Fixing strategy execution with commander's intent
September 26, 2019

It's common to trip across articles or annual CEO surveys that blame strategy failure on poor execution. After all, few top executives are quick to say, "We executed fine. It was just a bad idea."

Instead, the blame for strategy failure is placed on the shoulders of some amorphous collective with the name, "We" in statements such as "We didn't execute properly" or "Customers didn't respond as we predicted and we failed to adapt."

While execution around strategy might have been flawed, strategy failure is almost exclusively a leadership communication failure. Specifically, it's a failure of leaders and leadership to provide those responsible for bringing strategy to life with context and clarity for the desired end state and their role and parameters in achieving this state.

In military parlance, this missing context is filled in with a statement of commander's intent: "A publicly stated description of the end-state as it relates to forces (entities, people) and terrain, the purpose of the operation, and key tasks to accomplish."

While you might not use the same label or the military terms, the purpose of the commander's intent is the same in our organizations -- to help individuals understand what they're striving to achieve and what they need and are empowered to do to get there.

An organization's leaders are well served drawing upon the commander's intent concept as a means of bringing strategies to life.

What will you do when the strategy misfires?

"No plan survives contact with the enemy" is a close approximation of a statement attributed to Prussian military commander Helmuth van Moltke in the late 19th century. The same goes for every strategy drawn up in boardrooms and shared with a firm's employees via slide decks, town hall meetings and communiqués.

In a recent strategy article, I described the need for top management to both engage the broader organization in the work of defining strategy and, importantly, take responsibility for creating the environment for the strategy to come to life. It's this environment of focus, action, learning, adaptation and refinement that is often missing -- and is the root source of many of the "failure to execute" comments from top leaders.

The chaos and cacophony of strategy execution

I love the comparison of coordinating strategy execution to that of conducting a symphony orchestra. The orchestra is an illustration of everyone playing their part at precisely the right time to create beautiful music. The conductor is accountable for the coordination but doesn't play a single note of music.

Unfortunately, strategy execution never quite fits this idyllic vision. Instead, it's chaotic, highly distributed, and subject to the vagaries of daily pressures, conflicting priorities across groups, clunky hand-offs, and challenging communications often made more so due to imperfect feedback mechanisms. The noise of strategy execution is most often cacophony.

5 ways commander's intent strengthens strategy execution

While both the military tie-in and the label of commander imply a top-down or command-and-control style, the intent of this tool is quite different. A clear, concise statement of the intended outcomes of a strategy and the critical actions required for success offers a powerful tool for distributing decisions and empowering a firm's employees. Here are five ways a statement of Commander's Intent helps with strategy execution:

 

1. Forces strategic clarity

Vague, lofty statements of strategy are commonplace and regular fodder for long-experienced, eye-rolling, cynical employees operating with a "this too shall pass" perspective.

Instead, developing the commander's intent forces top leadership to work until the desired outcomes and critical actions are crystal clear and understandable by everyone from the C-suite to the front lines. The elimination of ambiguity on what the firm intends to achieve opens the door to dramatically increased support for the strategy

 

2. Gets people invested and involved

It's easy in many organizations for overtaxed groups and stressed-out managers to comply with top-down strategy requests, but to not be fully invested. It's this lack of full investment that leads to the "failure to execute" problems.

A clear statement of intent with key actions makes the work of strategy execution tangible and visible. There's no room to hide when the priorities for everyone are called out, everyone is involved and everyone is accountable for doing their part.

 

3. Builds trust and empowers individuals and teams

As stated earlier, the commander's intent is less a command-and-control approach than a vehicle for clear actions in pursuit of a well-defined outcome. Effectively, the approach engenders trust that individuals and managers will do the right things, gives them the creativity to act and empowers them to adapt when things don't go as planned. And yes, trust is rocket fuel for performance!

 

4. Pushes decision-making closer to the action

Armed with clarity about the desired outcome, the need and right to act, learn and adapt is placed in the hands and minds of the individuals closest to customers and competitors. This distributed decision-making power reduces organizational friction and accelerates time-to-action.

 

5. Creates accountability for learning

Recognizing you are on the same important mission with colleagues across groups is galvanizing and pays dividends. It's in everyone's interest to share information and insights. Teams feel compelled to come to the rescue of other groups. And perhaps the most potent element of clear commander's intent is that it makes everyone accountable for learning and adapting as they move the ideas to the battlefield of the marketplace.

Case study: Commander's intent knocks out dysfunction

Several years ago, I had the privilege of working in a situation where the commitment to clarifying commander's intent ultimately saved the day. The firm was a textbook case of dysfunction around strategy and execution. It wasn't until the team pursued and achieved the clarity of commander's intent that it moved beyond the prevailing "failure to execute" mode.

Armed with clarity for the mission and the explicit actions needed to succeed, the previously warring teams focused, communicated, collaborated and self-policed dysfunctional behaviors out of the organization. Trust emerged, and the sense of shared mission proved to be a galvanizing force for success.

Without the clarity of commander's intent, this story has a very different outcome.

The bottom line for now

Bringing strategy to life is messy work. It’s filled with experiments, misfires and misunderstandings. The elegance of the idea and the approach designed by the strategy team is easily lost in translation when it is time for the broader organization to engage. Investing time and energy to clarify the commander’s intent is an essential step to mitigating the “failure to execute” risk of strategy. Of course, even this level of clarity won’t save you from a bad idea, but that’s another problem for another article.

 

Art Petty is an executive and emerging leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker, and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. You can visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles at https://artpetty.com/blog/.

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