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An introduction to 'leading with intent'

The challenge

Most hierarchical organisations still have management practices dating back to the factory line of the late 19th century. Team members (or workers/subordinates) send information up to their line manager (boss/senior) who then makes a decision which is then actioned by the team. This standard flow is shown in the figure below:

This process was suited to the early factories where workers were typically uneducated and tasks low-skilled. Management typically had more experience and could make good decisions.

It was also suited to the factory which had a finite problem set: although plentiful and complicated, all variables on the factory line were knowable. Taylor’s ‘Scientific Management’ approach (the idea of there being one right way to do things), with a drive to ultra efficiency, was understandable.

The same approach is used in management structures today. But the environment most organisations face is not the complicated factory line. It’s the modern world which is often characterised as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). The variables businesses interact with on a daily basis are so numerous that second and third order effects of actions are exponential. This is a complex environment: one cannot know all the variables.

Holding decisions at various levels of management creates unnecessary friction and an inability to move at the pace required in the modern landscape. Teams feel disengaged if having to continuously escalate decisions and, in larger organisations, fear of failure often leads to decisions being escalated far higher than necessary adding delay and missed opportunity.

So it is clear we need to delegate decisions. In 1958, Tannenbaum and Schmidt created their leadership continuum shown below, where managers, ideally, progress with employees to the right of the model.

The ‘sweet spot’ is sat between delegation and abdication: providing maximum autonomy while maintaining alignment. But how can we do that? We've all experienced managers who delegate but continue to micromanage, or those who abdicate responsibility completely leaving our efforts unsupported and potentially misaligned to the wider organisation. So how can we push decisions down, maximising autonomy but maintaining alignment? By leading with intent.

Leading with intent

When providing direction to our team we explain the effect we want them to achieve and why. We do not tell them specifically what to do or how.

The effect is the overall direction we want to move in and desired end state. Explaining why is critical: it ties their efforts to wider organisational activity and forms context. By avoiding telling our team specifically what to do and how, we drive ownership down to them: they need to figure action out for themselves. By doing this, we invert the previous model, as shown below:

As leaders, we send information down to our teams. This includes:

  • Our intent: the effect we want them to achieve and why

  • The ‘up & out’ situation: what factors are at play across the organisation and at senior levels; where our team’s efforts fit in and why they are important

  • Where you see risk, opportunity and priorities lying

Critically, we push decision-making down to them. The information we provide is equipping them to make the best decisions possible. Back-briefs before their decision/action help ensure their understanding of your intent and alignment with your other teams. Back-briefs after their decision/action inform you on outcomes.

  1. Decentralise information. How far down the organisation do you push a decision? To the point where the information comes in.

  2. Create a shared consciousness (white triangle). Teams need to have maximum awareness to make the best decisions.

  3. Mitigation of risk. Back-briefs help ensure aligned activity. Constraints (blue boxes) define the operating space of your team, e.g. budget, head count, deadlines, etc. Ideally we minimise these constraints as far as possible to provide your team maximum freedom.

David Marquet

‘Leading with intent’ is a key tenet of Mission Command - how militaries cascade direction. US Navy submarine commander David Marquet popularised the concept in his book Turn the ship around! In pushing decision-making down to his team, he introduced a ‘ladder of leadership’ where you can coach your team if they are apprehensive on making a decision initially (perhaps nervous or not as experienced/skilled). Placing his ladder of leadership underneath Tannenbaum & Schmidt you see an interesting difference: in Marquet’s model the decision sits with the subordinate a lot earlier:

The pace you move up the ladder of leadership will depend on the experience and confidence of those in your team and may depend on the situation. Where possible, however, you want to coach your team to make the decision. Marquet’s model is a great handrail to coach your team to greater ownership.

Origins of ‘leading with intent’: Mission Command

200 years ago Prussian General Helmut von Moltke observed the battlefield was so complex and moved at such pace that you cannot win effectively if you rely on senior officers being passed information to make decisions. Momentum, surprise and tempo are lost in the time it takes to relay this information to the officers and, in turn, their decision to the front line.

He created the concept of Mission Command (lead with intent): be clear to subordinates on the effect you want them to achieve and why – but leave to them exactly what to do and how. This theory is still used by advanced western militaries today:

The overarching primary aim for the team is to achieve their higher’s intent. This is supported by key principles:

  • Unity of effort. All aligned on the same priority at any one time.

  • Freedom of action. Teams are given maximum freedom to encourage momentum and exploitation of opportunity.

  • Trust. Complete trust across teams: based on competence (able to do their job); integrity (they will behave in the way we expect one another to behave) and benevolence (they care for me as I do them).

  • Mutual understanding. A shared consciousness across all areas of what is happening.

  • Timely and effective decision making. Maintain momentum by making decisions at the right time.

Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams describes how US Special Forces employed Mission Command to beat Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after the 2003 invasion - well worth a read!

Business application

Netflix and Spotify are two well-known companies who have embraced this philosophy to great effect. The benefits are huge, to include:

  • Tempo in activity increases

  • Teams feel engaged, empowered and owners of their space

  • Motivation increases (driven by the intrinsic motivation levers of autonomy, purpose and mastery)

  • Leaders at all levels have time and space to focus on the 'up and out' rather than being fixed on 'down and in' issues

Our work at Albany Peak

'Leading with intent' is a key concept in our approach. If you'd like to learn more, book a call.


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