Skill - Conveying Executive Intent

It is important for a leader to convey direction clearly to the people that work for him/her. To be really effective, this should be a two-way dialog so subordinates can ask questions to make sure they clearly understand what is expected of them.  The Army trains its officers to use a "Commanders Intent Statement"  along with the orders so as to help soldiers understand what to do if they run into uncertainty about how to carry out orders under field conditions. Research  at the Army National Training Center showed the Commander’s Intent statement was not very effectively used. This post gives some tips about how to convey Executive Intent.

Klein notes,

“It is not enough to make great decisions if you cannot get them implemented.  The intuitions of both parties are affected when the intent is not presented clearly. If you just tell subordinates what you want them to do, without telling them why you need it done, you have kept things simple, but you have also made your plan more vulnerable.  The reason for telling your subordinates why you want something done is to promote their independence and their ability to improvise.  If subordinates do not understand your intent, there is a greater chance for an unexpected obstacle to throw the plan off because they will not know how to adapt appropriately.  They will have trouble making tradeoffs between goals, and this is important because we rarely have only one active goal at a time.  With several simultaneous goals, we often find that some of our goals are conflicting.  We have to find a way to resolve this conflict with a tradeoff.  The better your subordinates understand your intentions, the easier it will be for tem to resolve goal conflicts the way you would want.” - Intuition at Work 

In his book, “Sources of Power,” Gary Klein has a chapter on "The Power to Read Minds," which he identifies as important to good execution by teams.  Klein studied orders used in training exercises and came up with some key types of info that would help the recipient, if appropriately addressed in the commanders intent statement: 

    1.  The purpose of the task (high level goals)

    2.  The objective of the task (the image of the desired outcome)

    3.  The sequence of steps in the plan.

    4.  The rationale for the plan.

    5.  The key decisions that may have to be made.

    6.  Anti-goals (“whatever you do, don’t let this happen”)

    7.  Constraints and other considerations.

Here is a way to gauge whether your stated intent is useful: Ask yourself if there is an alternative outcome that you are not interested in pursuing.  If you cannot think of an alternative, then you are not telling your subordinates anything useful. The defining feature of information is that it reduces uncertainty.  What you say only counts as information if there is a reasonable alternative position that I am rejecting

Karl Weick, at the University of Michigan School of Business, has presented a script for giving directions and Klein put it into an acronym, STICC. 


  • Situation (Here is what I think we face).
  • Task (Here is what I think we should do).
  • Intent (Here is why)
  • Concerns (Here is what we should keep our eye on)
  • Calibration (Now, talk to me (about your questions and concerns)


In the “calibration” step of STICC, you are trying to get people to shift from passive listeners to active listeners. You want them imagining how they are going to carry out your intentions.  You can also ask how people would react if the plan breaks down.  Too often, we assume that the plan is going to work perfectly, that the task can be carried off without any complications.  But one reason you are explaining your intentions is to help people improvise when they run into trouble.  So, why not make that an exercise up-front, as you are explaining your intent. You can both write down what you would do in such a case and then compare notes.

Learning a to use a tool such as STICC is less important than developing your intuitions about what others need to know in order to implement and adapt your decisions.  If you can get a feel for your subordinates' mental models, the way they make sense of situations, and what can lead to their confusion, then you will have an easier time explaining your intentions.  Another tip for communicating intent is that sometimes you can add an anti-goal, something you do not want to happen

Observations from Four 3M Inspections in 2011

Effective Executive Part 4