Looking at the concept of Intentional Organisation, I got recently asked if I had a position on the difference between Intent and Intention. The reason is that Intentional can refer to both words, and although these words are often used interchangeably, there seems to be a meaningful difference.
The origin of these words
Both words derive from the Latin verb intendĕre, which means the act of stretching out or reaching out to something. Both words arrived in the English language through French (“entente”, “ententional”), and both also exist in Italian (“Intento”, “Intenzione”).
They are used with significant overlaps in their meaning, often almost interchangeably, even if a difference exists.
Intent is more often defined as a purpose that a person wants to achieve. The word is mainly used in legal language to underline the state of someone’s mind at the time, for example, of committing an offence.
Intention is more often associated with a course of action towards a purpose or a goal. Thus, it relates to activity much more than a pure idea.
Another noticeable difference
is that “intention” is a countable noun, and “intent” is uncountable. This stresses, even more, the fact that while I can have multiple intentions
in terms of pursuing different actions, my intent
is more intangible and abstract.
“Intent” is a mindset rather than something on a to-do list; it’s what you carry in your mind when you pursue your intention.
“Intent” would be a held mindset or purpose, whereas “intention” would be the act of having that mindset or purpose.
Why is this relevant?
The word Intentional can be rooted in both words. From an organisation design point of view, being intentional translates therefore into a twofold intellectual experience:
- Define the intent of your design activity, i.e. the purpose of what you want to achieve.
- Pursue a number of intentions for your design process to be implemented, which represent the different courses of action you will be pursuing.
If it may still resemble a sterile differentiation of meanings, its importance will be clearer if we think of unintentional consequences of a specific activity. When we use that term, what are we referring to? A missing Intent or a missing Intention?
I think that a lot of org design activities are intentional in the sense that are pursued with a varying degree of intention. But the intent might not always be formalised, because not enough time is taken to define the underlining connecting coherence system.
At an overall organisational level, this can be seen very well when we look at the intent of an organisation (its purpose
), and then we compare it with its strategic intentions
. How often there’s a lack of coherence there?
On being intentional
Therefore, being intentional means being clear about Intent and Intentions at different systemic levels:
With yourself. What is your intent with this project? Why are you doing it? What do you want to achieve? What are your intentions? Can you detail your course of action? How do they align?
With your team. Does the team collectively understand its intent? Why does the team exist, what is its purpose? How will it achieve its results? What means will it use?
With the entire organisation. Is the intent of the organisation clear? What is needed to define it? How do we translate that into intentions for the organisation?
There might be additional layers, but the meaning stays, and the process as well.
A Consistency Framework
The distinction between the two words helps also to reframe two of the topics we have recently covered in this newsletter.
Organisational Debt. We have seen how debt is not a problem in itself, the issue being the level of awareness. Clearly defining the organisation’s intent will facilitate the strategic management of debt making it an intentional choice, with planning activities.
Conway’s Law. We have seen how this is an unintentional consequence of organisational choices. Clarifying intent and intentions from an organisation’s point of view will support the creation of better consistency between an organisation’s design and its effect on the environment.
Consistency or even congruence from an organisation’s standpoint are fundamental concepts that I have covered often, and the careful usage of these two words can help an even better understanding of the need for these.