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Are you a Beaker or a Martini Glass?

By Anne-Maree Quarmby, COO Intelligence Rising

In the intelligence profession (and in many other fields), we spend a sizeable amount of time discussing thinking styles with the consensus being that we employ the majority of these styles subconsciously. Those in the intelligence profession, however, are often required to make assessments based on incomplete information as part of their daily tasks. It is this assessment, this critical statement to the decision-maker, that this blog post is concerned with. For instance, what happens when two people, with radically different thinking styles are tasked to collect on a broad topic and then make a one or two sentence statement on what the future holds? Intelligence is more powerful and less prone to bias when it is collaborative; yet that collaboration may be the cause of significant tension in a team with opposing styles.

Let’s take a step back for a moment. Have you ever had a debate or argument with someone, and you are both absolutely convinced you are right? In many cases, you are. Based on the information you have, the process you brain has put that information through, and the inferences drawn from that information, you can both be speaking the ‘truth’ at the same time. As with the Necker Cube and the rotating ballerina, ‘truth’ is much closer to ‘belief’ than it has any right to be.

When it comes to intelligence analysis, solid facts are often few and far between. Therefore, it is logical that two people, with opposite thinking styles, would produce entirely different assessments while at the same time having deep reservations concerning the opposite person’s findings.

Take, for example, the two broadest categories of thinkers which are common in intelligence practitioners: detail-orientated thinkers and ‘blue-sky’ thinkers. Through my personal experience of working with and managing these two types of people, when it comes to an assessment… two very distinct, very different, and very interesting outcomes usually happen.

Let’s start with the detail orientated thinker. When directed to collect on a topic and produce a one to two-line assessment, this person will normally collect a series of detailed, specific pieces of information. Along the way, they will use these specific pieces (not necessarily from the same source) to collect more detail and more pieces. They will seek to be as thorough as possible in the time allotted however will often take a linear, scientific approach to collection. They will often place a large emphasis on quantitative information and seek to collate using statistical visual representations such as graphs and charts.

Now a natural assumption would be that all this specific information would result in a specific assessment. However, in practice, it is generally the opposite that happens. As a detail-orientated thinker delves deeper into a topic, they become increasingly aware of errors, gaps in data, variables in reporting trends, conflicting sources etc. Therefore, when asked to make a one to two-line assessment on the future-state of an issue, the detail-orientated thinker will often give a broad assessment statement. As a broad example: “It is likely that this trend will continue for the near to mid-term future”. When pressed further, they will often add categories of influence e.g. ‘new technology may change the trajectory and cause a change in the trend’ or, more commonly, discuss gaps in information e.g. ‘however, a more-in-depth assessment requires a more comprehensive and expanded data set’. Thus, in terms of assessment style, the detail-orientated thinker becomes ‘a beaker’.

This means that they collect detailed, in-depth pieces of information and use that to make a broad assessment. The pro of this is that the assessment generally has a high degree of certainty. The con is that, because the assessment is broad in nature, there is a limited amount of ‘actionability’.

The second type of thinker is the ‘blue-sky’ thinker. When collecting information, blue-sky thinkers tend to look at broader patterns and trends, qualitative information and general ‘movements’ e.g. changes in behaviour, sentiment, literal movement of people etc. They will be less inclined to place a heavy emphasis on detailed statistical information and will spend less time ‘drilling-down’ into pieces of information they come across. Interestingly, when it comes time to make an assessment, the blue-sky thinker ends up as an inversion of the detailed thinker. That is, they have a broad, less tangible collection spectrum and usually end up with a more specific assessment. This is possibly due to the idea that a general assessment based on ‘movement’ (both physical and figuratively) can indicate a more specific destination as well as speed and trajectory. Hence, the blue-sky thinker ends up as a ‘martini glass’.

So now we have an assessment that is far more actionable than ‘the beaker’ but more uncertain.

The significance of this is that to have an assessment that is more actionable and more certain, the ideal situation would be for a blue-sky thinker and a detail-orientated thinker to come together at the point immediately before making as assessment.

For these two people to try and work under exactly the same process in the first instance may result in conflict or tension due to the extreme difference in collection styles. Similarly, to come together after the assessment would result in a lack of understanding between both parties… due to the Necker Cube effect: both would be looking at the same thing but trying to convince the other to see something different. This may also be compounded by the detail-orientated individual believing the blue-sky thinker had not been detailed or thorough enough and the blue-sky thinker may believe that the detail-orientated thinker had discounted more qualitative (and less concrete) trends.

The conclusion here remains that collaboration is critical in intelligence however, in diverse teams, may be better utilised at the very beginning in the direction phase and at the critical juncture after the collection has been completed but before the assessment takes form. By doing so, a team will be able to potentially increase the actionability of the detail-orientated assessment while simultaneously increasing the level of certainty in the blue-sky assessment. While this may be seen, on a surface level, to be a compromise on both assessments, the art of intelligence is all about finding the balance between what is actionable and what is accurate. In a discipline where almost nothing is certain, this balance is the life-blood of intelligence-led decision-making.

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