Increase effectiveness of employee decision-making using Commander’s Intent

A woman facing two different paths through rows of corn, as if trying to make a decision of which way to go
“decisions” by Matt Wiebe, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

“Do you need to check with your supervisor before making this change?” the woman on the other end of the phone said, when I asked her to make a last-minute adjustment to a plan due to new circumstances.

“I appreciate you asking. Knowing our leaders, I’m positive they’d be ok the decision and me making it. And, I’ll accept full responsibility for authorizing the change,” I responded gently, knowing her question came from good intentions.

The conversation above demonstrates a big part of my role; I’m often in a position where I have to make decisions or take actions on behalf of the leaders of my organization. What makes me comfortable in doing so is that we have a strong culture of Commander’s Intent.

Commander’s Intent is a military concept where the leader provides the ultimate goal of the orders (intent) along with the actual orders, so if something changes during an operation the military members carrying-out the orders are still able to take action to meet the ultimate goal.  Example: “The intent is to take the beach. Here are your orders on how, but if something changes, adjust according to your training and meet your ultimate goal: take the beach.”

As organizations evolve to include more autonomous employees and roles, Commander’s Intent practices are making their way into offices to adjust to this new dynamic. For the concept to work effectively, however, leaders and team members need to fully understand their roles.

Leader roles

  • Hire autonomous-oriented team members with good judgment who are willing to learn your intentions and act on those.
  • When giving direction and communicating decisions, go beyond just giving the direction and decision, explain why that’s the right decision, what factors played into that decision, and how you made the decision.
  • Over-communicate what’s going on in the organization and why, and document the past heavily. A leader is often able to make good decisions because they have all of the information needed to make that decision. Give your team members as much information as possible so they can be an effective extension of you when making decisions.
  • Be willing to let go of control. Commander’s intent doesn’t work if you’re a micromanager because team members won’t feel they have the ability to make autonomous decisions.
  • Provide feedback gently when a team member makes a decision that you don’t agree with. The goal of this conversation is to further the employee’s learning and understanding. If it comes across as punitive and judgmental, team members will be discouraged from acting in the future.
  • Communicate what rules are “hard” rules and what rules are more flexible. Communicate instances where employees can make decisions on your behalf and when they can’t.

Team member roles

  • Ensure the leaders you work with are on-board with the Commander’s Intent philosophy.
  • Learn the leaders. How do they make decisions? Why do they make the decisions they make? What other leaders do they admire? What books, magazines, and blogs do they read? What are their key principles, no matter what the situation?
  • If the leader doesn’t give you the intent information, ask for it.
  • Recognize when you’re making a decision on behalf of a leader and make that decision based on what the leader would do, not what you would do.
  • Continually keep abreast of the organization’s goals, initiatives, rules, etc. and use these to drive your decision-making.
  • After acting on behalf of the leader, seek feedback. I format this feedback-seeking in the following way: 1) Decision I made 2) What information about the leader I used to make that decision (previous similar decisions they’ve made, information they’ve shared, etc.) 3) Ask for feedback, such as “Is that what you would have done?” and/or “What would you like me to do in the future in a similar situation?” 4) If they would have done something differently, I ask a lot of follow-up questions to learn and refine my decision-making.

With the above in place, you can foster an organizational culture where team members can effectively be an extension of their leaders, which can greatly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization overall.


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