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1-Page Summary of The Art of Action

Can You Execute?

Organizations often have difficulty executing their strategies. In the complicated world of business, companies inadvertently take on the confusion surrounding them and operations can devolve into opaqueness. Faced with this complexity, employees spend extra time in analysis and discursive meetings. Decision making suffers as a result. Frustration mounts among employees, managers and top executives because they don’t know how to proceed properly or what direction to go in next. As a result of all this uncertainty, trust erodes between employees and managers/executives which makes it even harder for everyone to work together effectively towards achieving goals that are important for the organization’s success (such as those outlined in its strategy). Most importantly though, no one clearly knows what ‘the company’ wants them to do anymore because there is so much confusion going on around them…

The Taylor Model

The biggest challenge in managing people is getting them to execute the right activities. The old-style scientific management approach suggested by Frederick Winslow Taylor cannot solve this problem because it does not take into account changes that occur over time.

Management models have evolved over the years, and one of them is Taylor’s management model. It was first released in 1911. However, it has its flaws and many people criticized it because they felt that it didn’t work out well for big companies. In 1980, In Search of Excellence came out as a new management model; however, people still preferred Taylor’s model to this one even though both had their own set of flaws. Managers complained about workers not following plans while workers complained about managers’ ineffective plans.

There’s a gap between plans and results. There is a lack of clarity, which pushes people to overanalyze things. As a result, there are more meetings to define the plan and achieve the right outcome.

  • The gap between plans and actions – No one can program workers to perform perfectly. When they don’t, executives burden them with annoying instructions.

  • Managers cannot control the external environment of their organizations. The outcomes they hope to achieve from certain actions are thwarted, and in response they create ineffective controls.

What should organizations do?

  1. Decide what matters most to you and your organization by focusing on the best possible outcomes, rather than creating a perfect plan.

  2. Use the available knowledge to craft an intent rather than a detailed plan.

  3. “Get the message across.” – Tell others what you want, and why it’s important. Keep things simple so that employees know exactly what to do.

  4. The author believes that nobody can predict the future. Therefore, it’s best to give employees space and support so that they may be flexible enough to adapt as situations change. This way, they will always work towards achieving your main goals with an open mind.

Carl von Clausewitz

The logical approach for turning activity into action precedes Frederick Winslow Taylor. It goes back to the Prussian Army, and Carl von Clausewitz’s 1832 book Vom Kriege (On War). Von Clausewitz was an officer in the army, and he wrote that during wartime things don’t happen of their own accord like a well-oiled machine. That is because there are many uncertainties, errors, accidents, technical difficulties and other unexpected events. He called this resistance “friction.”

Friction is both internal and external. Armies have people in them, which adds to the chaos of war. The Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz identified three primary sources of friction: imperfect information, imperfect transmitting or processing of information, and external factors. These results are not additive but multiplicative.

The Art of Action Book Summary, by Stephen Bungay