Organizational Culture, Improvisation, Success, and Failure

Maggie’s Farm reminds us that October 21 was the 210th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.  (JMW Turner painting of the battle at the link)  I am reminded of a thoughtful document written in 1797 by a Spanish naval official, Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana, on the general subject “why do we keep losing to the British, and what can we do about it?”  His thoughts were inspired by his observations while with the Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent,  in a battle which was a significant defeat for Spain, and are relevant to a question which is very relevant to us today:  

What attributes of an organization make it possible for that organization to accomplish its mission in an environment of uncertainty, rapid change, and high stress?

Here are de Grandallana’s key points:

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 manoeures…

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 with the aforesaid 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 was 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, business, government, the “nonprofit,” not only specifically about military matters.

For an example of this malign trend, see my 2012 post about bureaucratic obstacles to fighting a wildfire: Sad and Disturbing, But Not Surprising.

I think Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana would feel a sad sense of recognition.

4 thoughts on “Organizational Culture, Improvisation, Success, and Failure”

  1. There is a tendency to become wimps. Fred has noticed it.

    The United States has become a nation of weak, pampered, easily frightened, helpless milquetoasts who have never caught a fish, fired a gun, chopped a log, hitchhiked across the country, or been in a schoolyard fight. If their cat dies, they call a grief therapist. Everything frightens Americans.

    “School District Bans Playing Tag to Ensure the Physical and Emotional Safety of All Students”

    Independent? No. America is a nation of employees, afraid of the boss, trapped by the retirement system, worried that if they lose the job they won’t get another one.

    However, there is still football and my team tonight did good.

    Another good book on English naval warfare is The Confident Hope of a Miracle, which is about the Spanish Armada. It dispels a few myths,. such as Queen Elizabeth’s good leadership.

    The Spanish relied upon boarding the enemy, as at Lepanto. The English relied upon cannon.

  2. Your post seems to agree or suggest that the Spanish were the major partner at Trafalgar, maybe because of the nationality of the author. The reality, that Napoleon’s France was the flag which was most numerous, as was the fact that the Spanish were literally ‘dragooned’ into the alliance by the twin Napoleonic actions of the virtual invasion of Spain by the French in support of their puppet King, along with the prospect of the riches which would flow their way if they hitched their star to the dictatorial ambitions of Napoleon.

    As for the differences between the British and the French/Spanish navies, i would take issue with the Spanish writer’s opinion of how Nelson’s ships fought and consistently won through. I
    regard the difference between the two warring sides as more than just training; it was the difference between one Nation which strove to conquer all, and one Nation which opposed Napoleon’s desires and demands.

    As I wrote on my own site, during a post I wrote about books and authors; that the very spirit of the Royal Navy at sea was determined by a combination of training, a willingness to fight whatever the odds, and the peculiar genetic make-up of the British which almost ensured that they walked towards the sound of the guns, rather than holding a conference on which path to support. This idea, best expressed in ‘The Habit of Victory’ by Capt. Peter Hore, gives a better canvas upon which to base a view of the winner at Trafalgar.

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