Military intelligence lessons migrated into the commercial world

Before reading this article, written for the SCIP magazine, you may be expecting many useful Military Intelligence tools and tips. But films and TV don’t offer an accurate reflection of military intelligence. The reality may seem so much more mundane because the best tools used are your mind, your attitude and simple common sense.

That said, there are many skills involved in the Military Intelligence field which are relevant to life within the commercial world. The Military teaches us that when the chips are down, instead of panicking, have a cup of tea. Strap on your pack, pick up your rifle, give your team mates some banter and get on with it. It may be a British thing, but if you are struggling to find information, have a laugh at yourself. Call yourself a name and get back to it.

Choose the right team with the right skills

The first military lesson is to ensure that you have the most suitable and highly trained team possible to match the situation being faced. In the military, you would not have a special forces SAS Troop tasked to feed five hundred people. You wouldn’t give the job of breaking an embassy siege to the Women’s Royal Balloon Corps just because they were around the corner at the time and had just finished another project. When planning the retake of the embassy the military don’t use the Marketing intern or Marketing Assistant to do a Google based report. Also, they don’t buy an existing research report on “how to break embassy seizes” written by a consultancy 3 years ago.

A quick Google search

It may sound funny, but this sort of mismatch all too often seen in the corporate world. Marketing assistants may asked to look for competitor information or to help find someone to do Competitive Intelligence for them. A quick google search undertaken with the assumption that this will give enough intelligence. Quality intelligence, is where they ask the right questions. Where they use the best tools, which goes deep and turns over every stone, is the result of many years of training and experience.

The 7 Ps

The military has a saying “Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents “Particularly” Poor Performance.” This teaches us that real leadership is to ensure you have a well thought out plan which includes a “don’t give up” attitude. Nevertheless, the military also teaches us that sometimes you have to change your plan when situations on the ground demand it. If you are unable to do this, sticking rigidly to what you were told to do, then you will soon lose the respect of your team, or worse. So, if you are trying to collect information and it is becoming impossible, change the way you are doing the research. Approach the mountain of information from a different angle.


Accuracy is a crucial demand within both Military and Competitive Intelligence, especially if there is a good chance that what you create could be used in the field. In the Military, Intelligence has to be accurate, or it risks lives: lives of people and their families you will never meet. Walking hand in hand with accuracy is common sense and the ability to think quickly and calmly. You can only do this if you are confident in your ability, are well trained, and are experienced. The same applies to the commercial world.

Don’t dumb down, rough it up

Get away from your desk and talk to people in the business; meet the people who will know what you want to know. Get in the field and look at your competitors. See what is going on at their locations. Don’t trespass or wear your corporate uniform but just watch and maybe even find an excuse to walk around the perimeter. Always have a reason as to why you are there, just in case someone asks. They rarely will.


The Military has its fair share of mundane work to do, especially during training. It allows you to learn skills that could save your life. Surveillance training is 99% boring and soul-destroying. If you are not switched on, and you miss that magic 1%; then it is back to the barracks for you. The Military teaches us to realise mundane work is just as important as the sexy stuff. Also, it is what at least 90% of your competitors will not do as they cannot be bothered, because they get bored with it.

Accepting orders

Like in the Military, when you take an order from a client, it means that you have accepted instruction and so the mission comes first. In the Military, you are prepared, in extreme circumstances, to even kill to get the answer you are looking for. A similar urgency should be applied to a Competitive Intelligence project.


In the Military, working as part of a team is drilled into you — Parade square, basic training, fitness, forced marches, stretcher race, and telegraph pole. Equivalent solid grounding within the commercial sphere is also provident.

Keeping It Simple

Within the Military, everything is done as simply as possible. If it becomes complicated, then there is a significant chance things will go wrong. The main reason for this is due to the communications chain and when under fire, you tend to get distracted. When you watch a soldier being interviewed after doing something courageous, you will frequently hear them say, “My training kicked in.” Now, Competitive Intelligence is rarely, if ever, a matter of life and death but the lesson here is that you should break down the process and the actual final Intelligence into simple, workable elements and provide consistent and easy to understand reports.

