Here’s just the sort of diagram that you might find in a book about product management. Or maybe it could be something that the VP of Product Management presents to other groups in the company, to explain the PM team’s strategy for understanding customer requirements.

OK, I lied. It’s not a diagram from a product management or product marketing presentation. Here’s the real version of the diagram, which comes from an article in the Small Wars Journal, the magazine for people in the business of fighting guerrillas and terrorists. The article’s title is a bit of a mouthful: Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Collection Management in the Brigade Combat Team during COIN: Three Assumptions and Ten “A-Ha!” Moments on the Path to Battlefield Awareness.

It’s no accident that you can change a few words in a presentation about fighting IEDs in Iraq and have something that seems like a credible approach to understanding customer requirements. In the early years of the war in Iraq, the US military confronted its failure to fight the varied insurgent groups effectively. Among many, many other problems with the occupation, the military didn’t really know much about the insurgents, and had a hard time understanding why Iraqis supported or tolerated them.

Slowly, painfully, military and civilian officials had to admit that conventional military approaches weren’t working. The traditional “general’s war,” such as Operation DESERT STORM in 1991, depended on a top-down approach to intelligence, strategy, and execution. Lower-level commanders, at the company, platoon, or battalion level needed some degree of “local initiative” to make DESERT STORM a success. However, the overall effort fit how the US military was organized, trained, and equipped.

A decade later, American officials had to recognize that the general’s war didn’t fit the war in Iraq. What was needed, instead, was a “captain’s war,” in which intelligence, strategy, and execution often flowed from the bottom up. In the new Iraqi battlefield, understanding and monitoring life in a particular Baghdad neighborhood was the key to success–not something you get from a headquarters hundreds of miles away from that neighborhood.

The authors of the article describe changes they had to make to their information management approach that will sound pretty darn familiar to PMs:

As we began to centrally consolidate our IRs from all of our intelligence soldiers who received
them, we saw the need for some sort of organized matrix. So, we put them all into a basic collection plan (ref. FM 34-2) and tried to tie them to the generic priority intelligence requirements (PIR) that we had adopted from the unit we replaced. We inputted these IRs into an
Excel™ spreadsheet and distributed it through e-mail, but soon found out that e-mailing 27 versions of the latest matrix to 200 plus requestors and 50 plus asset managers became impossible to track!

When confronted with the miscommunication resulting from this chaos, we decided to upload the spreadsheet onto an HTML SharePoint Portal (not an FTP folder), as a central depository where everyone could look at what everyone was asking and see what had already been answered. When we decided to do everything online, we quickly realized that we didn’t know
where our own information was, never mind attempting to direct other people to our own products.

They also had to admit that their focus on the competition was far too narrow. The enemy was part of a larger social fabric, as complex as, oh, say, a lot of decision-making processes that B2B marketing people struggle to understand:

Common wisdom-–also doctrine—dictates that if a group of IRs are answered, thereby fulfilling a commander’s PIR, then the commander should be able to take action at the DP tied to the PIR. That is the “magic” of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). We had the IRs tasked and we were collecting on PIR but our magic pot refused to boil. We asked ourselves, “Is our Intel section really helping this Brigade’s operations?”

We looked at our priorities of effort, our PIR list, and the first “A Ha!” hit us with, “Hmm, they’re all anti-enemy, but most of our operations are pro-Iraqi.” Additionally, most of the phone calls we get are questions about ‘this local leader’, ‘that entrepreneur’, ‘the other doctor’, ‘the sewage lines’, or a hundred similar issues.

Read the article to find other parallels to life in the technology industry.

At Forrester, we like to talk about the shift from information technology (IT) to business technology (BT). Now that technology is deeply intertwined in how people work, it’s no surprise that users demand real value from the technology on which they depend.

Vendors need to change their intelligence, strategy, and execution, to adapt to a changing marketplace. Victory doesn’t go to the biggest battalions, or the largest feature list. Therefore, the people at the top of the company have to give their subordinates more “local initiative.” The people closest to the target need the authority and resources needed to develop strategy from the bottom up.

Since both product managers and platoon commanders should have no trouble understanding the previous paragraph, it’s clear that technology professionals should pay attention to some of the lessons learned from military professionals.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]