Creativity in the IC – Or the Lack of It
A great article in World Politics Review by Josh Kerbel, a 14-year veteran of the U.S. Intelligence Community ( Hat tip to Col. David Maxwell)
For the Intelligence Community, Creativity is the New Secret
It’s no secret that the increasing complexity of the international system — and in particular, its growing interconnectedness, integration, and interdependence — is eroding the fundamental business models of an ever-growing range of industries. Nowhere is this more evident than in the information industries, such as journalism, broadcasting, publishing, music and film, among others. More than a few entities have been swept to the brink of, or in some cases over, the precipice of irrelevance. And every information industry, it seems, is in some peril.
The U.S. intelligence community’s traditional model is similarly threatened by these transformations, but like so many other besieged industries, the IC is hesitant to deviate from it. In general terms, the IC’s model is a secret “collection-centric” one that:
– prizes classified data, with classification often directly correlated to value and significance;
– is driven by data availability, while analytical requirements remain secondary;
– is context-minimal, with analysis staying close to the collected data and in narrow account “lanes”;
– is current-oriented, since there are no collectable facts about the future;
– is warning-focused, emphasizing alarm-ringing;
– is product-centered, measuring success relative to the “finished intelligence” product provided to policymakers, rather than its utility or service.
This model ends up being highly “reductionist,” since secret collection leads to classification, compartmentalization and, inevitably, reduced distribution. Such a system, in which everything is constantly subdivided, was designed for the “complicated” — but not really “complex” — strategic environment of the Cold War. In that more linear environment, it was possible to know exactly where to look — namely, the USSR; access was severely restricted, making secret collection vital; the context of hostile intent and opposing alliances was well-understood; and the benefits of being forewarned, especially of imminent military action, was paramount.
Today’s complex strategic environment is vastly different. Now, there is no single focal point, as a threat or opportunity can emerge from almost anywhere; access is largely unrestricted, since the world is wide-open and information-rich; and context is much more ambiguous, because intent and relationships are fluid. In this more dynamic, non-linear strategic environment, reductionist approaches are, by themselves, a veritable recipe for systemic (i.e., strategic) surprise.
In practical terms, this means that it is no longer sufficient to just reactively collect data on how certain parts of the international system are acting in order to extrapolate discrete predictions. Rather, it’s crucial that such reductionist approaches be complemented by more “synthetic” approaches that proactively think about how the various parts of the larger system could interact, and consider how the synthesized range of possible threats and opportunities might be respectively averted or fostered. In other words, it is no longer enough to just monitor already identified issues. It is also necessary to envision potentially emergent ones. In short, it is time for the IC to use its imagination.
Read the rest here.
Comments, in no particular order of importance:
First, the underlying root problem is “political”. The IC is “collection-centric” primarily because the key “customers” for IC products have an implicit expectation of good intel as a higher level analytical journalism, just salted with some real-time “secrets” outside normal public purview. And some of them – George Schultz when he was SECSTATE is an example – want to be their own analyst, and are quick to complain about speculative,”edgy” analysis that clashes with their preconceptions. So IC senior managers are inclined to give the customer what they demand – current information which has a short shelf-life in terms of value. Educate the intel-consumer class of what the IC might be able to do given different tasks and they might start asking that new tasks be done.
Secondly, if the IC employed more programs that involved an investment in long-term “clandestinity” – it would both collect information of strategic, long-term value and offer the US opportunities to shape the responses of others through established networks of agents of influence. This is where imagination, speculation and synthesis would have greater play because of the need to create and seize opportunities rather than placing a premium on mitigating risk and avoiding failure.
The problem with analytical-reductionist culture in hierarchical institutions ( anywhere, not just the IC) runs deeper than a top-down, enforced, groupthink. Perceptive members of the org, even when compelled to parrot the party line “officially”, will often mock it privately and exchange more authentic critiques informally. The real problem is the extent to which this risk-averse, paralyzing, culture is psychologically internalized by individual analysts to the point of creating lacunae. As individuals rise in the org they carry their lacunae with them and begin actively imparting them authoritatively upon their subordinates.
Ideally, a quality liberal education would be imparting a reflexive skepticism, a tolerance for uncertainty and a greater meta-cognitive self-awareness that would check the excessive certainty generated by an excessive reliance on the methodology of analytical-reductionism. Unfortunately, the emphasis upon academic specialization has been pushed down so hard in undergraduate and even high quality secondary public school education ( AP courses are the worst offenders) that generating good, insightful, questions is a cognitive skill that has been abandoned in favor of deriving “right answers” using “approved methods”.
