A financial services client last month asked me if I had read anything about management and the relationship to “commander’s intent.” While I had to confess that I had not, I did some quick searching to find out what the concept was about and how it might relate to effective management practice. What I found was a compelling object lesson on how we should be drawing on the lessons learned from other practices.
The concept of “commander’s intent” has been around for almost 200 years. It’s a compelling military concept, originated by the Germans. The idea is that rather than apply tight command and control, leaders provide a clear sense of the outcomes they seek and the parameters they will accept. It’s a trusting relationship between manager and subordinate, and it’s one that has clear implications in the business environment.
Commander’s intent was the German reaction to Napoleonic victories where tight control over the troops led to poor decision-making in the field. Poor or no reactions by field troops led to what some have called “malicious obedience.” Some personnel would follow direction solely for directions’ sake. It’s a condition that happens in the business world as well. Staff members miss opportunities because they fail to take initiative. Staff continue to obey rules even when the rules no longer make sense.
In order to overcome this, business can take a page from the military.
It starts by creating a culture of trust. As managers, we need to let personnel know that we trust them to achieve our objectives. Their instincts on serving those objectives must be assumed to be positive. A classic example of where this has worked well was in the early days of Nordstrom’s department stores. Their original employee handbook was only a few paragraphs long:
We’re glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.
Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.
Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.
This example from Nordstrom takes into account both the sense of trust essential to success and the guidance as to what management values. Creating a common sense of values gives the employee context as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Both trust and context are key elements of effective commander’s intent.
The next key aspect of the practice is the concept of imparting presence. Imparting presence is largely the notion that a commander or manager can provide direction in absentia. By making practices clear, and by ensuring that subordinates all have a clear understanding of the overriding belief systems behind all actions, it’s possible to get everyone to act with a modicum of behavioral consistency. Such consistency affords organizations to act somewhat uniformly, without suppressing independent initiative.
Allowing individuals to act independently is vital to commander’s intent. And it becomes more effective when the superiors have consistent and accurate feedback. Part of our role must be to create the feedback loops that enable subordinates to explain where the systems and processes are working and where they’re failing as well.
As we venture into a new year, the concepts behind commanders’ intent can work to our advantage. By setting limits, clarifying visions, and expecting team members to take independent initiative, we take strides toward truly effective leadership. We also take strides toward creating a next generation of leaders within our organizations.