The Age of Intent

Mike Klein: Commscrum Scandinavia

Intent.

For many years, there has been a big chase on to find out what drives performance—and profitability in organizations. This chase has led to a lot of suspects, a lot of ideas, and more than a few insights. But the real truth—the real driver of extraordinary performance—has been buried in a pile of terminology and obscured by sectarian selfishness.

“Engagement” screamed one pack. “Behavior change” howled another. “Policies and procedures!” “Values”! “A sense of higher moral purpose!!!!” “Better communication!!!!!” “Leadership!!!” “Management!!!”

The problem with these words and their associated sectarian sentiments is that they all spoke to manifestations of something far bigger, more powerful and more universal—a factor I think is as big as financials and operations at the very heart of organizational performance.

Intent.

Intent is the organizational “why”. Every organization has an organizational why—an intent of some sort. And intent is no less powerful than resources—or skills—in the financial and operational arenas.

Why is this a “new” conversation? Partially, it’s because our thinking has only just become clear and sharp enough to look at the range of behavioral, motivational and cultural issues as manifestations of one core corporate driver, and partially, it’s because the business world has continued to focus on finance and operations as “the real work”.

The ramifications of identifying and addressing intent as a third core driver of performance are monumental—and I hope stimulating of a long, powerful and productive conversation. But here are a few hypotheses to start the discussion with:

  • Purposes, values, goals and performance measurements are all manifestations of intent and need to be treated as such
  • The lack of coherent or stated purposes, values, goals, and performance measurements is also a manifestation of intent
  • Intent is at the heart of the value chain and creates and destroys the bulk of an organisation’s value. And those who work with refining, championing, and sharpening the delivery of that intent are people who do “real work.”
  • If communication and communicators are to be quick winners in this world, we need to start taking ownership of intent—consistency, integrity, resonance and distinctiveness of actions as well as words
  • Organisational inconsistencies are inconsistencies of intent rather than simply inconsistencies of internal and external messaging that a good old-school PR pro can handle
  • While the CEO and Board are ultimately responsible for the public definition (or unspokenness) of organizational intent, communicators and HR people are extremely well situated to reinforce, amplify, illustrate and operationalise that intent into actual daily practice.
  • Intent drives sustainability strategy.
  • Intent drives strategy, period.
  • Nothing destroys value like a measurable gap between stated intent and actual performance.
  • Nothing creates value like a measureable path between stated intent and actual opportunity.

It is important—vital—for today’s communicators to recognize that intent is “our” space. The only thing that is really new is that the opportunity is there for the rest of the business world to recognize its centrality—or absorb a beating from choosing to ignore it.

And this is not a breaking down of silos between internal and external communication—indeed, internal and external comms will require different craft skills for some time. It’s a breaking down of the glass walls that have kept communication on the organizational periphery. And it looks those walls have even been melted down into the clear, clean and substantive links we form at the very heart of the value chain.

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum London

I’ll keep it uncharacteristically brief and not very Commscrum to say I agree, but I do. I think the issue is – what intent, whose intent? Or – perhaps more importantly in your post – the LACK of it. It’s probably the latter that is oddly the most pervasive in many organisations. Business As Usual allows you to not worry about intent.

Enter Value Disciplines, stage right, again. Is the intent Operational Excellence? Products and Service Excellence? Or Customer/Market Intimacy? Sure, many of these “intentions” will overlap but I just conducted an exercise that demonstrated that a company that stated the “intent” of Customer/Market intimacy spent 90% of its effort engaging and communicating about Operational Excellence. Which wasn’t contributing much to consumer insight. Maybe that’s another post… exit, pursued by a bear, on the road to hell.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrumming from The Hague

And another agreement here, wholeheartedly! Fantastic post, MK. Seminal, possibly 🙂

This ‘intent’ that you describe, seems immediately to overshadow and connect a combination of efforts in our field that now seem immature: cross-discipline alignment, congruence across the whole organizational strategy – and truly living that, connecting the brand with behaviors etc.

Now, dare I burst this pink fluffy intellectual bubble by asking – isn’t the identification of ‘intent’ just wrapping up lots of old things together into one new! improved! challenge that still has the same barriers to overcome?

