About six hours before the D-Day amphibious landings began on June 6, 1944, about 24,000 American, British, and Canadian airborne forces were dropped inland. Their overall mission, the opening forays of Operation Overlord, was to disrupt the Nazi forces ability to reach the coast and repel the beach landings. Individually, units were tasked with capturing bridges, cross roads, and other key strategic points, as well as destroying and harassing enemy garrisons.

As is well documented, the mission hit an early snag when a combination of events including bad weather, radio-silence, and fierce anti-aircraft fire caused pilots to drop the airborne forces almost everywhere but their intended drop zone, resulting in ‘sticks’ of men scattered all over the Normandy countryside. With officers and NCO’s separated from their men, and men and key equipment far from their objectives, the invasion could have ended before it began.

But a key aspect of the mission preparation held a key to its success. Both men and officers had carefully studied the Normandy terrain and had been drilled for the purpose and context of their individual operations as well as that of their parent units up the chain of command.  As a result, officers were able to pull together groups of men (often an assortment from different units) and execute missions in support of the overall mission objective.

The idea that units can perform their tasks more effectively when they have a good understanding of the big picture was later codified into American military practice in the form of a process called ‘Commander’s Intent’.

The Importance of Context

When employees understand the context of a task or project they are given, they are much more able to deliver great results. Understanding the context allows correct decisions to be made, even when things go wrong.

I don’t think that many managers intend to hide context from their subordinates, but all too often managers assume more understanding by their employees than is actually the case. As a result, delegated tasks sometimes fail to achieve success because the full scope of the assignment wasn’t understood. The unfortunate thing here is that, in many cases, the same employee could have achieved much better results, just by better understanding the context.

Commander’s Intent

The doctrine of Commander’s Intent is both a mindset and a process and describes a key element of how military orders are given. The essence of Commander’s Intent is that a unit given an order will also be provided the big picture in the form of how the mission fits with other objectives and operations.

In particular the context up to two echelons higher than that unit is provided. In military terms, this means that a Platoon level order will be accompanied by the context of how the mission fits in with Company and Battalion goals and operations (two levels higher than the Platoon).

Civilian application of the doctrine of Commander’s Intent can, of course, be interpreted in several different ways, but here’s a good starter list of what to include when providing Commander’s Intent.

  1. A description of the mission or goal. The more specificity that can be provided here the better. This element is literally the ‘target’ so identifying it with absolute clarity is key.
  2. Connection to other missions/goals. A key aspect of understanding a mission is a clear knowledge of how it fits in with other ongoing missions/goals within the organization. This key element of context allows for appropriate cross-team collaboration (or at least non-interference).
  3. Sequence of activities. To the extent that a correct sequence leading to the target is known, it should be communicated as a part of a Commander’s Intent.
  4. Key decisions to be made. Similar to ‘sequence of activities’ listed above, the need for some decisions can be foreseen, even when the actual best choice cannot. Preparing everyone involved to understand these decisions with as much of the context as possible will prevent things coming to a screeching halt when the time for making the decision actually arrives.
  5. A list of constraints. It’s key to explain what areas are off-limits, such as resources that cannot be used, so that teams can properly plan and scope their strategy and process.
  6. Outcomes you do not want. These are sometimes called ‘anti-goals’ and they help to properly frame the objective. In the event that things go badly wrong, understanding anti-goals can also help an employee or project team to avoid the worst outcomes coming to pass.

Whatever format you follow for delivering your Commander’s Intent, the important thing is that you fully explain the context of the mission. Then take a step back and let the team use their initiative, skills, and passion to deliver great results!