Commander’s Intent

In a prior article we noted the desire we all have to enjoy greater autonomy in our work roles. We want to act independently where we can. In this article we will focus on what steps management can take to offer just enough direction to find that balance point where workers will teeter happily on autonomy.

We can lean on the leadership lessons of the military to help guide us to the desired balance. The idea of Commander’s Intent originated there and was designed to help troops implement the direction of their leaders where the leader may not be immediately available. In the worst instances, a leader may be lost in battle, yet the troops need to press forward. In order for the troops to have some opportunity to succeed, they need to be capable of doing more than just following the strict letter of immediate instruction. They must understand the purpose of the mission. The leader’s job is to determine strategy, set the direction, and communicate to their charges. The baton is then passed and the responsibility for executing the mission rests with the front line troops.

A WWII Commander, Viscount Slim, wrote a book, Defeat Into Victory, in which Commander Slim is credited for offering a definition of Commander’s Intent. Slim writes about, “acting without orders…yet always within the overall intention.” It was an essential element of battle field strategies where communication between commanders and operators in the field was, at best, limited. Slim encouraged his soldiers to develop a sense of “directed independence.” Wikipedia defines Commander’s Intent as “a publicly stated description of the end-state as it relates to… the purpose of the operations and key tasks to accomplish.”  Wikipedia goes on to detail that the purpose of this concept is to provide a basis for subordinates to develop their own plans. The role of the front line is to transform the thought of leadership into action. Staff are responsible to maintain the intent of their Commander. However, how or the exact manner in which they achieve the overarching objective is up to them.

Commander’s Intent is more than just assigning a list of to do’s. It is a specific mission outcome that is desired. Those that have been assigned the outcome can then work on putting meat on the bones of the 4 T’s of autonomy. They are able to define for themselves what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and with whom. Wide discretion is left to those with boots on the ground in the field with first hand knowledge of what they are facing. Moreover, they are afforded this freedom as adaptation on the fly will likely be needed as a result of ever changing circumstances.

Shane Parrish of Farnam Street helps us strengthen our understanding of Commander’s Intent parsing it into four components. The first two are the responsibility of leaders. The last two are the responsibility of the troops.

  1. Formulate
  2. Communicate
  3. Interpret
  4. Implement

Formulating and communicating is about providing direction, not a map. Leaders must determine direction. It is their responsibility to define what’s important now. What is the core objective of the team, group, business? What is our strategic direction? This is a key task of leadership. Once this is determined, then leadership must carefully communicate this information to those who need to know it. In the military, the first step is sometimes referred to as the Mission Statement which seeks to capture the 5 W’s. Who, what, when, where, and why. Embedded in the 5 W’s is the Commander’s Intent which depicts what success will look like at the conclusion of a mission. Here’s what we want the outcome to be. As Simon Sinek details in Start With Why, “All leaders must have two things: they must have a vision of the world that does not exist and they must have the ability to communicate it.

The troop’s ability to interpret and implement is subject to leader’s ability to formulate and communicate. The leader must do their part before staff can do theirs. If the intent isn’t clearly formulated, it is difficult for staff to interpret. If they can’t interpret, then implementation becomes messy. As in all things, clarity precedes mastery. Execution can never be excellent where the direction isn’t clear, communicated, and understood. Again, from Start With Why, Sinek offers, “With a WHY clearly stated in an organization, anyone within the organization can make a decision as clearly and as accurately as the founder. A WHY provides the clear filter for decision-making.” Formulate the why with enough detail that those that hear it understand where they are trying to go. The clarity of the goal gives staff a chance to reasonably interpret and implement. Goals like grow revenues will frustrate staff as they don’t offer enough direction. Additionally, management may be left frustrated by staff’s efforts in going after vague goals. Our sales team will deliver a $100,000 increase in commission revenue in new business targeting commercial activity in CY 2021 in order to diversify our sales better between commercial and personal lines is a more specific outcome that offers actionable direction.

As management masters its ability to formulate and communicate direction, staff can then own the interpretation and implementation aspects. Staff have autonomy to drive implementation without fear of having every move reviewed and criticized. For leaders, allocating autonomy follows your belief and trust in your staff. It also communicates what you see as your core responsibility. If you believe your job is to command and control, you will struggle to let go and enable staff to make decisions. Is your job to supervise or strategize? Are you clear as to where your efforts should best be allocated to advance the organization’s interest? Is it better to build constructive relationships where open communication flows? Or should your time be spent crafting detailed work instruction procedures and providing oversight? Where micromanaging is the approach, management communicates two messages to staff: Our job is to supervise and we don’t trust you. Those that provide autonomy communicate that they do trust their staff and that management’s responsibility is to step back, see the bigger picture, and set strategy. Which perspective is more valuable to the organization? Which is more appreciated by staff? Aren’t both the organization and staff served by offering autonomy?

