What is Doctrine Anyway?

BB_LineLater this year, I’ll be sharing the stage at SDI Miami with Stephen Bungay, whose book, “The Art of Action,” has been influential in the Agile community. He’ll be continuing to expand on his thesis—that the Prussian General Staff identified an effective approach to organizing for collective action in the face of uncertainty—and presenting on “Blitzkrieg: Lessons in Organizational Agility & Strategy.” I’m looking forward to seeing how he relates the success of the German Army in the early years of World War II to the management challenges of today.

I plan to do something similar, but with a less familiar example. I’ll be highlighting the importance of rapid organizational learning by discussing the Allied offensive at Guadalcanal in late 1942. The series of naval battles triggered by that offensive led to revisions in the U.S. Navy’s doctrine—its approach to combat. Whereas Bungay will discuss the merits of the German Army’s doctrine, I’ll be presenting the importance of developing doctrinal agility: the ability to rapidly refine, adapt, and evolve doctrine.

So what is Doctrine?

In my forthcoming book on organizational learning in the U.S. Navy, I define doctrine this way:

Doctrine is the set of implicit and explicit assumptions that govern the behavior of a military force. It is what officers and sailors fall back on to guide their decisions when precise instructions are not available. It has a parallel to “culture” or “ethos” but greater specificity than either one.

Bungay (and many others) contend that the German Army’s doctrine was particularly effective because it created a common sense of what to do and how to do it, allowing large collections of individual soldiers to act in concert with minimal need for explicit instructions. I contend that the U.S. Navy’s doctrine was effective because it retained the ability to evolve and change in the face of new information. These are related concepts, but the difference is important.

Why Should I Care about Doctrine?

Whether we are aware of the process or not, doctrine influences how we make decisions. We’ve all experienced the influence of doctrine in our work. Some organizations tend to centralize decisions, perhaps in the hands of a senior engineer or manager. Those who fail to defer to them are stigmatized or punished, quickly creating a doctrine of centralized decision-making. Other organizations attempt to empower teams with the ability to collaboratively make decisions. When leaders—managers, senior engineers, scrum masters, etc.—reinforce this concept, the doctrine of empowered teams spreads. Many more examples exist. In most cases, organizational doctrines are implicit, but they exert a powerful influence.

Military forces explicitly create a doctrine based on their preferred approach. Drill, exercise, and repetition creates patterns—what Daniel Kahneman calls “heuristics”—that become the preferred approach to solving specific problems. There are two challenges in this. First, the heuristics must align with the organization’s goals and objectives. Second, the heuristics must not be so deeply embedded that they cannot change. The U.S. Navy was particularly adept at both seventy-five years ago.

Come to SDI Miami and I’ll explain why this was so, and what the implications are for modern organizations.

“The Rules of the Game”

The subtitle of the July 2013 edition of “The Scrum Guide” is “The Rules of the Game.”1 This is an ironic choice. The Rules of the Game is also the title of Andrew Gordon’s in-depth analysis of the Royal Navy’s performance during the Battle of Jutland, a performance that failed to meet expectations and led to bitter recriminations. It is not the kind of performance software teams would wish to emulate.

Jutland was the great naval battle of World War One. In the late afternoon of 31 May 1916, the main battle fleets of Great Britain and Imperial Germany found each other in the North Sea. They fought on and off through the fading light and darkness for the rest of the day and into the night.

For the Royal Navy, the battle offered great promise. Victory over the German fleet would have opened communications with Russia through the Baltic, and permitted offensive action against the German coast. Together, these might have shortened the war.2 And victory was expected. Since Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805, the Royal Navy had enjoyed a preeminent position; no other naval force could compare in size and power.

The promise of victory grew more certain during Jutland’s opening moves. Signals intelligence gave the Royal Navy early warning of German movements, allowing the British to concentrate overwhelming force at the anticipated contact point. British scouting forces successfully located the German battle fleet, and led it toward the Royal Navy’s battle line. The Germans soon came under the largest concentration of naval gunfire in history, far away from their bases, outnumbered, and outgunned. Defeat seemed certain. But the promise was not fulfilled; the German fleet not only survived, but managed to inflict more punishment than it received.3

The failure of the Royal Navy to win a decisive victory is the dominant theme of Jutland. Most assign blame to the fleet commander, Admiral John R. Jellicoe, or his chief subordinate, Admiral David R. Beatty. Gordon’s analysis goes beyond personal explanations and examines the Royal Navy’s system of command. Gordon illustrates how the Royal Navy’s command mechanisms—the “rules” that had been established to guide the behavior of officers in battle—hindered rapid decision-making, crippled individual initiative, and thwarted success at this most critical juncture.4

The primary problem was an overreliance on orders and instructions from above; this created an environment where subordinates were hesitant to act on their own initiative, even in situations where such behavior endangered their forces or their mission.5 Both Beatty and Jellicoe were forced to assume the burden of commanding the bulk of their forces directly. They shouldered this responsibility quite well, but the challenge of attempting to coordinate the movements of a large battle fleet, in fading light and darkness, while maneuvering to intercept a fleeing enemy was too great for any one person, or even a small group. Jellicoe and Beatty needed greater initiative from their subordinates in order to deliver on Jutland’s promise.

