Sunday, May 1, 2011

Commander's Intent

Back in November, the HBR blog ran a series of posts on "Leadership Lessons from the Military." I already commented on one of them. Here's another. They both mention something called Commander's Intent--a description and definition of what a successful mission will look like.

Commander's Intent fully recognizes the chaos, lack of a complete information picture, changes in enemy situation, and other relevant factors that may make a plan either completely or partially obsolete when it is executed. The role of Commander's Intent is to empower subordinates and guide their initiative and improvisation as they adapt the plan to the changed battlefield environment. Commander's Intent empowers initiative, improvisation, and adaptation by providing guidance of what a successful conclusion looks like. Commander's Intent is vital in chaotic, demanding, and dynamic environments.

Now that sounds like a powerful tool. If you were to consciously use Commander's Intent for a specific situation in your association, what would it be? And what Intent would you communicate to your subordinates?

I'll tell you what I did, but first a little backstory.

I started in this business as a meeting planner. My first thing I remember being taught how to do at my first association job was filling out the form the accounting department needed in order to cash the checks coming in for exhibit space. Since then I've planned meetings for eight people and for eight thousand, with exhibits and without, with big budgets and small budgets--and I know that something happens to meeting planners over time. They start measuring their success by their numbers and not by the objectives of the association hosting the meeting. As you hone your organizational skills, it starts being less about the mission of your organization and starts being more about sleeping rooms, banquet event orders and LCD projectors. You can't always help it. That's the world you live in.

So when it was time to set performance goals for the meeting planner working for my current association, I wanted to take a different tack. I wanted to spell something out very clearly, and make sure she knew what team she was on from the very beginning. When she found herself in situations--as I knew she would--where she would need to show initiative, improvisation and adaptation in our chaotic, demanding and dynamic environment, I wanted her to remember what the overall objective was and act accordingly. When it comes to planning meetings for this association, I told her, your objective (i.e., my Commander's Intent) is to:

Organize events that engage members with the association and with each other.

That's it, I told her. That's the objective. That's how we're going to define a successful meeting. Not by how much money we make or how many people attend, not even by how good the speakers are or which numbers people circle on their evaluation forms. My Commander's Intent when it comes to our conferences is to make sure our members are interacting with each other and with the association. Period.

It might be crazy, but I know that the rest of our success will follow from there.

Image source


Smeske said...

Eric: The title of your post didn't need any explanation to this former Army Captain. The challenge is to find those people, train them, support them, and then empower them to do great things under the 'Commander's Intent' method of delegation. Some folks need more direction, others will thrive in this environment.

Delegating with Commander's Intent sounds good in a staff meeting, but sometimes is difficult to employ if said commander can't quite let completely go of the details...

Great post.

Scott Meske

Eric Lanke said...

Thanks, Scott. Letting go of the details is absolutely key, I agree. Trusting people to handle them appropriately is sometimes to most difficult leap for a "commander" to make.

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