What do Zappos and the World War I German Army have in common?

I’m so glad you asked.  You may need to bear with me on this one, but I think I can explain this pattern that I see.

ww1My son, a Marine Captain currently in Japan, sent me an article after a Skype discussion we had on leadership.  The article is titled “An Elusive Command Philosophy and a Different Command Culture.”  The author contrasts the leadership style of the WWI German army with today’s military leadership style, which he considers to be prescriptive and controlling.  The German army taught their leaders differently; they taught Auftragstaktik.  This was a command concept in which even the most junior officers were required to make far reaching decisions, and demanded a significant change in officer education. The difference:

Traditional military orders detail a plan, and how to execute that plan.

Auftragstaktik orders detail the objective, and expects the leader to assess the local context, and determine the best way to execute that order.

So rather than trying to consider and plan for any possible contingency at the tactical level, Auftragstaktik trusts the local leader to use the analysis, research and relationship skills to achieve the objective.

In Modern Context

Think about it this way.  Organizations today have policies.  One organization I am particularly familiar with had over 1,500 policies that prescribed how managers act in everything from time off, to dealing with poor performance, to how many times to meet with their team each week.

I’m a manager in that environment.  How is my mind working?  I’m just guessing here, but I think I’m spending way too much time worrying about whether I’m following one of 1,500 policies so that I don’t get in trouble, as opposed to examining my local situation and using my best judgment to move forward.

Ah, but what if the manager makes the wrong decision?  Let’s control things so that they don’t!

Thinking Differently

Or, we could make sure our managers have a sense of behavioral expectations, develop a sense of culture and values, and then trust them to make good decisions.  And if they make a mistake, we can help them learn the why.

Okay, stick with me now because I’m moving over to Zappos.

The Washington Post recently carried an article titled, “Zappos says goodbye to bosses.”  According to the article, the upstart company is doing away with traditional managers, and job titles.  Employees will be assigned to various project teams and the teams will determine the best way to accomplish the goal.

Am I making the connection?

Zappos is taking this even further by eliminating a single point of leadership, and empowering teams of employees to accomplish a goal.  Ostensibly, they are further along on the employee maturity curve to make this work.  If you don’t know Zappo’s culture, they are all about providing employees with a simple statement of their values, and expecting aligned behavior.

The common thread, though, is leading with values and behavioral expectations, rather than controlling with prescribed actions.  Is this a good way to go?  Instinctively, it is to me.

Leaders on high cannot be close enough to what is really happening in the department, the customer experience, the hospital room, or any other front line activity.  They just can’t.    So how can orders from on high possibly cover all of the contingencies that might be expected?  They can’t.

What is the alternative, then? 

Perhaps it is to establish parameters, and then let people loose to create, accommodate, and serve, making decisions based on two things:

The parameters that the organization has said are important, and

Their educated assessment of what is needed in the moment.

If we accept this conceptually, it means a whole new way of developing leaders and employees who are free to make the best decisions possible in the moment.  Some thoughts on the development process:

Be clear on what is important.  Zappos has 10 core values, prominently displayed.  They range from “create a WOW experience for the customer,” to “be humble.”  These two values alone tell a new employee how to treat both customers and fellow employees.

Spend the first week or month (or year) of a new leader or employee’s tenure helping them learn and absorb the values, playing out scenarios and role plays so that they begin to understand the thinking process required to make decisions.

Create an atmosphere where employees can act without fear of failure.  If they make a tactical mistake, make that an opportunity to learn for the future.  If they violate the values, that’s a whole different story.

Develop a “mentor” philosophy.  I don’t mean a formal mentor program, but make it easy for a leader or an employee to share situations and gain wisdom on values-based decisions from others in the organization, when needed.

Continuously develop critical thinking skills in employees and leaders.  As busy as we are today, it is so easy to lose sight of what is important.  Continuous development opportunities keep the values front and center.

Incorporate the values into business dialogue.  The more you talk about them, the more people can connect the dots between the values and their behavior.  When something goes right, talk about how the values helped make the decision.  When something goes wrong, talk about how the values might better guide future decisions.


Just FYI – the article on the WWI German army is really good, and explains this empowerment technique nicely.  Well worth a read.

In the meantime, does it make sense to limit prescribing, and develop our values-based approach?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

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