What Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs can learn from the Military Intelligence Cycle

By Eicorn’s Venture Developer and Consultant Esin Saribatir

“In 2010, I started my career working for the Australian government. More specifically for the Defence Intelligence Organisation, under the umbrella of the Australian Department of Defence. Before I began, my caring and considerate corporate friends were quick to educate me to all that could (make that, would) go wrong in the public sector – bureaucracy, red tape, inefficiency, a lack of innovation….the list was long! I prepared for the worst. Doomsday. So, to say I was surprised to find the largely meticulous, evidence-based decision-making processes that run at the core of Defence planning and operations is an understatement.”

Having left Defence and Australia to pursue business opportunities, the guessing game that I have come to witness within the corporate world is somewhat concerning. To hear a CEO of a multinational corporation summarise their decision-making process to ‘gut instinct’, or their market research to having spoken to their techie friends, surprises me. To clarify – it’s not so much the source of the information (although this is an important element to assess and evaluate), but the lack of an evidence-based process to drive decision-making, planning and execution. A military commander relying solely on their gut instinct to make operational decisions, or drawing on a single source of information to determine force composition or how to station support elements, is not only unlikely, but would be considered downright dangerous and irresponsible.

That’s not to say all companies within the business environment engage in ill-informed practices, nor to say, as no successful military commander would, that gut instinct or the insights of those closest to you shouldn’t form part of the picture. But that there is value in taking a systematic approach to understanding where you are, where you want to go, and how best to get there. Interestingly, the intelligence cycle offers a neat, four-stage process that can take much of the guessing out of the innovation and venturing process.

Planning and direction

An important starting place for any decision-making process is an accurately identified and clearly articulated objective – an understanding of what exactly you wish to achieve. Operating in a resource-constrained environment, a well-defined objective — whether it be to improve product innovation, explore new organisational practices or devise a new innovation strategy — will create the foundation for success.

Guided by this objective, this phase also includes the identification of available resources and information requirements, the assessment and prioritisation of information requirements, and the tasking and allocation of resources accordingly. Information requirements may include those that fill information gaps, or information sought to confirm or deny planning assumptions.


Within the intelligence realm, collection often refers to the collection of data to fulfil defined information requirements, whether it be via technical (for example signals intelligence) or other means (for example human intelligence). Within the business environment, collection may refer to data or insights collection through market research, open innovation or co-creation processes.

The collection of information allows us to develop a detailed understanding of key questions and considerations, such as our own and understand competitors’ capabilities and vulnerabilities, the market, and/or confirm or deny assumptions.

Analysis and production

While assumptions, bias and human error have the means to penetrate each and every stage of the intelligence cycle, the great intelligence fails of recent years have thrown a spotlight on the methods of information analysis and production of intelligence assessments. Perhaps most importantly, these failures have highlighted the value of utilising and adhering to evidence-based practices and processes, especially when analysing information and its source, and developing forecasts and assessments.

Using a process that seeks to identify inherent biases and assumptions, as well as considers information and sources to disprove a given hypothesis, is likely to provide greater accuracy and reliability rather than a single insight, a lone piece of data, or an unscrutinised, uncorroborated source of information.


In a day and age where information is so readily available, ‘I didn’t have the information’ should not be an acceptable response to business failure. Creating a culture of pushing the right information up, of ensuring decision-makers have the information they need (as determined by the planning and direction phase), should be a priority. This task does not fall to collectors or analysts, but to the executive level. If decision-makers and organisations believe in cultivating well-informed decision-making processes, if they value evidence-based direction, then the task of developing a culture of well-researched, well-analysed, well-assessed decisions starts with them.

Further, fundamental to the successful integration of intelligence is ensuring the right decision-makers and stakeholders receive the end product – those who are going to action the product, by incorporating it into their decision-making processes. Distributing finished products to irrelevant end-users ultimately renders the product, and thus the insights gained, virtually useless.

Feedback and Evaluation

An over-arching consideration of the intelligence cycle, across phases, is the incorporation of feedback and evaluation. Much like within the business world, military operations are predominantly conducted in a volatile environment, with ever-changing mission needs and security considerations that impact information requirements and the tasking of resources. Failing to incorporate robust lines of communication between parties tasked across each phase will not only likely reduce the relevance and timeliness of the information, but at best delay decision-making processes, and at worst result in poor or down-right bad decisions.

As with any process, the devil is in the detail. Having clear parameters and objectives, a detailed collection plan, rigorous analysis and assessment processes, and an effective mechanism for dissemination to key stakeholders will maximise the probability of success.

Finally, in anticipation of the nay-sayers, I must include a caveat. There will always be the CEO, CFO or COO who has an uncanny ability to get it right – without the information, without the analysis, without the assessment. But, as I have suggested to clients in the past, if you are not one of those people, then arm yourself with the knowledge, practices and processes that have historically shown to reduce risks, maximise results and build a culture of successful innovation. Developing the organisational and innovation culture that you wish to see flourish as your business grows – one that capitalises on the opportunity that businesses have, unlike the military, to test and adjust, to prototype and pilot – starts from the top.

Having come from the regimented world of Defence, I thoroughly enjoy the flexibility and discretion the corporate world offers. In this environment, there is so much we can achieve using the right evidence-based approach, tailored to the individual circumstances and unique considerations of each client.

2018-02-11T17:39:35+00:00 May 10th, 2017|