Applying “The Art of Action” to Your Business

Most organisations suffer from too much planning that does not achieve the desired results.

Increase the size of the organisation, the number of management layers and departments, and the problem only gets worse. Technology is changing at an ever-increasing rate and markets change more rapidly too. More planning and more detailed plans are not the answer to address the issue of improving the implementation of strategy!

Stephen Bungay’s latest book “The Art of Action” shows how leaders close the gaps between Plans, Actions and Results.

The three main components of planning outlined in the book are Plans, Actions and Outcome or Results. You develop your plan to get you from where you are NOW to WHERE you want to be, defined by the Outcome you want to achieve. The Actions then show HOW you will get there.

There are three critical gaps you must recognise and then handle correctly. The Prussian general von Moltke outlined a way of closing the three gaps in his Memoire of 1868.


Problem Usual Reaction Von Moltke’s View
Knowledge Gap The difference between what we would like to know, and what we actually know More detailed information Do not command more than is necessary or plan beyond the circumstances you can foresee
Alignment Gap The difference between what we want people to do and what they actually do More detailed instructions Communicate to every unit as much of the higher intent needed to achieve the purpose
Effects Gap The difference between what we expect our actions to achieve and what they actually achieve More detailed and often tighter controls Everyone retains freedom of decisions and action within bounds


His solution to each gap runs counter to our intuition and to common practice. To overcome the Alignment Gap, he recommends cascading plans, united by a common intent and in more detail at lower levels. As for the Effects Gap, to what extent do you need to reduce autonomy to achieve greater alignment? Von Moltke’s insight is that there is no choice to make. “Alignment needs to be achieved around intent and autonomy should be granted around actions.” Do set the boundaries, that is the freedoms and constraints that guide the next level down.

Intent is what to achieve and why. Actions are how to achieve the intent. The difference between strategy development and strategy execution disappears. It is replaced by a “thinking – doing” cycle of learning and adapting. You do not need to know everything, but you do need to be clear about the intent and to communicate this clearly.

We can now fast forward to the 1980’s and to Jack Welch, Chairman and CEO of GE. Bungay quotes a letter published in Fortune magazine in full, as it had a major impact on Welch, who called the approach “planful opportunism”. The salient part of the letter is the observation that the Prussian general staff “did not expect a plan of operations to survive the first encounter with the enemy. They set only the broadest objectives and emphasised seizing unforeseen circumstances as they arose.

Bungay’s term is “directed opportunism“.

The “back brief” is critically important. Firstly, it checks the understanding of the intent. Secondly and more importantly, the superior gains clarity about the implications of the intent and this may lead to changes. Thirdly, it facilitates alignment across the organisation.

Bungay stresses that “what cannot be made simple cannot be made clear and what is not clear will not get done.” This is a critical message that should underpin successful strategy implementation in your business.

How will you overcome these gaps and make sure you stay on track?

Let’s bring this together with some practical guidelines.

Your intent must be simple and clear.  Avoid multiple intents, as this is likely to lead to confusion.

Do have cascading plans, when the next level down develops plans that are more detailed.  The top level “what” becomes the “why” of the next level down.

Use the “back brief” to make sure the next level down really does understand the intent.

Be clear about the boundaries, that is the freedoms and constraints that guide the next level down.

Remember that intent, alignment and autonomy go hand in hand.  If the intent is clear and understood, the teams become aligned because they understand their role in achieving the intent.  They have sufficient autonomy to work within the boundaries.

Give it a go.  Remember that “common sense” is not always common practice.  Even small steps can have a big impact.

Simon Fawkes
Accredited Mindshop Facilitator
Business to Markets Ltd


  1. I am giving a workshop on 2 November 2011 to the NZ German Business Association. See for details.

    1. I was delighted with the feedback from the workshop. I would like to thank the NZ German Business Association for a superbly organised workshop sand all the participants for their comments.

      I also wish the acknowledge Stephen Bungay for his kind permission to use some of the material from “The Art of Action”.

      I have edited the post by adding the practical guidelines from the end of my presentation.

  2. I enjoyed my presentation to Auckland ICT on 26 January and appreciated the questions and the discussions I had afterwards. Here is a link to the short video of Stephen Bungay talking about the “Art of Action“. Do contact me if you would like to hear more about this topic.

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