Medieval Lessons to Help Your Company Become More Lean & Agile
Temujin and Jamukha were two tribal chieftains living on the steppes of Central Asia during the 12th century. But unlike other chieftains, who constantly warred against each other, a holy bond bounded them together. As young men, when Temujin’s wife was kidnapped by rival tribesmen, Jamukha joined Temujin in battle against her captors and together they succeeded in rescuing her. They became blood brothers thereafter, and in time both ascended the ranks to become two of the most important leaders of the Mongol tribes.
But not all was rosy in their arrangement. Temujin practiced unorthodox management methods to say the least. He promoted people that lacked noble blood to the detriment of those with superior tribal status. He also seemed to disregard the traditional divisions between tribes and instead mixed warriors from different tribes within his military units based on their skills alone. This was unheard of. The situation became unbearable when Subutai, the son of a blacksmith (and, thus, a nobody), became Temujin’s most trusted general. Such acts were extremely offensive to most tribal elders, who in turn met in secret to elect Jamukha as the one true leader — a leader they saw as a protector of ancient traditions. Unsurprisingly, Temujin looked upon this as an act of treason. With the bond between the two brothers severed, they divided their forces and went to war against one another.
This local conflict would barely register as a blip on history’s radar. But the events that followed changed the world forever after. Some say they mark the beginning of the modern world, but what is for certain is that the lessons this petty conflict teaches us can help any business person better navigate today’s business ecosystem. Before we dive into these lessons, however, let’s see where our story on the Central Asian steppe ultimately leads:
A few decades after winning the conflict against his blood brother, Temujin would become more commonly known as Genghis Khan, the unifier of all the Mongol tribes. He would become the emperor of the largest land empire the world has ever witnessed. And Subutai, the young man Temujin had promoted years earlier, would go on to become one of the greatest military commanders of all time.
In order to achieve such success, Temujin doubled-down on his controversial management practices. While his extreme style of administration caused him to wage war against his blood brother years earlier, once perfected, these same methods allowed him to establish supremacy over a land empire twice the size of the Roman Empire. Genghis Khan conquered all and built this massive empire in less than 30 years. He did so by creating the first modern army, but it took the rest of the world hundreds of years to rediscover the agility his management methods permitted his armies. He was a leader ‘who did more, with less’ which makes him a perfect role model for any businessman or businesswoman today.
How did a small group of illiterate nomads under the guidance of this unconventional leader manage to pull this off? … And what lessons can it teach today’s business leaders? I’m going to focus on two core (cascading) principles that any leader can use to positively transform his or her group into a fast and agile team.
Efficient vs Effective
Efficiency and effectiveness, staples of corporate fluffy lingo, are used like verbal seasoning in most of today’s company communications. “Surprisingly”, they represent different concepts. Being efficient is about doing things right, while being effective is about doing the right things. There is no dispute that both are important, but I would make the claim that we live in a society which is more preoccupied with being efficient than it is being effective. We (and the companies we work for) are obsessed with productivity. Checking as many things off the to-do list is now akin to some religious practices.
This should not surprise anyone. Management theory came to life with the goal of measuring and improving worker’s productivity. During the early years of the 20th century that meant increasing the tonnage of pig iron bars a worker could load onto a rail car throughout the course of a workday. Later, it was the number of items a laborer could assemble on the assembly line. In today’s information age, it’s all about how many features an engineer can release per quarter or how many tweets a social media manager can send per day. The more the better.
The “science” of productivity also created a distinct ruling class made of gifted individuals who understand the complicated ins and outs of management and have the vision to guide the flock in the right direction. Managers deploy strategies and tactics that are “scientifically” proven to increase productivity. Employees just need to accurately follow the guidance managers provide and the company will be better off for it.
While a case could be made about the importance of high-output management in the industrial age, the same can not be said about today’s business environment. When your business operates in a fast-paced medium, then a highly optimized process is not a recipe for success. On the contrary!
Genghis Khan understood the importance of agility more than 800 years ago. He could not read or write but he was most definitely ahead of his time. So far ahead of his time, in fact, that he can still teach you a thing or two about both a bottom-up approach to management and autonomous, lean self-organizing teams.
"I only cared for the strength in man’s heart"
- Genghis Khan
While most managers (and I put myself in this category) can theoretically agree with the importance of agility in the business environment, in practice most have a hard time letting go. It’s much more natural to focus on the how than it is to clearly present the why, and then to trust your colleagues to work towards the goals the why establishes.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, is one of the managers who understands the need to separate the why (the vision the company has for improving the lives of their customers) from the how (the procedures to get something done) better than most. Just like Genghis’s meritocratic system, Bezos shaped Amazon’s culture to reward the end result rather than perfecting the means to completing a certain task. Like the Mongol Khans, he is both stubborn and flexible at the same time. When referring to Amazon’s culture, Bezos said, “We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details.”
Compliance vs Autonomy
The dichotomy of efficiency and effectiveness presents two completely different management structures and organizational charts. A focus on efficiency is the right decision if the company is competing in stable and predictable environments, where it’s imperative that orders are strictly followed. When the environment is more tumultuous and uncertain, the shift to effectiveness becomes the right choice as the organization needs to react fast to environmental changes.
