Whether you work in the private sector, for the government, at a multi-national company, or in an intelligence agency, your analysis skills are of vital importance to the daily decisions of your leadership. It doesn’t matter if you are reading open source materials, industry secrets, or reports from operators in the field—how you think about and package your insights should be useful to the boss.

Lesson from the Analysis Trenches

I have been on the collection and production end of information handling over the years and want to offer some of the lessons I observed. I had the chance to work with top-notch analysts, and I was able to benefit from their skills in real time. These are the things that made them great. Some of the lessons are what they did on a daily basis, and others are the things they avoided. Taken together, and then combined with your analytic training in your organization, these ideas will help you excel and become a valued team-mate to your decision-makers.

1. Avoid groupthink.

The best analysts do not get sucked into the prevailing theories of their team, and then get stuck there. Be willing to take a stand based on your constant study of new information. It is a curse of many intelligence agencies that they become wedded to an idea and start to fight with new information. Some think they might be admitting they made a mistake if they change their views over time. This is easier said than done. Some organizations work very hard to beat-down anyone in the team that disagrees with the theories they have worked hard to develop and get others to accept. Other organizations build in a red-team type cell that is purposely designed to constantly push back on the prevailing theories. However your teams are structured, you must never give in and accept the products that do not match your analysis. Keep collecting data and evidence and spend time discussing your opposing views to ensure your team is not denying other facts they do not want to accept.

2. Numbers don’t tell the whole story.

There is a great observation for analysts in the Game of Thrones series by Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish. He stated that “If war were arithmetic, the mathematicians would rule the world.” This is a simple concept that is often lost on those far from the action or arena of which they analyze and study. Baelish reminds us that leaders who are flexible, know tactics, and follow their strategy can beat the odds. When you analyze any problem or situation, you must move beyond simple mathematics to the hard stuff. Counting tanks, dollars, or polling data is only part of the story. You must know the people involved in the numbers you are assessing. Human beings are the most frustrating variable in problem solving. Humans don’t have to make the same decision twice. Unlike numbers, when you deal with humans—which is what you are really assessing, two plus two does not have to equal four. Know the people involved with the decisions in which your numbers are involved. I don’t mean to follow your gut; I mean follow the evidence. Be ready to change your assessments based on the changes in humans involved with the issue. This doesn’t even touch on the fact that often numbers you are studying might be wrong.

3. You’re not working in opposition to planners.

I have been in many organizations where the analyst teams almost seem to think their job is to prove that the plan and policy makers have created a bad plan. While that may sometimes be the case, the job of an analyst is to help the organization develop the smartest strategy, not constantly prove that the planners are less intelligent than you are. The best way to ensure you are actually helping the larger organization to modify their plan and achieve their goals is to embed yourself with the planning team you most often assess the outcomes of. Co-locating with the planners and policy-makers might make your bosses uncomfortable, but the benefits of knowing how the plan was created are game-changers. I have implemented this co-locating idea on numerous teams, and it always improved the odds of mission success. Even if you can’t co-locate, at least spend time every week talking to your counter-parts in the planning team.

4. Know the Strategy.

Along the lines of knowing the planners as fellow team-mates, is the importance of understanding the overall strategy of the organization. I observed many analysts that struggled to know how to write products that help decision-makers, because they had no idea what the strategy was or what tools the team had to carry out the plan. If you don’t understand the end-state goals, planning assumptions, and risks of deviating from the chosen plan—your ideas and insights might not help the strategic thinkers to adjust the plan or decide when to scrap it and start over. If you do understand the strategy, your assessments will often be of use to the decision-makers and lead to you being invited to be part of the solution, instead of just being seen as a problem.

5. Don’t discourage the team and become a propaganda source for enemy.

If you only focus on the negative outcomes of ongoing missions, you will not present a fair assessment of what is actually happening. If you report the positive insights you are seeing and fairly explain how both the negative and positive data are moving your assessment of the mission—you will be OK. If your assessments are constantly negative because you ignore the positive aspects, those assessments will influence in the worst of ways. At best, they may only discourage your team-mates and the larger organization when they should actually keep following the plan to overcome current troubles. At worst, your assessments can be used by your opposition as propaganda to influence your own team—using your own words. I have seen both cases occur and worse, seen poor analysts refuse to realize they are actually harming their own team by irresponsibly tainting their own assessments.

6. Use OSINT.

If you want to keep up with your topic of interest and you only utilize classified information, you are missing a lot of insights. In this era, you can glean more in 30 minutes on twitter than you can spending 3 hours reading top-secret information. It does not mean that classified information and intelligence is incorrect. Today, it just might mean it is out of date or incomplete. Become an expert at using both secret and open sources of information, and know how to blend them into better products.

7. Don’t over-classify.

This can be a challenge based on your organization. The lower the classification you place on your products, the more people you can help. At a minimum, ensure you make it easy to detach your most secret sources from your analysis when you write so that you can quickly downgrade the classification of your insights. With practice, this gets much easier.

8. Don’t get sucked into politics.

This is more and more critical in the modern era where political polarization is increasing. This is an easy task to master. In simplest terms, leave your political opinions and cares at home. Providing analysis to your bosses is a critical activity. You can destroy projects decades in the making by inserting your own political wishes into the process, especially if you work in the government. In the intelligence community, you must constantly ensure no one around you is crossing this bright red-line. Tell your team-mates and your bosses when you see them slipping on this concept. Every time someone allows politics to enter the realm of analysis, it degrades the trust that people have in all analysis. Don’t give an inch on this issue.

Analysis is a Skill to Develop

Learning from what has made others great at analysis can produce better results and improve the skills of analysts in many fields. If you haven’t already begun to think about how you personally conduct analysis, now is a great time to start.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, works with numerous non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.