Design is the “commander’s intent” of business

I was listening to Mary Poppendieck the other night when I surprised myself by answering my own question. The long and rambling question had to do with the prominence of ‘design’ in Mary’s description of management roles.

Mary seemed bemused by the question, as if it was obvious that the managers of a product business should have design experience.

And then the answer dawned on me : ‘Design’ is to product businesses as ‘intent’ is to a military organisation.

Mary had been speaking about the ‘scaling dilemma’ — how do you scale self-organising practices like agile to an organisation level? She elegantly illustrated that by creating autonomous, cross-functional teams you just trade ‘vertical’ silos in your organisation for horizontal ones. The cross functional teams must still talk to each other.

The problem she said was one of complexity.

By reducing the complexity of the product/process/organisation you reduce the overheads inherent in communication. But what structure is best suited to help you do this?

One of the models she examined for doing this was the military model.
As Mary pointed out the military have been around for a number of years and solve quite tricky problems very successfully.

The structure they have evolved also mirrors the findings of sociologists and psychologists on the optimal group sizes for various teams (5–8 individuals for an autonomous team, 20–30 for a platoon or hunting group and a company of 150–250 individuals).

But how do the military communicate to bring about cohesive action to reach a common goal?

As I covered in another post recently, one strategy (pun intended) that is prevalent is the use of commander’s intent.

If a senior leader gives detailed instructions to his subordinates then he risks multiple problems:

  • the situation won’t be as anticipated and instructions won’t make sense in the context they find themselves in;
  • subordinates won’t develop the flexibility or initiative to deal with situations on their own;
  • the subtlety of complex detail will be lost in the friction of communication and misunderstood;
  • different groups won’t have a common understanding and won’t support each other or find themselves in conflict.

The solution that (some) military organisations have adopted is:

  1. the commander communicates his intent: what he wants to achieve
  2. the leadership team develop a plan collaboratively
  3. subordinates play back the plan to their peers in order to cross-check, remove assumptions and elaborate detail

This sounds patently obvious at first glance.

But like most functional concepts the simplicity obscures and underlying complexity and the devil is in the detail of execution.

While most organisations might aspire to follow a process like this, the reality is very different. Most organisations never really get beyond #1 and certainly never get to #3 in any meaningful way.

In military organisations these simple rituals are drilled into leaders over and over until the team can be seen to be operating as a cohesive unit. Mistakes are ruthlessly examined and leaders coached and evaluated until they can perform under pressure in the field and chaos of battle.

Now Mary’s talk went beyond the simple aspects of scaling to many different facets of team size.

Another model she drew on was one from her own experience in product focussed companies. In these engineering companies (like 3M) cross-functional teams were common and organisational structures fluid. Smaller product teams with innovative ideas had to scale to mass production.

One aspect that Mary highlighted was the role of leadership in these teams.

A slide that particularly stuck in my head highlighted the different roles of leaders in people management, product management and user experience. The interesting thing that struck me was that all of the roles that Mary had highlighted had a strong component of ‘design’ in them — technical design, process design, UI design etc.

My (rambling) question to Mary was along the lines of “Why do you place so much emphasis on design in those roles?”

She seemed quite bemused by the question and, I suspect, thought the emphasis was natural for a product/manufacturing organisation. For me it brought to mind a lean concept I’ve struggled with known as set-based design.

And then as Mary talked, the light bulb went off in my head.

For a product company, “design” is the commander’s intent.

Commander’s intent unifies a military force into the cohesive pursuit of a common goal. The design of a product is a set of goals and constraints that unify disparate teams efforts into a cohesive enterprise.

An architect’s plan for a house.
An engineer’s blueprint for a bridge.
A marketing manager’s sales plan for an online media campaign.
A product managers feature set for a new application.

‘Design’ is to product businesses as ‘commander’s intent’ is to the military.

By focussing on intent (the what) and not tasks (the how) you can allow a team to deploy their own skill in pursuit of the goal and you build a flexible, responsive organisation.

Written by

A thinker, writer and consultant with a passion for things Lean & Agile : www.nickjenkins.net

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