‘Intent’ To Adapt

“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”  -Dwight Eisenhower

We now live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. A world that has often found itself reeling in confusion from the rising complexity that surrounds and seeps into our personal and organizational lives. Dealing with this VUCA world requires a tremendous cognitive shift from a focus on sustainability to one of adaptability.

It is no longer just a matter of being willing to change, but the agility to shift, pivot and change course as new data and information makes itself more available.  

Which has shown itself to be a very difficult proposition for many of our hierarchical, command and control, and often methodical, predictable, linear organizations that find themselves entrenched in forcing rigid structures and implementing deeply-defined processes.

We often find ourselves so steeped in creating and controlling the path, that we lose sight of the goal and destination.

Our world has shifted from one of ‘technical’ problems to one of ‘adaptive’ challenges, which necessitates engaging all levels of the organization in the learning and knowledge that promotes people to act with much more insight and autonomy. Autonomy that is grounded in a deep understanding to the outcome and end goal, while acknowledging the need to modify and adapt when necessary and needed to better carry the organization to that destination.

An outcome that the Army has termed ‘commanders intent’.

An ‘intent’ which Pascale, Millemann and Gioja refer to in Surfing The Edge Of Chaos as, “Under this construct, combat units are encouraged to improvise and initiate, but always within the larger structure of the Commander’s Intent. When that intent is clearly communicated, fighting units can exploit opportunities that arise, or regroup when things don’t go exactly as planned.”

For which they add, “If this information is properly managed, soldiers on the front lines are able to make decisions in real time. Given the right tools, they can exploit opportunities and improvise in highly advantageous ways. This competitive advantage is squandered if one conforms to the traditional Army doctrine of first running all decisions past headquarters.”

The problem with many organizations, is that we refuse the autonomy for those on the front lines to make the necessary decisions to adapt in functional, positive ways, and yet, the ‘commander’s intent’ is neither explicitly shared or known by those doing the front line work.

Inability to clearly provide ‘commander’s intent’ while withholding autonomy not only inhibits individuals and organizations from taking advantage of adaptive situations that allow the organization and individuals to grow in positive ways, it ultimately diminishes the collective capacity of the whole.

As General Gordon R. Sullivan shares in Surfing The Edge of Chaos, “The competitive advantage is nullified when you try to run decisions up and down the chain of command. Once the commander’s intent is understood, decisions must be devolved to the lowest possible level to allow these frontline soldiers to exploit the opportunities that develop.”

In today’s VUCA world, the more we equip our people to better adapt to the challenges and problems that they face in real time, the greater the organization functions at all levels, increasing the collective intelligence, wisdom and capacity of each individual and the organization as a whole.

Or as Chad Storlie shares in Harvard Business Review, “Good Commander’s Intent allows employees and teams to adapt the plan using improvisation, initiative, and adaptation to reach the original plan objectives.”

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