The leaders of any given organization would probably not contest the notion of really nailing ‘intent’ as a driver but might have some doubts about whether or not his / her team of individuals (that all have their own perspectives, cultures, styles, competences…) are able to actually ACHIEVE a strong and unified level of ‘intent’ to the extent that you envision. Of course in many different ways, people have been trying to pin down a common core intention (particularly leaders, communicators, HR practictioners, change agents etc) for many decades. The difficulty is bringing these people together to really think and act as one – and the crux of the problem is that ‘intent’ is something that individuals or teams need to own, to fine-tune themselves… it is almost personal. It would need to be recognized that political games would need to step down, as would innovative thinking of the ‘rogue’ kind (that has been known to end up contributing to wider strategy as a fluke).

The above concern around DOABILITY could just be something that sounds right but is just infact pure pessimism. Can a mass of individuals in an organization pull together to manufacture and deploy clear, crisp and consistent intent?

What do you think?

Dan Gray – CommScrum London (at least for now)

Bugger. I’d deliberately hung on till last in the hope that either KK or Lindsay might say something that I could pile in on, because I too love the post, Mike (all very un-CommScrum I know!).

You’ll recall that when you and Mr Trainor had your usual spat about terminology on the “Time to say goodnight to employee engagement” post, I referred to these labels as “the first signal of intent” (a phrase that’s also used by Bill McDonough in one of my favourite TED Talks on design for sustainability). So I’m intuitively drawn to your thesis.

Then KK brings up Value Disciplines again as a valuable lens to identify and institutionalise that “intent” – to get organisations thinking about, and structuring themselves around, that one thing (the crux of Lindsay’s comment) that they can really excel at. Zero disagreement there either. Damn it!

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17 thoughts on “The Age of Intent

  1. Adam Hibbert says:

    Harumph. This type of argument always risks getting stuck in the self-referential world of words, systems and policy, where everything’s fluid and the possibilities are boundless – not the practical world of personal choices, bounded relationships, and real work. Heavy on inspiration, light on perspiration.

    Lindsay’s point (that intent is ‘almost personal’) points in a constructive direction, imho – in fact, it is *entirely* personal. The chosen value discipline simply overlays personal intentions and gets them pointing in approximately the same direction – more or less productively, dependent on a huge range of subjective and objective factors.

    One other (related) offensive gambit I’d make here is that it has to be a rare organisation that has just one intent – in practice it’s always a balance (eg, between profitability and social responsibility) and these tensions *cannot be defined out of existence* – they have to be accepted and managed.

    btw, Treacy & Wiersema’s original HBR piece on value disciplines itself admits that some killer organisations are masters of hybrid intents …

    • Dan Gray says:

      Fair point, Adam. You might argue Tesco is a good example of a master of hybrid intent. It’s a sort of combination of operational efficiency and customer intimacy – the extraordinary customer intelligence they glean from Clubcard driving supply chain efficiency and keeping costs low. Even here, though, there’s still an unmistakably singular statement of purpose: to create value for customers and earn their lifetime loyalty.

  2. commscrum says:

    from Lindsay…

    So, Adam, would you say that if value systems overlay personal intention then what is scuppering the corporate intention piece is that – like a compass that is drawn to point North – people inevitably skew back towards their own personal intentions, regardless of how well embedded the corporate intention is? (hope that makes sense!:)

    I’m still trying to get at the doability of this inspiration.

    • Adam Hibbert says:

      I guess my point is to recognise that this is about harnessing people’s existing intentionality, not shovelling your off-the-shelf intent into their grateful brains.

      So embedding, for example, is a word I’d be wary of. How do we corporate saps imagine we’re going to embed a [belief/behaviour] in a person, an actual real life human being? Let alone embed the exact same item in a whole bunch of different people? When was the last time someone embedded an intent in you, y’know? We are not hardware, awaiting upgrade.

      What’s the source of the problem? I think all human organisations have an innate centrifugal tendency, which must be continually and deliberately countered if all participants are to share one true North. Mintzberg puts his finger on some of the ‘why’ when he talks about the default mode for middle managers being ‘Balkanization’ – the entirely human desire to increase one’s own sphere of freedom of action, which pits them against each other and the wider organism.

