Commander's Intent - A way to deal with incomplete or changing requirements

by Sanjay Mishra

Commander's Intent is a military concept. It seems to have been first articulated by the Prussians after their defeat by Napoleon's conscript army in 1806. It is also taught in US Army Schools.

The Military Version

Commander's Intent is "the commander's stated vision which defines the purpose of an operation, the end state with respect to the relationship among the force, the enemy and the terrain; it must enable subordinates to quickly grasp the successful end state and their part in achieving it".

In mission-type tactics the military commander gives their subordinate leaders a clearly defined goal (the mission) and the forces needed to accomplish that goal with a time within which the goal must be reached. The subordinate leaders then implement the order independently. The subordinate leader is given, to a large extent, the planning initiative and a freedom in execution which allows flexibility in execution (from Wikipedia).

The paradox of war in the Information Age is one of managing massive amounts of information and resisting the temptation to overcontrol it. The competitive advantage is nullified when you try to run decisions up and down the chain of command. All platoons and tank crews have real-time information on what is going on around them, the location of the enemy, and the nature and targeting of the enemy's weapons system. Once the commander's intent is understood, decisions must be devolved to the lowest possible level to allow these front line soldiers to exploit the opportunities that develop. —General Gordon Sullivan, quoted in 'Delivering Results' by David Ulrich

The Product Development Version

Whenever we get a project, we always try and get a version of commander's intent document for the project. This document specifies

  • the reason why project is being done
  • the real requirements
  • what will the end state be once the project is done successfully

We try to keep the document shortest possible while capturing all the essential elements of the project. Two paragraphs are fine as long as they catches all the real requirements.

The real requirements are often not technical and deal with business or organizational issues. For example, on a recent project the best wireless communication technology was 802.15.4 but there was an organization wide mandate to have full Zigbee mesh networking stack built in too. This added cost and complexity and served no real purpose for this product, but had to be followed because that was the mandate.

Having this "Commander's Intent" document enables us to make decisions and deal with situations like:

The requirements are under specified - They do not cover the design of the product in critical areas. Based upon the "Commander's Intent" and our knowledge of the product and technology we are able to make such decisions. We run the bigger decisions by the customer for approval

The requirements are over specified - They mandate the use of a specific technology or a way of doing things. Usually the person writing the requirements does not have the wide experience and knowledge of what really works and what does not ( marketing BS, buggy products, incompatible with rest of the design, too expensive....) , as we do from hands on dealing with projects and products day in and day out. Once we know the commander's intent we are able to bring these discrepancies to the attention of the customer. They can then take an informed decision

Problems happen in development and manufacturing - We are able to circumnavigate these problems chosing the route most aligned with "Commander's Intent".

Why don't we follow the stated requirements to the letter and forget about it?

While following the stated requirements to the letter will fulfill our contractual obligations, it will not meet the client's real needs. It is wasteful and is not the right thing to do. We proactively get the Commander's Intent from the customer and examine our given and changing requirements taking the Commander's Intent and our hands on technical knowledge into consideration. If the "Commander's Intent" is satisfied we have a happy customer and that, my friend, is the ultimate goal and requirement.

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