Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Keeping Project Focus – Management Intent

I've been reading a fascinating biography of Dwight Eisenhower over the past month or so. One of the most telling observations is the criticality of a clear strategy to success.

Thinking about how this might apply in a Lean setting, I phoned my nephew a couple weeks ago. Brian now works for a well-known pharmeceutical firm in Indianapolis, but spent 11 years as a Marine officer, serving in Desert Storm and Somalia. I asked him "How did you guys communicate strategy in the Marines?"

He immediately replied "It's called 'Commander's Intent'." He explained.

  1. For any mission, the commander draws up a (preferably) one sentence, plain English statement of the outcome desired for the mission.
  2. As the start of each briefing, first thing, they read the Commander's Intent. Literally.
  3. The reason for this, Brian explained, is to overcome "The Fog of War." During the course of any mission, unexpected things happen. Communications break down. Unexpected problems come up. However, if individual units/soldiers have a grasp of "Commander's Intent," the likelihood that they will still make good decisions that lead toward the objective is vastly increased.
  4. This plan only developed in the early 80s. There was no such thing during Vietnam, as planning was so very centralized that operations were hopelessly hamstrung. Commander's Intent is a reaction to that overly centralized control and puts far more decision-making ability into field units. It (gasp) exhibits trust in people.
  5. Brian told me he learned from a crusty, veteran Colonel the best way to write a Commander's Intent is to picture yourself with a bunch of direct reports and precede the statement with "OK, guys, here's the deal..." And everything that follows is Commander's Intent.
Interestingly, if you do a Google search for "commander's intent" you'll see a lot of stuff. Good examples include "Less is Better" and an example of it's effective application. Other links show a long-winded intent and a vague, high-level statement. It isn't easy writing one, we discovered. Brian's recollection of the Colonel's input helped us. "What's the Deal?" Answer it...that's the intent.

This discussion with Brian really got my brain going. Any project has the same "Fog" that happens. Uncertainty is certain. So, does this apply?

Over the past two weeks, we’ve worked up what we have come to call a “Management Intent” statement. A one sentence, plain English, outcome based statement of where we need to go in the near term. We've started using it at the start of all meetings. I've been amazed so far. Folks have really appreciated the clarity and can immediately see where and how it fits in their area.

Hal Macomber has written well about this recently. His work deserves your attention.

Will it work? I dunno. But I do know that business gets every bit as “foggy” as many battle situations.

I hope this is helpful. Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

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