The virtue of doubt: succesful analysts generate deliverables that are being acted upon by decision-makers

When considering how to select, educate, train and professionally develop the market intelligence officer and analyst of the future, the first thing that came to my mind was an aphorism: “begin with the end in mind”. When attempting to answer this essay’s competition question, properly defining the end may well be imperative prior to beginning. My first step towards an answer thus starts with a question: how to define the end in intelligence?

twijfel

The desired end state in intelligence for the purpose of answering our question is defined as:

“Intelligence is to significantly contribute to the successful definition and execution of a company’s strategy”

For intelligence deliverables to contribute in this way, the first requirement the deliverables need to meet is that they have to be used by decision-makers. The latter are being defined as the principals of the intelligence work that themselves operate outside the intelligence community. When is intelligence work being acted upon? In my experience, when the work is of convincing quality in at least two dimensions. Excellence is required both in content and in persuasiveness of delivery. This allows us to draw an interim conclusion. The analyst of the future needs to be selected, educated, trained and professionally developed both to deliver work of great content as well as of strong persuasiveness towards the relevant decision-makers. So far, this is nothing new. The requirements to deliver great content in a persuasive manner are timeless. The addictive beauty of intelligence work is hidden in a single word: it is about the future. What analyst can meet these requirements in the future? For this, we need to look forward.

Intelligence permanently updates the company’s future market environment maps

Prior to diving into what the future may look like, it has a merit to briefly review the role of intelligence. A

simple equation may be helpful:

Threat = Competency + Intent + Surprise

In this equation, threat is analyzed in terms of how a competitor may hurt our company’s interests. Competencies are defined as the competitor’s (in-) tangible assets. Think of number and size of competitor factories or brands they own. The intent is to summarize the objective of the competitor’s leadership. What plans do they really have to grow their business, given the assets they control today and may have access to tomorrow? The term surprise indicates the power of surprise a competitor may use. What competitor surprises could our intelligence analysts imagine and convince our company’s leadership to prepare for, before they materialize? This equation not only holds true for a single competitor but may also be applied to markets, suppliers, countries etc. A market intelligence function concurrently solves multiple threat equations at any one time. I believe this to be the core role of intelligence in corporate strategy definition and execution. Intelligence is to monitor and forecast all threats a company may face by adding up all relevant threat equations. In so doing, intelligence builds a holistic and permanently actualized picture of the market environment. This picture metaphorically serves as a map for decision-makers to real-time navigate in the market environment and where needed both to change course and adjust the sails. In so doing, intelligence is fully integrated in planning cycles like the plan-do-check-act loop. Given this role, a successful analyst not only permanently updates the map but also ensures the corporate ship is navigated based

on the latest map.

In summary, I see two key requirements for the analyst of the future: he knows how the relevant market environment looks in the future and he knows how to persuade the future executive to integrate his intelligence deliverables as input in her decision-making.

The future may be unpredictable but people do not change

In this section we are moving back to the future. We face two questions. The first question is: how do we anticipate the future market environment to look like? The second question concerns the professional needs of the future decision-maker. These questions are interlinked. Answering the question what the future market environment for a business will look like will by implication lead to attributes that a successful business leader will need. These attributes will thus determine how she is best served her intelligence needs.

I feel tempted to describe the generic future market environment. Words like rapidly changing, globally connected and volatile come to my mind. These terms, however, may look wise but are neither actionable nor specific enough for the individual company to be useful. Moreover: I am an analyst not a futurologist. Suffice it to say that the successful analyst of the future needs to offer foresight on the future market environment regardless of what future emerges. Similarly, the successful analyst of the future needs to serve and persuade the future decision-maker regardless of who she happens to be. The latter analyst’ task may well be easier than the task to forecast the future market environment. Different market environments may bring different leaders to

executive positions, but people as such do not fundamentally change. Basic human psychological needs like recognition, association or power are not affected by changing currency exchange rates or shifting economic and political power. For an analyst to become persuasive, grasping the psychology of executive power is imperative, regardless of this morning’s level of the Dow Jones Index.

In summary, we thus need to educate and train the analyst both for any future market environment that may emerge and for serving any decision-maker. Before starting with an analyst’s education, we clearly first need to select those analysts that naturally are best suited for such future role. Let us now consider some analyst’ selection criteria.

Market intelligence is a smart people’s business and offers a rewarding career

In my experience, intelligence is rarely a numbers war. Throwing loads of people at an intelligence puzzle is not by definition conducive to solving it rapidly and elegantly. Reginald V. Jones - head of British Scientific Intelligence during World War II – corroborates my view when he writes how an intelligence team is to be set up [Jones, 1978]:

“The size of the staffs […] should be kept as numerically small as possible, and that quality was much the most important factor”

His counterpart in WW II British Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey even more passionately advocates the relevance of the quality of the analyst [Macintyre, 2010]:

“It is quite useless, and in fact dangerous to employ people of medium intelligence. Only men with first-class brains should be allowed to touch this stuff. If the right sort of people cannot be found, better keep them out altogether.”

