“What Has to Be Accomplished”

This is the fifth in a week-long series of articles about plans and planning, collected as Planning Week.

The U.S. military (and various other armed forces) has the concept of Commander’s Intent. Any (battle) plan needs to be accompanied by the Commander’s Intent, which is summed up by these three points:

  • “A concise expression of the purpose of the operation.”
  • “Must be understood two echelons below the issuing commander.”
  • “Focus subordinates on what has to be accomplished even when the plan and concept of operations no longer apply.”

Note how these three statements provide an action plan for the issues I’ve been writing about all week:

  • “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” — even when the plan no longer applies.
  • “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” — what has to be accomplished
  • “The map is not the terrain” — concise expression of the purpose
  • “Vision/people/get out of their way” — understood two echelons below

Planning Error #5: Lack of a Clear Commander’s Intent Leads to Failure

Every project needs a Commander’s Intent.

It need not be formal. It need not even be stated as such (though I leave an optional place for it in my project charter template). But the team needs to know it.

Why are we doing this project? What is the customer’s (client’s) goal? What does success look like?

Not the “how.” Not even the “what.” But the “why.” The goal. The intent.

When stuff goes bad — and stuff will go bad — the team needs to understand the right thing to do in changed circumstances.

You cannot plan to a sufficient level of detail in a reasonable amount of time.1 Lacking a detail, the team will make it up.

That’s human nature. And in a fast-moving business, it’s essential.

Your goal is to have them “make it up” more or less in synch with the way you’d “make it up” if confronted with the lacuna. If the team knows the Commander’s Intent, their ability to “make it up” in a manner useful to the project is greatly enhanced.

That gets back to the “have a clear vision” part of yesterday’s management mantra. A clear vision, backed by a shared understanding of the goal, the Commander’s Intent, is the compass that will guide the team when they discover yet again that the map is not the terrain, that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, that the plans themselves are useless.

Have a clear vision.

It’s up to you to find smart, committed people — and to encourage that commitment. (Luckily, legal is a profession where smart people abound, and they are by nature willing to commit in the right environment.)

Now, finally, fulfill the third part of the mantra. You’ve put together the right team, given them direction.

Get out of their way.

Because nothing screws up a good plan as much as the planner trying to micromanage it!

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1Given sufficient time, you can get pretty close to a one-to-one correspondence between plan and terrain. The aerospace industry, for example, strives for this level of planning. We can wait a decade for a new plane to emerge because our very lives depend on it staying aloft and in once piece. Few legal matters have the luxury of this kind of timeframe — or the billions of dollars it takes to support it. (Or the near-total control over the inner environment and the deep understanding of the outer environment. You can control everything inside the fuselage, and we have a pretty refined understanding of the atmospheric conditions outside it. Do you really control everything on a case… let alone the outer environment of opposing parties?)

2 comments to “What Has to Be Accomplished”

  • Steven:

    Great blog. We’d like to use your Legal Project Management book for our online, live video, interactive Project Management course starting December 15th.

  • Steven B. Levy

    Thanks, Chere. I’m impressed with the work you’re doing at OLP, and I’m honored that you’ll be using my book for the course.