In his haunting and inspiring book, “The Outpost – An Untold Story of American Valor”, Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) tells the story of the brave soldiers who gave their lives and honor to defend Combat Outpost (COP) Keating in the remotest part of Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border.  COP Keating was originally envisioned as a Provincial Reconstruction Team base.  To quote wikipedia, PRTs in Afghanistan are:

” the primary civil-military relations tool in Afghanistan and Iraq and are described as “’a means to extend the reach and enhance the legitimacy of the central government’” “

Nestled in a remote valley in the Nuristan province, Keating was positioned on the marginally passable road to Kamdesh, providing a base of outreach to the surrounding villages.   The location however was quite vulnerable from a military perspective, surrounded on 3 sides by mountains, prompting just about every soldier who arrived to say, in I’m sure even more colorful language,  “are you *&*&ing kidding me”.

Through 600+ stirring pages, Tapper tells a story of individual bravery and institutional failure.   Under-resourced, understaffed and isolated, the mission of the PRT is abandoned and COP Keating becomes a mostly military operation.  Poorly located, it is an easy target for both ambushes on the supply lines and eventually direct attack.   However, for 3+ years, soldiers and commaders continued to try to build the relationships with local elders to root out insurgents and build critical infrasturcute like water pipelines.   In the end, hundreds of years of tribal conflict, a complicit Pakistani intelligence service, the Taliban and the geography fated the mission; and too many soldiers gave their lives in defense of the outpost, until it was eventually attacked, successfully and bloodily defended and finally intentionally abandoned and then flattened by US bombers in late 2009.

It most certainly trivializes the immense sacrifice of the COP Keating soldiers to find lessons that we might apply to marketing, and before I do so, I want to take a moment to honor and remember their valor, bravery and memory.  At the end of this blog, I’ve listed organizations that you can donate to if you so like. Tapper’s book has moved me deeply, and I have an new found respect for our soldiers, and a renewed disgust with the brutal reality of war.  

So with that pause to reflect, I do find some interesting lessons to learn here.

1) When the mission changes, past decisions may no longer make sense –

When it became clear that the PRT was not going to work, the location became a combat outpost.  In that role, it could not have been in a worse position.   Yet past decisions and senior leadership commitment kept Keating going in its location, despite the change in mission.

If you’ve changed your mission, or pivoted, are you clinging to business decisions that no longer make sense.  Whether key partnerships are no longer strategic, or pricing and packaging are wrong, or team members need to change, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to NOT adjust your tactics to your mission.

2) Surrounded, the position left no real room for maneuvering and defense.  –

If you find Google on one flank, Facebook on the other, and  Oracle on the third, you may NEED to seriously consider repositioning your offering.  You need to find higher ground, move to a local peak that you can own and defend.

3) Despite the urging of those on the ground, the generals were paralyzed by not wanting to change what was clearly a failing strategy.

Are you listening to your team and open to change, or are you stuck and committed to a course of action.  Your sales team and other customer facing parts of the organization are at the coal face.  Listen to the feedback from the front-line.  Do so formally and informally, and do so often.  Change is a must in fast moving markets.

So, be clear on your mission, find higher ground to own and defend, and listen to the team and adjust quickly.  Seems pretty easy to say, but ain’t so easy to do.

(In honor of and in memory of the Soldiers of COP Keating, if you are so moved, here’s a few places you can make donations:  Army Emergency Relief, Defenders of Freedom, Fisher House Foundation Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and the Wounded Warrior Project.

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