Manifesto of an Agile Intelligence Community
“If influence cannot be our goal, what should it be?” - Sherman Kent
The United States Intelligence Community is charged to help national leaders make informed decisions. In the nearly three-quarters of a century since its modern incarnation at the close of the Second World War, it has grown huge through cycles of incremental, if often incoherent, reform. But its structural—and more importantly, its intellectual—model has been remarkably resistant to adaptive change. Today, it is operating from within an increasingly anachronistic paradigm, leading critics—myself among them—to sound alarms of looming obsolescence.
Some institutions adjust to changing circumstances, transforming to meet new challenges. Others either fail in these efforts or refuse to acknowledge the need for change at all and grow irrelevant or disappear altogether. A growing record of once-mighty institutions that complacently believed their legacy would shield them from a changing world is clear. The way the intelligence community addresses the problems of a changing world will chart its trajectory over the remainder of the 21st-century, and making similar presumptions could very well mean being left behind.
Existing practice reflects conventions built up over many decades. They are inherited from an analog past when intelligence was cloistered from those it served and spoke to them intermittently when its most powerful tool was the densely-written National Intelligence Estimate.
There is room for optimism, though. The newly-released 2019 National Intelligence Strategy calls for an intelligence community that is more agile, more innovative, and more resilient. And though we’ve heard this rhetoric before, the community, to be fair, has made some progress towards this vision. It is much easier today for analysts to share information. Several agencies, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), have restructured into ‘mission-focused centers,’ aggregating analysts and collectors who work similar issues. Advances in information technologies have promoted collaboration and made once-tedious processes quicker through automation.
But automation is not innovation, some barriers remain, and mission centers are very similar to multi-divisional models first developed by General Motors over a century ago. Acquiring digital technologies that allow automation and collaboration without adopting compatible social technologies squanders the very promises those tools offer. Digital tools by themselves won’t solve any of the core challenges we face but allows us to pretend that they have. As Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon put it, “We’ve never been as good as we are now, but we have to be better.”
President Franklin Roosevelt, who founded what became the modern intelligence community during the Second World War, once compared government to a tree, which as it grows must be carefully pruned both to preserve the trunk and encourage the new growth. Custodians of intelligence can preserve our traditions while making them more suitable for a changing world.
We don’t need to abandon our values to adapt to our hyper-connected era, though, or even to change our culture—intelligence officers are already motivated, creative, and service-minded. We do need to add some new values—like transparency, disaggregation, and simplicity. And we do need to unleash those officers’ potential.
In short, the pace of adaptation must accelerate if we hope to keep pace with a rapidly changing world. We must be willing to go further by tearing down the bureaucratic silos that remain and adopting new forms of engagement to delight a new generation of national leaders. Above all, we should ask difficult questions and strive to differentiate between mission and tradition across three broad areas: our products, our people, and our processes.
By one admittedly rough estimate, the community publishes 50,000 reports of ‘finished’ intelligence every year. What kinds of reports? Most are routine summaries and incremental updates. There are more in-depth pieces, similar to offerings available to the public except for some of the highly-classified sources and too often written in a dense, institutional language that fails to provide context or clarify significant judgments and feels especially alien to younger readers.
Unsurprisingly, many of these reports go unread by anyone but other analysts. Intelligence officers like to believe they ‘speak truth to power,’ but the truth is that they are often only preaching to the choir.
There are, in fairness, also some of the best reports published anywhere in the world—well-written, exquisitely sourced, expertly reviewed, and enhanced with powerful visual aids. But these are few and far between, and regularly buried in the deluge of a far more mundane ‘daily take.’
Consequently, our conception of intelligence itself must be reimagined. I’ve written that “intelligence is not the white paper or the slide deck or the overhead satellite image. Intelligence is the experience of understanding something more completely than before.” Put plainly: intelligence is a service that facilitates understanding.
Instead of delivering ‘products’—intelligence officers should co-create sensemaking experiences with their clients. They should be empowered to provide on-demand access to curated intelligence services that are so self-evidently valuable that the people of the United States are willing to pay more than 80 billion dollars a year to sustain them.
In the past, it was enough to be merely ‘ok’ in style and visual design because the exclusive nature of intelligence reporting carried extra weight. This is no longer the case. Instead of expecting users to jump hurdles to come to us for the privilege of accessing our work, we must meet them where they are, making more intelligence more available to more users, both physically and digitally. Design thinking must become second nature, participation from users must become the norm.
Former National Intelligence Council chairperson Gregory Treverton recently concluded that intelligence was ultimately about storytelling. He is correct, but we are not taking advantage of all the storytelling tools at our disposal. Intelligence shouldn’t—or even primarily—consist of just well-written, concise papers: it should involve interactive graphics, augmented reality, and audio-visual production. For those products that are written, we must use language that is less institutional and more conversational, matching our users’ habits and preferences, involving them in the conversation instead of dictating our judgments to them.
The community should stake its future on creating a vital destination for those who work in the national security by building platforms that provide distinctive intelligence in a comfortable, user-friendly form that extends those users’ understanding of the world and helps them navigate it more easily.
Organizational structures exist to facilitate the flow of information. In the past, when the volume of available information was more manageable, it made sense to channel it through a hierarchy. Hierarchies perform well in stable periods because they streamline processes and prevent deviation.
But their disadvantages have become apparent as the rate of change increases and complexity rises. Preventing aberration also stifles creativity. Today, adherence to a rigidly pyramidal control structure constrains organizations’ ability to keep up. Hierarchies are inherently insular and usually result in disengaged workers who have to be told what to do and who have little awareness of how their work actually gets used or not.
