The Commanders intent is a key concept in 21st century military doctrine that is beginning to be utilised in sport and business. It describes the overarching goal of the operation that is being carried out. Simply, what is it the commander intends to achieve in the operation?

Warfare is extremely complex, with many inter-dependent moving parts. As in any complex system it is very difficult to predict the future or properly interpret what is going on around you, the so called “fog of war”.

This makes it extremely difficult to plan for success in a linear manner. As the saying goes, no plan survives first contact with the enemy and this is yet another parallel that can be drawn between the military and elite sport.

Well, the commander’s intent ensures that whatever happens after that first contact, the operatives in theatre do not lose sight of the overarching goal and adapt accordingly to achieve the aims of the mission.

It is akin to the vision statement; “this is what we want to achieve”.

When working in any complex system, whether on the battlefield, the playing field or in the boardroom, ensuring that those on the ground are clear on what you want to achieve is vital.

As your operatives/practitioners are closest to the action, they have the most pertinent information in front of them and are best placed to impact the outcomes in the complex system. Despite huge technological advances in communication and data, the gap between those on the ground and leadership back at the base, on the bench, in the coaching box, or head office, is real. This gap and the constraints of the environment whether they be temporal or geographic make effective real time communication very difficult, despite what Hollywood may tell us.

Thus, a clear objective that all are oriented towards and aiming for ensures that decision making in the field is calibrated with that of the leadership even when, inevitably, the information/communication gap appears.

As a leader in this situation, you must use your position at least one step removed to provide perspective and calibration of the team. Ensure that the objective does not get lost and probe the team, pose questions that help them see the bigger picture that may not be clear on the ground and keep them on task. Lastly you must trust your people to get the job done. You have selected them as the most appropriate people to achieve your aims so let them get on with it.

To provide an example in the sporting arena, the coach doesn’t prepare their team for competition by telling them exactly which passes and movements to make for every second of the match, it is unrealistic and impossible. Top coaches will provide a tactical framework with a few key objectives. They will then develop the players to take this framework and apply it to the situation in front of them. They will then get a short amount of time in any breaks in play and at half time to make minor adjustments and ensure everyone is still working towards the same objectives.

To see a great example of this in action, check out the BBC series Warship: Tour of Duty. Commander Chris Ansell is second in command of Royal Navy Flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth. Throughout the programme he can be seen addressing the ships company over the intercom, providing the intent to the 1600 service people on board.