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Commander’s Intent

Moltke was a 19th century Prussian military leader who is called by many the father of modern military warfare and tactics. Though he borrowed ideas from Napoleon, he perfected a tactic known as envelopment, in which an enemy’s vulnerable flanks and rear were attacked while distracting them at their front.

Part of this strategy involved dividing his army into two or more parts which negatively impacted his ability to control and communicate with his forces. As a result, Moltke developed the concept known as Commander’s Intent. Commander’s Intent includes the operations purpose and conditions that define the end state. It links the mission, concept of operations and tasks to subordinate units. The commander describes what a successful mission looks like.

Commander’s Intent assumes no plan will survive the clash with the reality of changing circumstances. Napoleon himself said, “I never plan beyond the first battle.” The concept of Commander’s Intent meant decisions were to be handed down to lower officers, who were in the best position to analyze battle conditions and react to them. Thus, the idea of decentralization was born.

Officers were trained and developed who could be trusted to make decisions based on the situation, but still operate within the confines of the Commander’s Intent. This way of thinking became part of the culture of the German military. It manifested itself in what was called Blitzkrieg. Literally meaning lightning war. Blitzkrieg relies on speed and quick movement to break through enemy lines and envelop enemy forces. Decisions had to be made quickly based on changing conditions. Commander’s Intent empowers quick movement, the same concept currently used by the U.S. military.

Commander’s Intent is perhaps best illustrated in a quote by President Theodore Roosevelt: "The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it."

How would this work in a business case? Let’s look at FedEx, where the planning process is critical and vitally important. FedEx operations starts with the package pickup. The package then moves to large, consolidated facilities for sort and transport via either truck or plane, then to their delivery station. Once there, packages are sorted into smaller trucks and delivered. This process, seemingly simple, is quite complex when you factor in all the variables such as weather, traffic and natural disasters. For example, when a snowstorm closes the road between Denver and Kansas City, the FedEx plan must adapt. The FedEx CEO's Intent is to get all packages to the end customer in a safe, damage free, cost effective and on-time basis.

I have personally observed, and been astounded, by how FedEx reacts to a problem. Deep within the bowels of FedEx is a small team called the Global Operations Group. This group has tremendous authority to react to the circumstances caused by the snowstorm. They can reroute trucks, add planes, adjust sort schedules in Kansas City and Memphis, etc. They are responsible for operating the airline and minimizing the damage caused by the circumstances. It is an amazing thing to watch. FedEx uses initiative and improvisation to adapt the plan to meet the CEO Intent of an on-time delivery despite the snowstorm.

Every great organization has learned how to increase the speed at which they can make decisions and execute. How can we respond quicker to the inevitable changing circumstances that confront us? There are two answers to this question:

1) There must be a clear, concise and unambiguous description of the mission or Commander’s Intent. This description does not describe to employees how to do something, but instead conveys what success should look like.

2) There also must be a workforce of competent, trustworthy people who are fully engaged in executing the Commander’s Intent. This workforce must be empowered to act and use their own initiative and creativity to reach the original plan.


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