Clear direction

“Storm that hill from your right at 0600 to take out the machine gun post,” is much better than, “We have looked at the data model, used the algorithm and found that 60% of all field commanders would attack this hill from your right and the optimum time to attack is 0600 because sleep patterns will be disrupted. Here is a pie chart…”

Standard Operating Procedures

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are tools used within the Military to ensure that you know what to do in every conceivable situation; it reduces panic and increases professionalism. SOPs detail everything, down to where your personal first aid kit is to be placed in your jacket. This means that if you are out of action, then the person looking after you knows exactly where to find it. Within Competitive Intelligence, SOPs are essential to ensure that when collecting information, you have covered every possible aspect and you know where to find the information.

Take a lot of bullshit

The Military teaches you to cope with politics, manage incompetent officers and even senior staff who have been promoted because of the time they have served and not their capability. Surprisingly, this also an aspect of the corporate world too. It is important to get the right people around the table. It does not matter how junior or senior they are. If they have something to contribute, don’t stand in their way. On one occasion in Germany, around the time that Ukraine became independent, at a conference with military and civilian attendees, senior military personnel considered the request by a GCHQ representative to invite less senior army personnel to participate to be a breach of etiquette. On that occasion, thankfully, key additional insights were shared and applied as a result.

Get on parade

Basic military training such as marching up and down, shining your boots, and so forth is excellent to ensure you are able to take orders, react to basic commands, and that you can work as a team. It also shows to work ing formation, you have to practice for hours and plan everything you do.

Within the Military, it shows the enemy that the army is working as one, is prepared, professional, and everything is planned to the eighth degree. It is a message to the enemy that if they choose to fight, they are going to lose. It also teaches standards which have to be maintained. Similar best practices are also virtues in the corporate world; high standards should help to ensure you do the job properly.

So what is Military Intelligence based on?

The first thing to learn from the Military Intelligence Cycle is that simplicity is fundamental. Many think it may have had its day, however, it has stood the test of time because of its simplicity and because it simply works. This does not mean it cannot be developed or used with other models. In a very chaotic world simplicity remains very important.

What do you really want?

In the Military, projects are started by first defining what needs to be done, what the key problems are, and from this, a distinct goal of what is to be achieved can be determined. The Military’s the first requirement is the defence of the realm. In the corporate world, it is rare for companies to understand what their key elements are. The challenge is much more than simply beating your competitor. After you have beaten them, it is vital to have a strategic plan for what comes next.

Organisations need to have clarity as to their end game. Is it to out last their competitors, to sell the company, float on the stock exchange, to totally dominate the industry.

Key Intelligence Questions

The Military defines questions depending on how quickly the decision-maker needs the Intelligence. If there is short notice, then it will be one single, clearly defined and understood the question. If there is time to work with, then it tends to be a single question with a number of associated questions to answer. These principles are equally valid in the commercial world.


How many times do companies go into a market without any real knowledge? How many times do companies buy a rival without really knowing enough about them? The answer is a lot more often than you would think. The Military will never target a country which they know nothing about. Military Intelligence will keep a sharp focus on the target. So likewise, in commercial Intelligence, in order to support answering the questions, it is essential that you keep a watching brief on your market. In the corporate world, what intelligence topics do you think you will want to focus on now, next week, next year, or the next 5 years?

What’s normal?

There is so much more to it than just monitoring the media for example. Getting to understand what is normal so as to determine what is unusual is essential. Finding out and monitoring the key players, what they are thinking, and how they manage their business and their ambitions, etc., are essential. Monitoring tactics, morale, and motivation; or in Military terms, their troop and equipment strengths, locations of all their forces, etc., all deliver useful insights.


What is the secret of good collection? Again, focus on keeping it simple. If you know precisely what to look for, and you are not diluting your search by looking for 10 different things, then you will find it a lot easier with significantly more useful outputs.

Consistently search and record every piece of information possible. Do not reach conclusions during the collection. Stay focused on the facts. When talking to people, don’t confuse them or make them suspicious. Ask them one simple question with supporting questions. Ensure you have the right equipment which is clean, prepared, and simple that will work well when you need it, is not easy to break and is easy to use — “Squaddie proof,” as they call it in the British Army.

