Jan 312012

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.


  5 Responses to “Commander’s Intent and Corporate Guidance”

  1. This is a great comparison and a wonderful tool to for corporate world. This is one of the theories I brought in from my Public Sector experience, I just dropped the “commander” part. Tell your team where you want to go and why you need to get there. Trust them to shape the operating environment to make it happen. You do have to assume competence and allow room for feedback so everything stays on track. Keep a clear set of expectations and define success.

    It’s fascinating to know the background of the commander’s intent concept. I had never heard that.

    Another concept I’ve found useful is stating the bottom line up front (BLUF). Instead of taking the New York Times style of telling the story before you get to the punchline, get it out of the way in the beginning and tell the story as appropriate. That saves many PowerPoint slides.

  2. Actually, BLUF is the perfect way to share commander’s intent! I do a lot of presentation support and guidance and if you’re looking to build a sense of independence among those you’re guiding, BLUF opens that door. Great call.

  3. The only way I found to relate comander intent into IT iwas outlined in “Machine Interpretable Representation of Commander’s Intent” by Per M. Gustavsson in his student paper at http://www.dodccrp.org/events/13th_iccrts_2008/CD/html/papers/188.pdf
    An excellent article very much in line with this blog entry

  4. I looked at the paper, Cay. RIGHT ON TARGET! A powerful look at the implementation of commander’s intent.

  5. […] la visión de “propósito común” en un blog de Cutter Consortium por Carl Pritchard, Commander’s Intent and Corporate Guidance.. El concepto de “intención del comandante” se originó en el ejército alemán hace […]

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>