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Leader's Intent

The military has a term called “commander’s intent”. It is a part of every mission briefing in which the commander describes success and the purpose behind what he or she wants to achieve.

Unfortunately though, in any combat operation, there is a chance that a unit will find itself without its leader. Whether a simple, temporary communications glitch, or a serious injury or death, there can be a sudden leadership vacuum.

When the assumptions and expectations upon which a plan was built prove to be accurate, the operation can still progress without a lot of guidance. But most plans don’t survive first contact. Ultimately, the majority of them require a great deal of adjustment along the way.

Knowing the commander’s intent helps those who assume the decision making roles choose new courses of action wisely. They know what success looks like, so they understand the rationale behind the tasks they were assigned to accomplish. When they run into a barrier, they can make informed decisions that align with the mission’s goals.

While workplaces don’t have commanders, they do have leaders. So the same principle of intent holds true in the civilian world. If you are a manager and your team knows how you define success, they will be able to make decisions in your absence. That is a critically important skill for a highly functioning team to develop.

How often do decisions get deferred when a leader is away? It is not uncommon to hear something like, ‘The boss is out for the rest of the week. You’ll have to ask about that next Monday.’ When that attitude is pervasive, progress slows down. Managers become a bottleneck. When people don’t understand the leader’s intent, they are not able to act independently to the level that they should.

Several continuous improvement tools go a long way towards clarifying how a leader defines success. Daily management sets up near term targets. KPIs and other metrics establish ongoing goals.

Standardization goes a long way towards clarifying what good processes look like. When a person encounters something new, they have the standardized processes to compare it to.

But the granddaddy of all leader’s intent in a company is policy deployment. It clearly defines success, and breaks it down to the actions everyone should be taking to improve the company. When teams know what is important, they have one more key piece of the decision making puzzle.

  • Leader’s intent can be especially confusing to people when the stated intent of a leader differs from perception. Does the boss say not to pass on bad quality but then focuses on the loss of productivity whenever there is a line stop? Does she extol the need to follow processes only to do an end run as soon as there is a little heat from a customer? (Note: I am not talking about a bad process that needs fixing. I am talking about a customer wanting special treatment at the expense of another customer. I.e. reassigning products to the ‘squeaky wheel’.)
  • Acting on a leader’s intent takes practice to know what a person can do on their own. Subordinates should not be rewriting policy, but active projects should not be shut down whenever a manager who needs to make a decision is out of the office.
  • Poor leader’s intent can hamstring a kaizen. If a boss gives people a clear understanding of his intent, they will be more likely to come up with a good idea if they hit a roadblock. If they aren’t sure how he makes decisions, they will have a hard time being aggressive about changes during a project.

Practice makes perfect. Develop a training plan for your junior leaders. As part of that plan, spend a day without giving them any direction, but give them feedback on their choices. You’ll learn how they think through problems, and what role your leadership plays in their decision making. Your guidance can evolve better if you know how your intentions are perceived.


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