Overcoming Bureaucracy: The Idea of Auftragstaktik

Most contemporary governments have been shaped by ideas that were ground-breaking, innovative and even revolutionary three centuries ago. In the meantime, science and technology on the one hand, and the lives of people on the other, have dramatically progressed, at least locally.

Together with innere Führung, the concept of Auftragstaktik forms the basis of the German military doctrine. While the former expression refers to the ethical commitment of soldiers, the latter – usually translated as “mission-oriented tactics” – is the guiding idea behind field operations. The German army has practised Auftragstaktik for 200 years, its origins going back to the Prussians’ need to reinvent their military doctrine after their defeat at Jena by Napoleon in 1806. As esoteric as it may appear, the concept expressed by the term Auftragstaktic is now an entrenched component of US military doctrine. After a first adoption of mission-orders in 1986 in the Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, Auftragstaktik has become one of the central concepts of the US army with the 2011 Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 3-0, Unified Land Operations.

The main idea of Auftragstaktik is that “commanders should give subordinates general directions of what was to be done, allowing them freedom to determine how to do it” (Nielsen 1987, 22).

After World War I, the German Army institutionally planned programmes for “developing leaders who were willing and able to take prudent, independent action to handle the unexpected” (Nielsen 1987, 23). The underlying reason was that the situations facing armies (or governments for that matter) are often unique and for the most part cannot be planned in advance in any meticulous detail; furthermore available information is typically incomplete and inaccurate, and often conflicting. Nevertheless, rapid decision-making is usually required. Therefore, “the German field service regulations stressed that the noblest quality of a leader was his willingness to assume responsibility” (Nielsen 1987, 24). For Auftragstaktik, the commander’s intent is the most important part of orders. Once the intent has been clearly stated, “the exercise of initiative by subordinates at all levels is considered essential” (Nielsen 1987, 27). Given that decisions are made under conditions of uncertainty and that each situation is unique, the idea of a perfect solution makes little sense. The duty of a leader is to make a rapid assessment, adopt a course of action as reasonably good as possible, and execute it decisively (Nielsen 1987, 24); “adequate, not perfect, solutions are sought” (Nielsen 1987, 30). Speed is more important than precision; a decent plan carried out immediately is superior to a superb plan carried out much later (Nielsen 1987, 24). To better understand Auftragstaktik, it should be noted that for the Germans, “a subordinate’s failure to act in the absence of orders was ‘illegal’ and at the very least inexcusable” (Silva 1999, 4). Finally, insofar as speed becomes mandatory, it is apparent that the traditional bureaucratic style recedes into the background, since “speed can result only from decentralized decision-making” (Nielsen 1987, 27).

The Auftragstaktik vision depends on both mutual trust and explicit training. The latter includes a set of simple, commonly accepted and understood operations concepts, providing “a common basis for action in the absence of orders”. In other words, Auftragstaktik is not something that can be adopted “by simple doctrinal decree” (Silva 1999, 2).

Two criteria were used to evaluate actions: the timeliness of a decision and the leader’s own justification for it (Silva 1999, 4). The former criterion evaluates the promptness of the action, the latter forces the leader to reflect on his own decisions: since he will have to explain them, imprudent decisions are less likely.

Three other aspects of Auftragstaktik deserve attention: firstly, commanders should be positioned in the front line, not safely ensconced in rear bunkers; secondly, commanders should be willing to assume responsibility and take risks in order to do the right thing at the right time; thirdly, it is explicitly admitted that orders can be disobeyed as long as the intent of the commander is maintained.

Auftragstaktik explains why networks and flat hierarchies alone are largely insufficient recipes for anticipatory governance. The problem is not that they are heading in the wrong direction, not at all. The underlying problem that Auftragstaktik makes clear is that there are stringent conditions for the successful implementation of Auftragstaktik, including dedicated training, shared rules, a high level of trust, and a willingness to assume responsibility. The obvious caveat is that, to put it mildly, it is unclear whether most executive branches have the capacities to implement those required features.



Nielsen, J.T. II, 1987. “Auftragstaktik: A Case for Decentralized Battle”, Parameters, September, 21-34.

Silva, J. L. 1999. “Auftragstaktik. Its Origin and Development”, Baltic Defense College.


