Commander’s Intent: The Key to Project Engagement

Most business projects require coordinating multiple teams performing a series of tasks often utilizing complex systems before a project can produce the desired deliverable, provide the intended benefits, and satisfy customer need and expectation. Such a process relies heavily on organized, detail-oriented managerial leadership that is also skilled in maintaining worker engagement and focus, not through threats or rigid rules, but by clearly expressing the desired outcome. This isn’t always as simple as it sounds, but here is a technique that has a long track record of success that originated in a notable industry.

Commander’s Intent

According to military lore, following the end of World War II, a German general noted: ‘The reason the American Army does so well in wartime is that war is chaos, and the American Army practices it on a daily basis.” Then later during the Cold War, a Soviet official observed: “A serious problem in planning against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligation to follow their doctrine.”

Even if these statements are hyperbole, it is true that the US military has a reputation for being highly successful in utter chaos. That operational effectiveness is attributed to a cultural paradigm called commander’s intent, which is defined as the clear and concise expression of an operation’s purpose, and also includes the acceptable risks or trade-offs soldiers can take to complete the mission. The primary purpose of the commander’s intent is to empower subordinates to act on their own within the risk parameters outlined by the leader when unforeseen threats arise. The same approach is equally effective in other settings.

Even though I learned the concept of commander’s intent in the military where it served me well in both garrison and combat, I‘ve also used it in Corporate America with tremendous success. The more team members understand the reason or purpose behind a task, the key factors behind decisions, risk and trade-off considerations, and desired outcomes, the better they’ll be able to use their own initiative to navigate the unexpected and reach the end goal.

 While big-picture context provided by a leader’s intent may be the foundation for maintaining worker engagement, the devil is still in the details. Here are six crucial elements that will help maximize the potential of this technique.

  • Communicate your desired outcome clearly. The more your team understands the end goal, the better they will be able to react to changes they encounter and the more confident they will be of their decisions when faced with adversity or uncertainty.
  • Make sure you have a solid organizational framework. Leader’s intent is only effective when based on a strong foundation of processes, systems, and best practices. If your business processes are ill-defined or in constant flux, it will significantly undercut the effectiveness of the leader’s intent technique.
  • Ensure employees understand key risk areas and trade-offs. Nearly all strategic business decisions involve trade-offs and risk. The leader’s job is to balance risk with the potential reward and to funnel resources into the most productive and strategic pursuits. When subordinates understand the considerations behind such trade-off and risk decisions, they are more likely to act in good faith when there’s no direct guidance.
  • When employees ask for advice, answer their question with a question: What do you think you should do? This is a critical step in helping your employees develop critical thinking, which lays the foundation for proactive behavior. After giving them the opportunity to work through the problem, provide additional guidance if needed.
  • Recognize initiative and proactivity and reward it. Success should be measured by the quality and effectiveness of the actions taken by the employee to achieve the desired outcome.
  • Provide continuous feedback. Mistakes will inevitably be made during any project, but use them as learning and growth opportunities so employees can gain valuable insights that deepen their knowledge, boost their confidence, and expand their awareness, making them far more effective workers going forward.

As you manage initiatives in your organization, whether a full-blown transformation effort or a small, team-based project, precisely communicating leader intent is a proven strategy to ensure your team stays engaged, on task, and invested in realizing the end goal and its objectives.

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