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Intelligence Analysis: Skills For Work, Skills For Life

When you think of intelligence analysis and the professionals who work in the field what comes to mind? Movies and television shows in popular culture like the Bourne Trilogy or 24? Dark, underground rooms and classified information? Cloak and dagger operations? Secret missions?

While most of this is certainly true in some respects, you might not have considered that the training and education in the field of intelligence analysis has many applications to our everyday lives. Skills like critical thinking, objectivity, data mining, research methods, information evaluation, and written and oral communication have a range of functions for both professional intelligence analysts and those not in the field. Many of these techniques are used by successful people from all backgrounds and professions to enhance their decision making and improve their analysis of complicated problems.

Where intelligence professionals use this tradecraft to track Usama bin Laden or counter foreign intelligence threats, each of us can use (and do use) the same techniques to improve and enhance areas of their lives that are not related to national security but may be just as complex. The same skills that target terrorists or provide policymakers with insights and knowledge about a problem can also be used to improve family and financial planning, interpersonal communication with friends and coworkers, and help to organize and make sense of the massive amount of information we are exposed to on a daily basis.

Let me give you some examples. Ever been in a conversation with a friend or spouse and taken the opposite viewpoint to challenge his or her argument and identify potential weaknesses in the logic or supporting information? You were utilizing the technique of devil’s advocacy. Ever carefully weighed alternative explanations or conclusions based on available information in order to reduce cognitive limitations and personal bias and reach the best judgment about a situation? You employed the technique of Analysis of Competing Hypotheses. Did you recently take time to just think and free write about a problem without any constraints or preconceived notions in order to generate new ideas and perspectives? You were brainstorming.

The whiteboard in my home office with “to do” lists, short-term plans, long-term goals, and deadlines looks very similar to the whiteboard in my work office. Whether I am using intelligence tradecraft to analyze several similar suspicious activity reports or the family finances and monthly bills depends on whether I am at work or at home. Either way I am striving to gain insights into the information, make objective and unbiased decisions, and create some organization from the chaos.

Specifically, the growth in my professional skills has often mirrored a recognizable improvement in my ability to deal with life’s everyday challenges and complexities. Since entering the intelligence field several years ago, I’ve become a better public speaker, oral and verbal communicator, evaluator of information, pragmatic thinker, as well as problem solver and long-term planner. I can work with larger amounts of disparate pieces of information that are often fragmentary and incomplete (not unlike insurance claims or report cards for that matter).

I have a better idea of when I need a second opinion or more research to come to an informed decision that considers a number of contingencies and accounts for different variables and unforeseen factors (like the family finances or vehicles).

As this is my first post, I’ll leave you with a few last thoughts that I will expand upon in my future writings. Applying techniques of intelligence analysis to your everyday life requires deliberate practice and an awareness of how and when you are using them. As I discussed earlier in this post, once you identify what techniques you are already using in your daily life you can gain even more control of them and apply them in new ways. You can also build on them and add new techniques to your arsenal like the ones found on this site.

I am interested in hearing from you. What are some of the critical thinking and intelligence analysis techniques you already use? For what problems or situations do you use them? How have they helped you?