Paper #6. Advanced Analysis is a Mindset

  • Jeffrey S. Johnson, Col USAF ret.
  • Leadership, Strategy
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Since 9/11 intelligence analysis and its shortcomings have been widely discussed. What has been done?


Military Services increased training in critical thinking and structured analytic techniques. The Army and Air Force created Advanced Analysis courses and OUSD(I) created the Information Environment Advanced Analysis course.

All of this is good for moving toward the goal of improving the skill sets and capabilities of military intelligence analysts. But, more fundamental to an increase in courses and techniques, what is required to achieve a breakthrough in advanced analysis is a new or renewed mindset and an environment created to execute advanced analysis.

Learning all of Paul and Elders’ critical thinking techniques, memorizing the dozens of logic errors, fallacies and biases, and practicing all the 55 structured analytic techniques from Richards Heuer and Randolph Pherson’s book Structured Analytic Techniques will not make one an ‘advanced analyst’. A person who has been through all of these critical thinking and analytic courses may be well trained and have a lot of techniques memorized, but still not execute analysis in a deeper, more advanced way.  It is not the techniques that make the biggest breakthrough in improving analysis. They can help. One could become an exceptional advanced analyst without learning any of these techniques.  What is required first and foremost is the right mindset.

A No-think Mindset

The right mindset for advanced analysis is missing and even squashed in many military intelligence organizations.  Intelligence analysts (and frankly many of those involved in the chain of events from developing requirements, collection management, tasking collection operations, collection, dissemination, exploitation, analysis, and dissemination) are under time pressure and a ‘factory-production-like’ mindset that detracts from advanced analysis.  The tyranny of ‘real-time’ intelligence analysis —streaming full-motion video (FMV) and other intelligence sources with the pressure to constantly strive for ‘actionable intelligence’ — creates an environment of fast-paced processing with little time for thinking, much less for advanced analysis.  Certainly, this is necessary during combat engagements (troops in combat or TICs).  Fast-turn intelligence is indeed critical in a number of scenarios. This is not an argument against the amazing combat ISR capabilities that have been created. There is, however, potential negative impact on analytical mindsets if this high-paced, System 1 mode of intelligence processing carries over into intelligence analysis at the operational level and in particular into analysis of the very complex information environment. 

Types of Thinking

System 1 thinking was first described by Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  System 1 consists of fast, unconscious, automatic thinking that is used to make everyday decisions.  The mind uses models or heuristics to sort through vast amounts of data and quickly make sense of a situation.  System 1 thinking is not ‘bad’ intrinsically. It is very necessary for both routine existence and survival in combat. But, System 1 thinking is the opposite of advanced analysis. An environment that rewards those who are great at System 1, rapid assessment and moving to the next challenge will not foster an advanced analysis mindset. The latter requires System 2 thinking along with a deeper connection to things outside the immediate here-and-now combat operation.

System 2 thinking is described as a slower, conscious effort to think through complex issues. It takes time and energy to engage in System 2 thinking. This can start by asking seemingly simple questions—why am I doing this analysis?  Who are the end-users? What do they really need? What is the connection between solving this analytical problem and the national strategy, national interests?  These and other questions begin to move an analyst from the mindset of checking a box and completing taskers rapidly to entering into a battle of understanding with potential adversaries.

Advanced Analysis Mindset

The advanced analysis mindset begins with questions and continues with unending questioning.

The advanced analysis mindset is all about questions. It is an active and aggressive engagement with questioning nearly everything about the operational environment or information environment (IE). This means it is about decomposing or breaking down an incredibly complex problem. The decomposition starts with a holistic view of the IE and dissects the whole into constituent parts. The decomposition may use a systems theory approach looking for related pieces forming a coherent system, sub-system and objects each with their own attributes. More importantly when moving through decomposing the IE, the analyst continues asking questions. What are the relationships among the parts? How are the parts linked together? Why are they linked? How do they interact? What parts are missing? What do we know? What do we not know? How do the systems behave? What is coming next? Throughout all this questioning, the advanced analysis mindset is looking for understanding the IE and using the dialectic to constantly advance that understanding.