      So when we get handed the grand vision, it’s often in our interests to colour, adapt, retrofit, misinterpret, overlook, reinterpret, factcheck, delay, quibble, and otherwise generally bend the vision to suit our intentions. Result: execution failure.

      The trick of leadership must be to harness those intentions by involving them in the construction of the intent – the corporate intent should be seen to be woven out of all those personal intentions, not something pinning them down, from above.

  3. commscrum says:

    from Lindsay…

    Get the people not hardware point – well expressed 🙂 Meantime I’m thinking that the ‘engagement’ approach to intent (i.e. getting people to help create it) doesn’t mean that it will match their personal intent. Plus, does this mean (she said sarcastically) that organizations need to start recruiting people with matching intent profiles?

    • Adam Hibbert says:

      Lord protect us from the kinds of groupthink that would imply as our goal. I’m sure we don’t need to go back to Jesper Kunde and all that Corporate Religion stuff, even if some recruitment agencies are now peddling the dystopian vision Lindsay rightly pokes in the eye.

      Harnessing intent can’t be about homogenizing (?) it. It’s about walking people through the options you face as an organization and letting them see how their intents are woven into the overall direction.

  4. Hmmm. Just in case I’m having a blue fug day, or perhaps am comatose from the delicious salmon I had at lunch, permit me a few reflections on your hypotheses…

    * Purposes, values, goals and performance measurements are all manifestations of intent and need to be treated as such

    +Intent is indeed personal, but it is not an action. I may intend to build a $2.5MM business, but engage sporadically in the behaviors needed to accomplish the fulfillment of that intent. When intent becomes a plan, it’s actionable.

    * The lack of coherent or stated purposes, values, goals, and performance measurements is also a manifestation of intent

    +Disagree. Intent by its nature cannot be inertia, though we could say that people can intend to keep status quo, which is a viable strategy. Harrumph, maybe I do agree after all…

    * Intent is at the heart of the value chain and creates and destroys the bulk of an organisation’s value. And those who work with refining, championing, and sharpening the delivery of that intent are people who do “real work.”

    +I want more here: In particular, it seems to me that intent is the heart of “leadership” — we used to refer to leadership intention as “vision” in that context. I’d say it’s not the intent that’s being delivered, it’s intent being realized in tangible fashion.

    * If communication and communicators are to be quick winners in this world, we need to start taking ownership of intent—consistency, integrity, resonance and distinctiveness of actions as well as words

    +We communicators can participate in the decisions about intent, counseling the executive and providing intelligence that tailors and sharpens it in strategic context – and then helping to mold its execution. But I disagree that we can own these activities – they reach across functional areas, so we can have a perspective about them, but not an ownership stake (unless we assign such a stake to everyone in the organization.)

    * Organisational inconsistencies are inconsistencies of intent rather than simply inconsistencies of internal and external messaging that a good old-school PR pro can handle

    +We need not reduce corporate communication to messaging only — Arthur Page certainly didn’t — though inconsistent messaging can torpedo excellent strategies. If by “old-school PR pro” you mean a media relations guy with no broad perspective, then I agree.

    * While the CEO and Board are ultimately responsible for the public definition (or unspokenness) of organizational intent, communicators and HR people are extremely well situated to reinforce, amplify, illustrate and operationalise that intent into actual daily practice.

    Perhaps, but we would not include the word “intent” in the discussion that led to such an event — too “jargony” — The behavioral aspects of that effort to operationalise will be the most in our control if we’ve built good bridges among our HR and operations colleagues.

    * Intent drives sustainability strategy.
    Sustainability, if it is not a series of activities, is greenwashing. If it does not offer positioning value backed up by change and fact, intent is irrelevant.

    * Intent drives strategy, period.
    +Objectives drive strategy, period. Intent may drive objectives…

    * Nothing destroys value like a measurable gap between stated intent and actual performance.

    +Nothing destroys value like a measurable gap between objectives and performance.

    * Nothing creates value like a measureable path between stated intent and actual opportunity.
    +The path to attaining objectives isn’t even conceived until there’s a link between intent and objectives, which in turn reveal opportunity.