When selecting first class intelligence officers, what quality do I believe we need to look for? In line with common human resource practices, I distinguish functional and behavioral competences. A critical functional competence in selecting an analyst I believe is intellect. Being smart, however, is not enough. When selecting an analyst, I also look for research skills, knowledge of business administration, language skills and increasingly for consultancy skills. An analyst that has no feel how to connect to a decision-maker may be highly useful in a team, but the smaller the team, the more every team member has to able to act independently. An analyst needs to be thinking on her feet, i.e. being always prepared, even when she unexpectedly happens to share the elevator with their decision-maker customer. In job interviews I ask candidate analysts their elevator pitch. The candidate better has to score an instant sell to stay in the recruitment process.

In behavioral competences, I think of qualities like curiosity, frustration tolerance, persuasiveness, humility, perseverance, courage, discreetness and innovativeness. There are two more distinctive qualities in a candidate I look for. The first is the degree of xenocentric thinking that the candidate demonstrates. In analysis, putting the other party central is critical when aiming to understand their current steps and predicting their next steps.

The final required quality is the candidate’s passion for intelligence work – embracing the puzzle game as a mean to have a rewarding career. I intentionally write career, not job. Intelligence is one of these crafts where experience matters more than proportionally. In inte

lligence the 10,000 hour rule certainly applies: no mastery without extensive practice. As long as artificial intelligence cannot replace analysts, we need to select analysts that are willing to dedicate their lives to the cause. In return an analyst should not only be entitled to an intellectually rewarding profession but also to

a decent financial package. The best employers have developed a dual career ladder, where becoming a thought leader is equally conducive to receiving higher job grades as becoming a leader of ever larger numbers of staff. There is a catch though. I try to avoid selecting Mammon’s mercenaries. If your pay matters more than your puzzle, try Wall Street.

Educate and train to doubt, not to know

There is a critical difference between chess and cheese. In chess, rules are fixed and adversaries change. In the cheese business, rules – paradigms if you wish – are fluid and adversaries tend to remain the same. Even when today’s paradigm is that cheese is mainly sold through supermarkets, tomorrow’s rule may be that it is sold through e-commerce. As a cheese producer, you are often still up against the same competitors, only the channel has changed. Why does this matter to how to educate
analysts?

If cheese would be like chess, the focus in analyst education would be on a one-off learning of business’ paradigms and related functional tools. Provided we have selected the best and brightest minds as analysts, education would only require a relatively modest effort. Listening skills and reasonably regular class attendance would already take our analyst a long way.

Tools and traits to learn in intelligence include classics like the intelligence project cycle. The cycle consists of brief reception, project definition, collection, analysis, reporting and filing and finally customer debrief. For each of the phases of the cycle, both functional and behavioral analyst skills need to be educated. Think of project management skills, of OSINT- and/or HUMINT-collection courses, of courses in analysis tools, in the psychology of bias and in strategy, of a course in slide writing and story-lining, of a course in consultancy skills including personal effectiveness and last but not least of a mandatory training in ethics and applicable compliance. The above list is not exhaustive and should be tailored to the job needs of the future analyst rather than the other way around.

The real effort to educate and train a future analyst would have to be spent on training by doing, with the analyst in training over time independently taking on ever more complex problems. In so doing, the analyst in training gradually builds a mental library of multidimensional intelligence problems and related solutions. In a sharp mind, problems and their solutions are unconsciously filed as patterns. The 10,000+ hour experienced analyst has an instant grasp of a complex new problem, because he intuitively recognizes the new problem as matching a mentally stored pattern. Moreover, the pattern informs him on the script that is likely to enroll for this type of problem and thus the most appropriate course of action to take. Problem solving through pattern recognition built upon experience indeed is a source of power in chess [Klein, 1999].

Chess, however, is not cheese. The fundamental difference may be summarized in a single word: doubt. The cheese analyst for sure needs to take the education and training summarized above. It is imperative that all business strategy tools need to be mastered, next to intelligence-specific skills. The 10,000 hour rule certainly applies as experience makes a proven difference [Mandel, 2014]. That is all similar and true for chess and cheese.

There is a difference though. In contrast to the expert fire fighters and the master chess players discussed by Klein, the cheese business as we know it has neither Laws of Physics nor fixed rules as its basis. The most fundamental asset that education and training may deliver a future analyst in the cheese business9 is that single intelligence virtue: doubt.

This is where foxes and hedgehogs enter. The ancient Greek poet Archilochus has written a line that has inspired today’s forecasting professionals such as Silver and Tetlock [Silver, 2013]:

“The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”

Silver uses this line to distinguish between poor and above-average forecasters. We already discussed above that the analyst of the future should be selected, educated and trained to be successful in predicting market or competitor future moves in any future, serving any future decision-maker.

It seems a limited stretch to apply the apparent critical behavioral skills of an above-average forecaster to a successful future intelligence analyst. Silver coins his poor forecasters hedgehogs:

“Hedgehogs […] believe in Big Ideas – in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws and undergird virtually every interaction in society”

In cheese intelligence, a Big Idea could be that cheese is yellow – with the analyst conveniently overlooking that white mozzarella cheese is amongst the fastest growing cheese types. Another Big Idea could be to only look for competitors in traditional sales channels.

