Agility and Self-Organisation – Success Factors for the Prussian Army in 19th Century
Nowadays we require people, projects and organisations to become agile through self-organisation because they operate in a complex and dynamic environment. However, this is nothing new. Already the Prussian Army during the 19th Century was confronted with many challenges, which caused their leadership to change the military doctrine and implement what is (until now) called the “Auftragstaktik” (Engl. “mission-type tactic” or “leading by mission”). But let us have a look into history and understand what caused the change.
In 1806, Napoleon won the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, because the Prussian army was in a poor state, generals were old and still using tactics and training from the time of Frederick the Great. Its greatest weakness was the battle formation. Most of the divisions were poorly organized and did not communicate well with each other. The decisive defeat suffered by the Prussian Army subjugated the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire until 1812. Nevertheless, it was a turning point for the Prussian Army and proved to be most influential in demonstrating the need for reforms in what was then still a very much feudal Prussian army. Reformers like Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Clausewitz served at the battle. Their army reforms, together with civilian reforms instituted over the following years, began Prussia’s transformation into a modern state.
General Scharnhorst was asked by the King of Prussia to lead a Military Reorganisation Commission, which he accepted and immediately started to organise. Through an in-depth analysis of the defeat it became obvious that the Prussian army was suffering from a rigid battle formation, no delegation of power to subordinate officers, thus lack of initiative and flexible response of those officers as well as very slow communication between the units and the generals at the top. Unfortunately for the Prussians, the French Army was agile in its formation, responsive to the developments during the battle and officers did not wait on orders from Napoleon and split larger and rather inflexible formations into smaller ones. It became obvious to Scharnhorst that officers need to become more independent, self-reliable and self-organising to respond to the dynamic developments on the battlefield. The most significant change was the training for officers. Up to this reform, soldiers and even officers were forced to slavishly follow orders, which was called “Befehlstaktik” (Engl. “top-down command”).
Unfortunately Scharnhorst died in 1813 and the reform was almost forgotten. But the King of Prussia, Wilhelm I (later German Emperor), published a “Magna Charta of Independence” for officers, stating: “The consequence of early intervention by superiors is that the desire, love and joy of service are not encouraged, but prevented. This makes training for independence and the development of individualities impossible.” Another fact may have finally helped the reform achieve its breakthrough. The Prussian Army used during the second half of the 19th Century a rear-loading weapon, which was superior to the front-loading weapons of its enemies. However, the French Army used “Chassepot” rifles, a great improvement to existing military rifles. The Chassepot marked the commencement of the era of modern bolt action, breech-loading, military rifles. Now, the Prussian Army had to drastically change the military formation and tactics during the Franco-Prussian War 1870/1871. Sub-ordinate officers of the Prussian Army responded flexible on developments they experienced on the battlefield. Escaping the Chassepot fire, they moved quickly aside and counter attacked French troops. Some of the Prussian generals later accused officers of being insubordinate and having created a chaos on the battlefield. Nevertheless, the French were defeated and “Auftragstaktik” proofed to be successful.
Auftragstaktik is a form of military tactics where the emphasis is on the outcome of a mission rather than the specific means of achieving it. The commander provides subordinate leaders with a clear goal (the mission), the forces needed to accomplish that goal and a time frame within which the goal must be reached. The subordinate leaders acts independently and is given – to a large extent – the planning initiative and a freedom in execution which allows a high degree of flexibility at the operational and tactical levels of command. Higher leadership can focus on strategic aspects and is to a large extent free from tactical details.
What can we learn from this story for projects? Complexity and dynamic changes require organisations to empower people, give space to manoeuvre, train them to self-organize and to flexibly respond on changes occurring. Despite traditional cultures, behaviours and rites a change is necessary in order to survive…
Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.
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