Management Advice From 1797

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.

20 thoughts on “Management Advice From 1797”

  1. The interesting thing about this quote is that all of the characteristics of the Royal Navy that de Grandallana obseved were not innate. They were built up over a period of about 150 years by the hard work of a series of admirals and Admiralty bureaucrats. We know Pepys and the fourth Lord Sandwich for other things, but they were key — they changed the incentive structures and corporate culture of the Royal Navy to reward initiative and suppress individual advantage-seeking in favor of exactly the kind of individual initiative in pursuit of collective success that the English had and the French and Spanish didn’t.

    What can be built up by smart incentives and encouragement can be destroyed by bad incentives and discouragement.

  2. I agree with the perception that the Spanish were more “driven by rules and procedures, rather than doing what makes sense” and that that was one of the reasons why they lost, However I wish to also point out that the Spanish Armada was already in a process of decadence at the time of these battles and partly because of the corruption originated in the bureaucratic absolutism practiced by the Spanish kings but particularly more by Phillip II, who could not or did not want to read the historical events of his time, busy as he was book-keeping the silver and gold shipments coming from his American colonies.
    Generals and many other key positions in the Spanish armada were traditionally purchased or given to sons of royal or important families, merit and experience often having very little to do with it.
    Perhaps there’s another management lesson there to be learn.

  3. First: those who wish to know more about the battle between Elizabeth and Phillip should read The Armada by Garrett Mattingly, which is fabulously well written and puts all of the events in context with developments in France (The War of The Three Henrys) and the rest of Europe.

    Second: I found the camera work in EtGA to be vertiginous and annoying. Folks who worry about the Bush Administration’s policies on interrogation should watch the movie to learn how a real intelligence pro went about it.

  4. What is old is new again.

    If you pay attention to the blogs by the troops in Iraq, you’d discern that it has not just been the increase in available personnel but the change in Rules of Engagement [ROE] that has contributed significantly to the turn around. For well over a year prior to the ‘surge’ the troops had been ‘bitchn’ about the ROE. It had degenerated in a ‘mother may I’ command and control set up, something familiar to the example of your Spanish and French captains. Petreaus changed that. He also removed the authority of lower level commanders to modify the ROE without his permission, understand the very nature of organizational behaviors to engage in risk aversion. Unlike his predecessors, the man trusts his troops. He show a lot of time engaged in ’management by walking around’. That probably gives him confidence in the ability of his troops to the extent that he is willing to operate as he does in a seemingly zero tolerance environment created by a hostile media establishment that magnifies totally out of context [or for that matter reality] any perceived ’wrong’. The effectiveness of allowing the troops do their thing as opposed to using a highly ’managed’ incident avoidance strategy speaks for itself.

    As part of the uniqueness of the Anglosphere, it is the Americans, British, and Aussies who put a hellava lot of authority, initiative, and empowerment into the hands of their non-commissioned officers. That’s one of the difficulties in training or [re]building another foreign army. The organizational/social relationship doesn’t exist in other societies that permits such decentralization and the ability to multiple the effectiveness of a force.

  5. It strikes me, since I’m re-reading The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich, that the obsequiousness, toadyism, and fear of breaking the rules that David refers to went a long way to leading Germany to its devastation. German officers, before and just after the invasion of Poland, missed opportunities to avoid the catastrophe (for Germany, that is) that was WWII. Plots for Hitler’s overthrow were begun but the totalitarian nature of the Nazi political machine motivated just such behavior and created just such people.

    The plotters dithered, didn’t find support, and conspiracies withered away. The plotters patriotic motivation couldn’t overcome the general cultural malaise.

  6. 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.

    And also the knowledge that the Articles of War would hang any captain who acted differently. Including himself.

    The RN was a firm believer in incentives.

  7. 1)Re the German Army in WWII: from what I’ve read, there actually *was* considerable delegation of authority at the lower levels (noncoms, company commanders, etc)–it was at the higher command levels that the extreme politicization and backbiting reached a fever pitch.

    Unfortunately, evil organizations cannot be relied upon to do *everything* wrong.

    2)Re the Royal Navy–one British admiral was actually sentenced to death–and shot–because he adhered to rigidly to the published Fighting Instructions rather than taking advantage of an opportunity that presented itself. (This incident is the source of Voltaire’s line about the English shooting an admiral from time to time to encourage the others)

    Pretty draconian, and I wouldn’t be surprised if political factors played a role in Admiral Byng’s demise…but the message to executives is a good one: you had better make it at least as dangerous to *fail* to take action as to take action and make a mistake.

  8. Strangely, seen from the outside things look different to some, at least in the business world. My German friends who do business in the US tell me that they are shocked by the amount of legalism, bureaucracy and obedience in corporations (oh, and airports of course). In fact they felt the rules governing the workplace border on the fascist (their word, not mine). Despite the talk about initiative and empowerment, there seems to be a rule, a form, a supervisor and a committee for everything – a German office worker wouldn´t put up with that. I really wonder if there may be some truth in that and why?

