How to Think Like an Intelligence Analyst

Five Traits to Cultivate

Zachery Tyson Brown
6 min readApr 30, 2021


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…