May 30, 2017

The Commander’s Intent

A young Lieutenant delivers an OPORD at Infantry Officer
Basic Course 2-95

It was about twenty-five years ago when I was given my first copy of The Ranger Handbook (with every page laminated!) and was tasked with delivering an operations order for some squad-level patrol, probably a linear ambush or movement to contact or something simple to learn on. The real goal was to teach the Army Operations Order format and gain a familiarity with it so we could use it for a variety of mission types. I still remember the five-paragraph format well and have actually often applied it to business communications, especially when starting new projects:

Situation: what is going on, what does the world look like, where are we, where is the enemy, what does the weather look like, etc. In a business context this may be applied as market conditions, competitors, market share, new products or technologies coming on, or regulatory changes.

Mission: this is where you, as the commander, state what you want your unit to do. A simple statement of who is doing what, when, where, and then the two most important parts — why, and how you measure success — when do you know the mission has been accomplished. Too often in the business world we forget the ‘Why’ — it is very important for people to know what they are doing and what it matters, how it connects to the rest of the business or corporate objectives. And ‘Success Criteria’ are very important to define up front — what does an actual ‘win’ look like, what do we consider a win versus a loss and how do we know to continue the mission or not.

Execution: This is where you get down to telling each unit in your command what to do, specifically, to achieve the mission. The goal here is not to be micro-managerial, but to give them timeframes and objectives that when all of the units work together the mission is achieved. The first part of the Execution paragraph is also very important — the Commander’s Intent.

Commander’s Intent: the first part of the execution paragraph is dedicated for the commander to restate not only what his mission is, but also the mission of the next higher up command. This is so everyone knows not only their role, but the role of their organization, and the overall mission of the next level up. This is important, not only so everyone feels connected to the mission and understands their part, but also in succession planning and mission continuity.

Support: The next two paragraphs get into Support — what resources we have available and on-call when we need them, budgets, headcount, etc and Command and Signal — how we plan on communicating throughout this mission. This could also specify email lists, Slack channels, and so on. But based on the title and focus let’s come back to that concept of Mission and Intent.

We used to joke that IT would be incredibly fun if it were not for the user. You get to feel like a kid with one of the most amazing Lego sets in the world assembling component after component and making everything work together. But when you get down to it, there is a reason that we build something. There is a reason a budget exists for us to procure all of these amazing tools. There is a mission we are expected to achieve. Sometimes it is to connect up a campus in a hospital to improve patient care, sometimes it is to create a financial trading platform to improve our order volumes and competitiveness, sometimes it is to distribute videos to millions of paying customers, sometimes it is to index the entire Internet in near-real-time. Each mission is unique, carries its own challenges, and for each mission there is an intent that needs to be derived.

Too often as practitioners in IT we jump into the nuts and bolts of a project, selecting carriers, vendors, and link types based on what we know or have used before because time is critical and we need to move fast to garner competitive advantage. I would offer, though, to take a couple hours at the beginning of each project and sketch out your own Operations Order — what is your situation, what is the mission, why is this project important to your organization, what really matters this time, and then what are the subordinate unit tasks that need to be done to ensure the overall mission is realized — take the time to describe your own and your next-level manager’s intent on this project.

Then think about applying that concept down a level. Not just by saying, “Hey guys let’s use a high radix leaf-spine network this time, ok?” But instead looking at technologies that work within this, so far, human workflow. While, according to the Gartners of the world, ‘Intent-Based Networking’ is the new hotness — the concept of using and defining your intent to achieve mission success. What is new is having a set of amazing tools available that allow us to define the outcome we want in our applications, our infrastructure, and our workflows and define them in an easy to understand taxonomy. Then using that capturing of intent to create the test plans and configurations that ensure our intent is being realized by the implementations our organizations are deploying.

By 2020, more than 1,000 large enterprises will use intent-based networking systems in production, up from less than 15 today.

Think of it as an ongoing inspection. In the military you create phase lines and checkpoints in a mission where each subordinate unit radios in to the commander to let them know their mission progress, or before graduating Basic Training there will be a formal inspection to ensure everyone’s personal gear and common facilities meet the standard expected. Intent-Based Networking systems are similar — they capture your intent and then automatically and continuously inspect your infrastructure and applications to ensure that they are meeting your standards for your business.

Probably the biggest benefit of using an intent-based networking system is succession planning. While most businesses do not have to take as direct an approach as the military does to determining what to do if a commander is unavailable, every manager should be able to take a vacation for two weeks and simply know that while they are gone the network will continue to operate to the same standard as if they were there providing oversight for each change.

So on your next project take that extra hour and explore what an Intent-driven platform could do to improve and maintain the consistency of your operating environment while you are there providing oversight or while you are enjoying a well-earned summer vacation with your toes in the water and tail in the sand.