Self organizing teams and the commander’s intent


When I research different approaches to leadership and organization I feel very drawn to professions where the wanted outcome is not cash, as in the world of business, but saved lives. While business people play around with other peoples’ money, there’s real people out there, getting real work done. Work that matters. For this reason I find it extremely valuable to look into how, for instance, military units operate. Or the police. Or people within the medical professions. Or take a look at how airline pilots are trained to operate in the cockpit. Simply put: when these people plan and execute operations, there’s no room for error. If there’s a snafu, people will die. That’s quite the incentive for continuous improvement, and of course “reality based” MO’s. Any process or procedure that doesn’t work is discarded and replaced with something better.

Take for instance a squad of Marines. The team is at the front line, they are there when it happens, they are at the scene. And when reality hits and renders most plans completely useless, (as Carl von Clausewitz, the famous strategist who wrote the classic “On War” is noted to have said: no plans survive contact with the battlefield [UPDATE: Now I hear that it’s actually a quote from Helmuth von Moltke the Elder who was inspired by Clausewitz]), they still manage to adapt and overcome and get the job done. We can only hope for this outcome if the teams have the capacity to solve the problems they encounter themselves, without the involvement of others. This means that we need a combination of generalists, people who understand the basics of many things, and experts, that excel in one area. In other words: we have cross disciplined teams, and with the right team assembly, we have a shot at success. The team also has to be self organizing. There is no room for delays, and waiting for directions from a HQ somewhere is sure to slow things down. People at the HQ are not in a position to assess the situation nearly as well as the people at the scene. We need local initiative.

So we have cross disciplined, self organizing teams. That’s a great start. But how can we be sure that this team will work towards the correct goal?
To accomplish this the self organized teams need to understand the wanted outcome of the system in which they operate. One useful method borrowed from the military is the one of “Commanders Intent”. One can find a definition of Commander’s Intent here. It reads like this:

“A concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired end state that serves as the initial impetus for the planning process. It may also include the commander’s assessment of the adversary commander’s intent and an assessment of where and how much risk is acceptable during the operation”.

Here they talk about “the desired end state”. This is synonymous to what I throughout this blog have called the end game of things (and what Goldratt calls Global Goals). It’s about pin pointing the wanted outcome of any system. In other words, this is a question of understanding the whole picture. Take for instance the Lean method of asking “the five why’s”, i.e. five questions asked in order to discover root causes of problems. One might express this in terms of curing the disease instead of curing the symptoms. Curing symptoms are temporary solutions. Even with the fix, the system is still broken. Anyone who enjoys “House M.D” should be able to grasp this. Obviously, asking the many “why’s” is also a good practice for understanding the scope of possibilities, not just the scope of problems.

I believe it wise to have what the Poppendieck’s call a “framework” for proceeding – as plans will be subject to change as learning occurs, frameworks provide a space for this learning to occur. Basically this means that instead of getting upset when work fails to happen as planned (and it always does), you build this change into you work and embrace it as a learning possibility.

We enable and empower teams so that they can make even high end decisions themselves. We trust them. No need to involve a massive amount of people with MBA’s who are severely confused whenever they are forced to stray more than five feet from a spreadsheet.

To conclude: What we want is self organizing, cross disciplined teams with a good understanding of the whole system and what it is we want to achieve. Armed with the commander’s intent and a healthy level of trust, we are sure to succeed.

Note: I first read about the concept of “commanders intent” at the excellent Target Process blog here.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *