Military Intelligence Lessons

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. 

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.


 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
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 
 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
 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
 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.

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
 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

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.

Home » Blog » Analysing Competitive Intelligence » Military Intelligence Lessons
This is a drawing of the Octopus Intelligence Logo By Octopus Competitive Intelligence, Due Diligence, Competitor Analysls, Market Analysis, Competitor Research and Strategic Business Development to beat your competitors, increase sales and reduce risk

About Octopus

We're all about your competitive advantage.

We offer bespoke people-powered competitive intelligence services.

  • To get to know your competitors better
  • See what’s next in your market
  • Win more business

Trusted by brands, middle-market players, fintechs, investors and startup innovators operating in disruptive and traditional sectors.

Creating the insight you can do something with.