This was not something the Royal Navy was prepared to deliver. The limited initiative displayed by subordinates was an unintentional—but wholly predictable—consequence of the system of rules that governed their behavior. The rules took the place of intelligent action. Instead of focusing on using every available means to defeat the enemy, the Royal Navy adhered to the “rules of the game.”

The Scrum Guidance, by creating a similar system of rules, risks creating nearly identical, unintended side effects. Scrum teams often will hesitate when confronted with situations that are not anticipated or accounted for by the rules, rather than addressing the problem creatively on their own initiative. This is common, for example, when access to the Product Owner is limited. With no one to groom or prioritize the backlog, the influx of work slows, and progress begins to stall.

A more insidious problem is that rules can frequently hinder learning, particularly when situations that contradict the rules are encountered. Because the rules provide a context for framing the problem, the most common response is to conclude that the rules have not been implemented properly. The team convinces itself that if they could only be “good enough” the problem would be solved. This view can blind a team to alternative approaches and can hinder the customization of Scrum for their own context.

If problems do arise, wasteful arguments about the correct interpretation and enforcement of the rules are likely, particularly in stressful situations or where failure has occurred. This can easily divide the team and shift focus away from the main goal of delivering software.

Gordon’s analysis illustrates all three of these negative outcomes. Limited individual initiative was a key component of the Royal Navy’s failure to decisively defeat the Germans at Jutland. In the years before the battle, alternative approaches to command were evaluated and discarded; their value was missed because the existing framework—the existing system of rules—prevented a fair assessment of them. And, most visibly, the aftermath of the battle saw a split between Beatty and Jellicoe, which led to a “Jutland controversy,” centered on their different approaches to leadership and their interpretation of the “rules.”6

Rules are necessary to help guide behaviors and align the work of teams. The performance of the Royal Navy at Jutland offers a salient example of the problems that can develop when too much emphasis is placed on adhering to rules. This is relevant for software teams, because software teams—like navies—make it their business to capitalize on dynamic and changing environments. Success in such circumstances requires individual initiative and low-level decision-making. The Scrum Guidance, by emphasizing “rules of the game” risks hindering the ability of teams to capitalize on the initiative of their members and learn from unanticipated circumstances, both of which are goals of the Scrum Framework.


2. Commander Holloway H. Frost, The Battle of Jutland, (United States Naval Institute, 1936), p. 108-116

3. Keith Yates, Flawed Victory: Jutland, 1916, (Naval Institute Press, 2000)

4. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game, (Naval Institute Press, 1996)

5. The best examples of this are the handling of the 5th Battle Squadron early in the battle (Gordon, p. 81-101) and the failure of the destroyer flotillas to report encounters with the Germans during the night (Gordon, p. 472-499)

6. Gordon, p. 537-561; Yates, p. 257-275

Strategic Limitations of the German General Staff

It has become common for those who study business organizations to embrace military analogies and military models when they think about strategy and organizational complexity.1 This is a good thing; cross-disciplinary approaches can offer new perspectives and help seed new ideas. However, limited knowledge of the subject matter can lead to overly optimistic interpretations of historical examples and restrict our ability to learn from them. This is particularly true in the case of the German General Staff (GGS) in general and Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) in particular.

Moltke is considered one of the greatest military minds of the nineteenth century. He was appointed chief of the Prussian General Staff in 1857 and led the Prussian Army through the wars of German Unification, including victories over Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-71). Those who believe in flexibility, learning, and adaptability in the face of uncertainty find appeal in his famous quote about the nature of war: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”2

Moltke built the Prussian Army—and later the German one—on this assumption about the nature of war. Rather than issuing detailed instructions, Moltke stressed adaptability and flexibility. Officers were given high-level objectives and guidance. They were expected to develop specific plans based on the circumstances of the moment, without consulting higher headquarters for approval. This allowed Moltke’s armies to shorten their decision cycle. In modern business terms, Moltke’s armies lowered the cost of decisions by placing authority to make those decisions at lower levels. They got inside the “decision cycle” of their opponents.

There are extremely salient lessons to be gained from this experience. Distributing decision-making more broadly throughout the organization is an effective reaction to increased complexity and uncertainty. Education, training, and practice will give better results in the field of knowledge work than detailed instructions that become obsolete at the first unanticipated circumstance. However, if we consider this one aspect of Moltke’s approach worth emulating, we must also be conscious of his limitations.

The most effective critique of the GGS and its approach springs from another Prussian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz, and his famous dictum, “War is the continuation of policy by other means.”3 This concept has been interpreted numerous ways, but there is no escaping its fundamental essence, and that is that nations (and would-be-nations4) wage war to achieve political ends.

Moltke would have agreed with this, and the political objective of his famous victories is readily apparent from their name, the “Wars of German Unification.” It is unfortunate that in our praise for Moltke, the essential political side of these wars is often forgotten. The political side was dominated by the Minister President of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck. Without Bismarck’s skill and acumen, it is unlikely that Moltke’s battlefield victories would have achieved lasting fame.

