The Power of Commander’s Intent

I’ve started listing to the audiobook version of Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. It builds on Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, focusing on what makes a good idea go viral, or stick. Early on they talk about the concept of Commander’s Intent, which is part of military planning. The military likes to plan. But plans don’t survive contact with the enemy, so the commander expresses the clear goal of the plan at the top of every page. This Commander’s Intent must be simple, specific and singular. Namely, it must be the single most-important thing the plan achieves. It must complete the following sentences –

‘If we do nothing else, we must [xxx]’
‘The single, most-important thing that we must do is [xxx]’

Here’s the military definition from the FM 100-5 Staff Organization and Operations manual: The commander’s intent describes the desired end state. It is a concise expression of the purpose of the operation and must be understood two echelons below the issuing commander. . . It is the single unifying focus for all subordinate elements. It is not a summary of the concept of the operation. Its purpose is to focus subordinates on the desired end state. Its utility is to focus subordinates on what has to be accomplished in order to achieve success, even when the plan and concept of operations no longer apply, and to discipline their efforts toward that end.

This premise directly applies to PR. We are no strangers to 90-day timelines and plans. The discipline which comes from thinking through a PR plan yields much greater clarity of communication, tighter integration and better measurement. But often, in the heat of battle, the plans start to get outdated. New priorities take over, launch dates shift, and crises erupt – and soon you are working off plan.

The power of the Commander’s Intent is that it anticipates that the plan will go awry, but it gives guidance to all subsequent unplanned actions. If the new activities do nothing to further the Commander’s Intent, then those activities should be disguarded. This gives flexibility down the structure, empowering each level while keeping them aligned. It also avoids endless scenario and what-if requirements.

The power of this for a PR program is evident. There are lots of ‘nice to haves’ and ad hoc requests in a PR program. Navigating the priorities can be difficult for team members, so having a clear Intent would act as a beacon. In reading the description of the Commander’s Intent, it is also clear that the exercise of creating a single, prioritized and specific goal is very powerful in itself. We are often tasked with multiple goals – but which is the most important? For each of your programs can you complete the simple sentence ‘If we do nothing else, we must [xxx]’?