Yesterday I went to see Elizabeth: The Golden Age….not a great movie, but worth seeing, and better than you would think from reading the reviews. The battle scenes with the Armada reminded me of something written by a Spanish government official, which I posted about a couple of years ago. Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana was writing about the battle of Cape St Vincent, in 1797, but the factors he discusses were likely also major influences on the fate of the Armada, 200 years earlier. And they are also major influences today, 200 years later, on the fate of many efforts in business and government.
An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends and allies without looking out for directions in the midst of the fight; and while he thus clears his mind of all subsidiary distractions, he rests in confidence on the certainty that his comrades, actuated by the same principles as himself, will be bound by the sacred and priceless principle of mutual support.
Accordingly, both he and his fellows fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgement upon the spur of the moment, and with the certainty that they will not be deserted. Experience shows, on the contrary, that a Frenchman or a Spaniard, working under a system which leans to formality and strict order being maintained in battle, has no feeling for mutual support, and goes into battle with hesitation, preoccupied with the anxiety of seeing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals for such and such manoeuvres…
Thus they can never make up their minds to seize any favourable opportunity that may present itself. They are fettered by the strict rule to keep station which is enforced upon then in both navies, and the usual result is that in one place ten of their ships may be firing on four, while in another four of their comrades may be receiving the fire of ten of the enemy. Worst of all they are denied the confidence inspired by mutual support, which is as surely maintained by the English as it is neglected by us, who will not learn from them.
The quote is from Seize The Fire, by Adam Nicholson.
The various kinds of organizational behavior that de Grandallana identifies are still very much with us. In some organizations, people are “preoccupied with the anxiety of seeing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals.” In other organizations, they “fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgment upon the spur of the moment.” And in a few organizations, they act the aforesaid with zeal and judgment while also knowing that they will be supported by colleagues who are “bound by the sacred and priceless principle of mutual support.”
One could simply say “for best results, combine individual entrepreneurship with a high degree of teamwork.” But I think de Grandallana says it much better.
By the time of the battle of Trafalgar (1805), de Grandallana had become head of the naval secretariat in Madrid. Imagine his feelings when reading the reports from that engagement, which was a catastrophe for Spain and its ally, France. He had accurately diagnosed the key problems of his side, but had been unable to bring about the sweeping changes necessary to address them. Cassandra, in real life.
There is a very interesting article in The Washington Post on the increasing propensity of Americans to be driven by rules and procedures, rather than doing what makes sense. There are certainly trends in our society which, if not reversed, will make us increasinly similar to the (French / Spanish) Combined Fleet of 1805, rather than Nelson’s victorious fleet. (And in case it’s not obvious, I’m talking about all aspects of our society, including education and business, not specifically about military matters.)
Anyone interested in these matters should definitely read the WP article referenced above. Also, read RareKate, who thinks and writes about improvisation and bureaucracy.