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Executing in Disruptive Environments

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face” – Mike Tyson

 

I was recently re-reading Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath (Random House, 2007) and was reminded about a management method called “the Commanders Intent” and how the US military uses this method to help its field level officers manage their tactics while in the thick of their operations.  So much of the basic concepts discussed by Chip and Dan resonated with me that I decided to investigate this management approach and how it could be applied to the non-military world.

The Disruption Economy

First, we need to take pause and look around at what’s going on in the market.  The streets are littered with blood as the carcasses of broken companies pile up.  Long established titans of industry form part of the bankruptcy or restructuring revolution alongside their start-up brethren.   This carnage is caused by the disruptive forces of new and renewed players and their ability to effectively execute their strategic objectives.  In this new Disruption Economy, constant change is the new norm.

Thriving in Disruption

If you’ve got any military experience, then the market description above does not sound dramatically different than what the soldier and commander experience on the battlefield.  During any skirmish, the platoon or fighting brigade only have its present resources on hand to engage and overcome the enemy and attain its objective.  If, they’re lucky, the platoon can call on additional resources like artillery or air support but, with the exception of such resources, these infantry are left to their own creative and problem solving skills.   In the middle of a firefight, there is no micromanagement, only planned and unplanned response.

Commanders Intent: Your survival weapon

The “Commanders Intent” method was widely adopted by the US Army Corp in the late 1800s after observations from the Prussian armies of the day by General Sherman and US military strategists Eben Swift and Arthur Wagner.  The latter pair spent much of their academic careers defining the meaning of the Intent doctrine and its development into mission order frameworks.   While the mission order or statement of each campaign includes the 5 W’s of the activity (who, what, where, when, why), the Commanders Intent is focused on the operational viewpoint as to what the battlefield is envisioned to look like after the battle has ended.  So, just like in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Commanders Intent is beginning to plan with the end in mind.   Most importantly, it is a top-down view as to how a specific leader views success when the battle is over or, in commercial terms, when the market has achieved full adoption or acceptance.

However, Commanders Intent is not a micromanagement method.  To the contrary, once subordinate leaders or team members understand the definition of success from their superiors’ viewpoint, they are free to determine how they will attain those objectives given the specific constraints or risks faced in the market.  Thus this management method, when properly executed, acts as a bridge between the mission objective and the actual day-to-day concept of operations.  In a chaotic, dynamic and unstable environment, the Commanders Intent approach may be the only way to ensure that your strategy is executed effectively.

Planning Operations In Disruption

In order for you and your team to maintain its focus while it’s being battered about by the market, there needs to be a concise operating plan.  The US Army, calls this plan the Concept of Operations and it’s intended to generally describe how to translate the Commanders’ Intent into day-to-day activities.  Unlike the Commanders Intent, which is broad in scope, the Concept of Operations is tailored for each operating team that’s in the field and is based on a number of criteria.  In the same battle, or market, there can be multiple operating plans depending on the specific nature of the team.  However, at its core, the Concept of Operations for each team has to relate back to the core mission, values and purpose of the activity.

The key elements of the Concept of Operations are:

  1. The assignment and acceptance of task and Key Performance Indicators to subordinate groups;
  2. The coordination measures and systems between multi-functional teams (think: marketing, finance, sales, production, logistics, hr, etc.); and
  3. The control measures as to how data is going to flow between each of these groups and throughout the organization.

With these key elements in place, each team member knows the end objective (mission), how success will be measured (KPIs), their level of responsibility with other teams (coordination) and what, when and how to report results (flow of data).  Sounds simple, no?  Not exactly, in addition to the Concept of Operations framework described above, leaders need to plan and be decisive as to how team members will act when engaging with each other in the market.  In particular, they must include frameworks on the following:

  1. Decision making process
  2. Resource allocation procedures
  3. Risk measurement and mitigation

By clearly outlining how decisions are going to be made and who bears the responsibility for certain types of decisions, teams and their members know the rules of engagement before they begin their work each day.  This clear line of site ensures that team members are able to make decisions so long as they meet the intent and mission according to their ability.

