How to lead product development teams: Mission-Type Orders

Topics: Organization

As a leader, it is not your responsibility to tell the project team how and what to do with the project, but rather it is to provide the necessary guidelines so they can make easy, adaptable and fast decisions. It’s getting everyone on board to achieve a common goal of a successful product.

If you are familiar with military methods, the principles described above may sound similar to Mission-type orders [i].  There are two prongs to Mission-type orders (Figure 1).   The ‘commander’s intent’, which is a long term contract between superior and subordinate, and the ‘mission’ which is a short-term contract.


Figure 1: Mission-type orders

As described in the Maneuver Handbook Manual, mission-type orders are key to decentralization.[ii]  Mission-type orders are viewed as a contract between superior and subordinates.  There are two contracts.  1)  The commander’s intent is the long-term view of what needs to be accomplished.  The subordinate needs to understand two levels up, and the contract is to serve the superior’s intent on what needs to be accomplished.  In turn, the superior allows the subordinate great freedom of action in terms of how her intent is accomplished.  2) The second contract is the mission, and it is shorter-term.  The mission is described as a ‘slice’ of the commander’s intent and the contract is basically the same.  The subordinate agrees to support the mission in return for wide-ranging freedom in selecting the means on how to do it.

These military concepts are further explored in a more recent book called the Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal[iii].   As the book describes, when a subordinate seeks detailed instructions from a distant officer, the price for traditional order and discipline becomes too high in today’s battle fields.  The chains of command that once guaranteed reliability now constrained the pace, and the ability to react to an agile enemy.  The current practice includes reversing the communication flow to ensure that when the bottom speaks the top listens.

These military concepts can also work well for product teams, since the team is closer to the solution/project.   These practices lend themselves to an approach that is adaptable to external and internal forces.  

[i] William S. Lind, Maneuver Warfare Handbook (Westview Special Studies in Military Affairs). 12

[ii] These decentralized practices refer to the Boyd Cycle that is based on maneuver warfare and the OODA (Observe, Orients, Decision and Action) Cycle.  William Lind, Maneuver Warfare Handbook, page 5.

[iii] General Stanley McChrystal with Tantum Collins, David Silverman and Chris Fussell, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2015).

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