What the U.S. military taught me about product management



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What the U.S. military taught me about product management

My learnings from observing the best and everyone around me.

By George Pak from Pexels

Right this moment, I can quite literally sense the physical sensations I felt in a remote location during July 2007, somewhere in the state of New York, sometime around 11PM, soot black all around me.

After sprinting up a 3–15% elevation incline (who the heck knew for sure when you had no night vision to activate your senses) for the succeeding ten minutes, I saw the light.

I found the finish. This is where all the soldiers gathered at the end of their land navigation test.

Believe me, after hours and hours of orienting yourself in coal blackness, and realizing you are going to make your time and not fail, that glim of light in the horizon felt like one of many bucket list milestones.

I observed a soldier struggling in pain. A bruising was obvious, and a medic was operating on them (all monitored in silence by a few other senior soldiers directly involved in the completion of this event).

They did not finish the event (received a no-pass, but this is alright — keep reading.) In fact, she disclosed that she chose not to finish the event. Just to give you a general idea, this was a pretty enormous decision to make back then, as it may require that soldier to return and retake that test (the following year).

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It is those conversations that were taking place during and after this particularity, between the female soldier and those around her, between soldiers unimpacted by the situation near her, and eventual conversations about lessons learned afterwards, that make up very much a repetitive learning opportunity for so much soldiers that transition into the civilian workforce.

And, this is the crux of it for this post — how did she express herself in that moment and thereafter, what did others say to her, and what the impact was.

For one, many think or assume that those in the military “follow orders.” This is not the reality at all, even in the more complex sense. In fact, I find that the military culture is the most empathetic that I have ever experienced. It is an insurmountable task to reveal the surpassing framework woven organically by the members of the military as to how they engage with each other (and show, through their persona gravity, the relevant attributes that do the “leading”).

Things get done, not because anyone has any direct authority over a cohort, but attributable to people who ceaselessly converge on the value of mission.

I argue that the supermajority (the plural they) do the things because they choose to. The military is less about completing tasks as directed and more about nudging to inform the imperatives, details, specifics of the mission (and how the soldiers fit into that mission).

The affinity and fellowship around her, the vivid imagery I described above, can translate to the following technical talk:

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— How did she, along with the team around her, deal with the failure? She knew the extreme price of ending that event. Regardless of the medical condition she was in, she knew of the exact consequences.

— How did she problem-solve, from receiving the prompt (pain sensory signals), identifying that use case for decision tree inquiry (self-assessment), and terminating the life cycle implementation (the product, in this case herself completing the test).

— Business outcomes vs. cost. I spoke to her. She was relentlessly self-examining.

— She told me she was constantly innovating, trying to come up with new ideas and generate some form of new learnings to get out of the situation she was in (and still finish).

— She was critical about her decision afterwards. Over time, she made the effort to fully consider all points of view. She went out of her way requesting feedback.

— She inspired a lot of people around her based on the insights she shared for what happened to her out there.

— She showed immense sensitivity for the way she was perceived. At no point should anything think it is about quitting or ending. Rather, it is about making decisions based on the information she had.

— How she presented herself in the role of an ambassador, ensuring everyone understood the significance of her decision, how that decision is connected to the overarching theme of traversing through life (not so much about “winning and quitting”.)

— Remarkable authenticity. Everyone knew who she was; it was no surprise the way she expressed the what, how, the why, for when it was time to reveal to other folks that she was a no-pass.

Many things matter for product success, whether it’s a data science product, data as a product — just about anything can be productized now through prototyping. (In essence, there is no final product because everything is in a perpetual state of prototyping.)

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I learned five things in the military that helped me become my best version as a product leader.

1. How to problem-solve. This is essential in product management: we need to be able to receive any prompt, use case, understand how to get started, regardless of the amount of experience we have.

2. How to deal with failure. We recognize and address the inevitable shortcomings in the product life cycle: more designs are produced than shipped, bugs are introduced, and feature branches are closed. If they tell you no, we must consider changing course and look for fresh information.

3. How we innovative: we constantly seek new ideas and learn new things. We design for the long-term, take full advantage of emerging technology, embrace innovation, and keep building, iterating, and expanding. We build on top of successful practices and try new things. They continually evaluate and seek feedback from users and constantly strive to get better at what we do.

4. Decisions must be made. Strategies, action items in the short- and long-term. Priorities. I cannot think of a minute in the military that passed without a situation I dealt with that I felt I could simply go quietly into the night with ease. In product, decisions are needed as frequently as the number of “A/B tests” and prototypes.

5. For me, this is one of the more important ones: how to lead (and inspire). In product, we work in teams with little to no direct authority. Nudging is an indispensable form of communication when it is conveyed in an effective form. We want our peers, teams, leaders, to think big, dream big. We want to sense the positive energy around us around a vision.

Consider this. People emulate others because they see their peers or leaders behaving a certain way. My best product successes and most pictorial experiences from the military are only ascribable to people’s willingness to work with their peers.

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