What is Essential Intent and Why Care?

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Want to get from “pretty clear” on what needs to be done to “really clear”? Want to keep aimed at your goals and hit them as if you had an invisible auto-pilot? Then consider creating an essential intent for yourself or your organization.

Greg 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, 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’s often the way it is.

Essential intent is about achieving clarity in what we do. Not merely casting a vision or identifying our values or even setting our goals, rather it’s 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.

Don’t just come up with great words — decide what you can truly be excellent at and determine to do it by a certain time and with a certain measurable quantity or quality.

To avoid the risk of of vagueness in your vision, redundancy in your values, or blandness in your goals, add an essential intent.


  • 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 brings 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?

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