Commander’s Intent

No organization is a better example of command and control than the military. It’s a popular notion that is no longer true. Faced with the volatility and uncertainty of 21st century conflict, armies have turned to self-organization to increase their agility on the ground. The all-powerful, all-knowing, top-down military command of the past is now obsolete. The new model is an example for every organization that has to adapt constantly to cope with a disruptive world.

Coping with New Realities

Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke — also called Moltke the Elder – was Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army from 1857 to 1888. A polymath who spoke seven languages, he loved music, art, and literature. He was a popular author, widely acclaimed for a book recounting travels in Turkey, which he illustrated himself. He translated nine of the twelve volumes of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire into German, although they were never published.

Moltke is known for the famous quote, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” War had become complex and unpredictable, armies had grown much larger, troops were distributed in battle, and no General could assume direct control over an entire fighting force. Junior officers would have to exercise critical thinking and independent judgement to cope with changing realities on the ground. An army could gain the upper hand by taking advantage of chaos, uncertainty, and disorder.

A New Operating Model

Motlke introduced Mission Command (Auftragstaktik) in the Prussian Army, giving officers the freedom to exercise their own initiative, guided by a senior commander’s intent. Directives describing intentions replaced detailed orders. This became the foundation of German military theory after it was practiced with success in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). It was used by the German army to gain strategic advantage in the First and Second World Wars.

Mission Command was adopted by Western armed forces in the 1980s. The US Marines published Warfighting in 1989, a manual that described this new doctrine of war.

“There are two parts to any mission: the task to be accomplished and the reason or intent behind it, The intent is thus a part of every mission. The task describes the action to be taken while the intent describes the purpose of the action. The task denotes what is to be done, and sometimes when and where; the intent explains why. Of the two, the intent is predominant. While a situation may change, making the task obsolete, the intent is more lasting and continues to guide our actions.”

Mission Command continues to evolve. Anthony C. King, chair of War Studies at the University of Warwick, described how in “Mission Command 2.0: From an Individualist to a Collectivist Model” (2017), a paper on Mission Command in the 21st century. The paper recounted how US Major General James Mattis and Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal practiced it in the Iraq War.

Mattis established special relationships with the junior officers under his command to create a unified team. In “Commanding General’s Staff Governance” (2002) he described how commander’s intent should work. “Accused of making subordinate commanders my equal — that is good — I stand guilty. I don’t need to call the plays so long as the plays will gain my endstate/intent. I don’t want subordinates on a string like puppets, but I expect them to energetically carry out my intent.”

Stanley McChrystal wrote in detail about the new kind of organization in his book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement (2015), co-authored with Tantum Collins, David Silverman and Chris Fussell.

“We had to unlearn a great deal of what we thought we knew about how war — and the world — worked,” McChrystal says. “We had to tear down familiar organizational structures and rebuild them along completely different lines, swapping our sturdy architecture for organic fluidity, because it was the only way to confront a rising tide of complex threats.”

A pure Command structure (hierarchy) creates silos, restricts the flow of information, and relies on top-down decision-making. Command of Teams allows for small teams that are not fully autonomous. While these teams have some discretion, they are still constrained within a larger hierarchy. This limits their ability to respond quickly and adapt to rapidly changing situations.

Team of Teams was the organization McChrystal created in Iraq. “We needed to enable a team operating in an interdependent environment to understand the butterfly-effect ramifications of their work,” he says in his book, “and make them aware of the other teams with whom they would have to cooperate in order to achieve strategic – not just tactical success.”

The force was restructured to enable transparent information sharing (shared consciousness), and decentralized decision making (empowered execution). Adaptability was the essential competency. This required a new kind of leadership, very different from the heroic hands-on leader of the past.

McChrystal called this new way of working eyes-on, hands-off. He shifted his focus from being the all-powerful decision maker to nurturing the network. “I found that only the senior leader could drive the operating rhythm, transparency, and cross-functional cooperation we needed,” he said. “I could shape the culture and demand the ongoing conversation that shared consciousness required.”

Radical Interdependence

In a Team of Teams structure people work differently:

  • Leaders communicate the broad strategic direction
  • Self-directed teams assess options and decide on the best approach
  • Plans are adapted as conditions change while staying true to the original intent
  • Leaders provide critical support without getting involved in directing the action

Commander’s intent is based on trust, and confidence that teams can exercise creativity and good judgement. Mission Command 2.0, Anthony King says, “is highly collective. It unites commanders into dense, professional communities, whose members are intimately and constantly attuned to each other’s intentions and situations. Ironically, to increase the tempo and accuracy of decision-making, Mission Command 2.0 involves not the increased independence of subordinate commanders but radical interdependence.”

This doesn’t happen accidentally. It requires strong leadership, trusting relationships, and sustained commitment to deep cultural change. The rewards are significant. When teams take the initiative and coordinate and synchronize their work, an organization becomes exceptionally agile — a game-changing strategic advantage when others move more slowly.

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on collaboration and transformative change. It was first posted on December 12, 2017, on LinkedIn.

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David Forrest

David is the founder of the Integral Strategy Network. He is a writer, futurist, strategist, and facilitator of systemic change.

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