Mission Type Orders: Giving Direction Without Stifling Innovation

A Critical Doer Generates Motion From “Why” More Than “What”

 The military is often wrongly perceived as a follow orders, never ask why organization that doesn’t foster innovation and creativity.  Grant it, there are time critical situations where there can be no time gap between order and execution.  In the planning phase however, the military has a way of communicating intent to subordinates in a way that unleashes the full power of creativity in people.  The mechanism is mission type orders and it is useful in business and personal situations.

To set up mission type orders, we start with a statement called “commander’s intent.”  The commander’s intent is a brief description of the vision of a successful outcome.  Additionally, commander’s intent will communicate items “off the table” for planning and state any factors to receive special emphasis (simplicity, rapid execution, cost, etc). Done correctly, commander’s intent frames the latitude people have to solve a problem or exploit an opportunity.

With intent understood, next comes the mission type orders that put people into motion.  The statement is simply the “5 W’s”…who, what, where, when, why.  Here is an example:

By June 1 2015 (when), the Filindablank family (who) will plan a vacation (what) to a popular location in the USA (where) in order to relax, learn, and spend time growing closer as a family (why).  Essential factors to consider are cost, weather, crowds, and historical significance.  End state (success) occurs when a detailed plan is agreed upon by the family and money is appropriated for the vacation.

In case you didn’t notice, something was conspicuously missing in that statement…”how.”  Many organizations have learned that “how” is the enemy of creativity.  When you tell a person how to do something, you will get it your way…but your way may not be the best way.  Mentoring is okay when your people are stuck and need advice, but in general you will come up with more effective solutions in communicating broad guidance and letting those closest to the work apply their energy and expertise to develop the way ahead.

Using mission type orders is a great trust builder in an organization.  Leaving “how” to your people provides an opportunity for personal investment and buy in as they take ownership of a project.  When you convert “renters to owners” in an organization, you’re creating incredible power that will allow you to do more than you ever dreamed.

Your challenge is to assess a situation at home or work where you could take something away from your people…the shackles of “how”…and give them something else in return…the freedom to innovate.  Try it and you’ll be amazed at the impact on productivity and morale.  It’s what a critical doer would…do!


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Updated: February 24, 2015 — 11:29 am