Commander’s Intent

"No plans survive contact with the enemy."  The military have discovered that the plans that were made in detail to think through all the issues  can change radically in the heat of battle.  In the 1980's they added an element to the planning called the Commanders Intent (CI).  This was a short succinct statement that help the people under the commander know the overall intent and make decision in the heat of battle which supported the CI.  In business, I believe the same principle applies.  If you know your leaders intent, you can make decisions that support the intent even if the actions were not in the plan.  We make lots of decisions everyday which need to fit with our commander's intent.

At Project X Ltd., we have a CI which expresses itself in the phrase "Always act in the best interest of the client.'  In every situation, this intent gives us guidance on how to act.  I do not mean to imply that the solution is easy but at least the intent is clear and memorable.  

Another which we keep in the front of our mind is "Business Value Through Rapid Results."  This Commander's Intent is always on our mind as we work on the business and IT challenges which face us daily.   We have frequent ad hoc meetings looking for ways of creating breakthroughs for our clients on projects.   I find the idea really helps in our decision making.     

The real key with the CI is that is a simple message that will be remembered under pressure and will be helpful in making decisions.  I have found in my experience this phrase is quite helpful.

Many plans in business do not transmit the CI in a simple, memorable and practical terms.  Many organization issue CI messages that people who are doing the work find it difficult to use as a basis for decision making.  For example, "increasing shareholder value" or "increasing the firms profitability by X%", neither of these will help the person dealing with customer complaint or fixing some problem on a production line.  They certainly will not have guidance from that intent.   However if the people in the particular area could translate that into an intent for their area or department then it might stick.

One example is the story on Sony in the early days of transistors.  Sony was struggling to find its niche and was building rice cookers and many other things.  One fellow decided to give the company the challenge of "Building a pocket-able radio."  At the time radios were a big piece of furniture and the vision was considered impossible.  The intent was clear and launch Sony on a journey to leadership in the electronics business. 

JFK's intent to have a man on the moon walk on the moon and return safely within the decade is an amazing example of CI.

Can you think of great examples of Commander's Intent?  What is your intent?    


  1. Jim Reply

    I think Mip’s point is well taken and the Commander’s Intent is meant to be the high level goal of a mission. Often people get so intent on doing the prescibes steps in the plan they ignore the intent.
    I have observed many certified project managers manage the prescribed steps of a plan but ignore the intent of the project. The point is as reality disrupts the best laid plans the team must focus on the Commander’s Intent, not the next step in the plan.
    I have experienced people trying to meet the prescibed steps in a “Quality Approach” ignoring the fact that the project is totally off the rails. For example, if the project will not meet the business requirement because new information has come to light, continuing on with the old plan makes no sense. However I have seen many people just continue to execute the plan.
    I think MIP’s point is that the Commander’s Intent must not be so focussed on the project that it ignores the overall success of the company. Ideally the intents are alligned.

  2. mip Reply

    While I agree with the idea of Commander Intent in general, I think that a person (or company) should ensure the proper checks and balances are in place so that driving solely toward the goal post to meet the CI doesn’t in the process harm the person (or company).
    In war, the soldiers are unified in a single mission. Some may not make it through, but ultimately, the objective is to complete the mission – to carry out whatever that Commender Intent is. In war however, there isn’t the focus on the “next” mission. Only the current mission. That can be dangerous in business. Project teams cannot become tunnel visioned on a single project with the idea of meeting the Commander’s Intent, if it means being unable to safeguard the well being of the business itself. Companies are more than a single project. Companies are built over years of experience. In war, too often, the brave group of soldiers are expendable. That is less applicable in business. In business, if the Commander’s Intent threatens the well being and future “safety” of the corporation, there needs to be the ability to adapt and put aside the overarching CI to ensure that a company is around to “fight another day”

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