Tanner James Blog

We Will Manage Portfolios On The Beaches…

Daniel Oyston

I recently read a book Churchill’s Bunker, which describes the headquarters from which the British war effort was directed.   As I read it became clear to me that in fact this was an early example of what we now know as portfolio management.

Portfolio management is a coordinated collection of strategic processes and decisions that together enable the most effective balance of organisational change and business as usual.  It ensures that change initiatives are agreed at the appropriate management level, measurably contribute to and are prioritised in line with strategic objectives and business priorities, and reviewed regularly for progress and ongoing strategic fit.

I have aligned some observations about Churchill’s Bunker to the principles of MoP.

Senior management commitment

Britain’s experiences in the First World War, and the predicted effects of enemy bombing, led to a decision that underground “Cabinet War Rooms” should be available in the event of war to enable the government to continue to function effectively.  After they were constructed in secret underneath Whitehall, Churchill visited them and declared “This is the room from which I will direct the war.” Churchill formed a cross-party War Cabinet to direct the war.

Governance alignment

Churchill sometimes sought what his military advisers perceived as action for the sake of action, without appropriate regard for the required resources (such as air cover) or of the risks – “Churchill is always expecting rabbits to come out of an empty hat.”  However Churchill’s trusted advisers would challenge him when necessary, acting as “critical friends” exhibiting the champion-challenger model. 

Responsibilities for strategy, the war economy, and the allocation of resources could not easily be separated.  In response a Defence Committee, headed by Churchill, was established in the Cabinet War Rooms.  This Committee supervised the conduct of the war not just in terms of grand strategy but also with regard to the conduct of operations, and enabled Churchill to directly supervise military decisions.  Colocation of key military and civilian staff assisted with breaking down traditional silos between the services and between civilian and military leadership.

Strategy alignment

To effectively define a portfolio, it is essential to understand the strategic objectives and to appropriately balance management attention and resources amongst them.  Churchill famously defined the grand strategy for the war in a shared, inclusive and engaging vision for the future in his speeches (“victory at all costs”, “we will never surrender”).  Further, Churchill’s focus was not just on winning the war, but also on managing and realising the “benefits” – the post-war environment and Britain’s place in it.

Portfolio office

A key function of a Portfolio Office is to provide appropriate and reliable information that enables the ‘right’ decisions to be made, including regular progress reporting. A Map Room was the established as the heart of the Cabinet War Rooms and the ‘scoreboard’ of the war.  Information came to the map room from the individual war rooms of the three services and was then plotted on the maps.  This provided the ‘helicopter view’ of all change activities (such as convoys and troop deployments).  Important news was immediately passed on to planning staff, the Cabinet and to Buckingham Palace (the King’s right to be kept continually informed was scrupulously adhered to, ie King George VI was identified as an ‘I’ in the RACI framework).  A secretariat was established which prepared a daily summary for the Committee and helped planning staff to write proposals and reports. Churchill also established a separate statistical section which provided assurance and oversight of statistical reports ranging from the productivity of major dockyards to the accuracy of British bombing.

For most leaders of combatant powers the War was directed from static headquarters.  Churchill’s personal map room (a duplicate of the Map Room in the Cabinet War Rooms) was portable and went with him when he travelled.  At one stage the core of the Cabinet War Rooms, including personnel, procedures and equipment, was moved to Marrakesh and operated from there for several weeks while Churchill was convalescing after illness.

After the end of the war, Churchill was defeated by Attlee in a general election, the results of which were released during the 1945 post-war Potsdam conference.  A further illustration of the effectiveness of the “portfolio office” supporting the War Rooms is that Attlee, with a new foreign minister, was able to take over effectively representing Britain’s interests at the conference, because the other members of the British delegation remained unchanged.

Energised change culture

An important consideration in MoP is Organisational Energy, ‘the extent to which an organisation has mobilised the full available effort of its people in pursuit of its goals’.  The organisational energy resulting from Churchill’s leadership – in particular, his inspirational vision and leading by example – significantly contributed to Allied success.  As identified as a key to success in MoP, the Cabinet War Room created an environment where people could excel and where needless bureaucracy was recognised and removed.

As assessed in Churchill’s Bunker:

The most important feature of this tight and effective organisation…
was the combination of… authority with… [expert] advice,
and much of its effectiveness came from the centralisation of ultimate control.

Churchill’s Bunker – The Secret Headquarters at the Heart of Britain’s Victory, Richard Holmes, 2011

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