How to Think Like an Intelligence Analyst
People ask me, every now and again, to give them a list of the top methods “good” intelligence analysts should use, or what subjects are most important for an aspirant analyst to study. The truth, however, is that there are no perfect methods to use or universal subjects. Intelligence analysis is almost entirely dependent upon context, and a technique or bit of knowledge that worked in one situation may be completely inappropriate for another, based on a whole host of variables, such as the time available to work on the problem and the number and quality of sources an analyst can make use of.
Intelligence analysis is an art.
That is to say, it is a non-repeatable, creative effort, usually undertaken to solve complex, non-routine problems, with no small bit of imagination — or inferences, if you prefer — and, hopefully, insight. As such, there is no “right” way to do it, no matter what some seminars, guidebooks, or online courses might tell you.
There are, however, a few key human attributes that every great analyst I’ve ever known shares, regardless of the discipline or area they work in. Here are a few I think are particularly important:
Analysts Are Curious
Curiosity is perhaps the foundational attribute of intelligence analysis. Encourage it in others and cultivate it in yourself.
Sherman Kent, the “father” of intelligence analysis, wrote way back in 1948 that what analysts wanted, more than anything, is to know everything. And it’s still true. While we’ll never achieve it, it’s a useful goal, and an apt description of the smartest analysts I’ve known throughout my career in the intelligence community.
Good analysts have an insatiable sense of curiosity. They want to know how things work, they want to know why things are, and they want to know how things might be.
They enjoy learning, and will happily spend hours, days, and weeks pouring through sources to learn as much about the region, function, or subject matter they’re responsible for as possible — along with everything adjacent to it, too.
Analysts Read Everything
I hope you like to read. Like, a lot.
Because good analysts are insatiably curious, they’re also likely to be voracious readers. Good analysts learn in other ways, too, of course — whether podcasts, YouTube videos, or just from having conversations with others. But we’ve not yet invented a better way of transferring knowledge from one mind to another than the written word.
Reading quite literally gives you access to the experiences of others and allows you to transfer their knowledge into your head, across time and space.
It’s really pretty remarkable. So, read.
It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how many years of experience you have. You are necessarily limited to direct experience of only the smallest fraction of the grand tapestry of actions, events, and ideas that combine in novel ways to decide outcomes in this messy, convoluted, and enormously complex world that we’re struggling to understand. If you’re not constantly exposing yourself to new ideas, not continually updating your learning, your performance will be sub-optimal at best.
We all have our favorite formats and genres — you might prefer blog posts or magazine articles, hardcover or ebook, history, biography, or young adult fiction. What you’re reading is often less important than the fact that you are reading at all, learning to imagine other times, places, and perspectives.
You’ll want to read about the topic you’re assigned to cover, of course, but you should also read widely outside it, as well. You never know where you’ll make salient connections, which brings us to…
Analysts See in Systems
Everything is connected; there are no closed systems outside of a laboratory.
Yes, you’ll need to become an expert in the area or subject you’re responsible for. But rather than narrowly fixating on that 100 percent of the time, you should also cultivate broad knowledge and think in terms of linkages, influences, and probabilities.
Intelligence failures usually occur at the seams — which is to say, they happen because analysts who are very knowledgable in a particular subject are too busy digging deeper into their knowledge hole to take the time needed to look up and see what’s going on around them.
It doesn’t matter, for example, how much you know about terrorist groups in Egypt if you don’t recognize that fluctuation in the price of Russian grain on which half the population depends for its daily bread is about to help spark a revolution that will eventually lead to the collapse of a dozen regimes and regional war.
Systems thinking doesn’t come naturally for us. We like to break things down into simple components — that is, we like to analyze them. You need to reverse this habit and expand your thinking to see how a certain piece of information influences and is influenced by other pieces of information. This is actually the opposite of analysis — it is synthesis, but that’s a topic for another post.
Analysts Question Everything
Trust no one, not even (especially) yourself.
Sharp analysts cultivate a healthy sense of skepticism — about their sources, sure — but also about the prevailing narrative, and even about their own conclusions. They are always asking themselves questions like, “What am I missing?”
If you’ve spoken with or listened to many scientists, you’ll notice they hesitate to use words like “truth,” or even words like “fact.” The “truth” is that everything is contingent, context-dependent, and probabilistic. Paleontologist Henry Gee put it well when he said that “Science is the quantification of doubt.”
Familiarizing yourself with the seemingly innumerable cognitive biases we are all subject to will go far towards helping you to think more like a successful intelligence analyst. Learning how to critically evaluate sources will help you to sort through the veritable firehose blast of fluff, human error, and simple misinformation that we are all inundated with these days.
Who is reporting the information you’re using? Where did they come across it? How do they know it’s valid? What biases might they have fallen victim to while they were collecting or preparing it?
Part of your job as an intelligence analyst is asking the hard questions that no one else will, and one of the hardest questions of all is “How might I be wrong?”
Analysts Seek Alternate Views
Nobody has a monopoly on truth, and the situation — any situation — is never as simple as we’d like to think.
The reason we trust science is that it established science is the consensus view of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of experts from all over the world, each of them with a different perspective, each of them with their own set of cognitive biases, and each of them with their own set of values. But through repeated experimentation and validation of one another’s results, they come to an agreement on what the evidence means.
Your job as an analyst is to evaluate the various narratives — or hypotheses if you like — against as many observable or measurable facts as possible, and to then shake out which ones are more or less likely to be ‘correct.’
As much as we try to mitigate bias and adhere to a sense of detached objectivity, the truth is there is no such thing as absolute objectivity. Consider your assumptions, why those are your assumptions, and why they might be wrong.
Cultivating a wide network of other analysts and experts who see things even just a bit differently than you do is one of the best ways to help with this.