StratChat 7 January 2021: The Commander's Intent

The Commander's Intent is part of US Marine Corps doctrine. What can it teach us about business strategy?


  1. Background
  2. The Commander's Intent
  3. Maneuver warfare and blue ocean strategy
  4. Is cost leadership a zero sum game?
  5. Simplicity and Clarity
  6. The chain of command
  7. A common language
  8. Uniformity versus diversity
  9. Dealing with dissent
  10. Transparency
  11. Next week

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StratChat is conducted under Chatham House Rules. Consequently, the summary below is presented without any attribution of who said what. As such, it is an agglomerate of views - not necessarily just those of the writer or indeed of any one individual.

On 7 January 2021, we talked about the The Commander's Intent.


But first, some background.

Every officer in the US Marine Corps goes to Quantico for 6 months of training at the Marine Corps Basic School. This is regardless of their speciality.

As a result, all marines since the 1940 share this common experience. They speak the same language and understand the same tactics.

The are also very well versed in the Marine Corps' two missions:

  1. To win battles.
  2. To make marines.

In the late 80s there was a change in doctrine within the Marine Corps to what is know known as 'maneuver warfare'.

Maneuver warfare was not a new concept. But it recognised the impact of technology on warfare since World War 1. Specifically, that battles would would no longer be won by numerically superior manpower and attrition. Instead, they would be won by out-maneuvering the enemy. German blitzkrieg in World War 2 provides a well known example of this new thinking.

The Marine Corps publication which outlines this is called Warfighting. It is available for free on the Internet. You can apply much of it in doing business strategy. Fighter pilot John Boyd was one of the architects of this change. His biography is called Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war.

Among the ideas it includes is that of The Commander's Intent.

The Commander's Intent

Military command is known for being quite firm. Yet flexibility and initiative is still required.

That is, it is impractical to expect combatants, in the heat of battle, to have to radio back to base and then wait for further instructions before engaging the enemy.

The Commander's Intent seeks to balance these two forces.

They say that "Plans are worthless but planning is priceless".

Mission Orders:

  • are written,
  • planned out in great detail - to the minute, and
  • include multiple different options.

But as Mike Tyson also said "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face".

This is where The Commander's Intent comes into play.

Each officer is briefed with:

  • the details of the situation,
  • their specific mission including specific instructions for each unit involved,
  • details of what's happening two levels up - that is one level above and then another level above that.

This two levels up briefing means that if an officer is killed, another officer can more easily step up and continue the mission.

It also means that if something goes wrong (which it invariably does), the officer has the context required to adjust their plans. Because the officer knows not just what they are expected to do, but also:

  • why that is important,
  • what the other units are doing, and
  • how it all supports the broader plan,

they are better equipped to find other ways to complete their mission if so required.

For example, your mission may be to blow up a bridge. You may be given detailed instructions of how and when to do so, and all the resources you need. But you will also be told that The Commander's Intent is to keep the enemy from crossing the river so that operations can continue over there unimpeded. Then, if you lose your explosives, or see the enemy has found another crossing, you have a clearer sense of what is more or less important and can adjust your plans accordingly.

The mission briefing, including The Commander's Intent, is as important to a unit as the training, resources and trust with which they enter the field. (These are of course also vital!)

Maneuver warfare and blue ocean strategy

Maneuver warfare is a good parallel to blue ocean strategy.

Maneuver warfare avoids pitting two armies against each other head-to-head in a war of attrition. Blue ocean strategy avoids pitting one organisation against another (or several) in head to head competition.

The result of head to head competion, in both cases, is that while one may eventually win, everyone suffers substantial losses. Its a zero sum game.

Is cost leadership a zero sum game?

Cost leadership is one of the three generic strategies identified by Michael Porter.

Some organisations mistake this strategy for simple cost cutting. The reduce their prices to gain market share. The competition responds by reducing prices to win it back. And so a price war begins. Eventually, as margins thin, the organisation must start to cut costs. Ultimately, cost cutting leads to reduced capability. It doesn't matter too much, because the competition is in the same place. It's only the customers and employees who lose out.

That's not terribly strategic.

A true cost leadership strategy is where one organisation has a substantial and defendable cost advantage over its competition. This could be because it has exclusive access to or ownership of some strategic resource or a proprietary capability. In some instances, scale provides a cost advantage. For example, where an organisation has captured so much of a market that there is not enough left to allow a competitor to gain the scale required to be cost competitive.

Legendary investor Warren Buffet referred to the defences that organisations have around such advantages as 'moats'. The term has stuck.

Richard Koch went a step further than Porter to claim that their are only two types of businesses:

  • price simplifiers, and
  • proposition simplifiers.

Most businesses are proposition simplifiers. Very few are price simplifiers.

Perhaps this weighting towards proposition simplification explains why it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between marketing and business strategy. 

Part of the reason for this imbalance may be that to succeed, a price simplifier must reduce the price by 50-90%. This requires a significant breakthrough and is not easy to achieve. But it positions the cost leader in blue ocean territory and out of the red ocean characterised by single digit price cuts.

Simplicity and Clarity

The US Marine doctrine described above conveys a sense of simplicity and clarity not often found in commercial organisations.

