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How to Multiply Problem-Solving and Innovation

Applying this single principle will empower your people to act

YOU CAN EMPOWER your followers or employees to develop creative solutions and take initiative more confidently by applying a principle developed by the military called “Commander’s Intent.”

First, what is it? A Commander’s Intent is a single, straightforward, and crystal-clear sentence at the top of a plan that states the purpose and desired outcome of an operation. Chad Storlie calls it a “key element to help a plan maintain relevancy and applicability in a chaotic, dynamic, and resource-constrained environment.”

Why do plans need this aid to “maintain relevance and applicability”? Because a well-known military maxim states, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” You might have devised the most brilliant plan in history, but once the shooting starts that plan is out the window. Soldiers must improvise in real time. Knowing their Commander’s Intent allows soldiers to continue on to accomplish their mission even after the initial plans have become meaningless.

Accomplishing the mission on D-Day

A striking and world-changing example of the power of this principle is the Allied paratrooper campaign to support the invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944, D-Day. In the dark hours before dawn, thousands of paratroopers were to be delivered beyond the beaches to take key positions and create confusion in advance of more than 150,000 soldiers arriving by ship. The plans were literally years in the making, created by brilliant strategists, and specific in their objectives.

There was just one problem. The entire area was blanketed by clouds. Without modern navigating technology, the pilots did not know where they were. They could only make their best guess as to whether they were inland and how far. Because of the cloud cover, they tended to eject the paratroopers either too high or too low. Soldiers landed all over the place: in towns, in forests, even in the midst of the enemy. Those who landed safely began to wander in the dark, with only a clicker simulating a cricket’s chirp to signal with. Units were entirely mixed up, and soldiers often recognized no one they encountered.

In short, the paratrooper mission plan was a complete failure. And yet, within hours, the mission was largely a great success.

How? Because those paratroopers knew their Commander’s Intent: “Form into units and proceed to take bridges and other key locations.” A soldier may not have recognized any of the other twelve or fifteen soldiers he encountered, but the group identified the highest ranking officer among them and proceeded to seize opportunities. The widespread success of the paratroopers played a major factor in the Allies moving off the beaches and quickly pushing into France.

The principle, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy,” states a reality that applies in all realms of life and work. When plans fall apart, followers must typically stop and wait for further orders, causing progress to grind to a halt. Knowing their Commander’s Intent, however, allows people to solve problems, improvise, and continue pursuing the objective. This principle can be applied to the mission of any organization, company, or team.

Commander’s Intent in business

I first encountered this concept in Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, in which they used Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher as an example. Kelleher said,

“I can teach you the secret to running this airline in thirty seconds. This is it: We are THE low-fare airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company’s future as well as I can.”

He went on to give an example. An employee from marketing thinks offering chicken Caesar salad on the Las Vegas flight would be very popular. Kelleher asks, “Will serving chicken Caesar salad make us THE low-fare airline?” No. Then there’s the answer.

Whether or not they have ever heard of the term Commander’s Intent, the best organizations I have observed typically do this. For example, Daryl Flood Relocation and Logistics (agent for Mayflower Transit in Texas and other places) has one of the better corporate cultures I have witnessed, and they have won a long list of national awards for excellence. Since founding the company more than 30 years ago, Daryl has infused his Commander’s Intent into his people. Ask any employee there, “What are the nine most important words?” and you will hear this:

“Satisfy the customer! Satisfy the customer! Satisfy the customer!”

With those words ingrained in people’s minds, employees at every level have a guiding compass and freedom to take action to serve people and fix problems. No wonder they have won all those awards.

Earlier this year, I was asked to do a workshop for the leadership of the Triad HealthCare Network (THN) in Greensboro, North Carolina. This is an Accountable Care Organization in the rapidly evolving world of medicine. THN is on the cutting edge of innovation after only a little more than five years of existence. Chief Administrative Officer Steve Neorr and I strategized on how to help his already excellent team get to the next level. I explained the concept of Commander’s Intent and challenged Steve to articulate his. At the workshop he shared this Commander’s Intent with his team:

“THN exists to lower the cost of care and improve the quality and outcomes of the population we manage.”

If you are unfamiliar with the inner world of medicine, that objective may not seem to be saying much. I assure you, it is! For those in medicine, especially physicians, nurses, and other clinical providers, there has always been strong resistance to talking about medical costs. Those providers are trained to their core to think only of what the patient needs, and they are deeply dedicated to giving it. Discussing dollars is distasteful and definitely does not come naturally.

However, in today’s world of medicine which is changing at warp speed, talking about costs has become a necessity. Insurance rates rise steadily, even as deductibles grow ever larger. More and more medical costs are coming out of patients’ pockets. Doctors who are used to saying easily, “I’d like to order an MRI,” now must consider that the patient might pay $1,200 directly out of their bank account for that test. Is it really necessary? Oncologists (who treat cancer) have developed a new term: “financial toxicity.” It refers to the unintended consequence of a family experiencing financial ruin as a result of incredibly expensive treatments to save someone’s life.

That’s why I applaud Steve’s bold and clear statement to his entire organization that their definition of success must confront costs and keep it in the forefront of their minds while they are offering excellent quality care. It’s not either-or, but both-and.

What you can do

Whether you lead a small team or an entire organization, I believe the concept of Commander’s Intent can help you be more successful beginning the first day you try it.

First, formulate your Commander’s Intent like Herb Kelleher and Steve Neorr above to identify the purpose of your team or organization. What is the bottom-line determiner of success?

Second, use a Commander’s Intent, as Daryl Flood does, to define what behaviors you most want to spread among your people to guide their decision-making.

Finally, use a Commander’s Intent anytime you ask someone to do a project, and for individual delegated tasks. Your employees will understand what outcome is desired and be empowered to act on their own, innovate, and solve problems.

General George S. Patton said it: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they’ll surprise you with their ingenuity.” “Never” telling people how to do things is obviously not to be taken literally, because sometimes "how" definitely matters ─ surgery and flying a plane come to mind. But quite often that philosophy is exactly right. Commander’s Intent shows the way.

Thinking is hard work. It takes real concentrated effort to boil your thoughts down to a concise, crystal-clear statement. Doing so, however, can help you become a better leader today. Li

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