By Mark Bonchek, PhD—Chief Epiphany Officer of Causeit Partner Shift Thinking

Nature has a lot to teach us about making the right decisions rapidly . Massive flocks of starlings, known as murmurations, exhibit a rare combination of speed and scale. The birds coordinate themselves with remarkable agility to find food and avoid attacks. Schools of fish do the same.

What’s noteworthy in these murmurations is the lack of a leader. Instead, each bird follows three simple rules: (1) move to the center, (2) follow your neighbor, and (3) don’t collide. The rules enable each bird to act independently while ensuring the group acts cohesively.

Every organization today wants to achieve both alignment and autonomy. Can what works for birds and fish also work for people? The answer comes from a surprising place: the battlefield.

Over centuries, the military has developed an approach to managing “the fog of war.” Generals need to ensure alignment to the strategy, while soldiers need autonomy to respond to changing conditions. The military’s solution has two parts:

  • Commander’s Intent declares the purpose of an operation and the conditions for success

  • Doctrine determines how soldiers make decisions towards the fulfillment of that purpose

The formal definition of doctrine (from NATO) is important: “Fundamental principles by which the military forces guide their actions in support of objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgment in application.”

For a flock of birds, the intent is to reach their breeding grounds. This means finding food, staying on course, and staying alive. The three simple rules are the doctrine for the flock. They don’t tell the bird which way to go, but rather guide them on what action to take (move to the center, follow one’s neighbor). In terms of doctrine they are the “principles [that] guide actions in support of objectives.”

Turning to business, we find doctrine to be noticeably missing. Every organization has its mission, goals, and strategies to tell people where to go. They also have rules, policies, and procedures that tell people what to do. But few organizations have comprehensive, communicated, and contextualized doctrine to empower decision-making across the organization.

Without doctrine, it’s impossible for managers to let go without losing control. Instead, leaders must rely on active oversight and supervision. The opportunity is to replace processes that control behavior with principles that empower decision-making.

It’s important to know the difference between values, goals, and decision principles:

  • Values are what’s important to you

  • Goals are what you want to see in the world

  • Principles are what help you make decisions
 Principles can “nest” inside other principles, like  Russian dolls .

Principles can “nest” inside other principles, like Russian dolls.

So “Frugality” is a value. “Saving money” is a goal. “Spend others’ money like your own” is a principle.

One difference between values and principles is their specificity. Principles can “nest” inside other principles, like Russian dolls. Amazon has a fundamental principle of “Customer Obsession” and working backwards from the customer. This means different things for product development, marketing, and customer service. Wikipedia has specific principles for authors that nest inside the more general five pillars. The Agile Software movement has general principles that apply universally, and specific principles for practices like Kanban and scrum.

Be aware that the shift to doctrine and principles-based management is more than a tactic. It’s a new way of thinking about management. Instead of making decisions for others, or delegating those decisions to others, it’s creating principles with others that enable them to make decisions for themselves. It’s a distributed governance model for networked organizations.