    Multiple intentions are a normal course of business. Being a best place to work, sustainable, caring, highly profitable, low cost, value-added… All of these cannot be priorities, and each laudable intent will be subject to the strategic process…

  5. From Montreal on a sweltering summer Friday.

    Urrrr. I don’t know where to begin on this, so I’ll just dive in. First, I think I agree with much of Mike’s post. And,for me the most important idea is around the question of why. Why the organization exists? What would change in the community, country, world if it didn’t exist? And I don’t think we’re very good at this kind of thinking/questioning in organizations. Those with enlightened founders who are still around may be the exception [Virgin, Apple, etc].

    So we fall back on mission statements rather than really understanding the mission [Man on a Mission collects mission statements – http://bit.ly/JyDv0 – I’d love to know how quickly you glazed over were horrified…] and/or drafting visions rather than having a vision and/or articulating values rather than behaving consistent with our values. If there was ever a case against communicators and writing this might be it. Hmmm.

    I think intent can be personal, but the kind of intent I’m interested in is institutional intent. Those organizations that have a deep understanding of why they exist – whether it’s posted on the wall or not – are way ahead of the game. And you can feel it. It’s evident in every decision they take. I once did a small piece of work at Nike’s head office. Your foot didn’t need to hit the pavement in the driveway and you knew what this organization was about [http://bit.ly/d3LMom]

    And I’m really interested in how we can help organizations become more intentional rather than less. Thanks Mike for getting this going.

    BTW – Interestingly asking why may be the best way to get at why and the intent: why do we do things that way? why we think this? why we believe that? Why we say this? When you really push it – and, if you survive – you’ll discover some amazing truths about the organization. And some will be very uncomfortable truths indeed.

    • Dan Gray says:

      Great comment, Deb.

      Re institutional intent, I referred to an old HBR article a few weeks back on my own blog – Charles Handy’s “What’s a business for?” – which seems very pertinent. (I’m guessing you’ve already seen it but, if not, check it out. You’ll love it!)

      As for the value and importance of the question “Why?”, I’m father to a 3-year old, so recognise that all too well!

      • Adam Hibbert says:

        My two-year old now gets the 3 Whys and you’re out rule. The first two why’s get answered clearly and diligently. On the third, I catch her eye, smile, and say “Scooby dooby doo”. This seems to satisfy whatever it is that she’s testing (the ol’ phatic communication need, in Jackons’s comms model, perhaps?).

  6. G’day everyone, so what is it that turns a group of people into an organisation? An organisation is a group of people who recognise a problem/opportunity, who because of their shared values believe that the problem/opportunity should be addressed and set common goals to provide the solution. If you want to call this intent, fine, but I think, like Sean, that I would say there is a need to combine intent, values, vision (including goals) and action.

    This brings me to the importance of organisational alignment, the need to ensure that all of these factors work together, especially matching actions to the intent, values and vision.

    Alignment also creates a different starting point for the discussion between Adam and Lindsay. Recruit the people on the basis of their intent and values, as well as their ability to take particular actions (skills) to help the organisation achieve the vision (achievement orientation), which are the current holy grails of recruitment. Skills and achievement are, after all, easy to find and review and make recruiting cheaper! Testing values and intent is a lot harder, but the benefits can be enormous.

    Sometimes, it may be worthwhile just going back to the beginning and rediscovering the intent, values, vision and action that brought the organisation together in the first place.

    And we can’t forget that at all possible points, leaders, managers, staff, customers, stakeholders, suppliers, shareholders, etc, we are dealing with individual people with vastly diverse interests, values, ideas and lives of their own. So the need to define all of the important things that bind them into an organisation is paramount, and won’t be achieved just by using one word for it all.

    Cheers, geoff

  7. […] is required (the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating). Nevertheless, as a marker of intent (a link to Mike Klein’s latest post over at CommScrum), it’s interesting […]

  8. commscrum says:

    As I’ve been quite busy helping to shape my new employer’s well-stated intent into tangible performance, I’ve decided to address these excellent responses with a full-bore response on my own site.

    You can find my new piece, “Intent: from ‘Seat at the Table’ to ‘Hand on the Wheel'” at http://intersectionblog.wordpress.com/2010/09/19/intent-from-seat-at-the-table-to-hand-on-the-wheel/

    All the best from Copenhagen,

    Mike

  9. […] it’s Mike Klein’s recent CommScrum post on The Age of Intent, Umair Haque’s rallying call for business to do “the meaningful stuff that matters most”, or […]

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