Recently a client was telling me about a frustrating conversation with a team member. “He just doesn’t seem to know what he should be doing,” she told me. I paused.
“Have you communicated your ‘Commander’s Intent’?” I asked.
“I believe so. We had a meeting last week and I went through the objectives my boss had laid out for us.” She waited a beat and continued, “But I have to say, I think the term ‘Commander’s Intent’ is jargony and unclear. What exactly do you mean by it and how do I know if I’m doing it right?”
“That’s a great question!” I told her. “And the answer is to ask more questions!”
Thinking that this client probably isn’t the only one out there pondering whether they’ve communicated to their team effectively, I thought I’d share some of our conversation and what we discussed.
Three Key Elements of Communicating Your Commander’s Intent
When you meet with your team, make sure to share:
- The “Why” of the “mission,” task or project: Why is this our objective? Why do we need to take on this mission?
- The “What” of the “mission,” task, or project: What needs to be done? What key events must occur in order for us to identify the mission as successful? and
- The “When” of the “mission,” task or project: By what date or timeline must this be achieved?
The goal is that the group leaves the meeting clear on the “Commander’s Intent” so that everyone moves ahead aligned on the mission. Then, no matter what gets thrown at the team, they can continue with the Why, What, When objectives in mind.
I covered the importance of communicating Commander’s Intent in Chapter 6 of my book The Hot Sauce Principle and I’ve expanded on what that means in my previous post Are You Communicating Your “Commander’s Intent”? How to Keep Your Team Moving Forward in a VUCA World. But, like my frustrated client, how do you know if you’ve done so successfully?
The easy answer is: just ask. I know it sounds like I’m over-simplifying, but, really! Right after you’ve laid out the why/what/when, ask the group or team member, “So, tell me what you heard me say?” or “Play back to me what you just heard.” This allows you to determine if your audience got all the important points. Did they actually comprehend all the key components? Also, it allows you to determine how well you communicated. If everyone seems to miss the same major point in what you were trying to say, it may signal to you that you’re not communicating effectively. What might you need to tweak to make your message more clear?
If you’re afraid the first question I’ve offered might come off as patronizing to your audience, you might ask a question like this instead: “Based on what you just heard me say, what do you see as the next steps?” “Or what actions do you plan on taking next, and by when?” The benefits of this tactic are that you know how your team plans to move forward and it ensures accountability. When they respond, it’s apparent the listener understood and is able to turn your objectives into action.
A third question to ask some time after the commander’s intent conversation (maybe a week or so later) would go something like, “Tell me what your priorities are this week?” This is a check-in question to ensure your direct reports’ priorities and your message are still aligned. Are they still working on the items you discussed in that initial meeting? Why or why not?
Need a Bonus Question?
Once you feel like your team has a good understanding of your Commander’s Intent, you can follow up with something like, “What resources do you need from me?” or “How can I support you?” Note that it’s better to ask these questions only after you’re sure your audience understands the mission. Otherwise, you run the risk that your team will give a “No, I’m good” response and then disappear. You’ll think they’re working, but they may be distracted by some other project or task! The goal in asking this question is that it demonstrates that you are, in fact, on their team and willing to help. Also, it requires them to consider what resources they need to accomplish their goals. Do they need more data? More people? Put them in the driver seat to determine how to achieve the goals.
The beauty of this type of communication is that it can be used with just about any audience – at work or at home. For example, my wife and I recently had to communicate a Co-Commander’s Intent with one of our kids, when it came to our attention that he hadn’t completed several assignments for school. We let him know that because we consider school to be his primary job (Why) he had a mission to get his missing work done (What) within two weeks (When). We did NOT tell him HOW to get those assignments done. While it would have been nice to schedule for him how he was going to spend all his waking hours over the next weeks to get his tasks done, instead, I asked, “So, after hearing us, what are your plans for the remainder of the week?” When he was able to respond with a clear strategy, I knew he’d heard us (taking away the keys to the car has a particularly good effect on clarifying mission statements) and knowing he’d developed the plan on his own terms provided him with agency and accountability to the goal.
See, that’s not too jargony, right? And you can figure out whether you’re doing it right just by asking a few simple questions. So, ask away! I’d love to hear what you learn – let me know in the comments below. If you’d like more strategies for addressing the urgency in your life, I hope you’ll check out my book. I’ve written it as a practical guide to dealing with the everyday challenges of workplace communication and boundaries.