Drucker on Backbriefing

Gross’ first law states that it’s almost impossible to communicate anything to anyone. This truth about human interaction creates a lot of problems in communicating vital information in a military orders process – problems that can and do derail the flow of operations and lead to their failure. In a military setting this means defeat with lives lost. In a business setting it can mean loss of market share, revenue, profit. Both cases are very important – they mean success or failure in mission accomplishment. The purpose of this post is to consider one way of overcoming barriers in communication within an organization – military or civilian.

Peter Drucker – Photo from Lifehack.org: http://quotes.lifehack.org/quote/peter-drucker/never-mind-your-happiness-do-your-duty/

Backbriefing is a military practice of a subordinate explaining his or her understanding of the plan to the leader (the one who had originally briefed the plan), prior to execution. It’s considered a critical practice to ensure the subordinate understands the plan and to ensure the leader understands implications of the orders. At the tactical level, subordinates can have between hours and days after getting an order to read it closely, determine their own plan, and prepare their brief back to the leader.

Most who have an Army background at the tactical or operational level are familiar with this concept. What was news to us is that this concept has existed on the civilian side for at least half a century. The Manager’s Letter was first pointed out to us in Stephen Bungay’s book the Art of Action – Bungay, a career management consultant with BCG and historian, goes into depth about how it’s a great military practice that can have great effects for civilian organizations. He cites Peter Drucker’s explanation of the Manager’s Letter as proof of how it can work.

In his book The Practice of Management first published in 1954, Peter Drucker gives a great summary of the Manager’s Letter. Instead of trying to summarize it further, I’ll just let you see it for yourself:

Being a manager demands the assumption of a genuine responsibility. Precisely because his aims should reflect the objective needs of the business, rather than merely what the individual manager wants, he must commit himself to them with a positive act of assent. He must know and understand the ultimate business goals, what is expected of him and why, what he will be measured against and how. There must be a “meeting of minds” within the entire management of each unit. This can be achieved only when each of the contributing managers is expected to think through what the unit objectives are, is led, in others words, to participate actively and responsibly in the work of defining them. And only if his lower managers participate in this way can the higher manager know what to expect of them and can make exacting demands.

This is so important that some of the most effective managers I know go one step further. They have each of their subordinates write a “manager’s letter” twice a year. In this letter to his superior, each manager, first defines the objectives of his superior’s job and of his own job as he sees them. He then sets down the performance standards which he believes are being applied to him. Next, he lists the things he must do himself to attain these goals – and the things within his own unit he considers the major obstacles. He lists the things his superior and the company do that help him and the things that hamper him. Finally, he outlines what he proposes to do during the next year to reach his goals. If his superior accepts this statement, the “manager’s letter” becomes the charter under which the manager operates.

This device, like no other I have seen, brings out how easily the unconsidered and casual remarks of even the best boss can confuse and misdirect. One large company has used the “manager’s letter” for ten years. Yet almost every letter still lists as objectives and standards things which completely baffle the superior to whom the letter is addressed. And whenever he asks: “What is this?” he gets the answer: “Don’t you remember what you said last spring going down with me in the elevator?” The “manager’s letter” also brings out whatever inconsistencies there are in the demands made on a man by his superior and by the company. Does the superior demand both speed and high quality when he can get only one or the other? And what compromise is needed in the interest of the company? Does he demand initiative and judgment of his men but also that they check back with him before they do anything? Does he ask for their ideas and suggestions but never uses them or discusses them? Does the company expect a small engineering force to be available immediately whenever something goes wrong in the plant, and yet bend all its efforts to the completion of new designs? Does it expect a manager to maintain high standards of performance but forbid him to remove poor performers? Does it create the conditions under which people say: “I can get the work done as long as I can keep the boss from knowing what I am doing?”

These are common situations. They undermine spirit and performance. The “manager’s letter” may not prevent them. But at least it brings them out in the open, shows where compromises have to be made, objectives have to be thought through, priorities have to be established, behavior has to be changed.

Though the concept is in reverse – a civilian management genius describing a valuable communications practice more common in the military – it gets to the core of what this blog is all about.

Also – in researching this post we found a quote that proves Drucker understood the military approach to leadership and management:

“Never mind your happiness; do your duty.”

Image and quote above from Lifehack at quotes.lifehack.org

Publications mentioned:

Drucker, Peter F. The Practice of Management. New York: HarperBusiness, 1993. Print. (ISBN 0-06-091316-9)

Bungay, Stephen. The Art of Action: how leaders close the gaps between plans, actions and results. London: Nicholas Brealey, 2012. Print. (ISBN 978-1-85788-559-0)


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