The shift to doctrine is more than a tactic: it’s a new way of thinking about management.
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
But few organizations have comprehensive, communicated and contextualized doctrine to empower aligned decision-making across the organization.
Doctrine translates mission, culture and strategy into daily decisions and actions. It provides guidance on making judgment calls and navigating grey areas that are more subjective and situational than rules, policies and procedures can address.
Where rules make decisions for people in advance, doctrine empowers people to make their own decisions. Doctrine supports effective delegation and distributed problem-solving.
Sometimes two or more of an organization’s values or goals may be in tension. In order to formulate actionable doctrine, you may need to use formulas like the ones in the following exercise to force a choice between competing values.
Some examples of values in tension are profit vs. purpose, or total revenue vs. profitability. If you had to choose, which would you prioritize? As uncomfortable as it may feel to choose between two core values, such a ranking can be vital to clarify the foundations of doctrine.
You may need to create different doctrines by context. For example, in a new region, you might prioritize total revenue because it indicates market share growth. But in an established region, you might prioritize profitability, as it indicates business health and resilience.
Try completing the following sentence
If we have to choose, we choose [noun] over [noun].
While we value [noun], we value [noun], more.
Nesting doctrines speeds up the decision-making process by pushing responsibility for decisions down to the people who actually act on them.
Nesting doctrines are important because decisions happen at all levels. Organizational values apply equally everywhere across an organization, but some decisions apply to everyone, while some are only relevant in certain contexts, departments or roles.
For example, when teamwork is an organizational value, working as a team is a general doctrine that applies to everyone all the time. But the IT department, C-level executives and the remote sales team each need their own doctrine around what working as a team looks like.
One global Fortune 500 company shifting from a more hierarchical to a more networked structure developed an outer envelope of doctrine for the entire organization, involving principles such as “Stay lean to go fast,” “Learn and adapt to win” and “Customers determine our success.”
Within each of those principles were more granular ones, including “seek and trust the truth,” “resolve conflict with empathy and transparency” and “maintain focus and agility in the face of uncertainty.”
And nested within those were specific decision principles for every function, region and business unit in the company. Here are a few examples:
Corporate communications used the principle “The ‘why’ with the ‘what’” to ensure that employees understood why the company is making a particular decision and how that supports business goals.
Marketing adopted “We are the advocate for the customer” as doctrine as a reminder that executing a marketing campaign is just a means to the end of responding to and meeting customer needs.
Manufacturing and sales self-synchronized around the doctrine “Allocate votes proportional to risk” to settle the ongoing power struggle between sales (which wanted to maximize customization to increase sales) and manufacturing (which wanted to minimize customization to make production easier).
Each department assesses its own risk for customizing vs. not customizing and votes to arrive at a decision. The manager only gets called in if they need more information to assess the risk, not to weigh in on the final decision.
Organizations often try to keep innovation at the edges of the organization so as not to disrupt the long-standing status quo and any existing momentum. But there is rarely a way to bring learnings from the edge back into the core.
Doctrine allows for adaptive processes that can integrate learnings across the organization.
Did you know that Wikipedia is actually Jimmy Wales’s second free, crowdsourced online encyclopedia?
His first attempt was called Nupedia. Anyone could submit an entry, but a small team of editors reviewed each submission and decided which to publish.
You can probably guess what happened: more submissions poured in than the editors could keep up with. In one year, they only managed to approve and publish about 18 entries.
Clearly, Nupedia wasn’t designed to scale. So Wales removed the bottleneck of the editorial team. He redesigned his site as a wiki—a website built on software that lets users edit the content and structure collaboratively—and renamed it Wikipedia.
Then he declared that not only could anyone contribute entries, but they could edit other people’s. By the end of the first year, Wikipedia was 18,000 entries and growing fast.
A site that anyone can change at any time could easily collapse into chaos, but Wales took a crucial step to ensure its success as a networked organization: he shifted from managing by people and processes to managing through purpose and principles.
