What is Essential Intent and Why Care?

Want to get from “pretty clear” on what needs to be done to “really clear”? Want your goals to to be achieved as if you had an auto-pilot? Consider creating an essential intent for yourself or your organization.

McKeown deals with the concept of essential intent comprehensively in his book “Essentialism — The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”. He argues that its needed because values tend to be vague and vision tends to be too broad and quarterly goals tend to be too bland and uninspiring and unemotional — NOTE: This need not be the case with values, vision, and goals, but I concede that this is the way it is most of the time.

So to expand, essential intent then is about achieving clarity in what we do. Not merely casting a vision or identifying our values or even setting our goals, rather its about our mission. What specifically are we going to do in alignment with our values and our vision?

For a Navy SEAL team, the mission might be to capture and hold the bridge until midnight next week when the Marines arrive.

For the first “Digital Tsar” of the UK (McKeown’s example), it was “To get everyone in the UK online by the end of 2012”.

Essential intent is bold and inspirational.

Essential intent is concrete and measurable.

Essential intent is meaningful and tied to your values and vision.

To avoid the risk of of vagueness in your vision, redundancy in your values, or blandness in your goals, consider adding essential intent. Don’t just come up with great words — decide on what you can truly be excellent at and determine to do it by a certain time and with a certain measurable quantity.


  • Is it simple?
  • Is it inspiring?
  • Is it concrete?
  • Is it meaningful?
  • Is it measurable?

If it is, you have an essential intent, and the clarity it will bring will help you make the necessary trade-offs needed go after your mission. It will guide your greater sense of purpose.


  • How will we know when we’re done?
  • What does “Done” look like?

If you can answer up front, you’ll know when you get there that you made it.

What is your own essential intent? Your family’s? Your company’s?