When I served in the U.S. Army, we had a saying: “Knocking down 50-meter targets.” The idea was that while qualifying on the rifle range, a common error was for shooters to put all of their effort (and bullets) into knocking down the close pop-up targets at the expense of the longer (and admittedly more challenging) 200-, 250-, and 300-meter targets. Obviously, this had a negative effect on a shooter’s effectiveness, not to mention final score. My sense is that all too often, leaders and intelligence analysts are guilty of making this error—knocking down 50-meter targets at the expense of longer-range goals. Simply put, we focus on the urgent, but not always the important.
Put another way, if we as leaders and intelligence professionals are not fencing adequate time to think deeply, we are not being fully effective. Too often we run around like the proverbial “chicken with its head cut off,” knocking down 50-meter targets but never getting around to the truly significant tasks. We answer e-mails, attend countless meetings, and tend to personnel, resource, and technology challenges. But we never seem to get around to reflecting on long-range issues and casting a vision for the future.
It takes discipline to go deep. This type of thinking is counter to so much of our world—with its 20-second commercials, texting, and instant gratification. Again, for the effective leader and intelligence analyst, there must be a time when we can push away from the tyranny of the urgent, prop our feet up on the desk, and think.
Looking back, I only served in one unit during my Army career where I personally experienced such deep thinking. One special operations organization that I served in was very intentional when thinking about how the unit should look in five, 10, 15, and even 20 years. It held regular technology boards to focus on technology considerations, in concert with focusing on personnel manning, resources, and other areas. Key leaders arrived at these events prepared to articulate their views, and they were critically involved in these regular efforts. Not surprisingly, the commander or deputy commander always chaired these efforts.
The military provides a reliable, time-tested process to assist us: the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP). It is characterized by mission analysis, course of action development, course of action comparison (including the decision matrix tool), and the eventual decision. While this framework was created for staffs and commanders, its tools can also benefit individuals—even in a truncated format. For example, one can create criteria and use a decision matrix to consider, that is, think deeply about any challenge.
The good news is that we can get this process started anywhere. The technique I use is scribbling down an initial note to return to and pay careful attention to at a later time.
Remember that half of the phrase “intelligence analyst” is analyst. By definition and identity, we must be deep thinkers. Our supported senior intelligence officers and leaders cannot do their jobs without our fencing time for thinking and then making informed recommendations. They are counting on us to fulfill this purpose.