  9. Wf…I agree that an excessive emphasis on “legalism, bureaucracy, and obedience” is threatening the dynamism of the U.S. economy (not to mention making a lot of people miserable.) See the Washington Post article that I linked above for more on this.

  10. I think over-regulation can be fixed. The United States has always been a country of regulations and law abiding citizens and at the same time they have always managed to deliver and innovate in new technologies and produce better products and services paying the best salaries and following the best business practices. (The United States is one of the few countries that punishes companies that get contracts illegally by bribing corrupted government officials in developing world countries)I know of many countries, even in Europe, that have not reached that level yet.

    Most developed countries are over regulated, yet something that strikes me all the time, (and the company I work for does business in Europe and the U.S.A. as well), is the fact that there are a few countries that do apply and enforce their norms and regulations but the majority just don’t, and their governments don’t seem to care either.

    Take Spain for example; their government happily and enthusiastically embraced the Kyoto agreement. Yet most Spaniards know very well that the country is not even able to enforce current regulation in housing, industry, pollution, etc. and as consequence that country is miles away from reaching its “target” under the famous Kyoto Protocol.

    Same happens in many countries in Europe and Latin America and other continents that are very good at passing laws that will never be enforced. I am sure Kyoto is not being enforced in the majority of the countries that signed the agreement.
    But the United States remains a decentralized and democratic society and many of the tendencies the Washington Post article describes often occur in countries that are or have a history of being centralized and despotic societies.

    Also, I am not sure it is fair to use the Katrina disaster as a good example in this particular case because the Katrina was a totally different circumstance. I am not sure you can measure individual initiative and self reliance and like values that way.

    And finally there are two issues foreign businessmen have been affected by when doing business in the U.S.A. and which makes them feel the country is over regulated:

    First, the Sarbanes-Oxley, a very tricky issue that made many foreign firms pull out of the USA stock market or stop operations there because they do not want to comply to such strict corporate governance regulations, which says a lot about the kind of governance corporate regulations in place in Europe,Asia and other parts of the world where these companies come from.
    And secondly, the strict anti terrorists measures the USA has in place at airports.

    I am however optimistical the second issue will not be necessary one day in the future.

  11. I think regulation by government is something else. My buddies were specifically referring to how many people are treated (and presumably how they are seeing themselves) at their place of work where they have no competencies at all. Unless they were just visiting the wrong corporations, it seems to be a cultural difference.

  12. JoseAngel – that is by the way a very important point that Europeans do not understand: unlike them, the United States cannot easily sign treaties it has no intent of following. But as far as I understand, the difference is in the legal system. Isn´t it the case that any ratified treaty becomes the law of the land and any group can sue to enforce compliance? Whereas there is little chance of a French judge ordering the French government to kneecap their economy?

  13. WF… It is my impression that it is the case in some countries in Europe that they either don´t either because they do not have a history of implementing and enforcing regulation and therefore do not know how to or simply because they are too corrupted to enforce it, but I am talking from experience I have seen in Spain and Portugal and I have never been in France myself so wouldn’t know about them for sure.
    But in Mexico there are French, Spanish, American and German companies and I believe their business behavior normally projects the kind of societies they come from. When there’s a bidding in Latin America for a certain government project, it is the case American, Canadian and German companies do not even bid oftentimes because they know it is useless as the whole process is corrupted and the company putting the most money on the table or the one with the best contacts will often get the contract. Conversely, Spanish and French companies do always compete for government contracts against Chinese and Korean companies that are very famous for bribing officials in developing nations. The Spanish, French, Chinese and Korean are all over Latin America doing business that way.

    Perhaps because where I come from I see things differently. I have been in the states and all proportions aside, my impression about the United States is that it is a country that does enforce the laws of the land.

    Take Latin Americans for example; we are used to the fact that in our chaotic world we are always going to get privileges and special treatment if we have enough money or a certain social status or simply the right contacts, it is like a code. We know that we can get better treatment from the authorities if we have the right contacts and in most Latin American countries you can get from a driver’s license to a business permit that way and skip all the bureaucracy and paperwork that most people have to go through, it is my business experience that you can almost do the same in Spain and other countries in Europe.

    But when rich and poor Mexicans or Argentineans deal with the American immigration system they do have to take turns and oftentimes you will see a rich Latin American businessmen whining simply because he or she has to wait in line behind a bunch of poor Mexican or Central American farmers. I have seen it and I agree to that kind of bureaucracy and legalism because it treats everyone fairly.

    Sorry for getting out of the topic.

  14. JoseAngel…”Also, I am not sure it is fair to use the Katrina disaster as a good example”…while I don’t have specific evidence to offer, I bet that the people who step forward in a natural disaster are largely the same people who step up to the bar and do what needs doing in a business environment.

  15. David…

    I certainly agree with you that “the people who step forward in a natural disaster are largely the same people who step up to the bar and do what needs doing in a business environment”.