Scenario-building is an effective tool for breaking analytical-reductionist frameworks and freeing up our ability to synthesize and construct solutions. However, to be useful, scenarios require at least an internal logic or realism even if they represent improbable “blue sky” or “black swan” outcomes and they require more cognitively diverse inputs ( from “outsiders”, “amateurs” and “heretics”) to challenge what data the received culture considers significant.
March 28th, 2010 at 2:57 pm
Your second-to-last paragraph is really the key, IMO. The IC has too many people comfortable operating in a bureaucratic environment and too few who are introspective and able to recognize and account for ambiguity. It’s not the right word, but too many are "ideological" in that their analysis is based more on preconception than careful evaluation. These are, ultimately, cultural problems that are not easily addressed by rearranging pucks on org charts.
March 28th, 2010 at 7:56 pm
In other words, it is no longer enough to just monitor already identified issues." It is also necessary to envision potentially emergent ones. In short, it is time for the IC to use its imagination" (Col Maxwell)
Wait a minute, is he saying that there is no "special office," or certain group of people who do this kind of thinking? I find that hard to believe. I would think there to be groups who do nothing but "creative thinking" which would include alternative scenario building (what we sometimes call futurism). In fact, I have what I believe to be legitimate scenarios I’d like to run past the IC today. Its too bad they don’t offer channels where "heretics" like myself can present them with such scenarios?
Moreover, even the Pentagon — long a temple of linear, hard-power theology — is now acknowledging that the contextual ambiguities and uncertainty of an increasingly complex world require a much broader conception of national power and security. (Col Maxwell)
This is good to hear, especially when we think about what future Pentagon budgets may look like. Intelligence and "creative thinking" will need to substitute for lack of funds (and probably should do so even with all the money in the world).
However, to be useful, scenarios require at least an internal logic or realism even if they represent improbable “blue sky” or “black swan” outcomes and they require more cognitively diverse inputs ( from “outsiders”, “amateurs” and “heretics”) to challenge what data the received culture considers significant. (zen)
Absolutely, and challenge is the correct word. One of my side interests is watching and analyzing the rise of identity politics in the West. The two biggest quasi-intelligence organizations who do this are the SPLC and ADL. When I read their analysis of this subject its obvious to me that noone challenges their group-think. In fact, I’ve concluded that these organizations are not so much intelligence organizations but lobbyists for certain methods of dealing with the identity politics that they disapprove of(hate-crimes laws, hate-speech laws). We can only hope that this type of group-think doesn’t exist within the actual US IC? If we’re to believe this article, it probably does?
March 29th, 2010 at 11:41 pm
[…] The problem with analytical-reductionist culture in hierarchical institutions ( anywhere, not just the IC) runs deeper than a top-down, enforced, groupthink. Perceptive members […]
March 30th, 2010 at 12:08 am
First, I’d like to note that an experienced IC person took the time to contact me and firmly dispute the contention of the author of the original article, Josh Kerbel. The IC is a big place with a tradition of the agencies not being particularly forthcoming with one another, so while the author reflects complaints I have heard from other IC veterans (Micheal Tanji has recounted horror stories along those lines on his blog) it may not reflect everybody’s experience.
Andy – I think there is sort of an "ideology of methodology" that develops in academia in certain social science ( and probably other) fields and this might migrate into the IC where, it must be said, many of the empoyees are very smart academically incline analysts in cubicles.
Seerov – I can say with some degree of certainty that DARPA and The Office of Net Assessment, which are not exactly intelligence shops, the former being experimentalists and the second a top secret internal think tank, are engaged in creative, speculative, long term thinking. The NIC is also supposed to be engaging in higher-level, visionary, thinking but in practice, you have a lot of guys from different agencies and not, from what I can discern from far away, some kind of consilient fusion. Hopefully, there are many other under the radar offices working ( and they can probably do so only under the radar – once things are known, politics increasingly creeps or seeps in to the process)
March 30th, 2010 at 8:45 pm
Sorry to weigh in late. The recently launched IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity), which is sort of modeled on DARPA, is attempting to initialize a spirit of inventiveness and creativity in the IC (but it still appears more concerned with collection). The claim is that it is making a response to creativity. It’s far too early to tell how successful this initiative might be, and I wouldn’t hold my breath, but it’s indication that the IC is struggling in that direction. Read the article below on IARPA and you’d find an interesting read into some of their R&D projects.
March 31st, 2010 at 4:49 am
Thank you for that, I passed it on to some listservs – Miami Herald is an odd outlet for this kind of story. Years and years ago, when I just began blogging, I suggested they needed a "foreign policy DARPA". IARPA is close enough 🙂