This is primarily because Moltke’s battlefield emphasis was the encirclement and destruction of the opposing army. Moltke focused on crafting the quintessential military victory: the annihilation of the enemy forces. The approach worked for two reasons. First, the era of total war, where nations mobilized their entire economies in pursuit of victory, had not yet come. Military victory could, in such an environment, deliver political victory. Second, the circumstances that allowed the Prussian state to achieve battlefield success—the delicate management of alliances, the choice of the right moment in time, and the selection of willing allies—had been put in place by the diligent Bismarck. His deft hand provided the context for Moltke’s triumphs.

The necessity of an effective interplay between military and political spheres is illustrated by what happened after Moltke and Bismarck retired. Moltke left the GGS in 1888; Bismarck retired in 1890. The delicate balance of alliances Bismarck had brokered for Germany’s benefit fell apart. France and Russia, long potential enemies, entered into an Alliance in 1892. This left Germany in a difficult strategic position, with powerful opponents to the east and the west.

This challenge required a balance of political and military thinking, but the voids left by Moltke and Bismarck were filled by less-capable individuals. By the time of the time of the Franco-Russian Alliance, Alfred von Schlieffen had assumed leadership of the GGS. Schlieffen was not a politically astute individual; he had less influence over other governmental departments than Moltke. Rather than seeking to collaboratively develop a solution to Germany’s strategic dilemma, Schlieffen, “responded to this challenge… by focusing inward on areas he could control and influence.”5 The result was a purely military solution to Germany’s strategic problem, the infamous Schlieffen Plan.

The Schlieffen Plan was a reckless attempt to use military means to achieve political ends while ignoring the political consequences of those means. Schlieffen—and his successor, the younger Helmuth von Moltke (cousin of the elder Moltke)—embraced the approach of the elder Moltke and placed an emphasis on quick battlefield victories. They expected to defeat France with a huge flanking movement that would enter northern France through neutral Belgium. Germany’s eastern border would be secured by a small force; Russia’s mobilization was expected to be slow and cumbersome. The delay would allow the bulk of the German Army to defeat France before turning eastward and defeating Russia. As the world witnessed in the fall of 1914, it didn’t work.

There were numerous flaws in the plan; two were crucial. First, the violation of Belgian neutrality made Germany a global pariah and brought Great Britain into the war on the side of France and Russia. While there is some question as to whether Britain would have interceded anyway, the military plan guaranteed this political result. Second, the plan assumed that swift military victories were still possible in an era of national mobilization. This was no longer the case. The elder Moltke and the General Staff had gotten evidence of this in the latter stages of the Franco-Prussian War, when new French armies appeared after the initial German triumphs. Schlieffen and the younger Moltke both had sufficient evidence to anticipate these flaws. That they did not is a weighty indictment of the approach of the GGS, and through it, the legacy of the elder Moltke.

When we praise Moltke for developing a potent framework for overcoming uncertainty and developing high performance on the dynamic environment of the battlefield, we praise his work within the German Army. But it is essential to remember that Moltke’s framework was successful because of the political circumstances Bismarck brokered. The two of them, along with a broader supporting cast, created the system in which Moltke’s battlefield triumphs brought political success. Without that broader system, Moltke’s work—while impressive—does not guarantee victory. The example of Germany’s performance in World War One proves that point.

What lessons then should the modern student take from Moltke? His system of decentralized decision-making is laudable, certainly, and has been a model of effective military leadership for over a century. However, if we adopt such an approach, we need to ensure that the end goals remain at the forefront. Too often, like Schlieffen, we seek to optimize the work within the spheres we can control, and ignore the challenges outside of them.

The end goal for the GGS should have been political victory for Germany. Instead, it became victory on the battlefield. The two were not the same thing. A more modern example would be a software team that makes its end goal the creation of features, and ignores the process of validating that those features are ones that will solve their customers’ business problems. Moltke was like a software manager, who, having developed an effective rapport with his peers, focused on optimizing the work of his software team. After his departure, his successors continued to optimize and refine their work, but lost the rapport, and in the process, lost the system that allowed their work to be valuable. This is the great lesson we should take from the elder Moltke.

Further Reading:

German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, Robert T. Foley, (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

The Principles of Product Development Flow, Donald G. Reinertsen, (Celeritas Publishing, 2009)

On War, Carl von Clausewitz, Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton University Press, 1989)

Moltke, Schlieffen and Prussian War Planning, Arden Bucholz, (Berg Publishers, 1993)

The Marne, 1914, Holger H. Herwig, (Random House, 2009)

The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision-Making and the Disasters of 1914, Jack Snyder, (Cornell University Press, 1984)


1. Perhaps the most effective example of this is Don Reinertsen’s The Principles of Product Development Flow, (Celeritas Publishing, 2009). See Chapter 9, p. 243-266

2. Moltke’s Wikipedia entry is a good starting point to learn more.

3. Clausewitz Wikipedia entryOn War, Carl von Clausewitz, Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton University Press, 1989)

4. It is useful to think of the terrorist network of Al Qaeda and its affiliates this way.

5. Robert T. Foley, German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 64