mind trap

My new executive course in Strategic Mind Traps

Eric Garland Intelligence Analysis Leave a Comment

Next month, I will be unveiling a new intelligence training course called “How to Avoid Strategic Mind Traps” at the 2016 International Competitive Intelligence Conference in Bad-Neuheim, Germany. Based on fifty years of executives getting the future both right and spectacularly wrong, I have prepared a course that applies the state of the art in behavioral economics to strategic intelligence methodologies. In the next several posts, I will present some of the baselines of the course – and hopefully you’ll come join us at ICIC 2016 in Germany.

Why look out for mind traps? 

As leaders of organizations and even as individuals, it is useful to understand where our decision fail to achieve our stated goals. Most of the failure stems from an insufficient capability in foresight. As a basic principle, it is impossible to know “The Future,” but it is definitely possible to understand more about what will create it. It is also possible to screw the whole process up despite putting together the best minds in the world and using terrifically sophisticated processes.

So why don’t we spend more time examining how things go wrong?

As I am (*gasp*) about to enter my third decade of intelligence analysis, I have a few guesses as to why we prefer to study just the positive side of our decisions. In most of the major business cultures, only good news gets sent up to top management; bad news stays with the attorneys and those who got stuck with second-rate jobs in the organization. In the United States in particular, bad news represents an unwillingness to see the brilliance in their strategic mindsets of upper management, an obsession with risk versus reward, and a potential need for antidepressants and a teddy bear in the minds of our more shallow peers. Focusing on positive outcomes of chosen managerial techniques is a much better political bet.

But still the strategic mishaps are more numerous than the success stories – so why don’t we study failure in an academic context?

Social context trumps data and analysis

When at the beginning of their careers, intelligence analysts become transfixed by methodology. SWOT analysis, Game Theory, Nash equilibrium, KITs and KIQs, Delphi studies – it seems like there’s an infinite number of powerful, useful tools for improving decisions in complex, high-stakes situations. Moreover, these take a while to master, so it stands to reason that just figuring out how these work will take many years. Still, after a certain number of years in the morass of executive decision making, a given analyst may arrive at a certain conclusion: analytical methodology is a small fraction of what goes into making a good decision. About to enter my third decade in the field, I currently put the ratio as 90% context, 10% methodology. Techniques are great, but if the top three executives hate each others’ guts, and the board of directors hates theirs, Balanced Scorecard is really only part of the story on how a decision gets made. People are still a factor, to put it lightly.

Behavioral economics has done the most serious research into this phenomenon. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972 started the primary work on cognitive bias, leading Kahneman to a Nobel Prize in economics in 2002. His work replaces rational choice theory, which has in turn caused quite a bit of turmoil in the world of business and government management which tends to rely on this mechanistic view of strategic decisions.

The course How to Avoid Strategic Mind Traps is centered around the basic research of Tversky and Kahneman and applied through the lens of intelligence practitioners. At ICI 2016, attendees will be exploring the following categories of cognitive bias:

Social Biases – How our nature as organized primates subtracts from our ability to perceive the future correctly.

Memory Biases – Why our memory is far from linear and reliable and why this repeatedly mangles our understanding of the present (“how we got here”) much less the future (“where we’re going”).

Decision Biases – How decisions get distorted in large organizations full of individuals with their own personal interests.

Probability Biases – How our flawed perception of risk causes major havoc.

Once these biases are explored, I will be presenting how they manifest in two case studies, one from private sector business and one from government. These exemplify some of the classic strategic mind traps in which organizations get stuck despite a large number of intelligent people with gigantic budgets.

Private sector: We’ll be examining the role of disruptive technology and a technology company’s response to it.

Public sector: The run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom will likely be the most notorious example of strategic mind traps in action, and will be dissected.


In the next several posts, I will explore the basics of bias and how these are seen in our two case studies.

Tickets are still available if you’d like to join us in Bad-Neuheim, Germany.