Commanders Intent

By | March 10, 2008

Organizations that excel in today’s competitive environment are those that quickly respond to market change. Do those organizations figure everything out up front? Do they create a detailed plan from start to finish and stick to the plan at all costs? Do they ignore unexpected situations or changes that come up during project execution?

Recently I started a book called Made to Stick. It has a story illustrating a concept called commander’s intent. This military term describes a technique that recognizes it is impossible to create plans for every eventuality on the battlefield. As Field Marshall Helmuth Carl Bernard von Moltke said, “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”

Commander’s intent suggests, rather than attempting to plan for all eventualities, the commander provides clear goals understood by everyone. Understanding the commander’s intent provides each soldier with the ability to make their own decisions when encountering unplanned or unexpected situations. On the battlefield, it would be less than satisfactory if every soldier checked back with “headquarters” for every decision.

Software development organizations face a similar situation. In today’s fast changing markets, it is unreasonable to think that an up front set of requirements and project plan will survive intact. It should be no surprise that software development efforts rarely, if ever, go as originally planned. There are too many variables.

  • As the solution comes to fruition the customer changes their mind.
  • The market changes.
  • A competitors is first to market and we must differentiate ourselves.
  • Revenue forecasts have changed and impacts the ROI.
  • Key resources leave.
  • And the list goes on.

If we understand the commander’s intent then changes and unexpected situations will be less impacting. We will not become paralyzed and will use our clear understanding of the goal to drive our decisions. Software development professionals are – professionals. We have the skills, passion, and tenacity required to meet our goals. Let’s use the commander’s intent to drive our decisions and not allow the swirl of the “battlefield” to take us off our task.

This approach requires that we build the skills required for us to be in a position to make those “in the fight” decisions. We do this with training, experience, and a passion for excellence. We have the experience and skills required to make good decisions as we meet the goal.

The old command and control approach does not allow us to react and respond to new situations quickly enough. If we spend our time “checking back in with headquarters” then our competition will kill us. Empower the team, they will direct their own actions to meet the goal. No need to “check back in”, they know the commander’s intent.

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