Book Review: The Art of Action

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

Related book review:
Teams of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

Related posts:
The goal of strategy
Principles for collaborative leadership

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