Product Management and The Fog of War

I think about The Fog of War in the context of product management often. The term started as shorthand for an important concept during battle:

The fog of war is the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. The term seeks to capture the uncertainty regarding one’s own capability, adversary capability, and adversary intent during an engagement, operation, or campaign.

Of course, most of us of a certain age know this concept mainly from video games where it refers to enemy units, and often terrain, being hidden from the player until the area is explored. Here’s an example from Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2:

This concept—both in its military and gaming contexts—can be really helpful to guide our thinking about planning, prioritization, and execution. Let’s first look at the original meaning, and how the 3 uncertainties of the “fog of war” can effect our decision-making on planning and prioritization:

  1. The uncertainty regarding one’s own capability. We are often worried that what we build might not be good enough to win over customers.
  2. The uncertainty regarding adversary (competitor) capability. We are often worried that competitors might build something faster and better than we would (ChatGPT, anyone?) and that it will destroy us.
  3. The uncertainty regarding adversary (competitor) intent during [a project]. We don’t know what our competitors are planning to build next.

These uncertainties can sometimes paralyze our decision-making—or worse, lead us down a path of making decisions based on our fear of the unknown. When we go into our planning cycles we have to make sure that we act only on what we know about our business and our users, and the information we have available to us. We cannot let the fog of war derail us to make prioritization decisions out of fear and uncertainty of what others might do.

That leads into what we can learn about execution from the gaming context of this concept. When I talk to our teams about project plans I often refer to our planning documents as “a road sign into the fog.” I encourage teams to make sure the direction and first few steps are known based on the information we have, and then to add and edit their plans as the fog starts to lift.

At Postmark we use a project plan template that you can view on Github here. I’ve written about this document a couple of times (see here and here), and the most important principle we live by is our commitment to these plans being “living documents”. We don’t fill out the whole thing up front (there’s too much fog out there!), we host it in Google Docs, and everyone on the team has full edit access. We truly work on it together—and as the fog lifts, we keep editing until we feel comfortable with the level of uncertainty that remains in the system.

The next time you enter a planning cycle I encourage you to think about the fog of war and how it might be influencing your decisions. When are you guided by uncertainty, despite all the things you do know about your business and customers? When are you trying to map out areas that no one has explored, and that you simply don’t have enough knowledge about yet? How can you focus just on “the next right thing” and trust that as you go, the fog of war will lift, and the road will become clear?