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.