Learn from the cognitive difference in others – a critical intelligence skill

Eric Garland Intelligence Analysis

All humans seek to be right, to get the correct answer, to take fruitful action; we rarely agree on the facts, the logic, the path to success. The mid-level professional will come to recognize that there are different cognitive frameworks. The engineer will realize that marketing doesn’t “get” her. The accountant will wonder how so many could have such disdain for the elegance of details. The physician will wonder how so many get anything done with such self-doubt. The graphic designer will wonder why his colleagues are being such a stick-in-the-mud.

The sophomore intelligence analyst will recognize the cognitive diversity of the audience she will attempt to influence. She will understand that briefing military leaders is different from politicians, that operations and logistics professionals will need more detailed support for conclusions than strategists and marketing executives. She will prepare her brief for a variety of audiences, expecting resistance in different places, exert herself to win support through exploitation of the customer’s hot button issues.

The master intelligence professional will thrive from that diversity. Each objection will reveal to her not only the potential weaknesses of that customer’s cognitive frame, but that value can be derived from that which makes that customer successful in his chosen profession. Each experience—or even failure—serves to enrich her professional acumen by showing not the just limits but the contours of different human minds after years of professional training. If curiosity is shown instead of revulsion, the master intelligence professional can learn to not only navigate the differing cognitive personalities, but to incorporate the different disciplines, the varying additions and subtractions of information and analytical techniques of each, into her own work to enrich every future project to come.

Improving analysis through being constantly wrong

Master intelligence professional Max Nelson famously said, “All intelligence is wrong. The only questions are how, why, by how much, and is it useful to the decision maker?

My late mentor Joe Coates used to tell audiences that if they agreed with 100% of what he said, their time had been 100% wasted. He went further, warning that if he didn’t tell them at least one ridiculous thing in his speech or dossier—something that made them question his sanity—then the entire affair was a waste of their energy and budget. He intoned that the future, and indeed the world in which we currently live, was built on absurd ideas. Women in the workplace. Japan as a first-world nation. China as a capitalist power. Absurd ideas! Thus, if he didn’t present at least a few insights that caused revulsion if not rebellion, the value of foresight analysis was near zero.

Much like being married, if you want to work in strategic intelligence and be successful, you should not be afraid to be wrong, or at least be called wrong—and use that impulse to build greater understanding.

After more than twenty years in the field of strategic intelligence, having lived long enough to see the timeframes described in older analyses, I see moments when I was right, instances when I was wildly inaccurate and confused in my analysis, and occasions when I was helpful to the client in a way that led to decisions that created significant value, often changing the fate of the organization.

If I were to put all three phenomena in a Venn diagram, the overlap between being right and being effective is not as large as one would think; in fact, it may be an even split. I know for a fact I have delivered analyses that have been dead-on correct in substance and timing (“the Crisis of 2008 showed the weakness of quantitative models—enrich these with qualitative analysis to get the real story of what happened”) which resulted in zero change and zero value in executive decisions. I also know of when I was utterly incomplete in my analysis, however accurate—analyzing a competitor’s weaknesses but not its ties to organized crime and financial fraud that were at the heart of the matter—and yet the story still motivated decisions that led to hundreds of millions in value generated. Moreover, most analyses that were right at the time have been overtaken by events, shown by the current revelations of nation-state espionage, economic warfare, and the illicit use of offshore banking to have been incomplete at best.

This is why every master intelligence professional must learn not only to tolerate or accept cognitive diversity, but to embrace as many flavors as possible. You’re going to be wrong anyway, now or in the future, for this customer or another, so you might as well learn why you’re incorrect and use it to build your skillset. Because your customers are also wrong, for the same or even more acute reasons, so you should take advantage of your collective wrong.

A zoological primer of cognitive frameworks

Even after twenty years of being wrong, I hope to have another twenty years of useful intellectual failure, so this list is a work in progress. Here, I’d like to give a brief compendium of the types of cognitive frameworks you’ll see in your practice of strategic intelligence.

Elected officials

Politicians and other elected officials are acutely aware of the detailed difficulties of making some initiative a tangible reality. They can envision the grinding despair of friction and frustration as a policy decision becomes endless meetings and excuses/reasons for why a plan is impossible, even after budget is consecrated. They also understand that their support from the public is fickle and time-limited, and how perception is often better than reality for those purposes.

For the elected official, there is no long term beyond two, four, or in the case of senators, six years. (Your mileage may vary per country here.) 


Engineers see the world in terms of systems. Mass and energy must not only interconnect to work, they must do so elegantly. Because they design things on which the world depends, they are insistent upon ample homework shown before any decision can be made, and the worst case scenario must usually come first. (My first job was working with electrical engineers on temperature control instrumentation—a mistake could mean a factory worker getting burned alive.) The engineer’s worldview is often very complete and their care for their work is often deep.