Jocko Willink, former Navy Seal now author and business consultant, writes in Leadership Strategy and Tactics about his experiences as a military leader. When he became responsible for leading he learned quickly that he couldn’t do so effectively by controlling every move. Willink writes, “As task unit commander, when it was time to give mission orders, I did not dictate to my subordinate leaders what troops to bring and where to put them. I didn’t tell them how many vehicles to use or what weapons to carry. I didn’t order timelines to follow or routes to and from the target to use or what contingencies to prepare for. I didn’t tell my platoons any of those details. If I did, the plan for the mission would not be theirs but mine. Instead, when giving orders, I would simply tell them what the mission objective was—the goal I wanted the platoons to accomplish. This is what the military refers to as Commander’s Intent. When I did this, it allowed the platoon leadership and the other SEALs in the platoon to come up with a plan themselves. They chose what troops to bring and where to put them. They chose how many vehicles and which vehicles to bring. They figured out the timelines and the routes and the contingencies they needed to prepare for. And when they did all that, the plan became their plan, not mine—which means they owned it.”

From receiving the high level direction of what the core objective to accomplish is, staff is afforded wide latitude to proceed. We can look to Daniel Pink’s 4 T’s of Autonomy which he outlines in the book Drive. Time, Task, Technique, and Team. Time refers to when work must be done. Is the work day dictated by the employer or does employee have any input as to when they can perform? Task involves what work to do. Again, is there any discretion left to the employee to determine what must get done or are the tasks strictly defined by the company? The third component of autonomy is technique which involves how a task is to be done. Are employees directed to manage their workflows adhering to detailed corporate policy and procedure or is latitude left to the staff? Finally, team. Who works with each other? Does the company determine who is assigned to a project team or do staff have some input on who they are able to work with? Each of these offer a wide range of options ranging from complete corporate control to opening discretion to staff. One variable may be more important than the other to an individual employee as well as being more relevant to a given job. Nonetheless, wherever employees are afforded autonomy in one or more of time, task, technique, and team, their job satisfaction will be higher.

John Strelecky writes in The Big Five for Life from the perspective of a leader teaching the value of trusting his staff, “When they do well, I win, plain and simple. If I seriously disagree with the way they’re doing something because it violates my core ethics, or for some other reason, I tell them. Otherwise, I let them play the game the way they can best play it. “Do you ever watch football, Joe? Imagine a coach recruiting a star quarterback to the team and then making him throw with his opposite hand, just to please the coach. Find out if your boss knows anything about football. And if he does, tell him he’s making you throw left-handed, and you’re a star when you throw righty. Tell him to let you throw righty for one month, and if the overall results aren’t better, you’ll go back to his way. And if he won’t agree to that, and he won’t tell you why, or it’s just an ego thing, then leave.”

If management isn’t quite ready to offer full autonomy, some smaller, baby steps put forth in the book Drive may be considered. Start with inviting input from staff. What changes would staff recommend in order to allow any of the time, task, technique, or team to be more flexible? Are there recommendations employees could offer that would increase their autonomy? As a follow up to seeking staff input, a key component to accelerating a sense of autonomy is to ensure staff are a part of the goal setting of their department. How motivating is it to be assigned goals set by someone sitting in an office building removed from where you’re doing the work? How motivating is it to be assigned work volume requirements to complete by someone that has never done the task? Are you more motivated by setting your own goals or by having work output volumes assigned?

Separately, employers can ease in to allocating autonomy. Consider undertaking a trial for a small group for the purpose of a specific project. Ensure you have done your part and have both formulated and communicated clear intent for the project. Let the group know that interpretation and implementation are up to them. Conduct weekly check-ins. Ask them about their plan and progress. Probe as to whether they are clear as to what their individual responsibilities are to their plan for the next week. Is the task clear and does it contribute to the desired outcome. Then review with them each week as the project goes forward against their plan. Help them stay on track. Your involvement is not to tell them what to do or how to approach the project. The goal is not to convince them or push them down a different path unless things are going in a very bad direction. The objective is to be a guide from the side and help them stay on track while reinforcing your commitment to allowing them to own autonomy for the project’s implementation.

Additionally, employers could consider using greater care in the language used with staff. Change obligatory words into suggestions. Convert shall into suggest and must into maybe. Try using phrases like consider trying x approach or think about doing y first in order to be supportive of staff. Yes, management should be there to nudge, but less dictating and more collaboration is what will fuel a sense of autonomy building motivation in staff.

Management that focuses on crafting and communicating organizational intent and clearing the path for staff to move projects forward while encouraging them to determine implementation methods of time, task, technique, and team as much as possible is the proven path of successful teams. Both business performance and staff satisfaction are achievable outcomes of this type of approach. If your employer remains less than enthusiastic about giving away autonomy, are there things you can do to earn it? That’s a subject we’ll broach in a subsequent article down the road.