adjust their actions in line with intent. The result is to make strategy and execution a distinction without a difference, as the organization no longer plans and implements but goes through a “thinking–doing cycle” of learning and adapting

He dedicates each chapter for addressing each of these gaps and tries hard to provide solutions for each of them. The author uses vonmoltke repeatedly in the first half of the book. But then he jumps to the second half and tries to give the example of an airline worker Tracy and her dilemma and how strategy should work.

Another attempt made by the author to give the case study of Joe again falls flat with it being extremely theoretical and conveniently falls in place according to the wishes of the author at every juncture. The examples provided in the book, except those related to the war were made up and are extremely annoying at times.

The book is super theoretical needless to say.

The author talks about Strategy briefing and back briefing, which is great.

The author then gives an example of handling a fire, to drive how to handle the effects gap.
All the examples that he comes up with are clearly made up and fail to be effective.

The author has discovered three important gaps in executing strategy, i.e. getting things done or in this case - the art of action.

The author then goes on to provide one technique each to attack each of these, so that is a total of six tools in an entire book of over 280+ pages. Yes the book is extremely bloated, with non interesting, non relevant examples in an attempt to drive the point clearer, the author just makes the book very dull and uninteresting. I had to trudge through this book very hard.
But is the book useless? Of course not. This must be a standard reference book for strategy and strategists.
Why? The book lays the foundation well, this book changes the mindset and the way you approach strategy. The book talks about pitfalls of strategy or how a strategy breaks and that let's you create your own strategies and game plans to attack these pitfalls.

The author gave his best in some really interesting insights.

This one struck a chord with me, as I have seen this happen in the startups i work.

The reason many companies do this sort of thing is that they fall prey to the temptation of replacing clarity with detail.

I have seen a founder do this, assuming that by capturing updates and reports, everyday, every week, on three different places from everyone will give him extreme clarity about what is happening everyday, but alas, it only increased the number of updates and did not really amount to any increase in clarity.


The Last Chapter is the best chapter of them all - The author talks about the management trinity - Conceptual, human and technical.

Command - Leadership and Management. Intellectual, emotional and Physical.
Profile Image for Mihai B. Voloșincu.
12 reviews1 follower
April 11, 2020
O carte care oferă soluții la multe provocări din viata profesionala, un foarte bun ghid în management, organizare și conducere (leadership). După citirea acestei cărți dacă ar fi sa retrăiesc unele evenimente din trecut din viata mea profesionala cu siguranță as aborda diferit cursul și unele situații din viata proiectelor și echipelor din care am făcut parte. Autorul s-a inspirat din experienta armatei prusace din secolul 19, experientă actualizată la circumstanțele prezentului, o sursa foarte bună în ceea ce privește organizarea și conducerea unei afaceri, a unui proiect sau coordonarea unei echipe/companii.

"Most of us spend most of our waking hours working for an organization. How we spend that time matters to the organization and it also matters to us. We spend it engaged in activity. Directed opportunism is the art of turning activity into thoughtful, purposive action. Doing so does not only help organizations. It also alleviates the misery of the maligned middle manager and lightens the burden of the resented senior executive. It shows respect for individuals and allows them to grow. It enriches people’s lives."
Profile Image for Jay Yeo.
140 reviews5 followers
November 25, 2021
There is a lot to unpack here, and worthy of a re-read. He believes that organizations succeed when “directed opportunism” exists, a “top-down meets bottom-up” approach instead of micromanagement or uncoordinated spinning of wheels. Each level of strategy, operations/execution, tactics is more detailed than the last to achieve the overall vision, and backbriefing allows for alignment and buy-in. This requires empowerment, flexibility and creativity especially at the middle layer to act in service of the strategy even when not specifically directed. He also goes into detail on the knowledge gap, alignment gap and effects gap, which all cause uncertainty and unpredictability.
Profile Image for Rob.
582 reviews35 followers
December 29, 2021
Solid concepts for leading a business/company. Bungay draws direct parallels from the Prussian military of the 19th century to give great advice on how to centralize but still empower leaders. I listened to the 10th anniversary edition on Audible and the new preface was maybe the best chapter (I will admit I am a softare/agile development individual). Like most business books, the core points and anecdotes could have been pleasantly explained in 1/3 or at least 1/2 the number of pages which were present in this book. Too dense and repetitive to go more than 3 stars. But certainly some great take-aways.
78 reviews1 follower
September 10, 2022
*Who should read this*
Anyone who is involved with leading and/or organizing the activity large groups of people.
Anyone interested in strategy.
People who also read “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy”; they are excellent companions.
Anyone who spends their days puzzling over how to make things work in companies.

I regret not reading this book several years ago. Much of my work in that period would likely have been clarified with this blueprint, and in retrospect it shows me why certain things I tried failed. I found some sections toward the end a bit less inspiring, but the opening sections share such powerful principles.
Profile Image for Marco.
25 reviews10 followers
April 21, 2020
As a non native English reader, this book was sometimes hard to follow. The structure seems to be more academical than practical. Having almost one sixth of notes and index is a good indicatiin for that.
However I liked to find similarities from different domains and compare or adapt them, in this case the military. The author created a triangle of directing, managing and leading, with a bit more focus on directing or command in military speak.
Profile Image for Juuso.
44 reviews1 follower
November 20, 2021
Drawing from military history, Bungay arrives at something very much in line with modern agile, empowered product teams and OKRs.

Academic frameworks are balanced with illustrating stories from both business and war, giving the book rigor without making it too dense to enjoy. That said, Bungay's writing occasionally sacrifices clarity for wit.

Lots of take-aways here for execs. Highly recommended.
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