‘Commander’s Intent’ for Product Leadership

Organizations may call themselves matrix type. They may say that employees can directly communicate with the CEO, etc. I have realized this is more of a myth than a fact. I am not sure why people say things that they do not mean! Hierarchical organizations somehow gained a negative connotation and it became fashionable for organizations to call themselves matrix type. The truth is that hierarchy does exist. Imagine an organization where everyone in the ‘matrix’ draws the same salary!

I do not want to harp on the structure of organizations in this article. The reason I bring hierarchy in this discussion is for some other purpose. Every organization, every product, every project, etc. require a vision. This vision is usually set at the higher levels of the hierarchy. The organization could have used a bottom-up approach to collect feedback from the lower levels or the ‘Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HIPPO)’ might have prevailed and the vision might have been set just by a few at the top of the hierarchy.

However the vision is set, it is of no use unless it is internalized throughout the organization. For the purpose of this article, I mean product vision when I speak about vision. Ideally, the product vision must lead to an outcomes based product roadmap, which can then further be broken down even to the task level for tracking purposes. Say that an educational technology company has set a product vision for year 2022 that it will make its learning applications interoperable with the learning management systems as per the latest interoperability standards. Now, the entire cross functional teams involved in designing, launching and maintaining these learning applications must internalize this vision into everything they do.

This is where I would like to introduce the concept of ‘Commander’s Intent’. This is borrowed from the U.S Army. I was first introduced to this concept when I read the wonderful book titled ‘Made to Stick‘ by Dan and Chip Heath. I will be writing more about parts of this book in future articles. Plans and vision statements are useful to think through the right issues and set a direction but the Army has realized long back that ‘They just don’t work on the battlefield’. So, in 1980s, the Army invented this concept called ‘Commander’s Intent (CI)’.

CI is a plain statement that appears at the top of every order. It mentions the plan’s goal and the desired end-state of the operation. The beauty of this is that the CI never adds so much details that it becomes obsolete in the face of unpredictable events.

The example that is mentioned in the book by Dan and Chip Heath by a colonel is the following:

At high levels, the CI may be relatively abstract: 'Break the will of the enemy in the Southeast region'.

At the tactical level, for colonels and captains, it is much more concrete: 'My intent is to have Third Battalion on Hill 4305, to have the hill cleared of the enemy, with only ineffective remnants remaining, so we can protect the flank of Third Brigade as they pass through the lines.'

By now, I hope you appreciate the utility of CI and relate it to how product leaders can trickle down the product vision in an organization. What is important is the intent and the details need to be set autonomously at each level of the hierarchy. In our ed tech example, the high level intent was to make the learning offerings interoperable with the learning management systems as per the latest interoperability standards. This at the tactical level of a product manager, managing a product team could be something like ‘My intent is make all our single choice correct multiple choice questions compliant with Question and Test Interoperability (QTI) specification V3.0 defined by IMS Global by the end of this quarter’.

I have seen product leaders across the entire spectrum of quality. Some giggling their time away with no ounce of product mindset and some micromanaging to the extent that they need a particular font type and color! I personally feel that the concept of Commander’s Intent serves the purpose of trickling down the product vision from top to bottom, providing autonomy for all levels to add enough details that are need to make the intent a reality.

I hope you learnt something new from this article. I also want to experiment if this hierarchy of ‘Commander’s Intent’ itself can serve as product roadmap!

You can learn more about CI here straight from the horse’s mouth.

I will see you in another article!

About guptasudhir

Sudhir is a product leader with a decade of experience creating economic value using innovative products and services through a human-centered design process. He has proven experience working with teams of all sizes, from startups to large enterprises. Sudhir has the perfect blend of engineering and managerial skills arising out of his research in computer science around machine learning and image processing and entrepreneurial experience of founding an e-learning company. Find out more on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/product-strategist-sudhir-gupta/ or visit my personal website: https://guptasudhir.com/
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