Commander’s Intent: The Key to Effective Messaging

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Made to Stick" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Commander’s Intent? How can using the commander’s intent principle help you communicate more effectively?

The Army adopted the concept of “Commander’s Intent” in the 1980s. It refers to a concise statement that lays out the goal or intended outcome, allowing people to react to changing circumstances as they pursue a clear goal. You can use this concept to pinpoint the essence of a message that you want to communicate effectively to others.

Read more to learn about Commander’s Intent and its application.

The Commander’s Intent

Military operations require massive amounts of planning, starting with an order from the president that flows down through numerous levels, becoming increasingly specific and detailed so that ultimately it dictates the actions of foot soldiers and everyone in between. The process is time-consuming but necessary—commanders must think through all the potential issues and options. However, the plans often prove to be worthless. The saying is that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Things always change due to a huge number of variables.

To make its planning more useful, the Army adopted the concept in the 1980s of “Commander’s Intent.” It refers to a concise statement at the top of each order, defining the goal or intended outcome. All aspects and details are distilled to a central point. At a high level, the Commander’s Intent could be abstract (“Break the enemy’s will…”) while at ground level it’s concrete (“Clear Hill 45 to protect the flank of the First Brigade”). Plans may change, but everyone is responsible for executing the intent. 

The Commander’s Intent coordinates people’s actions, while allowing them to react to changing circumstances as they pursue a clear goal. Finding the essence of your message is like writing a Commander’s Intent: focus on the most important thing.

The Commander’s Intent at Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is known for its obsession with finding ways to reduce costs. This goal has kept it profitable for decades and kept it ahead of its competition. But putting the cost-reduction goal into action requires communicating to thousands of employees what it means to them.

To do this, the airline has its own version of a Commander’s Intent, a simple message distilling cost reduction to its essence, which guides everyone’s actions: “Southwest is the low-fare airline.” CEO Herb Kelleher once gave an example of how it works. A marketing director proposed giving passengers on the Houston to Las Vegas flight a chicken Caesar salad instead of just peanuts. Kelleher’s question was: “Will adding the salad make Southwest the low-fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas?” The answer was no, so the salad idea was scrapped. The message works because any employee can apply the low-fare test to his or her actions: it’s about prioritization.

Commander’s Intent: The Key to Effective Messaging

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  • What makes some messages “stick” while others go unremembered
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  • Why many companies are blinded by “the curse of knowledge”

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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