As understanding of the IE begins to gel, the advanced analyst generates a statement of that understanding or a thesis. This is the first step in using a dialectic approach.  The thesis is a description of the current understanding of the operational problem in the IE.  This can be further clarified by creating a drawing or diagram of the thesis on a white board. A visualization can greatly help clarify what is meant by the thesis statement by showing key parts and relationships among parts. Once the thesis has been articulated, the next step for an advanced analyst is to try to defeat this thesis or disprove it. The analyst looks for any contradictions to the statement. What might be wrong? Where are the gaps?  Is it possible for the opposite of this statement to be true? In an effort to defeat the original thesis, the advanced analysis creates an anti-thesis statement. The antithesis reveals gaps in the original understanding and drives the analyst to continue to dig deeper for more facts, more understanding of relationships. This takes shape in driving collection and integrating with other analysts.

Driving Collection

In a non-stop quest to ask and answer questions, the advanced analyst must aggressively engage with collection capabilities.  Analysts cannot passively sit-back and wait for the next report to come in on a given topic. They cannot hope for new information. An advanced analyst drives collection with very specific and continuously updated requests for new information. These must detail the needed information—the who, what, where, when, how, and why—and wrap the collection request in the context of the challenge being solved. The more context and specificity an analyst can provide collectors, the more likely they will receive high-fidelity information in return that meets their request. In addition, integrating individual analytic efforts into a team effort always enhances and deepens the understanding of the IE.  Through dialogue and sense-making discussions a team of analysts can bring more clarity into otherwise ambiguous situations.

Sense-making is a term coined by Karl Weick in the 1970s in developing methods to structure the unknown for business decisions. Brenda Dervin and others built on Weick’s concepts to create processes for generating situational awareness and understanding in situations of high complexity or uncertainty. This is an apt description of the IE.  Advanced analysts need collaborative communication with other analysts to ask the right questions, structure the unknown, identify patterns and plausible understandings of the IE, and envision or anticipate what might be coming.  Advanced analysts need a place to learn how to ask the right questions among themselves, collectors, and other analysts to develop deeper and deeper understandings of the IE. We need a questioning mindset and a training and operational environment that can develop this experiential advanced analysis process.


The right kind of environment is needed to facilitate advanced analysis. 

What is the right kind of environment that would enable advanced analysts to live-out their mindset of asking questions and using the dialectic approach to drive deeper and deeper into understanding the IE?  

A production line environment rewarding fast System 1 thinking will not work. Rather, an environment encouraging deep thinking, taking the time to ask questions, think through answers, decompose a problem, and create a thesis is critical for advanced analysis, and all the other steps of the dialectic is required. An environment with space and white boards or other visualization tools beyond a small computer screen are needed. The environment must allow for analysts to have time to brainstorm, create theses, be challenged by other analysts, and have a robust dialogue. Analysts engaging in advanced analysis must be protected from trivial interruptions. They must be allowed consistent time to think and work to solve serious challenges relevant to the commander’s intentions in the IE. Ultimately this is a leadership issue. Leaders must see the value-added of advanced analysis and make the decision and apply resources to creating an environment conducive to successful advanced analysis.

Leadership across the military intelligence community over the past 15 years has applied resources to improving critical thinking and analytic tradecraft skills.  The next needed step is understanding that advanced analysis is more than techniques; it is a mindset. The advanced analysis mindset is constant curiosity with a purpose.  The curiosity leads to questions and the purpose drives the analyst toward an understanding of the IE that benefits other analysts, planners, operators, and decision makers. Enormously complex problems can be solved though advanced analysis if this questioning mindset is encouraged and the right environment created to enable its execution.

Author: Jeffrey S. Johnson, Col USAF ret.

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