What is commander’s intent, and why does your team need it?

In July 2015 I was in Mexico, working with a team building a house for a local church leader. This is not the ‘nice’ part of Mexico where there are big hotels with slides and pools. This is the part of Mexico where they pick the fruit you eat out of a can. This is the part of Mexico where walking left down the street instead of right will get you mugged at gunpoint. The part where at night seeing a truck carrying a bunch of men with guns is a real possibility.

The sweet pastor that we were building for was very concerned about the building supplies we had to leave out at night. Concerned enough that this 60-year-old lady was going to sleep in her car next to the building supplies to make sure they didn’t get stolen. My friend and I couldn’t bear that thought, so we went out and slept in the team van next to the building supplies.

One comment was made as we went to sleep that really stuck out to me.

Our ultimate goal is to make it home to see our kids, right?

That lone sentence — and its affirmation — uttered into the night set the tone. If that truck with men shows up to steal the lumber and our presence getting out of the van doesn’t stop them, we help them load the wood and then offer them the keys to the van. We both knew that less than $800 in lumber was something we could replace with cash the next day if it came to it, and that our lives were not.

We knew what the ultimate goal was.

Commanders Intent

In Episode 206 of the Art of Manliness Podcast we get the treat of talking to Jocko Willink about what it means to be a leader in all circumstances. He tells us a great story about understanding the commander’s ‘intent’ and how knowing the intent is crucial to executing plans.

Imagine your instructions are to storm a building, clear it of hostiles, then go secure the roof to make sure that it’s all safe. You storm the building and then head up to the roof. But, you have no cover. You’re fully exposed to any of the baddies that may be lurking around. But you follow orders and put your team in danger.

Now imagine the same scenario, but add the intent of the commander. You are told to set up on the roof so you can watch the north road to ensure that no one comes in on it. Knowing this and then seeing the roof with zero cover, you can make the decision to head down one floor to a room with the windows facing north. From this room you can watch the road (achieve the intent of the order) and keep your team out of obvious sight from everyone in the area.

How much freedom do you give your team?

On every project you have going you have some final intent. You’re generating content to build leads. You’re building a new site for a client to increase sales.

There is always an end reason for an action, but how often do you let your team know what the end goal is? How often do you let them know what their role is in the wider picture of the project? If you don’t work on a team, have you and your client made it clear what the final intent of the project is, and how each phase fits in, as well as the intent of that phase?

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. – Helmuth von Moltke

Every project you work on is going to have problems. Something won’t go as planned and you’ll have to adapt. If you’ve nailed down your commander’s intent, then you can make a decision on how you proceed, given the new issues, to achieve the desired outcomes.

Far too many business owners keep their teams in the dark about projects, expecting their teams to just follow orders. Far too many business owners aren’t even clear on the final intent of the project at hand.

And then when things don’t go as planned they wonder why the project failed. It failed because they were never clear on the final intent of the project. They couldn’t adapt their plan in the midst of difficulty to deal with the new constraints. So they made guesses about what the project should be, and in the end the project was a failure.

Develop a habit of writing down the final intent of every project. Write down the intent of each phase of a project and how it fits into the overall intent. Then give your team freedom to make changes to the plan as long as they achieve the desired outcome.

Once you start doing this, you’re going to have more successful projects, with less management required, and more profit.

Sounds like the intent of any business. One might even call it the commander’s intent.

photo credit: legofenris cc

2 thoughts on “What is commander’s intent, and why does your team need it?

  1. This was a compelling story, and it came around to a great point.

    Far too many business owners keep their teams in the dark about projects, expecting their teams to just follow orders. Far too many business owners aren’t even clear on the final intent of the project at hand.

    If business owners keep everyone informed about the final intent of a project, they can get insight and suggestions that they normally wouldn’t have, if they just expected people to follow orders verbatim.

    It’s a wasted resource when we refuse to call on the expertise of the other people working on our project, and presume that we always know the best way to get there.

    People bring different things to the table, and they can often contribute in ways we don’t anticipate, if we allow them to, and keep them in the loop about the real intention of the project.

    1. Yup far to often they don’t tell the team the intent because they don’t know (which I said) or they’re lazy. They just want people to obey like a robot because that’s what they think being the boss means.

      People obey you like a robot.

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