How to Lead Product Development Teams in a Time of Uncertainty

risk, uncertainty

Consider Using Military Methods to Lead, Such as Mission-Type Orders in Times of Uncertainty


Mission-Type Orders – Key to Decentralization

There are two prongs to Mission-type orders (Figure 1) [i]:

  1. The ‘commander’s intent’ which is a long-term contract between superior and subordinate and
  2. the ‘mission’ which is a short-term contract.

Figure 1: Mission-type orders


Team Supports the Mission in Return for Great Freedom of Action

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 first contract is the commander’s intent, and it 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/his 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.

Team’s Ability to React in an Uncertain Environment

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 constrain the pace, and the ability to react to an agile enemy in an uncertain environment. The current practice includes reversing the communication flow to ensure that when the bottom speaks, the top listens.

Team Makes Adaptable and Fast Decisions

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. It is not the leader’s responsibility to tell the project team how and what to do with the project, but rather to provide the necessary guidelines, so the team can make easy, adaptable and fast decisions.

Drives Down Uncertainty and Risk in Product Development

Do you wish to drive down uncertainty and risk even more in product development? Consider using our Business Fit Framework® business intelligence tool. The Business Fit Framework ultimately leads to killing inappropriate projects early, reducing time to market, gaining project visibility across an organization, cross-discipline buy-in, fewer surprises later in the project and overall product success.

The unique Business Fit Framework value proposition is its ability to help companies prevent product failure and build confidence in the pursuit of riskier, higher-return projects.

Contact Information

Contact Mary to learn more: [email protected]

[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)