Commander’s Intent, by Keith Willeford

Posted by amc on 11/30/2017 1:07 pm  /   Professional Interest

In my last article I discussed the differences between the armed forces approach to planning, and that of PMI.  As project managers, we often undertake projects for which there is some precedence, and we would be remiss if we accepted a contract before we were fully confident in the scope and risks involved.   The armed forces also draw on a body of institutional knowledge.  And, while it may seem to junior officers (guilty) that “war-gaming” every scenario is a waste of time, the fact is that the scope of a military operation is never fully known and the risks are often dire.   

Ultimately, however, military planners must settle on a “plan” (we call it an Operation Order or “Op Order”).  Just like PMs must settle on a project execution plan.  In many ways, a plan is a plan is a plan.  We planners document what we expect to achieve and how we expect to achieve it.  There is one concept, however, that is present in the military sector yet feels foreign in the private sector.  That concept is called “commander’s intent.”

It is commonly stated in armed forces that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”  If you will, contemplate that sentiment for a while and apply it to what we do.  No, our “adversaries” do not often engage us in open hostilities.  However, the universe itself is often the adversary (the “enemy”).  We cannot predict every eventuality, and thus cannot prescribe actions to our subordinates for every circumstance they may encounter.  Once we launch our endeavor, our grip on control becomes increasingly weak. 

This is where commander’s intent becomes important.  The military Op Order contains a Mission Statement.  This tells the ”who, what, where, when, and why” of the effort.  Immediately following comes the Commander’s Intent statement.  This says, “If all this goes to heck, here is what we ultimately need.”  Example: The Mission might be something like, “At H time, assault E enemy, at X objective, by way of Y route, in order to deny access to Z asset.”  Alright, cool.  But on the two-way rifle range, the guys carrying out this order might discover that Y route is no good.  Maybe it is impassible by vehicle, or thoroughly defended.   Or, maybe X objective is in the wrong place to deny access to Z objective.  In fact, maybe a million complications.  So, the order follows with a more general statement of what is expected, should the plan go awry.  For example, “Deny the enemy access to Ellington Air Field so they cannot reinforce their troops, as your sister forces assault Houston.”  The commander implicitly admits that there might be other ways to accomplish the ultimate objective, should the original plan go south.  Remember, the enemy gets a vote, too.

When the commander issues a statement of intent, she cedes a certain amount of power to her subordinates.  However, she also empowers them to continue to the objective, in the absence of orders, when they are met with the fog of war.  Hand in glove with this philosophy of Intent, is the idea that orders should be as simple as possible.  In other words, convey the minimum amount of instruction necessary for effective execution of the plan.  Why?  Because this enables creativity and critical thinking among subordinates.  While this may not fit the stereotype of armed forces operations, I know the Marine Corps, in particular, embraces this way of doing business.

So where is the “Project Manager’s Intent” statement in our Project Execution Plans?  Are we so confident that we understand the scope of our efforts that we do not need one?  Are we secure enough in our understanding of project risk that this idea is quaint?  Or, are the consequences of failure just not bad enough that we need to hedge our bets?

I honestly don’t know the answers to the questions I have typed above.  I don’t even know if I have typed the correct questions, or all the questions.   All I know is that I, personally, like the concept of “commander’s intent” because I don’t want anyone reporting to me sitting there waiting around for instruction every time they hit a snag in the process.  I also fully understand that I am not at war in the business world (some may disagree with that), and that the consequences of “failure” are not blood on my hands. 

Maybe this isn’t even about the Project Execution Plan.  Maybe this is about Monitoring and Controlling our projects, in general.  Where are the times that we can save ourselves work by consciously communicating intent to team members of our projects?  Where can we make our plans more clear by expressing intent?  Where can we empower team members to push forward in the absence of explicit instruction, thorough the conveyance of intent?  And, could this make our lives as project managers any easier?