Why Leader’s Intent is Key to Building an Agile Team

Jan 4, 2019

As an IT leader, you’re probably used to people running ideas and issues up the chain of command to you. But when you are the natural gatekeeper of everything, it can prevent your organization from achieving the level of agility required to thrive in a fast-changing business environment.

Here’s what I mean: Let’s say you have a team that hit a roadblock that requires a substantial change of plan. Their first response would be to escalate, so the team gets to work on a presentation outlining what went wrong and a few possible solutions to the issue. The meeting happens and the plan is approved.

The problem, however, is that the team may have wasted 10 to 14 days getting approval instead of actively working towards the goal. What could have been resolved in a day was instead dragged out for two weeks.

This is why Leader’s Intent—allowing your team to improvise on the plan as long as they’re aligned to your intentions—is key.

Instead of being the bottleneck or worse, the single point of failure, it decentralizes command and control. Plus, it inoculates the organization from micromanagement and lets you scale quickly.

Applying Leader’s Intent

The first and most important step to applying Leader’s Intent is ensuring your subordinate leaders understand it. Some might take Leader’s Intent to mean not planning at all since nothing will ever go according to plan, but this is not true. The planning cycle still happens, except now the team is allowed to adjust the plan as necessary without approval, as long as they maintain alignment with your original intent. This removal of the approval process is what helps speed up cycle times and prevent work from grinding to a halt.

To get everyone on board, it is key to tie Leader’s Intent to individual performance. Let your subordinate leaders know that they will be graded on their practice of Leader’s Intent. Be up-front about what you expect from them and that you will be holding them accountable for their choices.

Second, clearly define your vision and goals. This is easier said than done. Many leaders struggle to communicate to their teams the direction of the organization and what they want to accomplish in a given time period. The important thing here is to recognize that there are levels to your intent—macro and micro—and that they are different.

The macro level consists of your strategic objectives and the micro is your operational objectives. For example, your macro intent might be to have a comprehensive cloud infrastructure by the end of the year. This would then be broken down further as you hit the planning cycle. At the operational level, one of your intents might be to have rich analytical capabilities. Perhaps you want to be able to compare costs between your cloud and on-premise data center or run a cost analysis between the two for every single project in the pipeline.

Your team would then create a plan around these objectives, which, in this case, include setting up a cloud governance structure that oversees financials, security, SLAs, and more. You will still be involved in the planning and have the ability to change the plan if necessary (e.g., there’s a risk), but once approved, the team should move forward without coming back for approval if something changes. The team must, however, back-brief you on any changes. In essence, you’re setting up the parameters of what success looks like for your team and then getting out of their way and letting them do their jobs.

Third, you as a leader should focus on asking questions and quality control. In the execution phase, you should continue to help your team succeed but only by solving problems that they can’t solve on their own. For example, if they’re dealing with the business or a supplier and some gravitas is required, that’s where you come in. Play the role of a mentor, not manager. Check in regularly to see how things are going, ask questions, and point out areas of improvement, but be sure to give them room to move inside of what you want them to do.

Avoiding common pitfalls

There are two issues that IT leaders often run into in relation to Leader’s Intent.

The first is being either being too hands-on or too hands-off. This should be obvious. If you’re too involved and you’re making decisions for the team all the time, then the team would revert to asking for approval for every small decision. If you’re involved too little, the team might stray too far from your intent. You have to find that balance and be the quality control to ensure that your team is constantly homing in on the desired outcome.

The other pitfall is in applying the right amount of coaching for implementing Leader’s Intent. This depends on your tenure at the company. If you’re a new CIO, it’s easier to apply leader’s intent because your new team is expecting change from a new CIO. You would still have to educate the team on the concepts, but there should be less resistance to change. If you’re a longer tenured CIO, you may have to do a lot more coaching. It will probably take longer, too, as you have to get your people used to the idea that you’re now leading in a way that’s very different from before.

Wrapping up

Practicing Leader’s Intent is an effective way of improving the speed, agility, and scalability of your team. Ultimately, it is simply about empowering your team to make the necessary adjustments to ensure the plan succeeds when assumptions change or when risks are realized throughout the process. And that can make all the difference in positive transformation for an organization.


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