Empowering Self-Organization and Energizing Project Planning with the Commander's Intent

Things change, and when they do, it's best to be ready to change with them. The best plans are doomed to fail if they aren't malleable. In this column, George Schlitz and Giora Morein take a look at the military concept of "Commander's Intent" and how it can apply to non-military project planning.

"No plan survives contact with the enemy," the famous quote by Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke goes. Despite our desire to plan for all possible contingencies, rarely do things go as expected. In military planning and in project planning, the seemingly infinite number of variables that must be estimated and the numerous assumptions that must be made in a typical detailed plan virtually guarantee that a very detailed plan will be rendered invalid within minutes of initiation. The problem is magnified as the size and complexity of the project increase.

Complicating matters, an inability to establish and share effective goals creates the need for teams to rely on detailed plans. Where general guidance doesn't exist, explicit direction is given. How many projects start off with enormous plans going into excruciating detail? How many people actually understand these plans? How effective are they? How well do they deal with change and uncertainty?

A simple way of enabling teams to achieve objectives, despite change and uncertainty, can both enable self-organization and drastically improve planning success.

Traditional Planning Is All About the Details
How many project plans have you seen that amounted to a confusing network of related and dependent tasks, estimates, resource allocation percentages, and more? There are some serious limitations to this type of planning:

  • They rarely are understood by anyone other than the project manager.
  • They are difficult to adjust when changes occur.
  • They leave little room for Murphy's Law.
  • They encourage problematic approaches like resource sharing and artificial dependencies.
  • They encourage command-and-control behavior with managers telling team members which things they should work on and when.
  • They discourage team member empowerment as team members get used to being told what to do and rely on it.
  • They lead team members to focus on tasks not goals.

The Commander's Intent
The US Army uses a concept known as the "Commander's Intent" to provide a concise, clear, shared vision statement at any level of planning in the event that more detailed plans are rendered invalid. Knowing that plans often are rendered invalid soon after they are writtenas soon as we learn something newthe Commander's Intent provides a guiding statement that allows teams to adjust their plans given any circumstances, so long as they accomplish the Commander's Intent. This empowerment of teams to be accountable for goal achievement rather than task achievement allows the mission to benefit from the collective skills, knowledge, experience, leadership, and real-time decision-making ability of the entire forcenot just the leader. When things don't go according to plan, teams can adjust their activities with the best possible information and in the shortest possible time to accomplish the Commander's Intent. Only situations that jeopardize the Commander's Intent need be escalated.

Since higher-level objectives can be seen as a combination of subordinate Commanders' Intents, a lightweight and adaptive planning approach can result.

Shared Vision

"When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-familiar 'vision statement'), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to."
-Peter Senge, from The Fifth Discipline

The purpose of a shared vision is to create a shared understanding of the goals and objectives, as well as a high-level approach as to how to achieve them. By sharing and buying into the picture of the future, team members can act out of inner motivation and use their skills and knowledge to achieve it, as opposed to doing just what they are told to do.

The Commander's Intent and the 5 Levels of Agile Planning
Many successful agile projects plan continuously on five levels: product vision, product roadmap, release plan, iteration plan, daily commitment. Using the concept of Commander's Intent, we can identify a shared vision to empower decisions at any level so that teams can succeed despite any changing circumstances. A simple, clear Commander's Intent is easy to identify at any level of planning and will empower your teams to make effective decisions in the face of uncertainty and change.

Having each intent well known to all team members can help your teams make decisions in the event of uncertainty. At each level, whenever a change occurs or there is some other uncertainty around a decision, ask whether each option supports the Commander's Intent at that level. No matter what happens, team members can ask, "Does [decision x] help us accomplish the Commander's Intent?" and be sure not to make a bad decision. Teams equipped with a clear Commander's Intent coupled with the freedom to adjust and plan independently are able to act independently of the commander's input or direction.

Applying the Commander's Intent to Project Planning
Project plans quickly become obsolete and irrelevant if they are too detailed or if they become immutable. Traditionally, we sought to eliminate the possibility of change by extensive, upfront planning and analysis, as well as high-ceremony change-approval processes. The assumption that change can be prevented and controlled is untrue.

Leverage the Commander's Intent at every level of planning. Enable team members to plan constantly, incorporate learning and new data, and change their plans in order to succeed.

Dealing with Changes to the Intent
Having a Commander's Intent at each level of planning can also help team members realize when attention to a major change should be brought to stakeholders. It may happen that the Commander's Intent no longer seem like a good goal. At these times, a conversation should be started with the appropriate "commander." On agile projects, this is typically the product owner. Often, this will result in important information being shared at the right timewhen there is time left to make good decisions based on it. However, in most situations, when the Commander's Intent is still intact and valid, people should feel free to adapt their plans as needed!

The Commander's Intent Empowers Teams
At any time, the team can make its own decisions to achieve the Commander's Intent most effectively. Self-organization is thus encouraged, and the right amount of oversight is clearly implied.

"If you tell people where to go, but not how to get there, you'll be amazed at the results."

-General George S. Patton

The Commander's Intent Enhances Leadership
Replacing an overly detailed plan at high levels of leadership with a well-articulated Commander's Intent can free leaders up from worrying about details. The Commander's Intent is the statement of success at their levelall they need to know is progress toward achieving it. Less time need be spent micromanaging, and more time can be spent on strategy and leading.

PlanningNot the PlanIs Critical
The Commander's Intent is a valuable tool, but it is not complete on its own. People at any level must take the Commander's Intent and adjust their plans constantly. In the face of changing conditions and constraints, plans become quickly disposable. The thinking, analysis, and interactions that went into creating the plan are reusable as we quickly create new plans.

Commander's Intent in Large, Complex Projects
The cascading Commander's Intent can be incredibly powerful on large, complex projects. Decisions can be made at the most effective level. A team makes its own decisions based on its situation without the need for guidance from above as long as it still can achieve the Commander's Intent. Situations where the Commander's Intent cannot be achieved result in an escalation. In this way, only impactful changes and situations are escalated, avoiding the overburdening of higher levels of leadership. This also helps insure that solutions can be identified at the lowest possible level by people closest to any problems.

Commander's Intent = Empowering People To Act Independent of Management
By having clearly articulated and shared goals, team members are empowered to use their combined skills, experience, and learning to adapt and succeed in changing conditions with imperfect information. Teams can adjust to emerging information and changing customer needs while remaining focused on business objectives. The Commander's Intent is a concept that provides a simple way to make such goal focus a part of planning and execution for projects of any size.

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