Every June we are immersed in the language of war. The media produces endless stories and videos from what are constantly referred to as the NBA draft war rooms. During the first Gulf War I served as the head of watch in the intelligence cell of the joint British command HQ – an actual war room - and what strikes me is not the differences but the similarities. The short, sharp periods of feverish intensity interspersed with lengthy periods of boredom, just waiting.
The reality is that the principles are the same. The NBA draft war rooms are where the personnel of the intelligence units of the NBA organizations gather for the most important month of the year and the place where draft busts are born. These are the NBAs intelligence failures, and they are inevitable. They are inevitable despite all the analytical assistance now available because humans have to make the final decisions. Machines may propose but humans must decide.
Intelligence failures are rarely a problem of collection and almost always one of interpretation. The route from collection to decision is punctuated by a series of 'barriers' which can be organizational, psychological, or cultural and can exist either in the nature of the information or because of the process performed by analysts/scouts/coaches/front office on that information.
The simple logistics of organizing the information and differentiating between the 'signals' and the 'noise' creates obvious problems in identifying which is which and the Monday morning QBs will second guess anyway. Decision makers cannot rely on single signals, no matter how strong, they must wait for a number of signals to converge and that takes time and delay can kill a deal.
One issue is that most intelligence products are never actually seen by the final decision-maker which makes the theoretical logic of 'ideal intelligence' a nonsense. While the decision makers await never-to-arrive advice, the 'opponent moves forward', which changes circumstances, which in turn necessitate reassessment - and so the cycle continues. Even in the relatively close confines of a draft war room, time can be lost owing to the bureaucratic machinations of the various stakeholders.
Another formidable organizational 'barrier' exists with the transmission of ideas - or rather the lack of it. The prejudices of senior policy-makers can percolate through the organizational structure to influence subordinates conservatively, effectively suppressing their views. This is a self-fulfilling process which gradually evolves within an organization. For obvious reasons those lower down the pecking order will tend to be favorable to the prevalent policy and consequently will produce reports that substantiate the policy; so the circle continues.
As important as the organizational factors are, they are secondary when compared to the psychological and cultural barriers which are at the very core of the decision-making process. There is common agreement as to the psychological components of 'intelligence failures'. One, for example, is the 'cry-wolf’ syndrome. Here, it is the constant repetition of similar information that dulls the senses of the analyst to the extent that when a genuine threat arrives it is ignored. To paraphrase de Tocqueville: 'misapplied lessons from history may be more dangerous than ignorance of the past'.
A close cousin of `cry wolf’ is confirmation bias - seeing in the intelligence data what you 'expect to see' or worse, what you 'want to see'. This bias works both prior to analysis, in that the expectations and hypotheses of the intelligence experts guide their observation of the data, as well as its post collection of the data as the decision makers interpret the data. It is expectations as to what is considered likely to occur, that determine what signals receive the most attention. Analysts ignore 'signals' which would make life difficult and designate what should be 'signals' as 'noise' for their own convenience.
Also, the influence of the group cannot be underestimated. Shared norms, for example, can result in a reduction of tolerance to nonconformist views and a self-satisfaction and over-confidence in the prevailing view. As Irving Janis points out in his seminal work on 'groupthink', a pervasive influence can be exerted over individuals by the pressures of the group. A 'psychological contagion' takes hold, and the victim is usually unaware of its effects.
However, possibly the most dangerous of the psychological obstacles is 'over-confidence’. While confidence is needed in any endeavor, overconfidence can be a killer. As Daniel Kahneman points out, we become overconfident because of the stories we tell ourselves about the past.
overconfidence is fed by the illusory certainty of hindsight….and we are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world and to underestimate the role of chance in events.
Other research has shown that men are more overconfident than women which yields two predictions:
men will trade more than women, and the performance of men will be hurt more by excessive trading than the performance of women.
In other words, men act on their own assessment of their own ability much more often than women. The result is that women tend to achieve better investment results (decisions) than men.
One cause of such overconfidence may be neurobiological. Research has shown that the strength of an enzyme, monoamine oxidase (MAO) is closely related to risky behavior. The higher the incidence of MAO the lower is risk taking. MAO is higher in women than in men and higher as we age. If you really want risky and aggressive behavior on your team, then employ young men. Conversely, if you really want conservative behavior then middle-aged women might be the answer. What’s the balance in your decision-making teams? Further research shows that one of the biggest contributors to the performance of decision making teams is the cognitive diversity of the team. Where is your cognitive diversity?
Conversely, a certain level of overconfidence might be essential. As Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard economics professor, pointed out, it is difficult to make a living [on Wall Street] as a mega-bear. The same might also be true of player recruitment.
Cultural fit is crucial to the performance of teams on the court and in the front office. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are strong indicators of the culture in any organization – “this is the way we’ve always done it”. The tyranny of the SOPs can, however, be a major inhibitor to changing both procedures and behaviors within organizations. It is essential to challenge orthodoxies. Diversity in all its shapes and sizes is essential to the success of organizations and establishing a culture of cognitive diversity will add value to any decision making endeavor.
Perhaps the only way to deal with the complexities of intelligence failures is to accept their inevitability and try to minimize the damage. The sporting analogy might be that the real job of the scouting department is not to be perfect but to manage inevitable failure as effectively as possible - to improve the "batting average — say from .275 to .301 - rather than to do away altogether with surprise'. 6 Even di Maggio’s lifetime average was only .325.
How, then, is it possible to become the di Maggio of the scouting game? How can we create a model which draws together the rational and the irrational relative to the organizational. Simply developing procedures based upon the antitheses of the commonly held causes of failure would provide a datum, a starting point.
- The first would be to make any assumptions and hypotheses which are to be utilized as explicit as possible. This could generate the openness needed to eliminate unconsciously held preconceptions. Transparency across the scouting function would enable all levels to contribute to the final analysis. Exclusion from any element of the process is counterproductive.
- Second, should be continuous examination, revision and updating of the assumptions and expectations upon which policy is based. Challenging orthodoxy should be part of the job description.
- Third would be the application of a variety of hypotheses within the scenario planning process (if there is one) to avoid reliance on any dominant theory.
- Finally, it is vital that analysis and assessment are recognized as discursive activities and not the province of lonely experts or units divorced from each other, and that analysis should be valued throughout the organization.
In poker, for example, as in scouting, the more information you can acquire the better. Nevertheless, on the basis that information can never be complete, each individual player can only play the hand they have been dealt; and some players are better than others; and even the best players make mistakes; and opponents are trying very hard to win - bluffing, cheating and utilizing their skills; and everybody loses sometimes.
The scouting function is, therefore, working both within an environment (the minds of the individuals) and with an environment (the minds of others). Because of the complexity and the 'possibilities of surprise [which] are inherent in the limitations of human perception' 7 what must be accepted is a `tolerance of disaster'. Given the circumstances, perhaps it is the successes of the scouting function which should be the surprise, not the busts. When those with responsibility grasp this simple truth, stop aiming for unattainable perfection and set high but realistic targets will the intelligence/scouting process be improved.
Dr Chris Brady is the Chief Intelligence Officer at Sportsology and saw service with British Royal Navy intelligence functions through the Falklands, Gulf and Balkans conflicts.