Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Commander's Intent

I recently read a blog that said we should not plan. While I am aware that plans are not fool-proof (see previous blog post), plans do help you think through issues and hopefully help provide great questions (more on this later).

What if, within your organization, people knew basically what to do without needing play-by-play instructions from their leaders? What if people could make decisions on their own and improvise when needed wherever they are and no matter the context? What if people were generating solutions, and this is the amazing part, everyone was on the same page rather than generating solutions that benefit different causes?

In the book Made To Stick (26), the Heath brothers talk to Colonel Kolditz in the U.S. military about how plans can quickly become obsolete on the battlefield, nicely captured in the phrase "no plan survives contact with the enemy." For you that may be "no sales plan survives contact with the customer" or "no lesson plan survives contact with teenagers." The military adapted a new planning process called Commander's Intent (CI).
CI is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan's goal, the desired end-state of an operation. At high levels of the Army, the CI 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 remaining, so we can protect the flank of Third Brigade as they pass through the lines."

The CI never specifies so much detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events. "You can lose the ability to execute the original plan, but you can never lose the responsibility of executing the intent," says Kolditz. In other words, if there's one soldier left in the Third Battalion on Hill 4305, he'd better be doing something to protect the flank of the Third Brigade.
Colonel Kolditz gives an example: "Suppose I'm commanding an artillery battalion and I say, 'We're going to pass this infantry unit through our lines forward.' That means something different to different groups. The mechanics know that they'll need lots of repair support along the roads, because if a tank breaks down on a bridge the whole operation will come to a screeching halt. The artillery knows they'll need to fire smoke or have engineers generate smoke in the breech area where the infantry unit moves forward, so it won't get shot up as it passes through. As a commander, I could spend a lot of time enumerating every specific task, but as soon as people know what the intent is they begin generating their own solutions."
Here is an example from a for-profit organization: Southwest. Any guesses on their Commander's Intent? "We are the low-fare airline." In the decision making process, you might have several options to choose from, but with the CI the decision making process has a filter question: which decision helps us stay the low-fare airline?

At the Combat Maneuver Training Center, the unit in charge of military simulations, recommends the officers arrive at the Commander's Intent by asking themselves two questions:
If we do nothing else during tomorrow's mission, we must ___________.

The single, most important thing we must do tomorrow is ___________.
Find the core of what this organization is about. Not two pages, not even two paragraphs. What is the core.

This can, and should, be applied to parenting, to religious institutions, to for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, to teams, etc. Two examples that I have used personally:

"We are training our kids to be capable and responsible adults by the time they leave our house at 18 years of age." Now there is a end-goal established with a definitive time-line. At each age we know we need to help them progress to being responsible for themselves; what should that look like at 18? How do we backtrack from there to where they should be at 13? This should also help make decisions about involvement in activities, family chores, etc. It is far more than just getting them to be behave like you want them to so they don't embarrass you in that moment.

"This church exists to train people to be every-day followers of Jesus." Training is more than lecturing, it also means helping people enact knowledge and behaviors into their lives. It can be applied to different demographics - how do we train students or parents or couples or seniors to be every-day followers of Jesus? It is far bigger mission than copying what you did last year so everyone is happy.

So what is your Commander's Intent?

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