Lessons from the Battlefield - Part 3: Common Purpose

Steve Chiou, Director of ProductJune 27, 2017 • 4 min read

The power of trust is one of the most valuable lessons I learned during my four years serving in the Marine Corp. It’s a huge, huge part of Marine culture and foundational to General McChrystal’s principles of Empowered Execution, pushing decision-making down to the lowest level; and Shared Consciousness, where information is shared with the right context so individuals can make good decisions faster.

Common Purpose as an Expression of Trust

Common Purpose is the Marine Corp expression that conveys the responsibility and accountability for each person to understand and really take ownership for the objective of a shared mission. This is especially important for a ground force like the Marines where separation is more of a risk than, say, in the Navy. Marines pride themselves on the idea that you can take away all their communication assets and isolate them from their team, and they will still work together to push to the objective.

Common Purpose is communicated through Commander’s Intent:

A short, concise statement that describes the desired end state of a particular mission. It serves as a single, unifying focus for anyone serving under the Commander, and therefore must be understood by everyone.

There is a trickle down effect to how Commander’s Intent works.

There is the highest level of mission, which is communicated by the
Battalion Commander.
Then, every company has their own mission statement, which is usually
three to four bullet points.
Within each company are Officers that all write out their own Commander’s Intent based on the Common Purpose.
And finally, each person within the company has their specific responsibility to making their mission a success.

The importance of this layered structure cannot be overstated. Requiring each Officer to write out their own Commander’s’ Intent ensures they clearly understand the objective of the mission to the point that they can contextualize how it impacts their own work. It also forces them to take initiative, writing their own statement that they are accountable to fulfilling.

Training to Common Purpose

Commander’s Intent is so important that it is drilled into new recruits every day during boot camp. We would regularly be put in situations in training where we were asked to make decisions with incomplete information and no matter what decision we made, they would always grill us on it. Not so much questioning the decision we made but questioning the reason we made that decision. 

There’s a statement my Executive Officer made during training that has really stuck with me:

“YOU are the only person that knows when you are sandbagging.”

What he meant was that you know when you’re not giving it your all—or when you’re doing the wrong thing—because in the back of your head, there’s a voice questioning your decision and saying, “Well, should I be doing this?” 

So much of training was about getting really good at identifying that feeling so that we could get confident aligning our decision-making with the Common Purpose, despite a lack of information or intelligence.

Common Purpose in Construction

Construction can learn a lot from how the military operates with a Common Purpose. Too often, information from higher levels is not given to the field. It gets passed from project manager to project manager, but they rarely share that information with foremen.

This leaves the field operating in the dark, without a Common Purpose. Sure, they’ve got their general job description, but they often don’t have a sense of what the overall objective of the project is.

Foremen should know what a win looks like.

They should know what those above them care about. Whether it comes from the owner, the project manager, or the superintendents, foremen need to understand the role they play in making a project a success.

Our Foreman Feedback tool has become popular because it gives the foreman visibility into information they never had before. Now they know what data their project manager is tracking and can make decisions based on more complete information.

Instilling Trust in the Field

Foremen are foremen for a reason, just like an Officer in the military. If you have the title, you have the trust of that title and should feel empowered to make decisions based on incomplete information. If you have a foreman that is questioning their decisions or lacks initiative, they have likely been burned from making a wrong decision.

Here’s a lesson we can learn from the Marines:

Never punish a crew member for taking initiative. 

Instead, look to see if you have a Common Purpose problem.

  • Does your crew understand your project objective?
  • Do they have the shared consciousness that comes from information + context?
  • Have you trained them to know when they have enough information to make a decision?
  • Do you trust them to run with it?

In the military, there’s no time to wait for 90% of the information before taking action. The same is true for construction.

Your goal as a company should be to instill enough trust in your crew that they feel empowered to make decisions to the achieve a Common Purpose. Anything less is not living up to your full potential.