4 Elements of Commander's Intent

Effectively execute your strategies across the whole organization while allowing your team the flexibility to adapt for the specific conditions they are facing.

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Strategies, plans, and critical processes typically get diffused as they filter through the organization, which impacts the speed and quality of execution.

Leaders like retired General Mattis have turned speed into a culture and competitive advantage through the effective use of commander's intent and a foundation of trust that unlocks the creativity and aggressiveness of the whole team

 

Leadership Tools: 4 Elements of Commander's Intent.  From Senior Leader to Subordinate Leader balancing execution with the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions.

 

These are tools that can be applied in any organization and are especially critical in rapidly changing environments.  

"Commander's Intent" is a term used in the military to describe the desired end-state of an operation and the purpose behind it. It serves as a guiding directive for subordinates, empowering them to carry out missions even when the plan cannot be executed exactly as originally designed. The concept of Commander's Intent is an integral part of mission command, a philosophy of command that empowers subordinate decision-making and decentralized execution appropriate to the situation.

The concept of Commander's Intent can be traced back to the Prussian military in the late 1800s, specifically to the doctrine of "Auftragstaktik," or mission-type tactics. This doctrine emphasized decentralized decision-making and flexibility in the face of changing battlefield conditions. The commander would provide the intent, or the ultimate objective, and subordinates were expected to adapt their actions to achieve this goal, even if the original plan had to be modified or abandoned due to changing circumstances.

Shane Parrish provides a great description of commander's intent and how it can be used to rapidly replicate strategies throughout an organization in the book: The Great Mental Models, Volume 2: Physics, Chemistry, and Biology 

We've described the basics below, including how Commander's Intent connects to job roles from Foreman through CEO, as well as Lean Construction at the project level and some of the more frequently used business management and goal setting frameworks.


 

As higher level purpose, principles, strategies, and plans are filtered through the organization, it is critical that they are adapted to effectively achieve the intent without violating boundaries, values, or regulations. All leaders are focused on different parts of the pyramid at different points in their careers and the roles they are filling. At all levels, a leader’s ability to successfully balance the execution of higher-level strategies with the adaptation required (based on the leader’s conditions) determines the organizational effectiveness. There is no such thing as the "Perfect Balance," but there is definitely a sweet spot that consistently delivers optimum results.   

Commander's Intent has four basic elements. The first two are the responsibility of the senior leader and the second two are the responsibility of the subordinate leader.  

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

 


 

Senior leadership must take into account four basics when formulating, communicating, and ensuring execution.  

  1. Explain the rational. Not just the "what" and "why," but "how" it was developed. This is how other leaders grow and learn to adapt to the intent.  
  2. Establish clear operational limits. What should NEVER happen? Consider that the 8th of the 10 Commandments is "what not to do."  
  3. Develop good feedback loops starting with ensuring that intent was clearly understood by the subordinate leader(s) and that they have the required capabilities, capacity, authority, and a viable plan to execute. The second tier of feedback loops is to ensure progress, escalate problems to the appropriate levels, and that intent has appropriately been conveyed throughout the team. These feedback loops are great for coaching in the development of other leaders. Feedback works in both directions and should never be taken as criticism. Feedback should always tie to the overall scoreboard.  
  4. Recognize individual differences. Each leader and team member has different strengths and weaknesses. Don't treat everyone the same. Treat them the way they need to be treated to achieve the required outcomes and develop them.  

 


 

Subordinate leaders must work to rigorously interpret to deeply understand intent. 

  1. Build your own models to develop situational awareness, including identifying gaps in your knowledge
  2. Ask good questions to fill in the details in your own models and plans, ultimately building a clear 5-dimensional model
  3. Write your plans down to sharpen your thinking.  
  4. Brief your leader on the plan to ensure that you correctly understand their intent and have them certify that you are on the right track before you start execution.  
  5. Use the 5D Facilitation process upstream and downstream to align, decide, and deliver effectively.
  6. Be relentless on how you follow-up with your team's execution, including attention to detail.  

Repeat the process downstream working with your team.  

 


Commander's Intent - The Field Leader (Foreman, GF, or Superintendent) Perspective

The project Foreman, General Foreman and/or Superintendent (Field Leader) acts as the "Commander" on the job site. They are responsible for planning the work, ensuring the work progresses as planned, and that the crew works together safely and efficiently. 

Note that this is in reference to the responsibilities associated with the rank and job role in the military, not a reference to a dictatorial management style.

Here is how the principles and process of Commander's Intent would be applied in their role:

  1. Clarifying the End State: Ensuring that every team member understands the desired outcome of the project, phase of work, task, and day. This involves explaining what the completed work should look like, how it contributes to the overall project, and what specificifications and/or standards must be met including safety, quality, schedule, and productivity. 
  2. Explaining Key Tasks and Steps: Similar to how a military commander outlines the key tasks that contribute to an end-state, they communicate to the crew the crucial tasks and steps that need to be completed. These could be tasks that have dependencies, or tasks that if not done correctly, could impact safety, or the overall project timeline, quality, or productivity. See Four Critical Elements of an Effective Task for more information. 
  3. Empowering Initiative: Just as Commander's Intent empowers soldiers to adapt their actions to achieve the end state, the field leader can empower their crew by providing them with the autonomy to make decisions on the job site within their areas of expertise. This could mean allowing a skilled carpenter to decide on the best method for installing a component, as long as it mees the project's specifications and safety standards.
  4. Encouraging Adaptability: In the face of unexpected challenges or changes on a construction site (such as unforeseen site conditions, weather issues, or supply chain delays), a field leader would encourage the crew to adapt their actions and decisions to still achieve the project goals, similar to how a military Commander's Intent encourages soldiers to adapt to changing circumstances on the battlefield.

In this way, the concept of Commander's Intent could be seen as an analog to the role of the field leader in a construction project. It's about providing clear direction and expectations, while at the same time empowering team members to use their skills and judgement to complete the work effectively and efficiently.

This is applied through primarily through routine weekly short-interval-planning (SIP), ABC daily planning, daily startup huddles, end of day debriefs, and a problem escalation process. 

 


Commander's Intent - the CEO and President Perspective

At the senior leadership levels of a contractor, the similarities to Commander's Intent include:

  1. Vision Statement: Similar to Commander's Intent, a company's vision statement describes the desired end state or long-term goal of the organization. It's intended to guide decision making at all levels of the organization and inspire employees to work toward that vision.
  2. Mission Statement: A mission statement, like Commander's Intent, communicates what an organization does, why it does it, and how it sees itself. It helps guide decision making and provides a framework for evaluating opportunities and challenges.
  3. Strategic Objectives: These are high-level organizational goals that align with and support the mission and vision of the organization. They guide decision making and resource allocation, much like Commander's Intent.
  4. Objectives and Key Results (OKRs): This is a management model where managers set specific, measurable goals with employees and then periodically check their progress. The goals should align with the company's overall objectives, similar to how a commander's intent would guide the actions of subordinates. 
  5. Empowered Decision Making: Many businesses are moving toward a more decentralized decision-making model, where employees at all levels are empowered to make decisions that align with the company's strategic goals. This is similar to how Commander's Intent empowers subordinates to take initiative and make decisions based on their understanding of the commander's intent.
  6. Value Stream Mapping (VSM): Value Stream Mapping is a lean-management method for analyzing the current state and designing a future state for the series of events that take a product or service from its beginning through to the customer. Like Commander's Intent, VSM sets a clear end-state goal (a more efficient process that delivers value to the customer) and provides a framework for achieving that goal.

These business practices all aim to communicate high-level goals and empower employees at all levels to make decisions that align with those goals, much like Commander's Intent in a military context.

 


Commander's Intent - From the Project Perspective (Lean Construction)

The principles and process of Commander's Intent are closely related to many aspects of Lean Construction, including: 

  1. Conditions of Satisfaction (CoS): A powerful tool used to ensure that the needs and expectations of project stakeholders are met. These conditions are essentially the agreed-upon criteria that the project must meet for all stakeholders to consider it a success. The CoS usually includes specific project objectives related to budget, schedule, quality, safety, and other key performance indicators. These are discussed and agreed upon at the start of the project and then used to guide decision-making throughout the project. Both CoS and Commander's Intent are tools used to clarify the expected outcomes and goals of a project or operation. They set the stage for the actions that need to be taken and provide a vision for the desired end state. This can be particularly useful in a construction setting where clear communication and understanding of goals are vital for the successful completion of projects.
  2. Target Value Design (TVD): In TVD, the project team sets a target cost early in the design phase and then designs to that cost. This is similar to Commander's Intent in that it sets a clear goal (the target cost), but leaves the specifics of how to achieve that goal (the design choices) up to the team.
  3. Last Planner System (LPS): The Last Planner System is a production planning and control system designed to produce predictable workflow and rapid learning in programming, design, construction and commissioning of projects. The LPS, like the Commander's Intent, sets a clear goal (in this case, predictable workflow and rapid learning) and provides a framework for achieving that goal but leaves the details up to the people doing the work.
  4. Pull Planning: In pull planning, work is scheduled based on the needs of the downstream customers (i.e., the next process step) rather than the convenience of the upstream suppliers. This is similar to the commander's intent as it sets a clear goal (meeting the downstream customer's needs), but leaves the specifics of how to achieve that goal up to the people doing the work. 
  5. Reliable Promising: A key principle that aims to ensure the reliability of workflow and increase the predictability of project outcomes. The concept is part of the Last Planner System, a production planning and control system used in Lean Construction. Reliable Promising involves making commitments about work completion based on a sound understanding of resource availability, task interdependencies, and current work conditions. It emphasizes open communication and accountability, with each team member making and fulfilling promises regarding their tasks. This is intended to reduce uncertainty and variability in the construction process, leading to better project outcomes. Reliability is tracked and continuously improved throughout the project mirroring the feedback loops in Commander's Intent. 
  6. Respect for People: Lean Construction, like Lean Manufacturing, emphasizes respect for people, including recognizing their knowledge and skills, and empowering them to make decisions. This is similar to how Commander's Intent empowers subordinates to take initiative and make decisions based on their understanding of the commander's intent.
  7. Continuous Improvement (Kaizen): Lean construction is rooted in the concept of continuous improvement, or kaizen. This involves setting goals for improvement and then continually striving to achieve them, much like the commander's intent provides a clear goal and empowers individuals to work toward it in the best way they see fit.

