Skip to main content

Intelligent Analysis from Intelligence Analysis: Using Psychology Tips in our BA Tool Kit

Have you ever wanted to be a spy? 

We may not be qualified to be the gun-wielding, smooth-talking James Bond, but maybe a savvy CIA analyst might be more up our street. There are, of course, parallels in many types of analysis work and while our projects may be a little less glamorous than counter-terrorism, there are things we can learn from the world of Intelligence Analysts.

Richard J Heuer Jr in his book “Psychology of Intelligence Analysis” discusses the topic of when to make decisions. He explores methods used by doctors making diagnoses and applies this to the world of the CIA. How to know when you have enough information about a government, regime or situation to spot risks and make informed decisions.

It also applies to our world.

We all conduct interviews and workshops, dig into documents and ask questions but we determine for ourselves when enough-is-enough. Or rather time usually dictates when enough is enough. Heuer proposes that instead you could rather consider a smarter approach.

Make Decisions Earlier

Heuer warns that more knowledge leads to more confidence in a decision but not necessarily more accuracy. Using the example of horse racing pundits he shows that pretty good estimates are made with reasonably scant information and that experts recognize the limitations of their guesswork at this stage. As they are given further information about form and conditions their confidence levels grow, but interestingly their accuracy does not grow proportionately or even by much in real terms.

In business this may mean that when we gather a small amount of information we may get a reasonably accurate picture. As long as we can deal with the uncertain feeling, we save a lot of time and resources gathering more when the only outcome is greater comfort. Understanding the confidence level of stakeholders when they provide information gives us a good indication of when enough is enough.

Analyze Root Causes

How else can gathering more information be counter-productive?

Heuer tells of how analysts propose a theory while gathering or reviewing intelligence but that sometimes this would lead an analyst to use new information to strengthen an incorrect theory. Each piece of additional intelligence was being wrongly valued according to whether it reinforced the existing understanding.

How can this affect us? When considering the possible options of a new business proposition we need to check if fresh information reinforces more than one choice, not just if it supports the current favorite. If we have determined a product to offer, simply getting a positive response from a focus group on that particular product doesn’t make it the best proposition. They may be reacting to a particular product feature that is a feature of more than one product.

Knowing what probing questions to ask to uncover the underlying facts is for careful consideration by analysts. It surely grows with experience but can be honed when explicitly considered.

This book is just one example of the many that discuss psychology or the techniques learned from psychology studies. We have a mine of information we can extract and apply as a modern Business Analyst.

Consider another couple of examples:

How not to raise a risk

“Does fear persuade or does it paralyze?” is the title of a chapter from one of my favorite business books “Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion” by Goldstein, Martin and Cialdini. They refer to the study of a public health leaflet highlighting the dangers of tetanus infection. The study gave leaflets to students were either frightening or not and that either had a plan of action or not. Which would motivate the students to get a tetanus injection? The leaflets with a high-fear message only generated action if a plan was included. The authors then note: “it’s important to accompany high-fear messages with specific recommendations for actions that will reduce the danger.” Readers of the leaflet were less likely to resort to denial if they had a clear action plan.

We, as Business Analysts are key experts in reporting potential risks to project management but if we often find that our warnings fall on deaf ears then perhaps consider how we present the risk. If we don’t already recommend or suggest mitigating activities then doing so could improve our chances of the risk being reduced.

Warping views with information

Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” shows us the effect of “availability” of information, that is how often we come into contact with information and how readily we recall it. Availability affects our perception of our world and, therefore, our judgment. He discusses a study where participants were asked to judge the likeliness of different causes of death. They were then compared against statistics of the time. He notes that “Strokes cause almost twice as many deaths as all accidents combined, but 80% of respondents judged accidental death to be more likely.” This is revealing. He argues that “estimates of causes of death are warped by media coverage.” If we see multiple reports of tornadoes or earthquakes, then we are more likely to deem them as a higher risk, even where true probability states otherwise.

So how can we apply this to our Business Analysis work?

  • If we discuss one type of business problem using multiple examples then we can only expect that the participants will, for at least a short time after, view that type of problem as larger than it really may be.
  • After experiencing the realization of a project risk we would expect stakeholders to view avoiding similar risk as disproportionately more important because the information is easily called to mind.
  • We must be careful then that we don’t set up a situation where we create an increase in the availability of information prior to discussing subjects that may need to be downplayed to meet our objectives.

Getting the most out of the people we encounter during our project life-cycle and the time that we spend with them is so important. There are many more exciting tips and techniques discussed in psychology best-sellers. In the future I hope we see some of these techniques becoming part of the formal toolkit of the successful Business Analyst and not just the CIA.