Even the mission statements "Win battles" and "Make marines" stand out as simpler, less ambiguous and more compelling than the vague "be the market leading supplier of" type of language we find in so many corporate mission statements.

But running an organisation the size of the US Marine Corps is surely no simpler or easier than running even a complex multinational.

The sense of purpose and understanding of the highest-level mission of many organisation is so weak that many strategy processes begin with lengthy workshops, debates and committee drafting sessions to create a new mission statement. Frequently these end being vaguely worded compromises which neither offend nor inspire.

The chain of command

One advantage that military organisations have over civilian organisations is a stronger chain of command.

In the US Marine Corps planning process, there is time for the analysts to present and discuss their analysis, options and recommendations. But once the commander makes a decision and issues the mission orders, everyone falls in line, regardless of their views on the matter.

Commercial organisations, in contrast, lack this clarity. The CEO, or other decision maker is caught between a rock and a hard place.

  1. On the one hand, without the tools at the disposal of miliary leaders to enforce compliance, they have to work harder to appease those who will need to execute the plan.
  2. On the other hand, instead of having a clear mandate, they have to saisfy the conflicting demands of multiple stakeholder groups - shareholders, customers, regulators, special interest group, etc.

Both military and civilian organisations suffer some measure of 'politics'. That is, people who are motivated by something other than the pursuit of the organisation's mission and greater good. This could be the hope of promotion, power, or even just a bigger bonus or pay rise.

In commercial organisations this may motivate people to obfuscate things. Clarity brings accountability. Accountability brings the different between success and failure into sharper relief. Lack of clarity creates wiggle room. Wiggle room allows failure to be presented as if it is success.

Combined with the two differences outlined above, this may create a greater incentive and opportunity for obfuscation than exists in a military chain of command.

A common language

The common language created by sending every single marine officer to Quantico over a period of 80 years also creates a distinct advantage.

Most organisations experience the problem that the marketing, operations and finance teams speak a different language.

It also helps that the US Marine Core as followed the same doctrine for over 30 years.

In contrast, we seem to have new methodologies in business all the time: Total Quality Management, Business Process Re-engineering, Six Sigma, Lean, Balanced Scorecard, Agile, Design Thinking, etc. to name just a few. Oftentimes they come with their own jargon. This makes them look even more different from each other than they might really be. (But enable the consultants pushing them to bolster their fees.)

Of course, the US Marine Corps is a single organisation. This makes it much easier to enforce such continuity. But it is still an enviable achievement.

As a commercial organisation, GE probably came closer to this than any other. But there are other organisations which have very effective induction programmes.

Uniformity versus diversity

The current (and well founded) emphasis on diversity adds another layer of complexity. More and more organisations are realising that diversity is not only more fair, but also good for business. More diverse people bring in more diverse perspectives which lead to wider ranges of options and, so it goes, better decisions.

But this makes it harder to gain the efficiencies from all speaking a common language. It makes it harder to align everyone behind a single intent. Many organisations are struggling to balance their need for 'cultural fit' with their need for diversity.

This is an area where military organisations may be at a disadvantage to more liberal commercial organisations. What gives them the ability to stick to a doctrine for 30 years also makes it harder for them to change. Diversity and inclusion have suffered as a consequence. The Marine Corps was the last service to integrate racially, and the last service to accept women.

Dealing with dissent

With any change we get three groups:

  1. Those that buy in to the change.
  2. Those that don't, and say so.
  3. Those that don't, but
    1. remain silent
      or worse still,
    2. say that they buy in.

The last category can be the most challenging. They're harder to spot and difficult to engage. And so they can do the most to undermine progress. They may even do so subconsciously rather than maliciously.

Most organisations tend not to value employees who are able to say "I don't think that is the right choice, but if that's the decision, I will put my weight behind it".

As a result, people who are happy to take that approach are more likely to stifle their dissent. The organisation loses as a result.

Few decisions are clear cut. Most are the result of a balance of pros and cons (or just risks). But having made a decision, organisations (and even more so politicians) tend to trumpet the pros and deny the cons and risks.

Its the dissenters who are most likely to be alive to the cons and risks. We need to remain vigilant and to keep the cons and risks clearly in frame. This increases out ability to manage their impact.

In politics, this is the role of the official opposition. In business we often lack that function and are worse off for this.

Again, military organisations have different ways of doing this. Military personnel are much more indoctrinated into the chain of command.

US military personnel take an oath to defend the constitution. This imposes on them a duty to disobey any unlawful order.

For everything else - that is, all lawful orders - however, the military have their own judicial system called the Uniform Code of Military Justice (in the US). This limits their freedom of expression and other rights under the constitution compared to those of a civilian. It also means that failure to comply with a lawful order can land you in jail.

The result is a much stronger chain of command and level of compliance than that found in most civilian organisations.


Ray Dalio is the founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater. He advocates a form of "radical transparency" to encourage "independent thinkers who are going to disagree". All meetings are recorded, and all staff rate each other all the time. Dissent is encouraged, recorded and out in the open.

You can see Ray talking about the benefits of this approach in this TED Talk.

Next week

On Thursday 14 January we will continue with our discussion about Transparency and Business Strategy.

You can find out more about it here.

Why not join us for another fascinating discussion?

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Updated: 2023-12-11