Over the weekend, the clouds in the Florida skies parted just enough for the countdown and launch of two American astronauts aboard the incredibly engineered SpaceX rocket. Soon thereafter, the two astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, docked with the International Space Station 254 miles above the earth’s surface. This mission marked a historical moment in many ways. SpaceX became the first private company to send humans into space and then safely guide and land the reusable Falcon 9 launch vehicle. It also marked the successful transition of space exploration from a public to a private enterprise. In any moment of great success or achievement it is a useful exercise to pause and consider what the contributing factors were to make that success possible.
What can we learn from these moments that will help us all be successful in our endeavors? In this article, I would like to discuss how NASA successfully employed the concept of “Commander’s Intent” to achieve this historic transition.
What is the Commander’s Intent?
Commander’s Intent, as one might guess, emerged from military doctrine and describes how a good commander leads his or her forces. While most imagine that military authority is executed with strict discipline and relies on hierarchical directives that are followed without question, the truth is that good military leadership looks very different. Military planning begins with the mission statement that describes the who, what, when, where, and why (the 5 W’s) of how a mission will be executed. The Commander’s Intent describes how a good commander (leader)envisions the outcome and describes what success looks like, rather than making a plan and micromanaging. Commander’s Intent fully recognizes the chaos, lack of a complete information, changes in situation, and other relevant factors that often render a plan either completely or partially obsolete when it is executed. Good commanders realize that they will never have enough complete information to match the speed of change and make accurate decisions, therefore they must delegate the decision making accompanied by a guiding vision. The role of Commander’s Intent is to empower the team and guide their initiative and improvisation as they adapt to the changed environment.
The use of the Commander’s Intent is not only relevant for helping the military navigate the challenges and uncertainty of the battlefield but can also provide a useful model to help organizations scale and delegate effectively as well as operate with agility. A key tenet for Agile teams to operate successfully is to build projects around motivated individuals, giving them the environment and support they need, and trusting them to get the job done. In fact, one of the reasons that Agile has gained such traction in the market is that hierarchical management structures have proven ineffective at managing through the rapid pace of change in today’s market. We can contrast this with the other side of the spectrum where teams are micromanaged, progress slows down, solutions are no longer innovative, decision-making goes through a bottleneck, and the team does not feel empowered.
The Commander’s Intent, NASA and SpaceX
So how did this concept of Commander’s intent empower the transition of manned space flight from NASA to private companies like SpaceX. The last spacecraft to launch astronauts from American soil was the Space Shuttle. This space vehicle operated during the previous space era where NASA managed the program using a large command-and-control structure and often required decades to design and implement their space programs. On July 21, 2011, as Space Shuttle Atlantis landed at the Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida, NASA began to revamp their operations and develop a private-public space program.
To work through this change, NASA employed Commander’s Intent by allowing SpaceX broad leverage in design and execution. Nowhere is this more telling than in the number of specifications that guided the design of the space vehicle. For the Space Shuttle, between 10,000 and 12,000 specifications were detailed out including the amount of stainless steel in the bolts. Contrast this with only 300 specifications handed to SpaceX. This meant the SpaceX engineers had the ability to design, innovate, and build a completely new type of spacecraft unencumbered by unnecessary levels of micromanagement through requirement. This was evident in the new design of the spacesuits the astronauts wore . This was clear when we saw the astronauts maneuver the SpaceX Dragon capsule by typing into the Tesla-inspired monitors rather than flipping hundreds of switches all around them like the cockpit of a commercial airplane. This was apparent in how quickly SpaceX managed to accomplish the task and design the new space vehicles.
As we celebrate these accomplishments in the annals of space history, we should also recognize the change that NASA had to work through, the partnership model that NASA put into practice, and their embrace of Agile practices and the Commander’s Intent. By delegating with a vision and trusting smart and talented people to make the right choices when given broad criteria for success, NASA unleashed the power of the private sector in service to the public. With the success of the mission this new way of thinking might just be the key that unlocks the goal of making deep space exploration a reality.
If you find that your business is struggling to match the pace of market change and effect the digital transformation required to stay competitive, you may need a partner. At Sense Corp, we recognize the challenge that teams face when scaling and embracing Agile practices. We welcome you to reach out to us to learn more about how to develop and communicate the Commander’s Intent to better empower your teams.