Decision-making tips from a former spy

Ex-CIA case officer John Braddock says good intelligence starts with the question, not the data.

by John Braddock
Last Updated: 10 Oct 2019

A spy’s job is to get secret information without the other side knowing you were there. You’re trained for it, but no training can remove the risk: it’s dangerous, and people die. 

The worst part of it is that none of it matters, if the next step doesn’t happen: the intelligence you collect is useless, unless it goes through an analytic process, which weights the intelligence, puts it in context and combines it with other data.

And that analysis won’t matter either, if the next step doesn’t happen: a decision. If intelligence and analysis don’t inform a decision, all that risk and danger collecting it was for nothing.

When I moved into business, I saw a lot of data was being collected for nothing, and a lot of money was being spent on analysis that was never seen. 

When businesses recognise this, their first answer is to collect different data and, if that doesn’t work, educate their executives. 

Data and education aren’t where spies start. Spies solve the problem by doing something different: we talk to the decision-makers first, asking what actions they’re anticipating, what their requirements are, and what questions they want answered.

From a general, it will usually be something like, "How many divisions does the other side have? How efficient are their supply lines?" From a cabinet secretary, spies get questions like, "Who’s the ultimate decision-maker on the other side? What’s their schedule for upgrading their weapons?"

From a national leader, we’d get questions like, "Where do our allies stand on the UN initiative? Who’s leading the opposition?"

With questions from decision-makers, spies can then go out and collect data, and do analysis, knowing that the risks we’re taking are worth it. The approach looks something like this: 


This data-analysis-decision-action structure is based on a process called the OODA Loop. Invented by US Air Force Colonel John Boyd, the OODA Loop described the minimum steps a fighter pilot goes through in a dogfight. The "Loop" part means you return to the beginning after you take action. You collect data on the result and go through the process again, constantly looping back. In a dogfight, whoever loops quickest usually wins.

When a client wanted me to set up a competitive intelligence unit for their company, I showed them this model, explaining that we’d be collecting data and analysing it and fitting it into their decision-making process.

They accepted the model, but like a lot of others, they wanted me to start by collecting more data and then to make their analysis better.

I told them that wouldn’t work. We’d need to start with the decision-makers, or I’d be wasting their money, because there’s no point in looking for data without getting questions first.

When we got the questions, many could be answered with data the company already had or analysis the company was already doing. As a result, a project that we thought would take six months was done in three.

That’s why spies are ruthless about understanding decision-makers - we need to know their questions and the actions they are considering, which is why we always start there. To get the most out of their data and analytics, companies should, too. 

John Braddock is an ex-CIA case officer and author of the A Spy's Guide series.

Image credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images


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