Art of Action by Stephen Bungay – Book Review

The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results

Before Lean Kanban Central Europe 2011 I never heard of Stephen Bungay. He delivered a magnificent keynote that ended the conference (you can see the slides here but the video is just for participants) and so I became interested in his work inspiring Business Strategy by Military Strategy especially as espoused by the Prussian Army in the 19th century. I recently finished his book The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results and wanted to recommend it to anyone reading my blog as well as share some thoughts.

A key concept in the book is that we are operating under increasing forces that obstruct our ability to predict what will happen, create total alignment on actions our organization takes and on the effects/impact the actions people eventually take will have. This is referred to as “Friction”.

A key model in the book and in Bungay’s work is that friction is caused by 3 gaps – see below.

The Problem

The Solution

I found a very strong connection between the different gaps and the approach to closing them and what we are doing in Lean/Agile world. I think this model brings a lot of sense into some of the key agile practices.

The strongest connection is to User Stories. User Stories provide a very strong focus on Intent (if you do them right, that is the “So That” part…). They don’t go into the details on purpose, leaving them to the next level to hash out. We start with very high level User Stories and then break them down level by level, sometimes handing down a branch of the User Story to a different team/group, similar to the way mission commands can be handed down to the different units participating in the mission. It is important for the team working on the story to understand the context. Bungay recommends two levels up is just right. So Be aware of the Epic/MMF this story is part of as well as the Product/Theme/MVP we are currently working on. More is too much, Less is too little.

I love the concept of Briefing and Back-Briefing so much that I want to experiment with renaming “Iteration Planning” into “Iteration Briefing” and “Back-briefing” and adjusting the format of the meetings accordingly. Good teams already do something like that I think, which is a good sign that this model is a good way to look at things and explain them.

Look forward to more concrete ideas for how to leverage Bungay’s work in Lean/Agile. In the meantime my full comments/notes are available on the Amazon Kindle site and best would be to actually read the book. I think you will enjoy it.

(If you are really interested in my conclusions from the book, comment here and let me know, maybe I will enrich this post some more…)


My Large Scale Kanban talk at Lean Kanban Central Europe 2011 Conference

Here is my talk, together with a great visualization provided by the conference organizers.

My main points were:

  • Classes of service do apply when developing products.
  • Classes of service don’t cover cases when you need to give different Treatment to different kinds of work, so I introduce Classes of Treatment for context-specific policies for “how to do the work” not just “when to pull what”
  • Kanban doesn’t prescribe teams, but what kind of team formation / organizational structure works best? Explored several options and their attributes and effect on Flexibility, Resiliency, Performance.
  • Kanban principles and practices scale, in a fractal way. You can zoom in and out as you wish.
  • The higher you go, the tougher it is to feel a day to day flow, which is the main challenge of Kanban at higher levels IMHO.


PS If you were at the talk, I’d love your feedback!