In part I  of “The Strategic Triangle”©, I addressed the value of being clear on what pieces of any problem or issue confronting you are actually under your control or jurisdiction.  Here in part II, I will address the remaining two elements of what I call wise strategic forethought before you act.


During my army days, I developed a deep appreciation for the planning skills possessed by many of my fellow officers.  Over the years, war planning in particular, has evolved to a fine art.  But any field commander will quickly tell you that an hour into actual operations and combat, significant portions of any plan may already be overcome by events.  They call it “the fog of war” for good reason.  So what are the men and women in the field to do when elements of the plan demand re-thinking?  The war planner’s answer is to remember the COMMANDER’S INTENT (CI).

All plans have some overarching goal or objective which may still remain valid, although the path to their achievement demands rethinking.  So in addressing your own problem or issue, what is your overarching plan or COMMANDER’S INTENT?  Put another way, when all is said and done and you have given it your best, what do you hope you have accomplished?  To address a problem without a clear CI is what gives rise to the question “if you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know if you ever get there”?

Say, for example, your boss is about to make a decision you think is a mistake and you believe there will be some negative consequences.  You have decided to discuss the decision with her or him.  What is your Commander’s Intent: (1) do you aim to change her or his mind; (2) is your purpose to gain some insight into her or his thinking so you understand the decision more completely; or (3) is your intent to make certain that she or he is fully aware of potential negative outcomes and aims to develop some mitigating strategies?  Any of these intentions are fine but each will require a different approach to your conversation, and if you are intending to change someone’s mind, will also require some powerful counter-arguments.

Or perhaps you need to confront an employee concerning behavior that is inappropriate to the workplace.  Is you commander’s intent to convey your wish that the behavior stop, or do you intend to make clear that the behavior must stop or there will be specific consequences?  The wish conversation will sound a lot different to the recipient, than will a“stop it or else” message.

Once you have assessed the piece you control in a situation, the next step of the strategic triangle is to clarify for yourself your commander’s intent.

FS or 2

As a good topic sentence sets a powerful tone for an entire paragraph, the FIRST SENTENCE OR TWO (FS or 2) of a discussion with someone sets both a tone and conveys a definite message about where the rest of the conversation is ostensibly headed.  A poor opening to an important conversation, risks your listener getting lost in a welter of words and misinterpreting the true message you had in mind.  I painfully recall learning this the hard way in my early attempts to deliver critical performance feedback.

Authors, especially creative writers, have long appreciated the importance of opening sentences to the story they wish to tell and I believe they are equally critical to the creation of a path to your desired  commander’s intent.  Here I am not referring to the idle workplace exchanges that often begin with “how are things going”?  Rather I am addressing the  somewhat more serious exchanges managers have with employees and bosses that have a clear intended outcome, many of which will be hard to accomplish and perhaps involve strong emotions on all sides.

Carefully considered, clear, and simple initial sentences are the equivalent of any chess master’s opening moves in establishing a direction for the game and imposing his or her will on the process.  For this reason I am a big fan of REHEARSING your openings in advance if the conversation regarding an issue, problem, or challenge is especially important.  If uncertain, try you potential opening out on somebody else and see how they respond.

I have found that settling on an opening for a conversation is often more difficult than I realize I am making it sound.  But for me it is the final critical piece of strategic forethought that also involves clarity around the piece you control in a situation and what it is you aim, in the end, to accomplish.

Categories: Managing & Leading, Self-Management

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