Today, rapid, organization-wide communication is more important than stratified reviews that delay the delivery of practical insight to users. Intelligence should no longer focus on gathering information and funneling it to the top; instead, it should make connecting everyone to everyone else its purpose and facilitate the frictionless flow of useful information to every node within the trusted workforce.
Accordingly, we should distribute the delivery of sensemaking intelligence services throughout the system by establishing small, semi-autonomous teams focused on specific clients. These teams could be composed of high-performing cross-disciplinary experts who essentially are the product. They would have a clear line of sight to the end user of their services. Furthermore, they could be rapidly formed and disbanded as needs arise and abate. They would be, in a word, agile.
Such decentralized networks promote creativity and adaptability as many minds work on the same sorts of problems and apply different methods at the same time. Competence resides throughout what becomes a learning organization, and innovation can emerge from anywhere to ripple across the network at the speed of relevance.
In a more agile intelligence community, leadership becomes more strategic and visionary rather than directive and micro-managerial, something management theorist Thomas Malone called a shift from command-and-control to coordinate-and-cultivate, and more recently Stan McChrystal likened to ‘gardening.’
What’s wrong with existing processes? Nothing, in the words of former CIA deputy director for intelligence Carmen Medina, except their “essential design.” The community’s current industrial age model is an artifact from the 19th-century. It was suitable then but is unable to match the requirements and preferences of numerous users across the government today.
To become more agile, the community should eschew ‘production cycle’ metaphors and adopt the iterative agile methodology. Agility is more than management theory or production methodology. It requires a paradigm shift that fundamentally alters the relationship between producers and consumers.
Rather than pushing products to consumers, agile organizations are pulled where their users want them to go. Operational agility delivers better products to users, faster, by pushing control down to the lowest levels of a flat, interactive network. Strategic agility is the ability of any node within this network to innovate and quickly share entirely new methods of delivering value to users that they didn’t even know they wanted.
George S. Pettee wryly observed in 1946 that “the tendency of intelligence organizations to undertake reorganizations at intervals of a year, or two or three years, with the reorganization nearly always taking the form of a shift from ‘regional’ to ‘functional’ alignment of divisions and sections, or back again, illustrates how rudimentary the understanding of the problem is.”
Intelligence has vacillated between this false choice since its inception, a problem even Sherman Kent recognized, blaming it on the limitations of the education system.
Ironically, the community seems to have never thought of placing the users of intelligence themselves as the point around which it gravitates. Users should be the beginning and end of a re-imagined intelligence process. Setting the user of intelligence as the focal point of all collection and analysis solves questions of audience and usefulness before they’re even raised.
In our shapeless, interconnected and interdependent world, users of intelligence frequently encounter issues that were once discrete but now bump up against each other with unexpected results, and the current model is only imperfectly stretched to fit this new reality because it was designed using the reductive frames of the last century, in which problems were neatly-organized into bins. The result is a sort of myopia or conceptual blinders that cause us to miss connections and underestimate challenges, as the former president did.
Replacing these reductive tendencies and focusing on the user would threaten the current ‘need-to-know’ paradigm, requiring the modification of an equally-entrenched bureaucratic culture of security compartmentalization. Need-to-know must be replaced with understand-and-share—or as the Director of National Intelligence calls it, a “responsibility to provide.”
Toward a More Agile Intelligence Community
Sometimes, the old ways are best. Change for its own sake is often counter-productive and shifting the culture of an organization the size of the American intelligence community is incredibly difficult. But it can be done. What choice do we have? No institution is immune to external changes. Ultimately, those that fail to adapt to a changing environment go extinct.
Intelligence will not disappear when we prune its overgrown or dying branches. On the contrary, by removing outdated structural limitations and encouraging new growth, there is likely to be much more intelligence than ever before. By reimagining our products, empowering our people, and making our processes more agile, competitive intelligence can lay the foundations for success well into the remainder of the 21st-century, and beyond.
Think of it this way—the music industry, dominant for a half-century, crumbled despite owning the means of production and having a monopoly on distribution. Its titans, comfortable in their glass towers, were too slow to recognize the changes occurring around them as barriers to entry for independent artists crumbled. The ‘big four’ media companies: Universal, Sony BMG, EMI, and Warner Music Group, who collectively owned about 90% of the market, saw their sales plummet and their revenues cut by billions of dollars.
There are now more artists, more collaborations, more songs, and many more styles than at any point in human history because music is a creative endeavor, not a zero-sum activity. The more musicians that connect to a network, the more they amplify and feedback one another’s creations, leading to a seemingly endless amount of permutations. Resultingly, people are listening to more music than ever before, and we can accurately describe what was once an industry as a vibrant and growing artistic community.
Imagine an empowered intelligence community of more diverse, creative analysts sharing, filtering, and cognifying to make sense of the chaotic world for individual and institutional clients. Imagine knitting together a more agile community that can adroitly create and disperse teams of multi-functional, cross-disciplinary experts to help clients adapt to the most difficult challenges they face in an age of durable disorder. Ultimately, an agile intelligence community would help its clients to implement solutions at the speed of relevance.
If this is the result for intelligence, then bring on the revolution.
Zachery Tyson Brown is an intelligence officer who currently serves as an intelligence advisor to the Department of Defense. He can be found on Twitter @Zaknafien_DC. Zach previously served in the United States Army. Zach is most recently a graduate of the National Intelligence University, Class of 2018.