Telling lies

There is no such thing as a human lie detector. There are many things you need to consider, and the Military teaches you that it is the way you ask questions, not what you ask. It teaches you that one of the ways to build a connection with people is by asking questions, active listening, and decoding non-verbal behaviour. It is really pretty simple because when you ask questions, the other person’s brain is automatically engaging. This is particularly evident when putting a person under pressure. There are many books and resources out there which detail some of the indicators that someone may be lying, however, experience builds up an ability to identify many indicators, but that is precisely all they are, simply indicators that someone may be lying. However, if you spend your time talking and looking out the window, you will miss those indicators that help build a more complete scope of understanding.

What’s your favourite Military related analysis tool?

Within the Military, Traffic Analysis was one of the most vital tools used. Traffic Analysis was created in world War 2 by the Bletchley Park-based genius, Gordon Welchman. At the time, encrypted messages could not be read so he concentrated on what could be understood. The first few letters and numbers of each message were not in code; these were call signs, like addresses, identifying who the messages were to and from.

Traffic Analysis

Welchman started to track these call signs, who was communicating with whom, how often and in which direction. This simple observation, that a message must include details of the sender and the receiver, allowed Welchman to see the entire network of the enemy, using the power of traffic analysis. We can all see many networks out there today. Social Media is packed with networks. Traffic Analysis is incredibly useful if you have the right tools and, more importantly, the ability to do mundane work to achieve revealing results. You cannot understand what your competitors are saying to their customers, but you can see who is talking to whom. As with all networks, patterns emerge, and a great picture can emerge. Other key analysis tools used in the Military and the corporate world are:

  • Key assumption checks used at the start, middle and end of a project
  • Analysis of Competing Hypotheses
  • What-if analysis
  • Devils advocacy
  • Brainstorming

However, the best analysis tools are a piece of paper and a quiet room. Place pictures and words on the page and then try and link them. Move things around; put them into patterns. Don’t over think and things will start to emerge. Verify and prove them to move forward.


The Military teaches us that the end report is not an opportunity to look clever. There should be a considerable use of graphs and statistics without over- reliance on excessive wording and terminology. Tell them what the answers are as simply and quickly as possible. You may use Big Data whilst analysing the information to turn it into Intelligence, but do the decision makers really need to see your working out with your explanation?

Presenting Tools

In the Military, there is no better example of how important it is to get your message across to people who need to decide what to and those who are tasked to do it. Imagine the eve of a battle and the general stands up to address their men. Armed with Intelligence and a plan, he outlines how he is going to defeat the enemy. He realises that his troops and commanders will have difficulty in understanding the environment they will be fighting in. But not to worry, he is prepared, and he reveals a fantastic PowerPoint presentation and a SWOT diagram! Teams have to get in a breakout group and discuss the plan and isolate what the Intelligence means to them.

Keep it Simple

As you can perhaps understand, this is going to worry the troops, who like to know which way to go and what to shoot at. As discussed already, the Military uses orders, Standard Operating Procedures, and they are highly trained.

To keep it simple, the general delivers a succinct, inspiring message everyone understands and replaces the SWOT diagram with something called a Map. Maps are simple to understand and, when in the battlefield, maps can be drawn in the sand with features recreated with pebbles and bits of stick.

From these maps, commanders in the field build models of specific areas and buildings they need to focus on. The Military teaches us all to keep things simple, work as a team, prepare well and, in order to ensure we know what to do and where to go, use a map.

About Octopus Intelligence

When you need to win more business. When you need greater certainty when investing and making important decisions. And when you just need to beat your competitors. So we answer the questions when you just need to know. We are Octopus the global Competitive Intelligence service company.

We understand we live in an increasingly uncertain, competitive and ever-shifting world. And what you need is an active real-world business development strategy.

UK based Competitive Analysis consultants with a global client base. Offering Competitive intelligence-based growth-focused actions. To answer the what and the how for the now and the next.

So we help you beat competitors, increase sales, be disruptive, enter new markets and invest with more certainty. As Competitor Analysis and Market Intelligence consultants, we offer Strategic Intelligence. Competitive Intelligence, and back ground checking.