Using commander’s intent in the science lab

Focusing on the “why” instead of the “how” of experiments can make you a more flexible and efficient scientist, says Daniel Bojar 

June 28, 2019

In the lab, it’s easy to fall into this pattern: you plan one experiment and then, while you’re in the process of setting it up, you’re already planning the next one and the one after that. But all the experiments are conditional on the success of the first one. And then, because this is science after all, the initial experiment doesn’t work and you’re left devastated. Sound familiar? It certainly does to me! My plans for weeks are in ruins after the first experiment fails. It’s an all too common pattern, especially in the early phases of my PhD.

And there is another common pattern that at first glance seems to be distinct from this: haphazardly planning unconnected experiments, stumbling from lab week to lab week and hoping for a breakthrough. 

But during my PhD, I’ve come to realise that the origin of both these patterns is a lack of focus. Not the I-can’t-concentrate-even-after-three-coffees lack of focus, but the one that comes when you don’t have an overarching goal and purpose. Of course I focused on the planning, execution and analysis of my experiments. Yet I realised that I was lacking the other sort of focus, the higher-level focus of my project and my research.

Like most PhDs, I read a lot and I try to expose myself to diverse topics, picking up nonfiction books from all corners of academia. So it was actually twice that I independently stumbled upon the concept of  “commander’s intent”.

The first time was in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath and the second was in the stellar Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. Commander’s intent (or if you prefer the slightly tongue-in-cheek abbreviation, CSI) refers to a concept in military planning that I think carries great value for a whole range of situations, one of which is the lab work in a research project.

Military commanders like to plan really well. In fact, they plan in a style similar to the first experiment routine I mentioned, building on the assumed success of previous steps.

But, to paraphrase the great Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. The whole plan can be derailed by weather vagaries or a wrong turn on the road. Analogous mishaps can (and did) happen to me at any given time in the lab. Like the time it took weeks of cloning a stubborn plasmid I needed for an experiment, which stalled my sequence of planned experiments.

Enter commander’s intent. To combat the uncertainties of war, the military established a system in which the actual intent of the order was written on top. So in addition to how the officer or soldier should fulfil their duties, commander’s intent ensured that the why was also evident. In fact, the why on every order should be so abundantly clear that it’s understandable for soldiers several ranks lower than the recipient of the order.

What this enables is flexibility. The true goal of a defence assignment, for example, is probably not holding the bridge but rather barring enemy access to the other side of the river. As soon as the true goal of the mission is made clear, alternative actions can be independently taken in case of adversity.

The same is true in research. I realised that what you’re doing is far less important than why you do it. 

So I began to live by commander’s intent by constantly reminding myself of the overarching goal of my current actions. Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m more of a foot soldier while I’m conducting the experiments. But while I’m planning out the research project in the first place I’m in the general’s role. That’s why I have to break it down and always keep the long-term goal in my head.

Now when I run into problems with a plasmid that doesn’t want to be cloned, I think of a different way or a different experiment to achieve my overarching goal instead of wasting weeks on a recalcitrant plasmid. Now when an experiment fails, I’m considerably less discouraged because I know that the goal still stands unperturbed and I just have to find another way to get to it. Now I have the goal to guide me. It’s not only a lot healthier for myself, but I believe it also makes me a more effective scientist.

Daniel Bojar is a PhD student in the department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich.

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Reader's comments (2)

This is the difference, to continue the military analogy, between strategy and tactics. The objective may be to take that castle over there on the hill... that's your strategy. But you have plenty of tactics available: siege engines, assault, undermining the walls, starving the occupants out... or you may go Greek on them and leave a Trojan Horse outside the gates. You may well employ several of them, depending on the circumstances, but everything you do is focussed on the objective: to take the castle.
It's called contingency planning. I would have thought realising (independently?) that approach is the way to do research is a prerequisite to gaining a PhD place. Doesn't anyone interview nowadays? Middle of interview questions: i) What would you do if your research plans go astray? ii) How would you plan your research to enable it to continue if experiments fail? None, or incorrect answers - thank you for attending the interview, but you have failed to meet the required standard. Goodbye. (And if the response to that is weeping or moaning, then the interviewee is certainly proven not up to undertaking a PhD.) The above is almost the same requirement for science A level I would have thought, so quite a basic methodology really.

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