    I think I missed that point somewhere along the lines of the Washington Post article because there was something else that perhaps I, not being an American, saw while you, being an American, did not see:

    The author seems to buy the romantic idea that Americans are “people who don’t bow to authority, who do things their own way” and who successfully practice “constructive rule-breaking” and claims that they are losing these “values”.

    Everyone remembers The Mighty Ducks movie (1992) (He’s never coached. They’ve never won. And they become the champions!) The movie tells the story of how some kids with very little sports skills and a loser attitude that were suddenly inspired by this young man turned into a coach for some silly reason, himself being an improviser as well, and then the whole team and the coach go through a certain struggle with the usual “constructive rule-breaking” and “do things your own way” stuff, and in the end, after playing against Iceland, allegedly one of the best teams in the world, they manage to become champions.
    Hollywood has built their own American corollary in precisely that way: “Americans break the rules and follow their own instincts when they know they are right”, “Americans are good at improvising”, “Americans can be anything they want to be”, after all, Pat Garret became a Sheriff and went from being a criminal to representing the law of the land in one single day.

    There are many movies out there that continually send this message to American audiences.

    But I beg to disagree with that perception of Americans and for a number of reasons although I will stick to only a few in order not to make this post so long.

    First of all, American always get most of the gold medals in every Olympic Games, in most disciplines they dominate, year after year, competition after competition. There’s no improvisation there, there’s no constructive rule breaking and do my way thing in these kids and athletes. Quite the opposite, these repetitive gold and silver medals go to show how enormous and pain-taking discipline, love to perfection and preparation and dedication is the effort from both the institutions that train these athletes so well that they become the best in the world and the athletes themselves. And so much more can be said about the culture these kids and athletes come from and how they are brought up by their parents and society.

    The same can be said of Universities that produce Nobel prizes in many disciplines, economics, medicine, etc. where many Americans always get the nominations and prizes.
    And I can predict that:
    The next innovation in the telecommunications industry will probably come from some obscure little start up in San Francisco or Seattle. I don’t expect it to come from Japan or Germany, although I wouldn’t be surprised either.
    The next innovation in the game or music or entertainment industry will probably come from some American company too.
    Apple or Microsoft or some other American company will probably come up with the next great Mp3 player or multimedia gadget.
    The next great innovation in social networking or any other Web 2.0 application will probably come from some small software or internet obscure little company somewhere in California or any other state in the U.S.A.,
    And if examples of American companies aren’t enough, the next Google, Youtube, Geocities, Yahoo, Facebook, etc. will probably come from one or two American teenagers or young adults working in a little server in some dorm at midnight. And it begs a question: why is it that I do expect them to come from the U.S.A. and not from Germany, France, and Italy, China or any other nation? Do they need to speak English in order to create something successful at these other countries? And if so, is the USA the only English speaking country in the world that happens to have internet?
    The next breakthrough in Medicine will probably come from one American university or laboratory.
    And the list goes on and on.

    Now, do these things strike you as coming from a society that is “over-ruled” and lacks “decisiveness”?

  16. JoseAngel…you are of course correct that innovations like he ones you mention tend to come from the U.S. My concern is directional: while we still have cultural advantages leading to entrepreneurship, these are in danger of being eroded by the factors discussed.

    Nor are other countries standing still. For example: in many of the innovations over the past two decades, American immigrants from India played an important role. As the Indian economy has become more liberated and dynamic, many of these individuals may decide to work there, rather than here.

    Also: an economy and a society cannot be carried entirely by startups. It doesn’t just matter what happens in Silicon Valley; it also matters what happens at GM and in the New York City schools.

  17. David… I think you draw an excellent insight from de Grandallana´s writings and England’s victory at the battle of Trafalgar against the French and Spanish to illustrate some core English values of self-reliance, mutual support, etc. (same values which were passed on by the English and which have also helped make the United States what it is today, I construe).
    And you accurately point out to an existing danger in American society of losing or eroding those very values that allowed the English to defeat those two great navies (or not so great in the particular case of the Spanish Armada as de Grandallana himself admitted).

    I’d stay with that.

    But I have mixed feelings about people who use the Katrina as an example to illustrate shortcomings in American society as does the author of the WP article you suggested.

    But that’s just me.

  18. “There are certainly trends in our society which, if not reversed, will make us increasingy similar to the (French / Spanish) Combined Fleet of 1805, rather than Nelson’s victorious fleet.”

    I couldn’t agree more: We expect out military to be not just impossibly professional, but always above reproach, and there is seemingly zero tolerance for any kind of error in judgement. There is certainly such a thing as too much civilian oversight, and as that oversight is performed by rules-driven bureaucrats, we do get a situation where initiative on the battlefield is devalued and not possible in some cases. But I would point out that this has also been the case in previous military conflicts: from the Civil War’s interfering politicians on both sides (to the point of having such generals as Ben Butler actually commanding in the field, though to be fair some did quite will, like Richard Taylor) to WWII.

    BTW I could not stand “Elizabeth: Golden Age”; I thought that it broke no new ground from the original “Elizabeth” and carried & even magnified its faults. Of course I am such a supporter of period films that I may have taken this disappointment a bit personally..

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