The Art of Balance: Commander’s Intent


By: Phillip Bogdanovich

This is the third in a three-post series about expectation management, focusing on self-imposed expectations.

In the military, missions are managed according to the Commander’s Intent—a public statement of the purpose of the mission and its desired outcomes. When you embrace Commander’s Intent, you commit to letting the process be the process regardless of how events unfold. It may seem counter-intuitive to stick to the plan if the situation changes, but it’s your best bet for achieving the outcome you set out to achieve, as an individual or as a team.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes Commander’s Intent:

Commander’s intent plays a central role in military decision making and planning. It acts as a basis for staffs and subordinates to develop their own plans and orders to transform thought into action, while maintaining the overall intention of their commander. The commander’s intent links the mission and concept of operations. It describes the end state and key tasks that, along with the mission, are the basis for subordinates’ initiative.

In high-pressure and fast-changing startup environments, it can be very tempting to change the plan as the circumstances change, to chase every shiny object you see and put out every fire that starts. But as a former team leader once explained to me, the middle of a crisis is the absolute wrong time to start planning or second-guessing decisions. The only way to move forward is to stick to the plan.

Unfortunately, embracing Commander’s Intent isn’t always easy for leaders or teams. Two primary barriers are control issues and analysis paralysis.

Control Issues: Let Me Do That for You

Part of adhering to Commander’s Intent is letting team members claim ownership of their successes—and their failures. It’s often difficult for managers to release their Kung Fu death grip on operations and execution, particularly in startup environments. But when one person attempts to control all aspects of mission success and believes that no one else can effectively perform tasks, they not only undermine their employees; they guarantee a disappointing outcome.

The best outcomes occur when leaders distribute tasks according to what is best for the mission, keeping in mind someone on the team can perform the necessary tasks— most likely better than they can. Wouldn’t you hope your teammates are better than you at the tasks you hired them for? Your job is not to be the expert at everything. That’s why we have teams. Just focus on building great ones and supporting them as you stick to the mission.

Analysis Paralysis- A summary

My ability to internalize a setback and hold myself accountable is intense, as it is for many entrepreneurs and leaders. We reflect; we are introspective; we take responsibility; we aren’t looking for people to blame. But we are also often self-centered, poor at delegating, prone to holding others to the unreasonable standards we set for ourselves, and unable to rest in our search for the perfect decision or outcome. We suffer from analysis paralysis.

Commander’s Intent keeps us moving. If you keep driving toward an outcome no matter the odds, how can you fail? There’s always something you can do to further the mission. When teams embrace this way of thinking, they become more empowered and productive. Failure doesn’t have to be an option. I’ve never failed. I’ve just run out of time.

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