How Flexibility is Essential in Confronting Uncertainty

It is amazing how the military problem of winning battle is close to the problems we face in our daily activities. Contrary to what most people think, successful armies are war are not organizations that are strictly centralized and hierarchical and wait for detailed orders to act.

Napoleon at war

Napoleon, a leader of the Collaborative Age? His behavior in battle was deeply delegative and collaborative!

History has shown repeatedly that battle is a case of unpredictability, where battle is conducted in a deep ‘fog’. Even our modern technologies do not manage to lift it, because it is all about predicting what happens in the head of the adversary. Periodically some approaches to battle or brazen Generals tend to believe uncertainty and chance can be reduced and believe that technology or intelligence should drive action; these approaches have led to the worst disasters of military history.

In military tradition, the most successful generals seem to have been those that have understood that they had to account for a large uncertainty. To do that, they only give the general direction and vision and let their subordinates take all the necessary initiatives based on what is happening in the field. Control by the general in command is thus not on the detail but only on the overall situation. This allows the necessary flexibility – exploiting opportunities where they appear and managing the unexpected where it occurs. This principle of delegation was typical of Napoleon, and inspired many successful armies in the next two centuries.

Flexibility of the organization and leadership at all levels have thus been for a long time the approach of successful armies.

How can we apply these teachings to our everyday life? We can’t expect to control everything that happens, because it depends on events and decisions by others, beyond our control. We need to give responsibility to those in the action, support them in terms of resources, and align them with a simple-to-understand vision leveraging on the organizational culture. We need to expect the unexpected and keep an eye on the general direction.

Reference made to General Vincent Desportes’s book “Decider dans l’Incertitude” (in French), an excellent book about decision-making in uncertain conditions.

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