The Fundamental Traits of Intelligence Analysts

The intelligence community (IC) can’t agree on what intelligence is or isn’t, but they generally agree that analysis is a process that can be taught. Right now, it’s fashionable to emphasize the nearly endless number of trendy “though processes” that people have dreamed up. Apparently – or so the theory goes – the more one becomes aware of thought itself, and the more one thinks about thinking, the better one becomes at analysis. Personally, I think this is a dangerous policy, because – from my perspective – the emphasis seems to be on codifying thinking strategies as a means to supporting and adding legitimacy and credibility to analytic products. Given my admitted skepticism about some of these trendy thought processes, I can’t help but feel that analysts are being prepped to “dazzle with bullshit”, if you will. “How did you come by these estimates?” “Through a collaborative process of six-hat, mind-mapped systems analysis.” “Wow. Okay, good job!”

I know it’s a necessary evil we all have to live with, but I can’t help but feel that many of the skills being taught have more value for playing politics than they do for actual analysis.

You can teach old dogs new tricks, and you can teach analysts how to do their jobs better, there’s no doubt about it. (I firmly believe that one should never stop learning.) But it seems to me that, especially at the “less traditional” ends of the intelligence spectrum – business intelligence, and the now-flourishing field of law-enforcement intelligence – insufficient emphasis is being placed on the not-strictly-analytic skills an analyst should ideally possess. The real problem, though, is that too many of these skills aren’t ones you can, as an adult, pick up in a fortnight’s classes, or from watching a YouTube video over lunch. Too many of them, I think, aren’t “skills” at all – they’re traits that people either have or don’t have by the time they hit college, and which no amount of classes, workshops, or training will endow to those missing them.

Mental acuity is one; it has nothing to do with IQ, or other objective measures of (human) intelligence, but all the “thinking about thinking” in the world isn’t going to change the fundamental nature of people who are slow, methodical, and resistant to change. These aren’t bad traits, but so very much in the intelligence analysis field is dependent on intuition (or what today’s overly self-analytic boffins call “emotional intelligence”) that its absence seems a painful handicap.

Literacy, I reckon, is probably the most fundamentally important trait of intelligence analysts, and one that no amount of teaching, as an adult, is going to improve. By the time you graduate from high school, I really don’t think there’s anything that can be done to endow, say, reading comprehension skills on one lacking them. I firmly believe that the more you read (for work and for pleasure), and the more you process – and retain – from what you’ve read, the better you’ll be as an analyst. The more new ideas you’re exposed to – nevermind the source – the more you have to apply to your analytic work. (I once produced a series of reports based on an idea I’d gotten from a mystery novel, and I know someone that prepared an intelligence estimate predicated on a “Bloom County” comic strip.) Much more than that, though, is the fact that most intelligence products today are derivative – and their sources are almost all in written form. Even in those smoking hells where PowerPoint presentations are the norm, the most important points are still written out, on the somewhat scientific assumption that people retain more of what they see than what they hear.

The third and final trait which I think is of fundamental importance to intelligence analysts is a bit different from the other two. With mental acuity and literacy, more is better. That’s not the case, though, with ego (or pride, if you prefer). In the intelligence community, it’s a fine line between too little – you don’t take yourself importantly, and nobody else will, either – and too much, where your ego just gets in the way. In part, it’s politics at work: you need to have enough of a spine to be able to defend your work, yet be able to admit to errors and “show weakness” when appropriate. “I’m right, because I say so” doesn’t win many arguments, and wins fewer friends, and while sycophants (“you’re right, because you say so”) will always find their followers, they’re ultimately destructive to the both the work environment and its products.

More importantly, though, is that pride in the fruits of one’s labors is a dangerous thing. The intelligence community doesn’t play by normal rules. You may spend a month producing the most complete and comprehensive analysis of a subject ever made; it may be a thing of art and beauty; however, it will probably be read by less than six people, at least half of which will only read the executive summary, and nobody will ever see or think about it after two weeks have passed. Once you’ve handed it in, nobody cares how great it was, or that you produced it: there’s another one due on Friday, which new developments in the area look set to make obsolete by next Monday, so get cracking. You have to take pride in your work – nobody wants a sloppy job thrown together at the last minute – but you also have to accept the ephemeral, and thankless, nature of what you do.

You can teach people how, and why, to think, and to think better. But I really don’t think you can teach people, after a certain point, how to think quickly, or intuitively, or flexibly. Nor can you teach people to enjoy reading, or significantly improve the retention and comprehension of those who don’t. You can teach people stick up for themselves, or stop being so full of themselves, but it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth. There’s no doubt the IC is right to place an emphasis on the continued education of analysts, but better-identifying “desirable” new hires might do more, in the long run, for the quality of the community and its end products. I know it’s terribly unfashionable to think about things more than a few years down the road, or to suggest that maximizing the potential of today’s human capital isn’t the be-all and end-all of human-resource strategy, but “boldness” is one of the fundamental traits of the intelligence process, after all. At least, that’s what I keep hearing in all these courses and presentations…

Published in: Geekiness, General, Security | on September 30th, 2008| 2 Comments »

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  1. On 10/4/2008 at 6:38 am Phreakonomist Said:

    I think intellectual curiosity is another requirement that while important, is especially difficult to deal with on classified projects. No amount of training will motivate an analyst to produce a product with original insight unless he actually cares about understanding some detail that may not be relevant but will lead him to deeper understanding on the subject. This sort of curiosity often does not yield substantial results and older analysts tend to be more focused and efficient leading to lower quality products as time progresses. Curiosity is required to “think outside box” which is so often praised by leaders but repressed in practice. Ultimately the quality of the analyst may matter less than the (in)effectiveness of management.

  2. On 10/5/2008 at 5:29 pm Benny Said:

    Sometimes trainers should be trained by the trainee (but only sometimes…).
    Especially when the trainee has THAT special gift the trainers know nothing about.
    Intelligence analysis?
    We could teach children to do it.
    But to gather intelligence is all another story.

    You write: “insufficient emphasis is being placed on the not-strictly-analytic skills an analyst should ideally possess.[…] Too many of them, I think, aren’t “skills? at all – they’re traits that people either have or don’t have…”

    You are absolutely spot on!
    This is a great article.