CALL FOR PAPERS Grappling with the Futures: Insights from Philosophy, History, and Science, Technology and Society Sunday April 29 - Monday 30, 2018

A Symposium Hosted in Boston by

Harvard University (Department of the History of Science)


Boston University (Department of Philosophy)

Co-Sponsored by The Millennium Project: Global Futures Studies and Research


Yashar Saghai (Johns Hopkins University and The Millennium Project)

Roberto Poli (University of Trento)

Peter Galison (Harvard University)

Russell Powell (Boston University)



Futures studies, which emerged as a new field after WWII, offer a variety of methods for predicting, forecasting, anticipating, controlling, imagining, and shaping multiple futures. Those methods include trend extrapolation, predictive modeling, scenario-planning, Delphi, and Wild Cards, to name a few. The goal of this symposium is to bring together philosophers, historians, and science, technology and society (STS) scholars who are deeply engaged with the exploration of the futures. We will begin an interdisciplinary dialogue that interrogates the goals, concepts, and methods of futures studies and probes informal futures-oriented thinking that is ubiquitous in social thought and practice. 

From the 1950s on, American and European philosophers took part in the creation of futures studies. In the US, they relied on their background in logic, philosophy of science, and epistemology; in Europe, they mainly mobilized political and social philosophy, philosophy of action, ontology, and axiology. However, from the ‘80s to the end of the ‘90s, philosophers were less involved with the field.  What are new philosophical issues, theories, concepts, and forms of engagement with futures studies? How are anticipation, forecast, and foresight related? What is the meaning and the value of the distinction between possible, probable, plausible, and desirable/undesirable futures? How can political and social philosophy, as well as ethics, fairly evaluate the normative dimensions of futures studies and contribute to making futures studies normatively more compelling in collaboration with practitioners? At a time when non-ideal theories of justice have gained momentum, what role should aspirational ideals, social hopes, and utopias play in normative conceptions of desirable futures? What role should risk, uncertainty, worst-case scenarios, and dystopias play in our anticipatory attitudes towards undesirable futures and our policy decisions? What theoretical frameworks can philosophers mobilize to investigate informal futures-oriented thinking?

Historians have engaged with futures studies in several manners. Early on, Reinhart Koselleck elaborated the study of “futures past.” How do contemporary historians reconstruct perceived future options from the perspective of past agents in specific contexts (e.g., Cold War; medicine), and embed their inquiry into broader historiographic, methodological, and social concerns? What have historians gleaned from the investigation of national and transnational trajectories of futures studies? What is the epistemic value and academic status of counterfactuals in historical research as compared to futures studies? How do questions about regimes of historicity and the futures mesh with new approaches to historical explanations and theories of history?

Finally, STS studies have for decades investigated the futures and stressed the performative dimension of assertions about the future in public policy and R&D contexts. How does STS construe the imaginaries at work in futures studies, popular culture, politics, and social movements? What is the potential contribution of the growing field of visual STS to understanding the exploration of the futures as a material, social, and institutional practice? What are new issues and theories in the sociology of expectations? Why is professionalization sometimes embraced and sometimes resisted within futures studies? How do technologies of futures studies change the governmentality of the futures in different contexts, such as energy policy, healthcare, food systems, science and technology, predictive policing, and environmental regulations?

These are some of the questions that will be discussed at the symposium through discipline-specific and interdisciplinary sessions. Speakers will have 20 minutes to present their original research.

Abstracts from all relevant fields are encouraged. 



  • Friday November 3: Submission of abstracts
  • Friday November 24: Notice of acceptance
  • Friday December 8: Final symposium schedule
  • Monday December 11: Registration begins 
  • Friday March 30, 2018: Full draft of papers to be shared with respondents


Submissions should be prepared in Word format and contain the following information:

  • Title
  • Name
  • Affiliation
  • Abstract (250 words)


Upon reception, abstracts will be anonymized for blind review and selection. 

Registration to the symposium is required and free of charge. 

Please email abstracts and queries to Yashar Saghai at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Updates on the symposium will be available on our Website: grapplingwiththefutures.com



Sul blog di Nova - Il Sole 24 Ore il giornalista esperto di innovazione Luca de Biase a proposito del mio novo libro "Lavorare con Il Futuro" (Egea 2019):

" Il libro di Roberto Poli, “Lavorare con il futuro. Idee e strumenti per governare l’incertezza” (Egea 2019) è un prezioso contributo all’impegno di chi, per sé o per la propria organizzazione, intende aumentare le capacità di comprensione delle conseguenze di quanto si fa. Perché sebbene non sia facile prevedere il futuro, si può aumentare la qualità dell’osservazione di tutto ciò che influenza in modo sostanziale l’esito delle azioni umane."




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