A Costly Example
It was 2003. I was stationed in the Middle East serving as the Special Projects Officer for the Resident Office of Counterterrorism, where I ran HUMINT operations for the US military. I recall vividly how I, my colleagues, and the nation watched as top government officials, including Former Secretary of State Colin Powel, paraded satellite photos of suspected WMD sites in front of congress while citing “numerous” additional HUMINT sources. The intelligence seemed, to the average observer, conclusive: Saddam Hussein had an arsenal of WMDs and was intent on using them. However, it later became clear- even to Colin Powel – that the conclusion was invalid. There were no WMDs in Iraq.
So, what happened? How did we get it so wrong? While conspiracy theories abound, the most likely answer is that the Bush administration fell victim to one of the most common and often costly mistakes an organization can make as it pertains to interpreting intelligence findings; what I call Selective Insight.
What is Selective Insight and how does it happen? Selective Insight is the act of searching through a body of intelligence looking for specific findings that support your hypothesis, as opposed to examining ALL of the intelligence and building a hypothesis based on the total body of evidence. Going back to my previous example, there may have been a handful of HUMINT reports that suggested that Saddam Hussein was amassing a WMD arsenal and when looked at selectively, one might agree with Rumsfeld and the Whitehouse. However, if one were to look at the total body of evidence, including the thousands of HUMINT reports that clearly indicated he was not, then a very different conclusion would be drawn.
The problem is that when you go looking for intelligence to support your case, there is a good chance you may find that one nugget, that one outlier that you can point to and say, “See, here is proof.” When organizations or individuals look for intelligence to support an idea, a strategy, or personal agenda, they are likely to find it. That is a dangerous way to make military decisions, but governments are not the only organizations that fall into this destructive pattern. Businesses suffer from Selective Insights as well, sometimes costing them valuable resources, market share, and even the business itself.
Check out Selective Insights Part 2, as we look at some real-world examples of how Selective Insights can harm a company’s strategy and overall competitiveness.