Commander’s Intent first appeared in the US Army Field Manual 100-5, Operations in 1982. However, it wasn’t original with them. It was borrowed from the Germans who developed it as they fought Napoleon during the French Revolution. The Germans called it Aftragstaktik.
So, what does this 225 year-old methodology have to do with your organization in 2019? Traditionally, military operations were centrally controlled. High ranking officers would diligently plan troop movements and equipment deployments, carefully orchestrating every skirmish. But, when the first bullet was fired, the plan immediately became outdated. Enemies didn’t respond as anticipated, equipment malfunctioned, soldiers were wounded or killed and couldn’t execute the carefully conceived plans. At that point, troops up and down the chain of command were paralyzed or limited in their ability to respond because they only had the original plan and when it became impractical or impossible to execute, they had to improvise which may or may not have been in the best interest of the mission or in the best interest of their fellow soldiers.
Enter Commander’s Intent. Commander’s Intent succinctly describes what constitutes success for the operation – the final desired end state. At the outset of a mission, the ranking officer would describe to a small group of subordinates the desired end game of a mission. The officer would also define guardrails for these subordinates and give them authority to make decisions within the bounds of these guardrails all pointing towards the successful completion of the mission. These subordinates would then pass the strategic intent of the mission to their small group of subordinates and define for them a more narrow set of guardrails between which they could make independent decisions all while pushing towards the successful completion of the mission. This repeated until the lowest ranking soldier in the fight understood the Commander’s Intent. With the Commander’s Intent well in hand and the span of control understood, officers and soldiers up and down the chain of command could more easily respond to rapidly changing conditions on the battlefield and, with their understanding of the end game, make adjustments that took into account new realities and pushed towards the successful completion of the mission. Paralysis and indecision were replaced by real-time intelligence gathering and mission-appropriate “counter-punching”.
These are probably obvious, but there are a few key ingredients in this process and everyone involved must buy in –
- Everybody must be crystal-clear on the end game (i.e. the Commander’s Intent). It is the responsibility of superiors to explain it simply and fully and to spell out the “why” behind it. It is the responsibility of subordinates to keep asking questions until they get it and the rationale behind it. Nothing less than full understanding up and down the chain of command will do.
- Everybody must understand their span of responsibility. The guardrails must be clear so that everyone knows what they control for themselves and their subordinates.
- This crystal-clear delineation of responsibility must be accompanied by trust. Because subordinates have clear visibility into the thinking of superiors they can see the strategic value of the mission. Because superiors have clearly defined the outcomes and span of control, they can trust the field-level decision making of subordinates knowing they will be aligned with fulfilling the Commander’s Intent.
Your challenge as the boss is to relinquish autocratic control. To make this work, you must embrace your responsibilities as leader, coach and teacher. #CommandersIntent
The application in your office, factory or farm is apparent now, but let me make one more important point. To make this work, ego must be put in check. Will every downstream decision be perfect? Doubtful. Will there be an expensive mistake from time to time? Probably. But the growth in your team and the improvement in dynamic decision-making skills in your organization will more than make up for it. This is the methodology for building agility in your organization. Your challenge as the boss is to relinquish autocratic control. To make this work, you must embrace your responsibilities as leader, coach and teacher.