Engineers typically will not trust much of your analysis if you don’t think like an engineer, even when the reverse may not be true.

Financial professionals

Financial professionals have similar traits to engineers, taking pride in mastering details, appreciating the interconnected nature of successful systems, and thinking broadly about externalities. They differ in that while fudged numbers in engineering results in a bridge collapsing and killing people, fudged numbers in finance results in publishing a 10-Q report for the SEC on a timely basis. Accounting is often called “a pack of lies, agreed upon,” while the same sentiment in engineering will result in multiple civil and criminal lawsuits. Financial professionals do take into consideration surprises and uncertainty since for all public companies these must be explicated in official documents for investors. That doesn’t mean those analyses will be good or even serious, but they must be included.

If your analysis doesn’t conform to GAAP or the last 20 quarters of their professional experience, they will scowl at you.


A general officer wants your analysis on one page. Bullet points if possible. Bring answers, not more questions. You’ve got five minutes tops, and if you have more than that, act like you only have five minutes. That analysis better be about an existing problem, a current one, or a proximate one that hasn’t yet been considered; bring a solution to that problem with you or stay home. The highest level officers have ample training, including strategic analysis and intelligence/counterintelligence. You don’t have to be afraid of complex concepts, and don’t act like just because they’re still in shape to take a hill with a regiment that they aren’t whipsmart, too. Just be damn quick about it.

If your solution involves messing with the chain of command or riling up the civilian leadership, you best just stay home.

National security

They have an incredible depth of knowledge around matters they can discuss with a maximum of four people. The NatSec executive will listen to every word you have to say and screen every syllable before they say it because of their security clearance. They want the BLUF – bottom line up front, because they might get five minutes with their customer. If too many of the details are in the analytical summary, they will assume you didn’t collect enough intelligence nor apply the right tools to it. If too few details are in the accompanying documents, they’ll assume you weren’t rigorous enough. These executives have to talk to politicians and military, and realize they need to tailor to their audience; you better be able to as well.

If you ask too many questions of the NatSec executive, they will assume you’re trying elicitation on them and call their Security Officer.

Competitive Intelligence

Senior management already hates them; they know it. They’ve already loaded up every top executive in the place with nine months of essential material through which they haven’t chewed; they’re still not happy. Chances are, you’ve been asked for the fifteen impossible questions asked by the bosses that basically nobody can answer, so thoughts and prayers. Yes, they’re familiar with all the different analytical frameworks, use them if you want, but you both know that it’s like peeing in dark brown pants—sure it feels warm and relieving, but probably only you will know it happened.

If you say you need extra budget and you didn’t bring back the formula for home-based cold nuclear fusion in your last project, you will make the competitive intelligence manager cry. 


That you’re not an attorney, right off the bat, is a point against you, even though they’ll gladly admit that they hate attorneys. Arguing is like breathing—if you haven’t done it in over a minute, they may think something is medically wrong with you. The attorney is a structured thinker. If there isn’t a fact in evidence with a proper chain of custody or significant credibility, then it isn’t worth discussing. If the situation is a bit blurry, it can be discussed, so long as it’s part of the search for facts to put in evidence and relates to statutes and case law. Legalese has a past tense (for case law only) and a present tense, but no future tense; the future has no facts in evidence, therefore it cannot be discussed, quod erat demonstrandum. Putting things in Latin will be more precise, but attorneys hate if you try to talk like attorneys without passing the bar exam. Lawyers will parse through situations with the greatest attention to completeness, yet the word “probability” should only have four letters. The lawyer’s mindset decides more of what happens in the world than most people understand.

If you insist to the lawyer that intelligence depends on assessments given a confidence interval, not settled facts, they will stare at you blankly. 

Learn from cognitive difference to become a master intelligence professional

Cognitive variety is the spice of analytical life. If you are at a mid-way point in your intelligence career, you may be at a place where you understand that not everybody thinks like you and your colleagues. If you want to progress to the master’s level, you won’t just learn to tolerate this reality but use it to your personal growth and advantage, and even learn to enjoy it. 

Much of intelligence is the study of people, how they act, how they think, and how they decide. People, even difficult people, are generally fascinating. And the ideal intelligence professional might be a JD PhD MD professional engineer who put in ten years at Langley after graduating the Naval War College. Sadly, there’s only so much time in the day. The next best thing is to take advantage of meeting a broad variety of human beings in your professional activities and applying what you can.

Every time you or they are irritated, ask why. When they disagree vociferously, study the points of their objection. When something works, don’t just celebrate, ask why that point wasn’t rejected out of hand. These are the meta-analyses that go into every project that is to come after this current one. If you’re committed to the craft of intelligence analysis, you’re just getting started.

Never stop learning. We don’t.