Efficiency is about control, and control leads to compliance. Effectiveness is about autonomy, and autonomy leads to engagement.
The Mongol warrior, the feared mounted archer, personifies how effectiveness can ultimately beat extreme productivity. And believe it or not, there are quite a few things about creating a culture of autonomy and excellence that you can learn from these uneducated steppe warriors of Medieval Mongolia.
It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.
- Mark Twain
Promote Decision Making
Genghis Khan had a unique chain of command. Every officer could make a decision about how to act on the field of battle independent from his outranking officer. His enemies (which resemble a lot of companies today) used a centralized command system issuing orders: “We’ll go this way, You go that way. We wait, then we all do this other thing”. The Mongol army was divided into hierarchical units who could exploit any opportunity that came their way, without needing to ask a superior officer’s permission, as long as it tied into the overall master plan. That is why Mongol movement to the field of battle looked chaotic and confusing to the unlucky enemy soldier who had to face the approaching Mongol armies. But this level of autonomy experienced by the Mongol soldier led to some astonishingly creative ways to defeat their enemies.
Revolutionary! It’s quite paradoxical that 800 years later we are still struggling with these concepts of autonomy. Isn’t it ironic that a lot of companies are embracing the BYOD (Bring your own device) movement but so few even talk about BYOI (Bring your own ideas).
One famous example of Genghis Khan’s management style came during a 1201 battle against a rival tribe in which Genghis was nearly killed when an enemy’s arrow dropped his horse from underneath him. When the general addressed the prisoners after the fight, he demanded to know who was responsible for shooting his horse; one soldier bravely stood up and admitted to loosing the fatal arrow. Impressed by the archer’s boldness, Genghis made this warrior an officer in his army and later nicknamed him “Jebe,” or “arrow,” in honor of their first meeting on the battlefield. Along with the famed general Subutai, Jebe would go on to become one of the Mongols’ greatest field commanders.
Creating a culture of autonomy and experimentation has to come with the acceptance of the fact that mistakes will be made. And that should be ok. Like Genghis Kahn, many of today’s top business leaders understand this. Steve Jobs understood as much, prompting his response in an internal QA to Apple employees outraged by his proposed reforms: “Some mistakes will be made along the way … But at least some decisions will be made [as well]“.
A strategy that relies on speed above anything else needs to accept and embrace mistakes. Mistakes offer valuable lessons to learn and should not be punished.
Keep processes to a minimum
The most astonishing thing about the Mongol horseman was his ability to self-sustain himself. The Mongols could travel very long distances in a short amount of time, which was otherwise unheard of in the 12th and 13th centuries. For example, they surprised the Chinese by circumventing the Gobi desert, which acted as a natural fortification, by quickly going around it. A similar tactic was used in the Mongol conquest of Bukhara. The Mongols managed to maneuver so quickly because they were not slowed down by supply lines like traditional armies were. The Mongols slept under the stars and cooked their meat by placing it beneath their saddles to tenderize and preserve it, so as long as their horses had access to pastures — and there were plenty of those around — they didn’t need to rely on lengthy supply lines.
“But we don’t have supply lines at work!” you may say. Clearly. But we do have plenty of procedures to follow and politics to navigate when we want to try something new. Rules and regulations can be written down and officially enforced, but they can also be more “cultural” and enforced through peer-pressure: “This is how we do things around here”. The more of these official and unofficial barriers that exist, the harder it is for an employee to experiment and come up with creative solutions to a company’s problems. Extensive compliance — the enemy of speed — should be avoided by any company working to become lean and move faster.
Establish fast/non-controlled communication infrastructure
How can you communicate with your peers on a chaotic battlefield? The whole Mongol strategy relied on changing tactics in real time based on their enemy’s movements. Sending a letter to the officer on the other side of the battlefield was impractical for a variety of reasons. While such communication would have been slow and unreliable (the messenger could be killed or captured), even more problematic for the Mongols was the fact that they couldn’t read. Or write for that matter :) So they sang instead… Yup, they sang! Every man in the Mongol army learned a fixed set of melodies that corresponded with certain events, actions or carefully rehearsed maneuvers. Then, when the battle raged, the officers would compose their orders in rhyme, and the songs would be repeated by everyone until the chant spread among all the warriors. Responses, in turn, also traveled back to the officers as songs.
800 years later, it feels as though businesses have become significantly less agile. This is especially true in terms of disseminating information through their employee ranks. For centuries, organizations relied on a top-down communication style. Now technology can empower all employees to engage anyone inside the company, at any time, and exchange ideas more freely than ever. Still bounded by cultural self-censorship, platforms like Fb@Work, Slack or Yammer empower regular employees more than at any point in history. It’s imperative for companies to clinch onto this digital transformation. (It’s one of the things Hootsuite does extremely well; in our first official podcast, we discuss many of the tactics we already use.)
We tend to think our challenges are unique. Browsing the web while sitting on the toilet can instill us with a sense of our own uniqueness. But a lot of the problems we face now are issues our ancestors struggled with also. And in a lot of cases, their solutions are as valid today as they were 800 years ago.
Business is War. It is competition. And like the Mongols, you are in business to win against your competitors and to dominate a rapidly evolving market. Genghis Khan revolutionized army management forever. He did it by being faster and more agile than his competitors. And his tactics can still revolutionize your company today.