If we want to be successful at executing major organizational change, it’s important to understand how to translate aspiration into reality. Aspiration is a vision of what must be—the intended outcome. Reality is the value that accrues from putting it in place and sustaining its impact. “Translation,” as used here, is not a metaphor—a conversion must literally take place that turns concepts and ideas into actions and results.

Moving from intentions to results is neither a hit-or-miss process nor a risk-free slam dunk. Regardless of the discipline, any time there is a transition from one state to another, there is a probability that something will be lost in the process. Organizational change has an especially dismal record of achieving desired outcomes. The challenges and obstacles that arise between vision and realization tend to divert intentions to unwanted and even unrecognizable results.

In Search of the Missing Link

As a professional change community, we have not always paid sufficient attention to intent. Our focus has often been more on getting people to adapt to a change than on the change itself. What I mean is, sometimes we are so attentive to issues like resistance and commitment that we fail to see that the people involved are lacking a common understanding of what is being asked of them. I can say this was certainly true for me until a missing part to the change puzzle was revealed.

I have always been a student of patterns, particularly those that influence the outcome of attempts to orchestrate human change. In the early years of my practice, I operated on the basis that the behavior and mindset patterns most relevant to organizational change were the ones that dealt with issues like sponsorship, resistance, commitment, culture, etc. Without a doubt, these factors are essential to executing successful transitions, but I was never satisfied that they were telling the whole story. Any time I was called on to help implement important initiatives, I would properly address the patterns I knew about but, too often, I still saw change efforts fail to realize their promised potential. The result was always the same—unmet promises and frustrated leaders. There had to be something else influencing outcomes beyond the patterns I was relying on at the time. Finally, something happened that expanded my appreciation for the crucial role intent plays in change success.

Quantum physicists didn’t discover “quarks” (an elementary particle of matter) through direct inspection. (They can’t be seen.) They were revealed by recognizing that certain experimental outcomes could only be possible if quarks existed. In the same way, at first, I didn’t directly perceive an intent pattern that differentiated successful change from unsuccessful change. What I did notice, however, was that certain change successes and failures couldn’t be explained unless something of this nature was influencing the outcome. In effect, I saw what wasn’t there but I couldn’t decipher what should actually fill the gap. Seeing a hole in the constellation of variables left me curious but it didn’t bring to light the missing part itself.

It wasn’t until I had exposure to an intent specialist that I could actually see what could fill the vacant slot in the formula. I was fortunate to come across the work of someone who had isolated and refined the art of helping people clarify what they really wanted to achieve and how to articulate it so others could understand, relate to, and join the journey. He called himself an intent architect. As soon as I saw what he was doing, I realized this was the pattern I had been looking for.

As we explored the implications of his work, we found that what we eventually labeled intent management isn’t just a pattern—it is an important lens that reveals several patterns beneath it. After much scrutiny, we found that sponsors who are successful with their change endeavors pay as much attention to the change as they do to changing. They are extremely clear about their intention, they seek alignment on it across their leadership team, they communicate it effectively (usually using fewer words, but conveying more meaning), and, finally, they ensure their actions and decisions (and that of other key leaders) are consistent with it throughout the implementation process.

Strategic initiatives are, by nature, complex undertakings. They involve and affect many people in numerous ways. Their intended outcomes may take months, or even years, to fully realize. Usually, only a few people conceive them, but they cannot be brought to fruition without large and often diverse teams. Ultimately, they involve asking people to embrace new ideas, concepts, or practices that may be challenging to accommodate. It’s no wonder that the result is often very different from what was expected by the originators of the process.

A vital element to closing the gap is focused attention on intent.

What Is Intent?

Properly positioned, intent is a complete, concise, understandable, and compelling expression of the expectations for an initiative.

  • It is complete. The full view of what will be delivered is in one place, and a context is established so people have an anchor to which all elements of the change can be related. This provides an important unifying effect for targets.
  • It is concise. Everyone can be continually aware of the intent at all times. Once the intent becomes too convoluted for people to remember, their decisions and actions begin to diverge from it.
  • It is understandable. It can be easily communicated to and comprehended by all involved in executing the strategy.
  • It is compelling. People feel drawn to the value it will create for themselves and the organization.

When change is successful, it is typically because the initiating sponsor and his or her leadership team have established intent. Once their intent statement is formulated, they then convey what is expected to happen. When properly formulated and communicated, an intent declaration drives the implementation process, guides decisions, and answers questions.

Becoming grounded and unified on intent involves much more than finding words the senior team can agree on. The language used to articulate intent is merely a starting point. Team members must connect with the true purpose at a much deeper level. Ultimately, they must deeply commit to realizing what the intent stands for. This requires movement in five distinct areas:

  • From words, to shared meaning
  • From meaning, to believing in the possibility being created
  • From believing, to aligning with that vision as a team
  • From aligning, to committing resources and funding it
  • From committing, to staking their personal reputations on delivering what was promised

All of these things—words, meaning, belief, alignment, commitment, and staking reputation—must exist in parallel.

  • The words consist of the language used to articulate what realization of the desired outcome looks like.
  • The meaning is the interpretation people have of the words used.
  • Belief refers to how plausible people perceive the endeavor to be, given the human, technical, and financial resources available as well as the challenges and pitfalls that lie ahead.
  • Alignment is the united and visible political stance taken in support of the desired outcome.
  • Commitment requires that people’s internal beliefs and overt actions reflect an imperative to attain the true purpose of the initiative—not just its installed appearance.
  • Risking reputation means the stakes are extremely personal; the leaders have made not just an organizational declaration to themselves and to key constituencies, but a personal promise that, “while on my watch, this will succeed.”

Certainly, members of the senior team have responsibility for ensuring their intent is effectively communicated to everyone involved, but they cannot do it all themselves. That’s the added complication. The key messages have to go through layers of other people without losing their impact. This is a vital part of enrolling all those who will be affected, but it is particularly important that the people selected as sustaining sponsors and the agents responsible for building and carrying out the plan of execution resonate with the intent.

Is complete, concise, understandable, and compelling intent a constraint or a straitjacket for implementation teams? Will they be frustrated by its rigidity? Usually, it’s quite to the contrary. When managed properly, intent enables people to engage in executing strategy and leveraging  their creativity while remaining confident that they will produce the expected results.

Next: The Path of Intent Management