Communicating Intent

Remember Commander’s Intent? Basically: a nugget of communicable strategy that helps a team make effective decisions in the face of changing conditions. It’s primarily a military thing, but since we use words like “campaign” a lot (whatup, Cannes?) I think we’re allowed to continue our appropriation of their material.

Here’s a great paper about the communication of intent in distributed Command and Control (C2) systems. The central finding: in general, local commanders were able to replicate their bosses’ intent around a third of the time. The test ran through 32 simulations, where Battalion Commanders gave Company Commanders clear plans for the Company’s response to a scenario, inclusive of their Intent. The Commanders were then separated, and were provided identical disruptions to the scenario. The Commanders were asked to articulate their response, and then the Battalion Commanders reviewed their subordinate’s response to determine alignment. And in 11 of the scenarios the responses matched.

That’s pretty interesting.

Even more interesting: the conclusions, which I’ve posted below.

Van Creveld (1985) states “Confronted with a task and having less information available than is needed to perform that task, an organization may react in either of two ways. One is to increase the information-processing capacity, the other to design the organization, and indeed the task itself, in such a way as to enable it to operate on the basis of less information. These approaches are exhaustive; no others are conceivable.”

Those who design distributed supervisory control systems must choose one of the two alternatives proposed by Van Creveld. Advocates of technology- based solutions will undoubtedly seek to increase the information-processing capacity of an organization. The logic is that if they increase the ability to process information, they will reduce the amount of uncertainty. Less uncertainty will result in better (and probably more centralized) control of the system.

Uncertainty, however, is not so much a function of information-processing capacity as it is the ability of the designer to predict and identify all conceivable states of the system. But as stated earlier, highly-coupled, complex, distributed systems will often confront remote supervisors and local actors with unanticipated states. Designing distributed supervisory control systems with the ability to function with less information requires that local actors have a variety of responses at their disposal and the authority to implement them at their discretion. The process of imparting supervisor presence through the communication of intent is essential and worthy of further investigation.

Related: my earlier post on systems, strategy and durability.

Takeaway: to deal with uncertainty, increase the information-processing capacity of the organization, and design it to operate effectively with fewer inputs.

NB: even though C2 may be fading as a concept in the corporate world, even in Holacratic organizations there are local actors (circles) and central supervisors (dehumanized and replaced with a guiding vision).

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