LA 071: How to manage Uncertainty using Command Intent



Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Mike Tyson’s excellent response to a reporters question before his fight with Evander Holyfield.

And isn’t that just true about all of the best laid plans we make?

No plan survives contact with the enemy

Attributed to Helmuth von Moltke in the 19th century.

All such quotes ring true because you know that it concurs with your own experience.

On June 6th 1944 the long planned sea and airborne invasion of France began and the months of practice and detailed planning unravelled as parachute forces dropped into unmarked landing spots, gliders landed in wrong areas and thousands of soldiers from many different units found themselves mixed together during the night.

A military disaster appeared to be in the making yet just hours later, the original objectives were being accomplished by ad-hoc units who faced much fiercer than expected German resistance. Leaders and soldiers at all levels understood that no matter where they found themselves on landing and no matter who with, they had to form into units, seize bridges and key terrain. The plan had vanished, but good Commander’s Intent and superior training allowed leaders and soldiers to improvise and take the initiative to save the mission.

What happens in your team at work when a plan changes? Does everyone know what to do next or is there confusion, prevarication and people standing around waiting for direction?

Planning is time-consuming and difficult, whether you’re planning a military operation, a product launch or planning your career.

The military most often uses a concept known as “Commander’s Intent” as a key concept to help a plan remain relevant and applicable during chaos in a dynamic ever-changing and resource-constrained environment. That is, they use it for real-life application.

In the military, Commander’s Intent is the definition and description of what a successful mission will look like to the commander (or CEO). Again, in the military, a Mission Statement describes Who, What, Where, When and Why (the 5W’s) of How a mission will be executed. Thus, Commander’s Intent describes the vision of the battlefield (or market, for example) at the accomplishment of the mission.

Commander’s Intent is what success looks like whilst fully recognising that the situation will be chaotic, that there is a lack of complete information, that the enemy changes the situation and anything else that may impact the situation to make the plan completely or partially obsolete when executed.

Commander’s Intent empowers subordinates to guide their improvisation and to take the initiative to adapt the plan to the changing battlefield environment. It enables the whole team to keep the clear vision of a successful conclusion whilst being agile and taking initiative to change when necessary.

Why not just use SMART goals. SMART goals are what we are supposed to be setting, right?

The downside of SMART goals is their lack of purpose

Goal setting is essential, but even SMART goals are not enough in a rapidly changing, dynamic and shifting environment. SMART goals are terrific, but they don’t tell me why, nor what to do should the specific result become impossible given the change in the environment… and there will be a change in the environment.

When you take a SMART goal and turn it into an intention reduces the risk of the plan to achieve the goal being rendered useless in the event of unforeseen circumstances. To reduce the risk of becoming unusable, the Commander’s Intent is purposely ambiguous. Regardless of your seniority, any team member can improvise and align their behaviour without jeopardising the mission; and if need be, specify for clarification and without the need for instruction from their leaders.

Simplistically, an intent takes a great SMART goal and adds a “so that” to it.

For example, Score twice tonight so that we win the match. If the other team score three times, your goal remains achieved yet your mission is stuffed.

Increase your market share by 30% could easily be a SMART goal… and there are myriad ways to do so. An MNC I worked with had that exact goal – and they achieved it! Whoopido! Sadly it was at the expense of making a profit. Fortunately we could turn it around the following year by finding the real answer to why they wanted a 30% increase.

James Carville and Paul Begal recall Herb Kelleher’s description of Southwest’s Commander’s Intent in their book Buck Up, Suck Up, and Come Back When You Foul Up: 12 Winning Secrets from the War Room: “We are THE low-cost airline”.

When you understand the you are working for THE low-cost airline, it’s easy to measure any action you take against that intention. Does giving passengers free water during their flight align with that intent?

Commander’s Intent allows trained, confident and engaged employees to understand the plan and when they have to deviate to ensure that Commander’s Intent is accomplished. They employ a “Spectrum of Improvisation” as they adapt the plan without changing proven processes nor common work techniques that are part of the plan and strengthen operational outcomes.

Most often a good plan is a source of strength and you only need to adapt portions of the plan that require adjustment. The Spectrum of Improvisation retains the processes and systems that support business and mission excellence while adapting necessary elements to ensure mission success.

Clear Commander’s Intent gives yourself and your team members direction and confidence.

If you lead your team, then you are responsible for identifying a worthy and compelling vision and articulating it to the team. People continually need to be shown the team’s compass clearly and creatively so that their actions align, and they stay motivated by a captivating picture of the future.

In their book, “Made to Stick”, Chip and Dan Heath share help from the unit in charge of military simulations for NATO, the Combat Maneuver Training Center, who recommend that officers arrive at the Commander’s Intent by asking themselves two questions. And to be completely certain that you include a clear communication of purpose, I suggest that you add “so that”

  1. “If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must . . . , so that . . .”
  2. “The single, most important thing that we must do tomorrow is . . . , so that . . . “

Using a Commander’s Intent can help you get more done and strip your to do list down to its most important task.

Leaders who are unable to articulate clarity of command intent often find that the team fails to commit and:

  • This creates ambiguity among the team about direction and priorities
  • Team member’s watch windows of opportunity close due to excessive analysis and unnecessary delay
  • It also breeds lack of confidence and fear of failure
  • Team’s revisit discussions and decisions again and again
  • And also encourages second-guessing among team members

Of course, if you want your team to lack confidence, fear failure, have endless meetings revisiting the same old things again and again and encourage second guessing then don’t do this.

“If I do nothing else tomorrow, I must . . . “

  • call a prospect
  • write to my mother
  • prepare for that presentation
  • Establish a clear command intent for myself and my team so that…

Check out this episode!

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