Soldier Feedback is Product Management

We’ve had a couple of glaring problems in concept and capability development where we invested millions and millions of dollars into an idea only to find out it’s not a very good idea.

Brian Vogt, a Modeling and Simulation Officer for the US Army, shares how he tests the viability of new tools for soldiers to use on the battlefield and how he communicates the ROI of prototyping.

Soldiers’ lives are in Brian’s hands. He’s a Modeling and Simulation Officer for the US Army. It’s his job to prototype new solutions for soldiers in combat. He’s not building another payments app or social network — he’s building what he described as “Marvel Comic-like” solutions for the soldiers. This includes armed robots and self-driving tanks. Yeah, pretty wild stuff.

With such an ambitious mission, you might assume that Brian has a massive budget at his disposal. But instead, his superiors simply told him to “go make friends.” Not only does Brian need to be resourceful, the decisions he makes could mean the difference between life and death because he’s developing solutions that will be used on the battlefield.

To overcome these challenges, Brian tests new ideas in a simulated environment that he compares to the video game, War Thunder. This approach helps him avoid the all-too-common experience of building something that users don’t actually want. Brian even reflected on how that manifested prior to instilling his new approach:

“We’ve had a couple of glaring problems in concept and capability development where we invested millions and millions of dollars into an idea only to find out it’s not a very good idea.”

Now, Brian tests ideas on a smaller scale in a low-consequence environment and iterates based on feedback from his users (i.e. soldiers). “Success is built on a stack of failure that you learn from,” he told me.

Brian’s modern approach to “soldier research” also helps him with the common challenge of trying to make an impact on the organization by rallying stakeholders. Here’s what he told me about how user feedback helps him make his case:

“It’s difficult for senior folks to not like something because of their intuition when you have research that indicates their intuition isn’t as they had thought it was.”

By getting his solutions in front of users earlier in the development cycle, Brian reduces the cost of iterating and ultimately improves his chances of hitting on something that works.

“What I want to do is improve our batting average of actually get something fielded by looking at many more options in a low-cost, no-consequence environment.”

You’ll learn a ton from this episode about how to build prototypes and get buy-in from internal stakeholders.

Here are some of the highlights: 

  • How the military has historically tested new ideas (7:45)
  • How Brian uses simulated game environments to get feedback from soldiers (15:45)
  • How Brian prototypes solutions in a life-or-death situations (19:45)
  • How Brian fails fast and stays lean while still providing the safest conditions for his soldiers (25:40)
  • How Brian communicates the ROI of prototyping (27:40)

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