Brexit. Trump. These headline-grabbing events are symbolic of the complex, faster-paced times we live in. The rise of Facebook, the emergence of Google and the arrival of smartphones over the past two decades have certainly shaped this, representing momentous shifts in how we communicate and access information. These waves of change bring great excitement for most, but also wash up great unease in many. Because it is this very progress that complicates the work of government and business, forcing us to change and adapt more frequently and faster than ever.
When thinking about this challenging landscape, I often draw parallels with the time I spent in Afghanistan. Of course, the realities were very different in that conflict-ridden country to what we experience in our professional lives, but there are some similarities between the complex circumstances faced in both. The conflict in Afghanistan has been fueled by an array of factors, which have at times been unclear and difficult to unravel, similar to many of the problems faced by modern government and business. In both environments the context is constantly changing, evolving day-to-day, minute-to-minute. Obvious or definitive solutions don’t exist, just a set of options that aren’t necessarily right or wrong but instead just better or worse, with tradeoffs and unintended consequences ever-present.
Strikingly, it was the US Military’s response to such circumstances that resonated with me as being relevant to modern professional life. It is easy to think of the US Military as a machine fed by detailed military planning. However, in close proximity, it has a tremendous ability to quickly change and adapt in response to the fast-moving and complex battlefields it faces. This ability is captured in what is known as Commander’s Intent.
Commander’s Intent sets out the outcome that the commander hopes to achieve by the end of the battle, and sits on top of every order. The rest of the order sets out how this should be achieved. However, in the chaotic, dynamic and incredibly complex environment of Afghanistan, it was recognised that the ‘how’ rarely survived contact with the enemy. This is where Commander’s Intent comes into play, as it tells soldiers what success looks like, empowering them to rapidly adapt using real-time insight from the battlefield. It also allows them space to learn what works through short bursts of action, with each burst moving them closer to the desired outcome. Having seen Commander’s Intent in action, I have come to recognise it as a great illustration of how an organisation as large and multifaceted as the US Military, can maintain stability and cohesion, while remaining agile in a fast-moving and complex landscape.
Now compare the US Military’s response to the dynamic and complex circumstances of Afghanistan to how organisations often attempt to transform themselves – you will see a stark contrast. Transformations are often driven top-down, without meaningful engagement of the 'rank and file’ despite their proximity to the ‘battlefield’ and the real-time insights they can offer. Large amounts of time are spent on upfront analysis and planning – investments that end up limiting the space for adaptation and experimentation because of the certainty the resulting plans are assumed to behold. This leaves transformation programmes ill-prepared to respond to feedback on what’s working and what isn’t from those on the frontline, with deviations from the plan heavily controlled and progress along the Gantt chart masquerading itself as success, without actually moving the organisation any closer to the outcome.
Sound familiar? Then you’ll also understand this approach fails to fully realise the benefits of a transformation, which you pay for in your employee and customer experiences and bottom-line accounting. There are four simple lessons we can derive from the concept and practice of Commander’s Intent that can help you realise the benefits of your transformation.
In the fast-moving and complex landscapes we live in, success doesn’t lie squarely with your ability to execute a plan. Much greater strength is drawn from your ability to adapt and maintain momentum towards the intent. Too often, transformation programs get caught up in the planned pathway, losing sight of the outcome and the many strategies that can get you there. This leads many to resist change, in order to realise the plan they played a part in developing, rather than the transformation itself.
Successful transformations pivot their strategies to keep delivering their underlying intent. The US soldiers on the ground, facing combatants with their triggers held tight, focused on the outcome amongst the havoc and disruption, ensuring that in the chaos they kept moving and adapting within the parameters set by the Commander’s Intent. Transformations need to maintain a similar focus, using their intent to shape parameters for adaptation to ensure that any pivot continues to drive the organisation towards the desired outcome. In my experience, such parameters are a source of calm in the disruption transformations bring, providing unity of purpose and boundaries that help employees overcome the challenges they face.
Having the ability to adapt doesn’t mean plans have no value. Plans help prepare for the journey and the various challenges and struggles it will bring. The US military still makes plans, even though they know they are unlikely to survive contact with the enemy. They plan because it means when troops step onto the battlefield, they understand the conditions, know the geography and are familiar with the population. This helps them adapt because they understand what success looks like and are prepared for the possibilities, thereby enabling the great agility I saw in my time in Afghanistan.
Placing too much emphasis on the original plan and upfront analysis, though, won’t get you where you need to go. There is always incomplete information. The context and enemy situation is always fluid. And there are always a complex array of factors influencing the unpredictable twists and turns you’ll encounter. So the further you plan ahead, the more uncertainty you can expect.
To deal with uncertainty, it's better to see planning as an iterative and rapid process, where transformations consist of many small steps, rather than one big one. Each small step gives you a chance to weed out bad ideas and build on those that are successful. This allows you to test what brings success, with the results informing the next cycle of action. This is akin to placing small, regular bets on what will transform your organisation, with each bet teaching you something that will increase your winnings over time. Compare this to other transformations you see, and you’ll probably notice much larger bets gambled, much less frequently. Which do you think carries the greater risk?
Transformations are, by their very nature, ambitious. And this ambition often comes with a desire to improve everything. But as the smoke billows and the walls fall in the midst of your transformation, you’ve got to continually prioritise the critical next steps that keep you moving forward. Short adaptive cycles of action enable this, with naturally occuring prioritisation spaces opening up after each burst of action, where you decide the next crucial move to take.
What must happen now to ensure progress? What should happen, but could perhaps wait? What could happen, but is less important to the outcome right now? What shouldn’t happen this time, because it’s just a nice to have? These are the questions you should keep asking yourself through each adaptive cycle, focusing at least 60% of your effort at any given time on the things that must happen to keep you moving towards the outcome.
Your employees are on the frontline of your transformation, having to live and breathe the changes it brings. So while your destination might be marked on your transformation plan and your location noted in a progress report, most of the people who propel you towards the transformational outcome are out there doing the hard yards. This position on the frontline gives them valuable insight that can gear your transformation for success.
Harnessing this insight, however, isn’t simply about extracting it from your employees. It's about empowering them to harness it themselves and trusting them to use their initiative to improvise and adapt the transformation in their field of view. This is exactly how the US Military uses it, freeing up troops to use their experience on the frontline to adapt to the chaotic and demanding environments they find themselves in, as long as it delivers on the intent.
This aligns with the emerging expectations of employees, who are increasingly energised by more open, collaborative and purpose-driven engagement. They are no longer willing to blindly follow you in top-down change. They don’t want to be sold change. They are looking to join in and contribute to the journey. Empowering them, therefore, can unleash a vast amount of human energy – energy that can power your transformation.
The fast-moving and complex landscape governments and business must now contend with mean that many must transform more often and faster than ever before. But many transformative efforts are unable to cope with the very complexity they are contending with, and employ ways to control and drive change that are unsuited to the times we live in. If they are to survive and thrive, a better way must be adopted – a way that maintains stability and cohesion in the disruption that transformations bring, while remaining agile so strategies pivot in response to real-time feedback, to deliver the underlying intent. Commander’s Intent offers a concept that can help you do this, by allowing you to balance the need for certainty with the need for much greater agility.
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Published on 29 September 2017.
Written by Arthur Mellors during his time as a Director at Nous Group.