Friday, February 25, 2011

Intelligence blind spots, failures and excuses

Twelve days ago at this blog, I said the U.S. intelligence community’s failure to predict the pan-Arab democratic rebellion was evidence of our common, human reluctance to recognize tipping points.

The ongoing public discussion about these events invites us to consider also how blind spots and cognitive biases can lead to intelligence failures in any field, including law firm intelligence work.

Today’s New York Times offers a panel of six Sunday morning intelligence quarterbacks who trot out some reasons why the U.S. intelligence community failed to predict the pan-Arab democratic movement and its recent tipping point. Their reasons for this failure and their other comments about intelligence blind spots include some I find useful to ponder about my own work in law firm CI and a few I find merely comical:

1. The intelligence community has failed to appreciate the power of social networking.

2. The intelligence community roots out analysts with good instincts.

3. The intelligence community punishes and silences those who say the unpopular.

4. Specialists find it difficult to see broader trends.

5. Immediate challenges crowd out long-range thinking.

6. Intelligence based on inputs from those in the seat of power will fail to appreciate the power of those forces that oppose seated power.

7. Some changes, no matter how large, do not require a new or immediate response.

8. It is unwise to focus only on events in those spaces where we have invested the most; events in other spaces may affect us as much or more so.

9. A single, dramatic event can quickly convert widespread, dormant awareness into widespread, sympathetic action.

10. Foreseeing events is much easier than predicting when those events will happen.

11. Intelligence never has and cannot forecast revolutions.

12. The President did not tell the intelligence community to focus on the possibility of a pan-Arab rebellion.

Yes, intelligence work is difficult. But the New York Times panelists do little more than describe some of the many blind spots that all high-end intelligence units are expected to understand and navigate. In fact, blind spots are an old and dangerous enemy to intelligence workers.

Richards (Dick) Heuer, the legendary CIA analyst, described in the now out-of-print Psychology of Intelligence several dozen biases that afflict intelligence analysts. This book’s central tenet is that “people tend to see what they expect to see, and new information is typically assimilated to existing beliefs.” Ibid. p.153.

Although Heuer learned his craft within the CIA, the insights he shares in his 1999 classic are universally relevant to business intelligence workers, including those of us who work in and for law firms. We law firm intelligence workers don’t have to predict political revolutions. But we are expected to identify and forecast many forces and movements that will affect the prospects of individual clients, client industries, labor forces, technologies, and other factors that, in turn, will affect our firms’ own prospects.

Although our blinders and biases cannot excuse intelligence failures, when failures do occur we must try to appreciate how our blinders and biases kept us from doing a better job, to reduce their negative impact in future assignments.

We can also learn from others’ intelligence successes and failures. Stay tuned.


Bonnie Hohhof said...

You can download Heuer's "Psychology of Intelligence Analysis' for free from the CIA library:

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