Great Leaders Use This Technique in Tough Times

Drafting a commander’s intent empowers your team to read your mind and allows your team to move fast.
Headshot of author Dave Perretz
Dave Perretz
Expert Columnist
August 14, 2020
Updated: August 18, 2020
Headshot of author Dave Perretz
Dave Perretz
Expert Columnist
August 14, 2020
Updated: August 18, 2020

Complexity and uncertainty are not new to the workplace. Likewise, the tools for managing this environment may change, but the underlying conditions are as old as time. Our current  challenges include an unstable economic situation, a surging pandemic, and an unpredictable government that offers more questions than answers. Despite the current chaos, the best company leaders and managers aren’t asking how to survive the contemporary state of affairs. Rather, they’re thinking about how to thrive.

Before entering the startup world, I did several deployments to Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne Divisions. Although I was in different regions of the country and was deployed at different times in the campaign (2008 and then again in 2012), I saw a few consistent themes: there were more problems than solutions, more questions than answers, and the situation on the ground was always changing. More than any specific skill or subject expertise, I learned how to lead and manage in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment (VUCA).

As a commander in the Army, one of the most critical tools you have for handling the VUCA world is a statement called your commander’s intent. The process of writing an intent statement will help you identify what actions need to be taken, how your team will be positioned at the end of the project, and how you, as the leader, describe a successful conclusion to the project.

As the head of operations in a startup with a distributed workforce, I leveraged intent statements for the team. We regularly reviewed our key tasks, purpose, and the future conditions in our team meetings. As a team leader and manager facing the VUCA-world, you should create a clear and concise intent statement of your own. Your initial guidance will allow your team(s) to operate quickly and decisively without having to ask for permission on every single task or stalling when the plan changes. Writing a clear intent statement allows you to delegate tasks effectively and empowers the entire organization to move with more speed.

At the beginning of a project, I always strive to build the elements of commander’s intent. I then use this simple message to constantly remind my team what is important and why we are working on this particular project.

An intent statement has three core elements:

  • The purpose of the project — A high-level overview of how this project directly relates to broader company goals. It’s also a great test! If you can’t draw a direct line between the two, this project isn’t helping the company achieve its goals.
  • Key tasks that must be accomplished — This section will include the critical details that answer the 4Ws (who, what, when, where). These are the absolutely-must-get-done tasks in order to complete the mission. A big caveat here is that you shouldn’t list every task because you want to give your team room to determine how to get the job done.
  • A description of what success will look like when the project is complete In the Army, we called this the end state. You should think about the conditions you want to prevail when the project is over and then describe them in simple terms.

Your intent should be clear and concise with the expectation that your employees will act to achieve your desired results even when you’re not present or able to give more in-depth instructions. Fancy language and lots of business jargon don’t add value. There is power in being able to simply describe the successful completion of a project or series of projects. To get a better feel for how this works in practice, let’s work through a quick example.

Suppose your company is preparing to launch a new product, and your beta launch is only a few weeks away. You have participated in several leadership meetings where the team has stressed the importance of a successful launch to the company’s growth plan and future funding. After consulting with several people, you think that a scaled soft launch of 200 beta testers and 2,500 qualified leads within three months of the beta launch will prove to everyone that this product is ready for primetime.

You pull your team together the next morning and give them your intent for the new project.

We are launching a marketing test campaign. I’d like for the team to build several hypotheses across multiple channels (Key Task) to acquire 2,500 qualified leads (KT) and 200 active beta testers for the new product (KT) in the next three months. Our budget is $10,000, and I have to provide a good reason to ask for permission to spend more. If we can accomplish this test, we will validate our customer acquisition cost, the engineering team will have enough beta users to generate important feedback, and the revenue team will have the information they need to finalize product pricing (Purpose). At a minimum, we need to get the group of beta testers in place, identify at least two channels through which we can acquire customers, and allow the rest of the teams to capture the data they need (End State).

The statement identifies the key tasks that need to be accomplished, gives an expanded purpose to the project that reaches beyond the team, and includes a brief description of how you define success for this project.

Ideally, you review this intent in your progress meetings and one-on-ones. You should ask your team to demonstrate that they understand. If you use these intents effectively, over time, your team will start to be able to read your mind because they have a clear picture of what you would do if you were in their shoes. Good news — that’s a force multiplier!

As with all things in the startup community, you probably want to know how this scales, right? Ideally, the company has a mission/vision statement and some form of company goals (OKRs, KPIs, etc). Each layer of management can define their own intent nested within the intent of the layer above. For large campaigns or projects it is important to craft an intent statement, but you don’t need to write one for every task. Your intent directs the actions of those managers who directly report to you and the managers who report to them. As you scale and add team members, you help them craft the intent for their departments and teams. Your subordinate managers’ intent must be aligned with your own and will often add a layer of detail. It’s not unreasonable to ask to see your subordinate’s intent for their team. You should see direct reflections of your intent at least two layers of management down.

Let me share with you a common pitfall that many leaders experience when crafting their intent: overwriting. Don’t agonize over every word like this has to be a modern masterpiece of literature or stand the test of time like the works of ancient Greek writers. Your intent statement should allow your teams to adapt how they achieve the key tasks and the end state as circumstances change or you gather new information. Remember, the more time you spend crafting your intent, the less time your team has to follow and implement it.

An intent statement isn’t chiseled in stone. It should be as deliberately and thoughtfully refined as the situation requires, but by clearly stating the key tasks and desired end state you will prevent scope creep and shifting goal posts. Your teams will know what needs to be done, why they need to do it, and they will have the guidance needed to achieve success.

Lastly, if you think this is a lot of unnecessary work, then I have one question for you: If you can’t spend the time to describe what success looks like, then how do you expect your team to achieve it?

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