Wikipedia established a set of principles called the Five Pillars:
1. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia
2. Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view
3. Wikipedia is free content that anyone can edit, use modify, and distribute
4. Editors should treat each other with respect and civility
5. Wikipedia does not have firm rules
As doctrine, the Five Pillars guide users toward the objective: creating a comprehensive, reliable, accurate source of information.
They’re authoritative: any content that violates them quickly gets fixed by other members of the community.
And they give the community a lot of leeway in deciding how and what to change—including the principles themselves as needed.
Adopted by the Agile software movement in 2001, the Manifesto for Agile Software is highly succinct while leaving plenty of room for interpretation and innovation.
Instead of saying “Do X, not Y,” it says, “Y is valuable, so don’t ignore it, but X is more important, and here’s what X involves.”
By codifying this level of flexibility while still setting out fundamentals, a highly distributed Agile community was able to collaborate on key development methodologies like scrum.
In the very first paragraph of its Leadership Principles, Amazon makes it clear in the very first paragraph that its doctrine is authoritative.
“Our Leadership Principles aren't just a pretty inspirational wall hanging. These Principles work hard, just like we do. Amazonians use them, every day, whether they're discussing ideas for new projects, deciding on the best solution for a customer's problem, or interviewing candidates.”
In other words, Amazon expects every employee, from the warehouse to the C-suite, to abide by the doctrine it sets out.
For example, the first principle of Amazon’s doctrine is “customer obsession." Plenty of companies say they’re customer-centric, but the decision Amazon’s doctrine guides is the choice between “We’re going to focus on getting our customers to want what we provide” and “We’re going to focus on providing what customers want.”
Amazon explicitly says, “Leaders start with the customer and work backwards.”
As long as employees remain in alignment with the doctrine of prioritizing what customers want above all else, they can interpret that doctrine in any way they choose.
Google’s Nine Principles of Innovation help clarify the distinction between doctrine and values.
One of the Nine Principles is “Default to open processes.” If this were a value, it might be phrased as “Be open,” but that’s so broad that it’s meaningless.
This principle makes it clear that Google prefers open processes, while giving employees the flexibility to decide when a closed process is necessary or appropriate. Doctrine guides them to leave a process open unless they have a good reason (like privacy or security) to close it.
Google also expands on the value of “innovate” with the doctrine “Ship and iterate.” The decision point here is whether to continue working on a project or release it to the marketplace.
In traditional product development, a product isn’t released until it works perfectly.
Google’s doctrine acknowledges that given what Google does, there’s no such thing as perfect.
Instead, the entire company aligns around the idea of getting products out the door as soon as they’re good enough, then continuing to work on it while gathering feedback.
At the same time, “Ship and iterate” also gives employees the autonomy to decide for themselves when a product is ready to ship, how quickly to iterate and how incremental to make each iteration.
Reflect on and discuss these questions with your team. Use this worksheet to record your thoughts.
What are some examples of goals,
strategies, policies and procedures
in your organization today?
Can you find any examples of doctrine?
Look at the employee handbook,
brand guidelines, and similar documents.
Reflect on and discuss these questions with your team. Use this worksheet to record your thoughts.
Where in your organization are decisions escalated even though the people on the ground know what to do?
Where do decisions not get delegated that should be?
Where do decisions get delegated and then taken back?
Where are there decisions that don’t fall cleanly within responsibilities?
Where are there often exceptions?
Where are you wasting time or experiencing stress because decisions hasn't been made or it's not clear who has authority?
NATO’s definition of doctrine: “Fundamental principles that guide actions in support of objectives, that are authoritative, but that require judgment in application.”
Doctrine is based on values. Where values compete, priorities help force a choice.
Nesting doctrines are concentric subsets of decision principles that apply to progressively smaller groups of people.
Organizations tend to try to keep innovation at the edges in order to protect the core. Instead, doctrine can help the edges transform the core.
Read “Decision-Making, 'Top Gun' Style” by Mark Bonchek
Read “Use Doctrine to Pierce the Fog of Business” by Mark Bonchek