The above-average forecasters are positioned as foxes [Silver, 2013]:

“Foxes […] believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem. They tend to be […] tolerant of nuance, uncertainty, complexity and dissenting opinion.”

The fox embraces her multitude of small sources and views. Doing so calms her fundamental doubt about how fast paradigms in her business over time shift. She realizes that such shifts may render her library of historically obtained patterns dangerously obsolete and by implication render her script-related historically successful courses of actions no longer adequate. That is good thinking! It raises a question though. How to educate and train a smart fox?

The question is whether a smart fox may result from education and training in the first place. Behavioral economist and Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman is skeptical of the role of education in topics such as this where psychology seems to matter [Kahneman, 2011]:

“Teaching psychology is mostly a waste of time”

Still, the final result of our efforts to select, educate, train and develop analysts remains unchanged. The future analysts need to deliver intelligence that is to significantly contribute to the successful definition and execution of a company’s strategy. We have identified that proper selection, education and training may to a large degree contribute to build that very analyst. We cannot be sure yet, whether these efforts have seeded enough doubt in the analyst’s mind to embrace foxiness. The latter thus is our key attention point in us developing our analysts.

Developing analysts’ self-confidence makes them radiate and receive trust

We have so far defined the role of intelligence. Intelligence outputs seamlessly need to integrate into decision-making processes. We subsequently reviewed the selection and curriculum of our future analysts. What is left to do? We now still need to ensure that things move beyond thinking and into execution and to ensure a well-trained analyst remains foxy. It is the intelligence educator’s and practitioner’s responsibility to ensure both that the intelligence output from all analysts – junior and senior - is indeed being fruitfully used by the corporate decision-making for whom it is intended – and that the analysts become and remain foxy.

Both educators and senior intelligence practitioners should develop the analysts of the future to make the ultimate connection: building trust with the company’s management as a catalyst and safe-guard to ensure our intelligence deliverables are considered critical input in their decision-making. We need to repeat it: intelligence is a people’s business. A decision-maker first needs to trust the analyst prior to trusting the analyst’s work. I have seen foxiness contribute to credibility. More than once I witnessed management being relieved that intelligence took a profoundly non-dogmatic, non-partisan position, highlighting pros and cons and taking multiple perspectives. Objectivity is a rare currency in top management echelons. Harvest as intelligence staff its value and coach future analysts to do the same.

For a foxy analyst to receive trust it is critical that she first trusts herself. Senior managers tend to be equipped with a remarkable sense for discovering their advisors uncertainty. Even when they may not say it, they may still - perhaps even unconsciously - think: if you don’t trust yourself, how can I trust your judgement on this intelligence topic?

Moreover, uncertainty is hard to mask. It reveals itself in subconscious body language, in tone-of-voice and in the very phrases used to present an intelligence deliverable. To prevent personal uncertainty to reduce or annihilate the impact of what factually is a good intelligence brief, developing an analyst requires to develop his self-confidence; his trust in his own judgement. This requires on-the-job coaching, praising every piece of good work and constructively suggesting improvements to less-than-perfect deliverables.

As a food company, we at FrieslandCampina see building self-confidence in our future leaders as part of a broader human resource initiative called “nourishing leadership”. First we aim to select well-educated talent. Once selected, we offer a challenging and inspiring on-the-job and formal training and development setting. In our company senior leaders are held accountable for creating a climate in which our talents for the future thrive, regardless of whether their career path leads them to people leadership or to thought leadership. Self-confidence builds with exposure. So we let the analysts deliver their good work to higher management by themselves as soon as they are up to it. When they know they get the chance to practice senior management advisory whilst their boss will back them up and support them in the meeting where needed, they also build flying hours in executive consulting. Success and experience breeds more self-confidence. This usually leads to a virtuous development cycle.

To nurture the best connections between analyst and managements I believe starts with managing expectations at both interfaces: that of the (junior) analyst and that of senior management. Senior management needs to understand that good intelligence work can reduce but not remove uncertainty. Analysts needs to accept that when their intelligence output and possibly their recommendations for courses of actions are ignored by line managers it doesn’t mean their work was of poor quality or even worse that rejection reflects distrust in their capabilities.

In my experience, inevitable and occasional rejection of work is easier to accept when the larger perspective is kept in mind. No matter how wonderful intelligence is as a profession, the role of intelligence in the greater company should not be exaggerated, not even by its most passionate practitioners. Intelligence analysts are only those employed to analyze and predict the business environment with a truly open and doubtful mind, bringing home the key messages to senior decision-makers with a keen and emphatic view of their customer’s agendas and feasible management choices.

Executives anyway very well know that at all times the buck stops, when it stops, at their management table. Today’s and tomorrow’s best intelligence analysts, however, ensure that very table does not stand in their company’s offices.

 

Author: Erik Elgersma

Source: Linkedin posts

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