“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
General George S. Patton
In the military, planners use Commander’s Intent to plan a mission. Commander’s Intent is the description and definition of what a successful mission will look like. Commander’s Intent approach feels equally applicable in the business world; describing to people what the end-state will look like and why.
Whilst Commander’s Intent outlines what success looks like, it does acknowledge the messiness, lack of information and changing circumstances that can make a plan obsolete before one has even started implementing it. In the military and in the marines, this messiness is often referred to as “The sea of uncertainty” and takes into account the unknowns and the unexpected we might encounter in carrying out a plan.
To this end, Commander’s Intent empowers people to improvise, take initiative and adjust the plan depending on the specific circumstances. What doesn’t change, however, is the intent behind a plan or a mission. Employees must understand the plan and when they have to deviate to ensure the Commander’s Intent is accomplished. The key aspect to emphasise here is that a plan isn’t written in stone; the plan is a source of strength, an important reference point. Business leaders and teams need to adapt only those parts of the plan that require an adjustment.
The Commander’s Intent starts with an “Initial Situation” to start from, an “Outcome” to achieve and “Execution” required to achieve the outcome:
Initial Situation – This is the initial stat or baseline, which forms the baseline of the plan.
Outcome – This describes the desired end-state and comprises tasks, objectives and anti-goals.
Execution – This outlines how to reach the outcome, describing a sequence of steps, key decisions and constraints to consider.
Intent can be broken down further into these eight aspects:
1. Mission / Goal – The mission captures the purpose of task. If you understand the Why, Who, What, When and How, you can draft a one sentence statement that describes the overall mission. As Simón Muñoz describes, for product managers a Mission Document can consist of the following elements:
What’s the problem we want to solve?
Why is it important to solve it?
How will we know that we’ve been successful?
For completeness, you can add questions like “When do we aim to solve the problem by?” or “Who will be responsible for solving the problem?” Once you’ve answered these questions, you can capture the high level purpose of the task to complete.
2. End-State – What is the desired outcome of the task? For the products that we work on, the end-state is ultimately about delivering value to our customers, but in other instances the outcome can be the completion of a task or a project.
3. Sequence – This is where we get into the ‘how’; describing the sequence of steps in the plan. In military terms, colonels and captains will take the Commander’s Intent and break it into a sequence of tactics and steps required to achieve the end-state. Take this example from “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck” by Chip and Dan Heath:
At high levels of the Army, the [Commander’s Intent] may be relatively abstract: ‘Break the will of the enemy in the Southeast region’. At the tactical level, for colonels and captains, it is much more concrete: ‘My intent is to have Third Battalion on Hill 4305, to have the hill cleared of enemy, with only ineffective remnants, so we can protect the flank of Third Brigade as they pass through the lines’.
4. Initial State – This is the baseline, the situation that builds the rationale for the plan. What’s the current state of play for your business or product? What are your customers’ main pain points? What’s the biggest opportunity or challenge?
5. Key Decisions – The key decisions or tradeoffs that may have to be made as part of the plan. This guides the leader in how to make choices, describing to the team how to reach the desired outcome(s).
6. Anti-goals – Anti-goals describe undesired outcomes. These anti-goals are described in the same way as the End-State (see point 2. about the end-state), with the difference that these are unintended consequences of a plan or action.
7. Constraints – Think of constraints like restrictions in access to people, budget or materials. Such constraints need to be taken into account when setting out intentions, as they’ll affect the Mission and the desired End-State.
8. Expressives – Expressives captures the style of companies and leaders: experience, attitude to risk taking, use of power and force, norms and creativity. The use of such expressives can range from scenarios where participants express their style to other participants (e.g. a leader delegating a task to a direct report) or by a group of people that develops processes or models to be used during the implementation of a plan.
Main learning point: If we think beyond the military terms and analogies, Commander’s Intent is about setting out a way to achieve an outcome. Commander’s Intent allows employees and teams to adapt the plan using improvisation, initiative, and adaptation to achieve set outcomes.
Related links for further learning: