As a business owner or Manager, your job relies—in large part—on managing various staff, communicating which tasks need to be completed, and how it’s all to be done.
Chances are, you regularly feel as though you wish you could just do everything yourself because most of the time you know exactly what needs to be done and how best to do it. If only you could teach your staff exactly how to do everything so that they made less mistakes, worked more efficiently, and sought you out for answers less often.
After all, you have higher level stuff to do…
In the book, Made to Stick, there’s a section about Colonel Tom Kolditz, the head of the behavioral sciences division at West Point, and his thoughts on why, oftentimes, intricate plans are doomed for failure. “The trite expression we always use is No plan survives contact with the enemy,” he says. He goes on to explain that while you start out trying to implement and carry out your plan, the enemy inevitably has a say in how everything goes. Essentially, they get a vote, things happen, weather changes, key assets are destroyed, the opposition reacts in an unexpected way, etc. In other words, many armies fail because minutes into the battle, their entire plan is useless.
Take chess for example. Imagine trying to explain to your friend every move you want them to make before the game even starts. Sure, you may know a lot about the opponent, but there’s no way to foresee more than a few moves. And all of the sudden, the plan is rendered impotent.
This same problem applies to managing employees and relying on them to complete tasks. Every day there are numerous complex operations that must be completed by every employee, and the rest of this post will address one strategy for ensuring that those complex operations are more successful more often.
What is Commander’s Intent & How Does it Apply to Business?
Over time, Colonel Kolditz realized that while plans are useful, their main value is that they cause you to think through various situations and issues. But they simply don’t work on the battlefield. In realizing that, the army in the 1980s invented a concept called Commander’s Intent (CI), and it revolutionized the ways in which goals and missions were communicated to the various players.
What is Commander’s Intent?
CI is a straightforward statement that appears at the top of every order given. It specifies the plan’s goal and the desired end-state of an operation or task.
At high levels in the army, the CI may be relatively abstract: “Degrade the will of the enemy in the Northeast Region.”
At the tactical level, for colonels and captains, it may be much more concrete: “Get our Second Battalion on Hill 3409 and clear the hill of the enemy so we can protect the flank of Third Brigade.”
The magic of CI is that it is never rendered obsolete by unpredictable events. You may lose the ability to execute the original plan, but you still have the responsibility of carrying out the original intent.
That’s a huge takeaway, and you can probably already imagine how that relates to running a business and managing employees.
How Does Commander’s Intent Apply to Business?
Earlier we mentioned what a CI would look like coming from high levels of the army. Imagine a CI from the standpoint of C-level employees (executives) at a high end dry cleaning company. There’s a fashion event, and they’ve been hired to drop off clean clothes in the middle of the day—right in the middle of when they usually drop off dry cleaned clothing to their customers’ homes. Applying Commanders Intent, the C-level employee may say to his management staff or other employees, “We need to drop off the clean clothing for the fashion event at their studio tomorrow at 1pm, right in the middle of our normal route to drop off clothing to our clients’ homes.”
That is the intent, and communicating it clearly is really important. While it’s very straightforward, it means something different to each person involved. The drivers have to figure out how to alter their routes and times. Those responsible for sorting the clothing and determining when each batch is to be washed have to react accordingly. And they all have to coordinate.
From a business owner standpoint, CI is a powerful tool to use because it frees you up to do other things. Instead of coming up with every detail, you can communicate your intent and have your employees submit their solutions. And either way, so long as they know the intent, even if things don’t go as planned, at least they will be clear with regards to what they must do to adjust and meet the end-goal.
Applying CI to Your Business: One Simple Fill-In-The-Blank Sentence
The single, most important thing we must do tomorrow is __________.
Filling in that blank will help you find the core of your mission, which is what the Commander’s Intent is all about.
If you can find the core, you may also find yourself with more time, more efficiency within your company, and less of that overwhelming feeling that usually accompanies running a business or managing a team or department.