Matthew Lindfield Seager

The Gift of Context

Today I had an implementation question for one of our campus principals and she gifted me with the reasoning behind her answer, in addition to answering the question. I call it a gift because it helps me understand her priorities and empowers me to make small related decisions that I might have otherwise had to keep going back to ask her about.

It actually reminded me of something I learned a long time ago in the ADF called “Commander’s Intent”. When issuing orders down the chain of command, each commander should explain the intent or strategy behind their orders to their subordinates. If, or more accurately- when, the plan goes out the window, junior officers, NCOs and even individual soldiers should know enough of the context to adjust their own actions to keep working towards the overall strategy.

For example, instead of just ordering a detachment to deploy a radio transmitter on top of a certain feature (hill) by 0400 hours, the commander should first explain that at 0500 hours a parachute squadron will be deploying into a remote area and needs a backup radio link in case their satelite communications fail.

Now let’s say the radio detachment:

a. has a vehicle failure, b. finds the road marked on the map doesn’t exist, c. encounters an enemy patrol on their planned route, or d. is faced with some other unforseen event

The commander on the ground can evaluate options and come up with a new plan instead of having to radio back and forth with HQ trying to explain the situation to someone who isn’t there and then wait for new orders. Based on their first hand experience of the situation and their knowledge of the overall goal, the detachment commander can evaluate various options and then confirm the new plan with HQ. Options considered might include:

a. waiting for logisitics support to fix the vehicles or continuing on foot with the required equipment, b. choosing an alternate deployment location, c. engaging with the enemy patrol or being very careful to avoid them so as not to give away the larger mission, d. working with another detachment or partner force to provide the back up communications channel

It was a good reminder for me as a manager that I need to share the “why” with my team, not just the “what”. I need to give them the gift of context and intent so they know which tasks are important, when to postpone a task that can wait (or abandon one that no longer contributes to the overall goal) and when to change course without having to ask.