Colonel Tom Kolditz, the head of the behavioral sciences division at West Point, spoke these words when referring to the inevitable and unpredictable things that happen out on the battle field. Whether it’s weather, equipment failure, sickness, or simply being outflanked by the enemy – life happens. He also states that, “Many armies fail because they put all their emphasis into creating a plan that becomes useless ten minutes into a battle.” Have you felt like this before? Does this describe your life?
Kolditz also noted that in the 1980s, the US Army started developing the idea of a Commander’s Intent (CI) to accompany any plans made. This Intent was formed to help the plans succeed. Plans might instruct you to take your fifth platoon and march them up the west side of the hill, to target and fire on any enemy forces and to use specific weapons to do the job. The Commander’s Intent, however is much more vague and allows for interpretation. “Secure Hill #3215 and cover the advance of the 1st battalion as they pass to the northeast.” If you had only the plans, and the enemy had an ambush setup on the west side of the hill, how would you adapt? The plan fails by design once it fails to adapt.
Let’s back off of the military metaphor for a bit and focus on how to apply this to your circumstances. Let’s say you are building a website for a store in town. The customer has a plan in mind to add a catalog, build a shopping cart and to sell their wares on the web. They also want to create a newsletter, pages on several popular community websites, social networking sites, and to get listed on several internet search engines. This is a fairly specific plan so far. We have concrete tasks to accomplish in order to make the customer happy. What if we did exactly these steps, but the rest of the world didn’t start buying anything from the site? Did we do our job by giving the customer exactly what they wanted? What if we instead gave then what they need?
Jared Spool challenges designers, “When creating great experiences, it’s not so much about doing what users expect. Instead, it’s about creating a design that clearly meets their needs at the instant they need it.”
The Commander’s Intent is much like the result of asking the right questions of the business to see what they really need – and helping them reach that goal, rather than executing their concrete steps. The plan might not work, the plan is easily foiled by technology requirements or limitations of their computers or servers. Perhaps the type of merchandise they are selling is not getting the returns that it used to.
What if instead of doing exactly what we’re told to do by the customer, we helped them reach their goals and helped them learn more about themselves in the process? Instead of building the website, adding the catalog, the shopping cart, the newsletter and more – maybe we instead should help the customer say, “I want to create a way for prospective customers to relate to our products and feel like our product is the best fit for their lives.” This is the Commander’s Intent. It speaks more toward the end goal, than to the path we take to reach it. Perhaps we can get better conversion rates by using our website to educate customers on the way our product solves their problems, and drive them to come to the store to a custom fit, rather than to offer them cookie-cutter solutions in tiny packages online. Maybe we focus on the personal touch. When we have the Commander’s Intent, we can try many different ways of solving the problem, and the plan becomes far less important. By focusing on the intent, we can better manage the possibility of being wrong. We can manage the probability that we could choose the wrong option. We can adapt to changing environments.
The Commander’s Intent gives you another benefit, too. When you’re in the business of solving problems, it helps to focus on one thing at a time. Plans seem to allow you to see too much of the detail and can overwhelm many folks, without a proper introduction. Plans are good to make, don’t let me steer you wrong, but they need something to back them up and show you the big picture. You can’t have five North Stars. You can’t have two south poles. You can’t have five “most important goals.” You can’t have three Commander’s Intents. You can only have one, if you expect to succeed.
Begin by asking, “If we do nothing else, we must ______.” Also, “The most important thing we must do is ______.” These will help you drive the Commander’s Intent. These are the questions you must answer before you can make effective and adaptable plans.
What steps do you take to help ensure you’re chasing the right goals? How do you adapt when your plans fail? What is the most important thing you must do today in order to fulfill the requirements of the Commander’s Intent?
When you design your plan around the bigger picture, you design a way to win. When you can win enough battles, you win the war.