The importance of intentions in quality planning

Plans are nothing, planning is everything’ General Dwight Eisenhower

Recently, in the strategic planning projects and workshops we’ve been involved in, the term ‘intentions’ has begun to replace the creation of detailed business plans. The ‘intention’ gives you the direction – shows you where you want to end up – so is more flexible that detailed plans; more adaptable that a rigid structure.

The term ‘intention’ has been adapted from the military, under the term ‘commander’s’ or ‘leader’s intent’. This description is adapted from the Harvard Business Review blog November 3rd 2010:

‘Military planners use Commander’s Intent, a key element to help a plan maintain relevancy and applicability in a chaotic, dynamic, and resource-constrained environment.

Commander’s Intent is the description and definition of what a successful mission will look like. Military planning begins with the Mission Statement that describes the who, what, when, where, and why (the 5 Ws) of how a mission will be executed. Commander’s Intent describes how the Commander (read: CEO) envisions the battlefield at the conclusion of the mission. It shows what success looks like. Commander’s Intent fully recognises the chaos, lack of a complete information picture, changes in enemy situation, and other relevant factors that may make a plan either completely or partially obsolete when it is executed. The role of Commander’s Intent is to empower subordinates and guide their initiative and improvisation as they adapt the plan to the changed battlefield environment. Commander’s Intent empowers initiative, improvisation, and adaptation by providing guidance of what a successful conclusion looks like. Commander’s Intent is vital in chaotic, demanding, and dynamic environments.

‘Hypothetical Business Example of CEO Intent: At FedEx, led by Fred Smith (a former U.S. Marine Corps Officer), planning is of vital importance. FedEx operations start at package pickup at customer origins, and then move to the packages entering a large consolidation facility for transport to their destination. Once at destination, packages are unloaded, enter the destination sort facility and are assigned to a driver to go to the final delivery address. This seemingly simple process is extraordinarily complex when you add traffic, weather, customer preferences, cost elements, safety, customs clearance, and package handling requirements. So, when a snowstorm closes the roads between Denver and Kansas City, the FedEx plan must adapt. The FedEx CEO Intent is to get all packages to destination in a safe, damage free, cost effective manner within the shipment period specified by the customer. Therefore, FedEx managers start re-routing drivers from Denver to Oklahoma City, scheduling extra planes in Memphis, getting extra truck trailers at Saint Louis and adapting sort schedules in Kansas City. FedEx uses initiative and improvisation to adapt the plan to meet the CEO Intent of an on time delivery despite the snowstorm. CEO Intent, like military Commander’s Intent, ensures a successful end state as business conditions change.

‘The key to successful Commander’s/ CEO Intent is trained, confident, and engaged military personnel/employees. Employees must understand the plan and when they have to deviate to ensure the Commander’s Intent is accomplished. Military personnel have to employ a ‘Spectrum of Improvisation’ when they execute Commander’s Intent. As they adapt the plan to meet Commander’s Intent, they do not want to change proven processes and other common work techniques that are part of the plan and strengthen operational outcomes. Many times the plan is a source of strength; business leaders need to adapt only the portions of a plan that require adjustment. The Spectrum of Improvisation is to retain processes and systems that support mission excellence and adapt only necessary elements.

‘Steps to grow initiative and improvisation are essential to have an employee base that can execute Commander’s Intent’

Using the intention approach maximises both human skills, and helps whole-system engagement to flourish. It’s far more flexible and adaptable than the more traditional business plan process, because it takes account of the things that happen along the way, and recognises that there are numerous elements over which we don’t have complete control. Such an approach allows for flexibility, clarity of purpose and simplicity.

All plans cease to function in first contact with the enemy’ Moltke

There are a number of points that contribute to quality planning especially in this ever-changing world and support the importance of human skills:

  1. Words like chaotic, incomplete picture and changes make plans obsolete, and the need for plan adjustment populate the Harvard Business Review blog
  2. The need for the human skills of initiative, improvisation, adaptability is recognised
  3. Empowering subordinates to make decisions – not micro-managing – is encouraged

A recent Appreciating People example is in creating the people plan for the Imagine Anfield project. The intention, as agreed by a group of residents and local stakeholders, was APPS: ‘Anfield Proud, Passionate and Strong’. It is a strong intention that is both adaptable and flexible with a clear endgame, plus the capacity and capability for a myriad of programmes and projects that can be created and developed depending on resource availability and within a sound framework. A simple intention that can be understood and acted upon.

Think of your organisation or company: it doesn’t matter whether it’s large or small. Take no more than ten minutes and first think about your intentions – no more than five. Write them down and then talk them through with a couple of friends or colleagues. Following the conversations make any changes and then leave them alone for a month then revisit

  1. What has happened?
  2. How do you feel about it?
  3. Is there clarity and purpose and are they flexible and adaptable?

Example: Appreciating People’s (AP) Intentions
In autumn 2011 – conscious that Appreciating People did not have a full business plan and also aware of some internal resistance to creating a business plan – AP decided to explore the concept of company intentions with a annual review cycle. Previous resistance had raised the view that they were out of date as soon as they were written, so, in a 30 minute think and writing exercise, the following intentions were identified and agreed:


  1. AP would develop its Appreciative Inquiry training work and build a relationship with a university for a certificate in professional development programme and design and develop high quality Appreciative Inquiry training resources
  2. AP would undertake Appreciative Inquiry work internationally
  3. AP would establish locally an Imagine AI project in a community setting
  4. AP would develop its AI hostel programme

No timescales or resources were allocated as it was agreed that delivery could be dependent on circumstances, relationships, opportunity and resource availability. As of Summer 2013 the intentions met are:

  1. The training work has taken place with four AI training programmes delivered, with a CPD certificate, plus five more are in planning. University relationship have been established and two training resources published (Food For Thought – our gratitude journal, and AI essentials), plus two more publications by summer 2014
  2. In December 2012 AP delivered an AI training course in Prague and in July 2014 received approval for Czech Republic, Italy and UK Grundtvig international adult learning project for two years
  3. In December 2012 the Imagine Anfield project with consortia funding started

Lessons learned
Whilst the majority of intentions have been fully met in this two year process, two of them had to be adapted, including the hostel programme – which has been altered to support healthcare in UK prisons – and there is a change in the university relationship. A central learning element has been the regular opportunity to check any new work against the agreed intentions and if they did not fit then they were not undertaken. This has allowed both clarity of purpose, the capacity to develop and evolve and to celebrate success and achievement.

Appreciating People can provide both strategic planning workshops and team planning days. Contact

Tim Slack