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Commander's Intent,  A Compass .. Not A Map

May 29, 2019 9:37:43 PM / by Travis Jacobs

the plany plan


Commander's intent is the description & definition of what a successful mission will look like ... 

  1. What is it you want me to do?
  2. Why do you want me to do it?


It is the big picture ..

This is a results based approach .. not a task based approach


It defines the end state

It defines what winning looks like

It defines the destination .. not how to get there


How does your team respond when a plan changes?

Does everyone seem to know what to do or is there confusion, a lack of meaningful activity, or people standing around waiting to be told what to do next?

Planning is difficult whether in business or the military. Military planners use Commander’s Intent, a key element to help a plan maintain relevancy and applicability in a chaotic, dynamic, and resource-constrained environment.


Commanders Intent describes the who, what, when, where, and why .. the 5 W’s .. of how a mission will be executed. It describes how the Commander envisions the battlefield at the conclusion of the mission.  It defines what success looks like.


The 5 Elements

  1. Desired Results
    1. what is the end state
  2. Guidelines
    1. The rules of engagement
      1. what we can & can't do
      2. what we should and shouldn't do
      3. the lines we should never cross
      4. the things we should never do
  3. Resources
    1. people
    2. tools & equipment
    3. financial
  4. Standard of performance
    1. what is the gold standard
    2. the time table of evaluation
  5. Consequences & Benefits
    1. the good & bad consequences
    2. the benefits to the team and the individual


Commander’s Intent fully recognizes the chaos, lack of a complete information picture, changes in enemy situation, and other relevant factors that may make a plan either completely or partially obsolete when it is executed.


The role of Commander’s Intent is to empower subordinates and guide their initiative and improvisation as they adapt the plan to the changed battlefield environment. Commander’s Intent empowers initiative, improvisation, and adaptation by providing guidance of what a successful conclusion looks like. Commander’s Intent is vital in chaotic, demanding, and dynamic environments.


During World War II, the sea and airborne invasion of France on June 6, 1944, otherwise known as D-Day, had been planned for many many months.

British, Canadian, and American airborne forces planned and rehearsed for months as well, a precise series of glider and parachute landings that were designed to secure bridges, road junctions, and other key terrain that would enable the ground invasion forces to advance rapidly inland.

The airborne invasion forces took off from England and months of planning appeared to vanish instantly. Parachute forces dropped into unmarked landing zones, gliders landed in the wrong areas, and thousands of soldiers from different units were mixed together in the night. It appeared that a military disaster had occurred. Yet, only hours later, the original military objectives were bring accomplished by ad-hoc units that faced much fiercer German resistance.

Commander’s Intent had saved the day. Leaders and soldiers at all levels understood that no matter where they landed, they had to form into units and seize the bridges and key terrain. The plan was a failure, but good Commander’s Intent and superior training allowed improvisation and initiative to save the mission.


The key to successful Commander’s Intent is trained, confident, and engaged people. Employees must understand the plan and the WHY behind the plan.

They must understand under what circumstances they should follow the plan and what circumstances they should deviate from the plan and improvise.

People must have the ability & authority to employ a “Spectrum of Improvisation” when they execute Commander’s Intent. 


As they adapt the plan to meet Commander’s Intent, they do not want to change proven standard operating procedures or processes.

At the same time .. if the processes & procedures are no longer relevant & obsolete .. following them will only ensure failure at worst .. a delay at best.

If you find yourself in Los Angeles .. with a map of New York .. following the map will only lead to more chaos .. confusion .. and ultimately failure.

If the terrain changes every hour .. a map is useless


If the standard operating procedure is outdated & obsolete .. following it will lead to failure. 

Allowing your people the freedom and flexibility to adapt and overcome any obstacle in their path is the key to success.


The Dichotomy Of Leadership ..


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Topics: Leadership, Communication, Design, Innovation, Execution, Strategy, Tactics, Team, Winning, Planning, Why, Discipline, ExtremeOwnership

Travis Jacobs

Written by Travis Jacobs

Travis is the president of JA Simulations, a product design & development firm in Denver Colorado. We help clients solve problems & get to market faster with innovative & high quality products

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