Symptoms of the Need for Intent Management

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Categories: Intent


Organizations often succeed in installing change, but find it’s more difficult to achieve realization—the true intent. Most of the time, the results of key initiatives are:

  • Unrecognizable: They bear little resemblance to the original vision and goals.
  • Underdelivered: They yield less than the intended result.
  • Overdelivered: They achieve more than the intended result—usually with time and cost implications that limit sustainability. On the face of it, overdelivery doesn’t sound so bad, but it can actually be worse than underdelivery when the final solution proves to be too expensive to maintain. Overdelivery sets up high expectations, which can often lead to abandonment of the solution.

When any of these outcomes occurs, a gap exists between what was expected and what was produced. Senior management’s response is usually one of surprise, disappointment, frustration, and anxiety. Often, they cannot put their finger on where it went wrong—they just know that what they ended up with isn’t what they had envisioned.

Here are some typical responses from executives:

“That’s not what we thought it would look like.”

“The vision was great, but somewhere on the journey we lost our way.”

“I can’t put my finger on it, but I don’t think they got it.”

“How did it get from what we approved to what we’ve got now?”

“It has the appearance of what we wanted, but somehow the essence of what we were really after just isn’t there.”

Symptoms of Intent Mismanagement

Indicators that intent has been poorly orchestrated include:

  • Lack of relevance: The primary purpose of the initiative is stated in such a way that the initiative appears to be unrelated to what is important to the target population.
  • Overly complex: The intent is expressed in such detail and length that it becomes overwhelming. This is evidenced by thick books, consultant reports, and detail that clouds the basic intent. Such complexity limits the target audience’s ability to focus on the right things at the right time. The result? An inability to see the forest for the trees.
  • Inaccurate retelling: In any change initiative, the intent will undergo a series of depictions—level to level, person to person. By the time the message is said aloud by the person at the end of the line, it often no longer matches the original wording, much less intended meaning. Even a small error or omission in recounting what was said can cause a multiplier effect—a distortion of a distortion—that reproduces and radically changes the original purpose.
  • Lack of internalization: People don’t fully align their mindset and actions with the new direction. Most of us have learned that people can say things and behave publicly in ways that appear to support the intent of an endeavor while their private beliefs and actions are inconsistent with the true intent.
  • Compounded compromises: Concession-making and tradeoffs are inherent in the successful execution of major change. Some compromises are necessary and justified, but too many can bring down an initiative. One bee sting might hurt, but a thousand can kill. In the case of poor intent management, it’s death by a thousand good, but misguided, intentions. Every decision along the way must be evaluated not only on its individual merits, but also against the overall intent.

In my next post, The Intent Architect—Guardian of Outcomes, I will talk about how to avoid these symptoms and keep the intent's line of sight in place.

Posted on: September 16, 2010 11:15 AM | Permalink

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