How to Think like an Intelligence Analyst

To follow up on Philippe’s post about Thinking in Time:  at IE I teach a course called “Geopolitics” to Masters in Advanced Finance students, and “The Multinational Firm and Geostrategy” to Masters in Management students.  Students in those classes sometimes ask me to recommend books to help them “think like an intelligence analyst” and apply intelligence methods to analyzing business decisions.

I provide extensive bibliographies as part of my course syllabi, but often students want me to boil my recommendations down to a few key texts.  Call it a “getting started in intelligence for businesspeople” reading list.

Neustadt and May’s book discussed above is certainly on the list.  Its examples are somewhat US-centric, and are growing dated.  Nevertheless, as Philippe says, it deserves to be better known.  Its methods make you better aware of how to make better decisions in the present by drawing upon your knowledge of the past.

The next book I recommend is Graham T. Allison’s classic work Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Even if you think that you have no interest whatsoever the Cuban Missile Crisis, I strongly recommend it.  It’s very clearly written, it moves along at a brisk pace, and it offers a quite sophisticated overview of one of the most important events of the 20th century.  Just as important, Allison’s three models explaining Soviet actions in the Caribbean in 1962 can be applied far more widely.  Last term, for example, I used these models as templates for helping my MBA students understand the sometimes mysterious moves and perverse outcomes in a cross-border M&A battle.  It’s importance to the literature may be judged in part by the fact that Allison’s co-author for the second edition, Philip D. Zelikow, was Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission.

The next book on the list is more of a “cookbook” of analytical methods, The Thinker’s Toolkit: 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving by Morgan D. Jones.  A former CIA analyst, Jones distills about fifteen basic techniques commonly used by the intelligence community into easily understood chapters, and illustrates them with basic business examples.   Unlike the two books above, Jones has also structured this work explicitly as a workbook, and has tried to be explicit about how businesspeople might use his ideas.

My final recommendation is for those students who are looking less for intelligence techniques that are directly transferable to the worlds of business and finance, and more for a simple introduction to intelligence analysis in a geopolitical context.  For them, the best starter text is Timothy Walton’s Challenges in Intelligence Analysis:  Lessons from 1300 BCE to the Present. Walton’s short chapters are a great way of understanding the “macro” analytical questions faced by members of the Intelligence Community (or members of the global macro hedge fund community).

Of course there are scores more books and articles that I could recommend, but if you master the ideas of these four texts, you’ll have a solid grounding in the basics of intelligence analysis.

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12 responses to “How to Think like an Intelligence Analyst

  1. Richard Wright

    If your students want to understand something of the cognitive processes involved in intelligence analysis, I would recommend two practical books on the subject:
    “Critical Thinking and Intelligence Analysis” by David Moore (National Defense Intelligence College, 2007)
    “Strategic Intelligence” by Don McDowell (Scarecrow Press, 2009)

  2. Richard Wright

    Richard Heuer retired from CIA in 1978 and has been thinking about intelligence analysis ever since. His “Psychology of Intelligence Analysis” is a classic, but it is also rather too detailed for many readers.

  3. A friend just drew my attention to this Edge post, which has a host of useful ideas for those interested in this topic:

  4. Those interested in such matters will also want to know that the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (part of Office of the Director of National Intelligence) is looking for volunteers to participate in its online Forecast World Events study. They seek to build “a diverse panel of forecasters” with interests in “global security and politics, business and economics, public health, science and technology, or social and cultural change”.

    You can learn more or register here:

  5. Pingback: Business and Intelligence Techniques: the Role of Competing Hypotheses « Silberzahn & Jones

  6. I’m building a directory of “ways of figuring things out”. I’m making good use of Morgan D. Jones’s book “The Thinker’s Toolkit” Please let me know if you find my work interesting and we might work together or I might work for you.

  7. Pingback: Start with Geostrategy, or call it Tactics « Silberzahn & Jones

  8. I was just at the CIA’s site looking at what books they recommend to people interested in intelligence analysis (see Note that 33% of their recommendations (4 of the 12 books) are collections that the Agency published soon after the Cold War ended trying to reshape public perception regarding how badly they dropped the ball regarding the Soviet Union. To offer just one example (with many more available here and in a book that Philippe and I are working on), remember that the CIA put Soviet military spending at 11-15% of GNP between 1975 and 1980. After the break-up of the USSR, it was clear that this estimate was approximately two times lower than the actual figures. In other words, for decades the Agency underestimated the military burden on the economy of the US’s primary global competitor and their main target by a factor of 200 percent. You wouldn’t get that impression from any of their analytic recommendations. Sadly (and contra the spirit of Sherman Kent), of the books about intelligence analysis that they recommend can be described as even mildly critical of the agency’s analytic efforts to date.

    CIA – γνῶθι σεαυτόν. Others,if you’re interested in analysis, see the recommendations above!

  9. Pingback: Geopolitics and Investing: A Reading List « Silberzahn & Jones

  10. Pingback: Three Alternatives to Strategic Popcorn | Silberzahn & Jones

  11. Hi, just wanted to say, I loved this blog post. It was funny.

    Keep on posting!

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