Resources are limited in every skirmish and market engagement, but again, if each team member knows how they can obtain access to their resources so as to further the intent, then each is empowered to do so.

Both leaders and team members need to honest in their assessment of the level of risk associated with a specific element of the operation as well as their ability to mitigate such risks during the campaign. 

Operating through Disruption

As stated above, Mike Tyson, famously, said, “Everyone has a plan, until they get hit in the mouth.”  The Concept of Operations provides the framework for how you and your team are going to behave and act with each other while engaging in the market.   However the market will develop its own ideas as to how you’ll be required to engage with it so you’ll need to operate accordingly. 

Fortunately, by following the Commanders Intent as the framework, your teams will know both the main and support efforts required to meet your deliverables even if these efforts change during the course of time.  More importantly, your front line managers and leaders will have the flexibility and framework so as to adapt to the market as it churns through your operations.

In addition, your ability to maintain clear communication between yourselves will be challenged by market factors.  With the Commanders Intent framework, each team member will clearly understand the intent of the plan and how each task and purpose relates to other team members.  Subordinate leaders will be able to exercise disciplined initiative in the face of changing conditions or when the scheme of a maneuver no longer applies.

Getting into the Fight

So if you’ve made it here, you’ve got a good understanding of the basic theory of how the Commanders Intent framework helps manage in disruptive or chaotic environments.  Let’s talk about how to implement this framework in your organization.

  1. Create a clear top-down line of site communication plan – while it might not be politically correct to describe that a communication plan should be top-down focused, the Commanders Intent method is not defined by a command and control approach. Instead, each team member should have clear visibility as to what and to whom to report to throughout the organization.  So, for example, a support person knows who to talk to about customer billing problems.
  2. Provide detailed operational data flow on an as needed basis – when you’re small, everyone knows everything that’s going on throughout the organization, but as you grow and complexity increases, it’s not of value for each team member to know everything about the organization. It is important to know who are the key information holders on various operational matters; so the HR head should know everything about the HR function, the Sales leader should know everything about the sales function etc.
  3. Simulation ensures success – don’t try anything with the market or potential customers without having simulated your actions in advance. For sales this means role playing of calls and events, for development/production this means quality assurance and testing before moving to finished products.
  4. Start with small risks – encourage risk-taking amongst your teams, but take risks in small batches as a way to mitigate any potential negative impacts to your operations. As each small experiment succeeds, you can then scale the actions into the larger operation.
  5. Encourage Continuous learning – by creating a culture where your teams have the ability to be continually learning, then they’ll be able to develop the improvisational skills necessary to adapt to the market. Further, if you document these actions you’ll be able to systematize these actions for future use through a series of best practice or playbook documents.   

IS IT WORTH IT?

So should you use the Commanders Intent method as your strategy execution approach?  It depends on your organization’s needs and the nature of your market.  While the Commanders Intent method is a driven from the top-down, it’s a collaborative approach that incorporates the context of each market interaction within the scope of the team’s overarching objectives and allows for field level modifications to achieve those objectives.  If your priority market is evolving rapidly and you’re running a large team within the same function (eg. Logistics) or teams comprising of multiple functions then this approach will most surely work for you.  However, like all systems it will take time to create the framework, assign the responsibilities to the appropriate parties and communicate the intent and concept of operations to your team. 

 

Sources:

  1. Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath, Random House, (2007).
  2. Commanders Intent and Concept of Operations, Dempsey, R. and Chavous, J., Military Review (November 2013), pp 59 – 66.
  3. Managing Uncertainty with Commanders Intent, Storlie, C., Harvard Business Review (November 3, 2010), hbr.org
  4. Commanders Intent: Its Evolution in the United States Army, Patterson, J., School of Advanced Military Studies (November 1995), pp 1-11.