August 29, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Value of an Analytic Imagination: Part Three

As of late August 2012, the death of a modern day pioneer — one whose amazing accomplishment was predicated upon the collaborative imagination of thousands — provides exquisite context for the last of this three-part series on analytical imagination. The effort to describe the irreplaceable value of this unique construct to government and corporation decision-making processes would simply be incomplete without acknowledging the recent passing of one of the most analytically imaginative people of our time, Neil Armstrong. His methodical yet imaginative career as an engineer, test pilot and astronaut provides us with an enduring case study of measuring success and failures in creative and productive ways. And so The Soufan Group dedicates this series to the first man who walked on the moon. In fact, how he got there offers the definitive map for how any government or business can reach their own distant objective: through analytic imagination.

Armstrong's 768,800 km round-trip journey is a perfect example of how analytic imagination actually works in solving real-world challenges with unprecedented solutions. This was the product of thousands of people spending millions of hours expanding upon what they knew was possible and probable while conscientiously avoiding paralysis through fearful speculation. Part One of this series offered an exploration into how analysis too often suffers from a lack of imagination, with the final product determined in large part by the limits of what the analysts can or can not imagine. Part Two examined another flawed approach, in which analysts treat low-probability/high-impact events as near certainties in a misguided attempt to mitigate risk while actually increasing it. Both approaches waste what might be the most valuable tool for an analyst: the imagination that makes it possible to gain more from experiences than mere memory.

A professional imagination facilitates not only a deep understanding about what has occurred but also deeper understanding of how the risks or rewards of any given scenario depend in no small degree on one's position when the scenario unfolds. For example, if it has been predetermined that the negative albeit unlikely event is certain to happen — and the sum total of all analysis and preparation center around that inevitability — then there is a high degree of certainty that the chosen position will be precisely where the hammer strikes hardest. Key to this dynamic is the fact that the hammer strike became inevitable only because of an unwillingness, shaped by insufficient flexibility in thinking, that lead to an obstinate refusal to move.

If analysis is limited by the depleting effects of an inexperienced imagination, any enterprise will constantly be surprised and never able to reasonably profit from these experiences. The option between always feinting and flinching or always being caught flatfooted is not so much a choice as it is a dilemma, the result of not proactively leveraging the grand potential of thoughtful analysis.

Analytic imagination is most assuredly not about guessing whether this or that will happen. Rather, it is more about where one should be standing if this or that happens (and that is not always either in a crouch or flatfooted). Analytic imagination is an approach that harnesses imagination in a manner that powers answers to the analytical question, "How do these events effect this government or business enterprise?" And the answers mustn't always be so frightening...or costly. If analysts spent as much time assessing how to position the enterprise to take advantage of a potential positive as they do fortifying against a potential negative, leaders would be presented with a far different  — and far more profitable — foundation upon which to base their decisions.

As NASA engineer and astronaut, respectively, Eugene Meierman and Harrison Schmitt noted in their essay “Imagination, Motivation, and Leadership Make Visions Real”:

"When imagination is insufficient to discover what's really possible, and huge opportunities are lost or leadership fails to make meaningful but risky decisions that take advantage of emerging opportunities or fails to motivate the workforce, then challenges and setbacks are likely to lead to failure, not success."

This is not to say that risk avoidance or mitigation is unimportant; it is no less than critical when lives are at stake. Rather, this is to say that an excessive (perhaps exclusive) focus on the potential threats is truly paralyzing to policy and in some ways ensures the worst-case scenario ultimately unfolds. Put another way, if X marks the spot of a negative event, why spend so much time either running towards or standing next to X? In their work, personal security professionals analyze routes and identify choke points. For the most part, instead of spending resources and time minimizing the risk of a known choke point, skilled security professionals purposely avoid it and identify alternate routes. Again, if X marks the bad spot, logic argues that going to X will not end well.

This principle holds true across all fields where vital decisions are frequently made with imperfect information. When alternative routes are ready for use (meaning they have been studied and assessed), then running to X becomes less inevitable (and far more avoidable). Furthermore, instead of only focusing on the negatives of X, it is considerably more profitable and effective to study the positives of all the alternative routes; in this way, risk avoidance is not the alpha and omega of policy. Instead, it becomes a path to positive gain as well. In the complex world of geopolitics, the least negative is not nearly the same as the most positive.

Neil Armstrong's 1969 mission to the moon didn't spring from a void; it was the result of a clearly and compellingly stated goal of landing a man safely on the moon before the decade of the 1960s was through. When the goal was announced in 1962, this appeared to be  — and technically was  — an impossible goal. It only became possible and then probable as people analyzed the issues with purpose and imagination (supported by sufficient resources for the goal, something often overlooked or misunderstood in policy).

This holds true for any organization, public or private. The goals must come first, and must be clearly stated. And risk avoidance is not a goal, but rather the byproduct of thoughtful decisions. Once the goals are established, analysts can then frame their questions properly: how could A (the seemingly infinite number of constantly evolving factors) effect B (the organization's goals). As the issues become more specific, the questions and answers needn't always become more negative. The thoughtful analyst is equally on the lookout for X and for hidden positives, so that every decision is not based on fear but on a methodical and imaginative foundation that wrings out the most value from hard-earned experiences. And that is no small step.

In memory of Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012, engineer, test pilot, astronaut, imagineer.




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