All these Lean Construction practices aim to set clear goals and empower workers at all levels to make decisions that align with those goals, much like Commander's Intent in a military context.

 


Commander's Intent - Business Management and Goal Setting Frameworks

There are many such frameworks with some of those we most frequently use with contractors being:

  1. The Four Disciplines of Execution (4DX): This is a methodology designed to help organizations execute their strategic goals. The four disciplines are: Focus on the Wildly Important Goals (WIGs), Act on Lead Measures, Keep a Compelling Scoreboard, and Create a Cadence of Accountability. 4DX is particularly focused on execution and is designed to help teams avoid getting caught up in the "whirlwind" of urgent activities. See a 4DX example of Lead Measures as it relates to the Contractor's Scoreboard and cash.
  2. Theory of Constraints (ToC): This is a management paradigm that views any manageable system as being limited in achieving more of its goals by a very small number of constraints. The focus is on identifying the biggest constraint and reorganizing around it.
  3. Agile Methodologies: Agile is a set of values and principles first designed for software development and then later adapted for other industries including construction. Within the Agile Methodology, requirements and solutions evolve through the collaborative effort of self-organizing cross-functional teams with a focus on progressive delivery value on regular intervals, rather than at the end like a typical construction project. It advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continual improvement, and it encourages flexible responses to change. Agile methodologies, such as Scrum and Kanban, provide specific practices for implementing these principles. See Agile vs. Critical Path for more info.
  4. Objectives and Key Results (OKRs): This is a goal-setting framework that helps organizations set, track, and achieve their goals. Objectives are what you want to achieve, and Key Results are how you measure progress towards those objectives. OKRs are typically set at the organization, team, and individual level and are usually revisited on a quarterly basis. The focus is on alignment and commitment, with everyone understanding how their work contributes to achieving the organization's goals. Read more about OKRs and how they are integrated throughout all parts of a contractor
  5. SMART Goals: This is a method for setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. The SMART framework is designed to provide clarity, focus, and motivation. It can be used in many contexts, from individual goal setting to organizational planning. See how SMART Goals can integrate with PICK Prioritization
  6. Balanced Scorecard (BSC): The Balanced Scorecard is a strategic planning and management system used extensively in business and industry, government, and nonprofit organizations. It aligns business activities to the vision and strategy of the organization, improves internal and external communications, and monitors organization performance against strategic goals. It focuses on four perspectives: financial, customer, internal processes, and learning & growth.

While these methodologies share common themes of setting clear goals or objectives, tracking progress, and promoting alignment and accountability, there are also important differences:

  1. Emphasis on Adaptability: Agile methodologies place a heavy emphasis on adapting to changes and learning from experience, while OKRs, and SMART goals are more focused on setting and achieving specific goals.
  2. Level of Detail: SMART goals emphasize specificity and measurability, while BSC and OKRs set broader objectives that can be broken down into smaller, more specific goals.
  3. Execution vs. Planning: 4DX is heavily focused on the execution of strategic goals, while OKRs and SMART goals are more centered on the planning and setting of goals.
  4. Individual vs. Team vs. Organization: SMART goals are often used for individual goal setting, while BSC and OKRs are typically used at the organizational and team level. Agile methodologies and 4DX can be used at all levels but have a particular focus on team performance.
  5. Emphasis on Prioritization: ToC focuses first on process of identifying the key bottlenecks and true constraints on a project or company before moving to any further levels of planning or execution. This is also explicitly defined as a prerequisite in 4DX and implied in other models. 

Commander's Intent and these business frameworks share common themes of setting clear goals, providing autonomy to teams, and requiring clear communication and understanding across all levels. They are all tools that leaders can use to align their teams and achieve their objectives.

 



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