Commander’s Intent

child-waving-goodbye-595429_1280“It’s about keeping people and planes moving.”

That was a mantra attributed to a former boss of mine who was the security director at Denver International Airport. She would chant this mantra, almost literally, to the FAA and TSA regulators and to others that she encountered within the airport who are trying to apply processes or procedures that interfered with the smooth, secure and safe flow of passengers and planes through the airport. That small little quote was pure genius. After a while, the newly initiated were even chanting it themselves and saying it to others, like their bosses and associates. She had become an evangelizer for the goal of every airport operator. But why was it so powerful? And why is coming up with your own ways of making ideas stick important to you?

First a little background.

If you have never worked for an organization that is directly regulated by the federal government let me give you a little bit of insight. Some of you know that I have a different side to my life, which is as an aviation security author and expert. Aviation is a highly regulated function by numerous government agencies from the FAA, to the TSA, to the EPA and the list goes on.

Ironically, many of the individuals who are government regulators, actual employees of the federal government charged with enforcing regulations on private industry, do not have much of a background in the area they are regulating. You see, at the Senior Executive Service level in the federal government, SES personnel are chosen based on a model that has been built (by some consultant), that essentially says “if you hire this type of person you’re hiring a good corporate manager, therefore they will be a good government regulator.” Note: don’t try to follow the logic here, you’ll just get a headache.

This is not to say that government regulators don’t have any experience in the industry they are regulating, it is just not one of the top priorities in hiring. I understand and can already hear what you’re saying, “but how can they know how to apply the regulations when they don’t even understand the basic function of what they are regulating?” Yes, that is one of the many mysteries to life, right up there with UFOs, poltergeists phenomena and why everybody seems to want to keep up with the Kardashian’s. That said, many do a good job regardless (but not all – you know who you are).

How it works is that those of us working in industry are in a never ending process of educating the federal regulators on how the system is supposed to work so that they can apply the regulations. While you may never be in a position to come up with the next big marketing hook, or figure out a federal compliance, we are all in positions where we have to convince people, or educate people in order to do our own jobs and achieve our own outcomes. So how can we make things stick?

One of the simple ways posited by Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck is to keep it Simple! My former boss did not go into long-winded explanations of how the aviation system is supposed to work. She kept it simple. Even the United States Army, knows that when you are going into battle, you have to keep it simple.

“Every move and Army soldier makes is preceded by a staggering amount of planning, which can be traced to an original order from the president of the United States,” Chip and Dan Heath (25).

We’ve all heard that planning is essential and that plans are useless. And in war, plans can be even more useless because the enemy has a vote and it is in direct opposition to your goals and objectives. Unpredictable things happen in war, the weather changes, the helicopter crashes, the enemy does something completely unexpected (Heath 26). Just think about what happened on the rate to get Osama bin Laden. One of the most sophisticated helicopters in the world crashes right into the compound. Or head over to Target on Tuesday to catch the DVD release of “Lone Survivor,” the story of a tragic Navy SEAL mission gone wrong is told by the lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell. Well planned missions don’t always account for a few civilian goat-herders stumbling across your hideout.

Colonel Kolditz the head of behavioral sciences division at West Point says that plans are useful in the sense that they are proof planning has taken place and it forces people to think through the right issues (Heath 26). But plans themselves are essentially useless which is why in the 1980s the Army adapted a planning process called Commanders Intent (CI) (Heath 26).

“At high levels of the Army, the CI may be relatively abstract: “break the will of the enemy in the southeast region.” At the tactical level, for colonels and captains, it is much more concrete: “My intent is to have Third Battalion on Hill 4305, to have the hill cleared of the enemy, with only ineffective remnants remaining, so we can protect the flank of third brigade as they pass through the lines.” (Heath 26).

The CI is never so specific or detailed that it is rendered obsolete by unpredictable events. 

“You can lose the ability to execute the original plan, but you never lose the responsibility of executing the intent, in other words if there’s one soldier left in the Third Battalion on Hill 4305, he better be doing something to protect the flank of the Third Brigade.” (Heath 26).

The Heath’s note that the Army at the Combat Maneuver Training Center, the unit in charge of military simulations, recommends that officers determine the Commanders Intent by asking two questions: if we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must ________, and the single, most important thing we must do tomorrow is ______. (Heath 27). These simple questions can apply to many situations. When I was running an airport, I used a similar phrase with my staff, which was: “What’s our outcome here?”

Something else that often gets in the way of keeping it simple is multiple priorities. I know that life isn’t that simple and that everything can’t be drilled down to a phrase that fits on a bumper sticker. You can’t have five top priorities – in fact, the nature of the word “priority” means literally, the top priority (as in one), not a list of many priorities. I recall the time I was flying a sailplane and realized that without an engine, I can have airspeed or altitude, but I can’t have them both. I had to pick.  But a phrase that solidly captures the essence of a function or a business often can drive many other decisions that are made throughout the organization, in a positive direction that fulfills that purpose.

The purpose of your life or your organization should not be a term paper or an essay question – it should be a short and simple answer.

Whatever your primary focuses, whatever message you are trying to get across will have much more impact that you can drill it down to a Simple phrase or concept, that captures the purpose. In aviation it’s about keeping people and planes moving, safely and securely. What is it about in your industry? What is it about in your life? If you do nothing else today, you must at least do __________. Fill in the blank. What is your priority? What is your intent?

Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck. London: Random House, 2007. Print.

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