Community of Purpose

What a naval battle can tell us about building organizational trust

Warfare has often been a useful lens to understand strategy. Battles are rarely won or lost based on numerical strength alone, but on careful planning. Case in point was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Napoleon had his sights set on an invasion of England but needed to overcome a superior British Royal Navy which controlled the seas. He ordered Admiral Villeneuve to lead a combined fleet of French and Spanish ships to disrupt the Royal Navy so that Napoleon’s invasion forces could sail up the English Channel.

Admiral Horatio Nelson met the French-Spanish armada off the southwest coast of Spain. Though outnumbered, Nelson carried out a brilliant strategy, thoroughly decimating the other side without losing a single boat. How exactly did Nelson pull this off? He stopped directing his boat crews and let them decide for themselves how to fight the battle.

In his book Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal shares the idea of “commander’s intent”. Rather than have leaders who are remote from the situation make decisions, people on the ground should have the agency to decide the best course of action. What actions they decide are informed by goals and objectives set forth by leadership.

“The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing.”
- Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams

In large, complex organizations, a better approach is to be “eyes on, hands off”. This was how Nelson led his team, trusting them to make the right decisions. His orders before battle were simply that “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.”

In a world used to top-down decision making, this is a radical shift in ownership. It could not come soon enough though given the growing complexity of our work. Just in the past twenty years, we have seen a Cambrian explosion of technology change:

  • Massive expansion of broadband Internet connectivity
  • Exponential growth in data from ever growing sources
  • More powerful systems and applications to scale with growth
  • Greater intelligence in systems through AI and ML
  • New roles and specialization, like DevOps & Cloud Engineers
  • Highly siloed teams that have little to no incentive to work cross-functionally
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How to turn a group of strangers into a team by Amy Edmondson

Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, enterprise agility, community building & software engineering culture. Author 👉

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