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Collaborative Intelligence

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Intelligence professionals are commonly viewed as solo operators. But these days intelligence work is mostly about collaboration. Interdisciplinary and even inter-organizational teams are necessary to solve the really hard problems intelligence professionals face. Tragically, these teams often devolve into wheel-spinning, contentious assemblies that get nothing done. Or members may disengage from a team if they find its work frustrating, trivial, or a waste of their time. Even teams with a spirit of camaraderie may take actions that are flat-out wrong.

But there is also good news. This book draws on recent research findings as well as Harvard Professor Richard Hackman’s own experience as an intelligence community researcher and advisor to show how leaders can create an environment where teamwork flourishes. Hackman identifies six enabling conditions – such as establishing clear norms of conduct and providing well-timed team coaching – that increase the likelihood that teams will be effective in any setting or type of organization.. Although written explicitly for intelligence, defense, crisis management, and law enforcement professionals it will also be valuable for improving team success in all kinds of leadership, management, service, and production teams in business, government, and nonprofit enterprises.

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12 Chapters

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1 Teams That Work and Those That Don't

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It was not all that different from his regular work. Jim, an analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), looked around at the other members of his team. He knew two of them—another analyst from DIA and an FBI agent he had once worked with; the rest were strangers. The team’s job, the organizer had said, was to figure out what some suspected terrorists were up to—and to do it quickly and completely enough for something to be done to head it off. Okay, Jim thought, I know how to do that kind of thing. If they give us decent data, we should have no problem making sense of it.

For Ginny, it was quite a bit different from her regular work as a university-based chemist. She had been invited to be a member of a group that was going to act like terrorists for the next few days. Ginny had not known quite what that might mean, but if her day of “acculturation” into the terrorist mindset was any indication it was going to be pretty intense. She had never met any of her teammates, but she knew that all of them were specialists in some aspect of science or technology. She was eager to learn more about her team and to see what they might be able to cook up together.

 

2 When Teams, When Not?

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People have strong feelings about groups—not just members who love or detest the experience of being in them, but also scholars who study them. In an essay titled “Suppose We Took Groups Seriously …,” management scholar Harold Leavitt once proposed that groups generate so many benefits that we should consider using them rather than individuals as the very building blocks of organizations. The contrary position is perhaps most succinctly expressed in the Finnish proverb Joukossa tyhmyys tiivistyy, which translates as “In a group stupidity condenses.” Psychologist Edwin Locke and his colleagues would concur. In a provocative article titled “The Importance of the Individual in an Age of Groupism,” they suggest that a group frenzy has so overtaken organizational life that the critical role of individuals, especially in providing critical thinking, is being lost.1

Both sides can marshal support for their positions, from essays and commentaries to hard empirical data. On one side are books with highly promising titles such as Hot Groups, The Wisdom of Teams, and Group Genius, as well as scholarly analyses showing the increasing dominance of teams in the production of knowledge.2 On the other side are Irving Janis’s classic Groupthink, which shows just how wrong groups can be in making highly consequential decisions; the considerable research literature on free-riding (also known as social loafing) in teams; and the decidedly mixed evidence about the performance benefits of group techniques such as brainstorming.3 As was evident from the contrasting experiences of teams in the Project Looking Glass (PLG) simulations described in the previous chapter, group behavior can run the full range, from the best of the red teams to the worst of the blues.

 

3 You Can't Make a Team Be Great

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What does it mean to say that an intelligence team has “done well”? Teams usually have a mission with a specific objective: perhaps submitting an analytic report to a client, or obtaining certain items from a denied area, or completing an investigation of an information systems intrusion. If concrete objectives such as these were not accomplished, that clearly would signal poor team performance. But does doing well equate to simply accomplishing the team’s objective and nothing more?

Of course not. There always are multiple factors that bear on a team’s overall effectiveness. What did the clients of the team’s work actually think of the product? Was it helpful to them in meeting their own objectives, or was it something to be filed and forgotten? How about other stakeholders—people who did not commission the work but were affected by what the team produced? What were the consequences for them, and what were their reactions? What happened to the team itself? Did working together build the team’s capabilities, strengthen it as a performing unit? Or did the team burn itself up in the process of getting the job done? And how about the individual team members? Did they learn some things along the way, or was being on the team merely a frustrating exercise that contributed nothing to their own development as intelligence professionals?

 

4 Create a Real Team

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If you have decided to use a team to accomplish a piece of work, then the next question is how to set it up. You will want to minimize its vulnerability to the process losses discussed in the previous chapter and, ideally, to increase the chances of positive synergy among members. Unfortunately, group process difficulties are notoriously hard to stamp out. Merely being aware of them, for example, does not mean that you can avoid them. So what is to be done?

One strategy for heading off group process problems is to structure members’ interaction in ways that minimize the chances that things will go awry. The Nominal Group Technique (NGT), for example, provides a multistep procedure that both guides and constrains group interaction. Intended for tasks that involve eliciting and prioritizing policy alternatives, the technique has been shown to significantly reduce a group’s vulnerability to the kinds of process problems that often develop for such tasks. The Delphi method goes even further— group interaction cannot compromise performance when Delphi procedures are used because members do not interact at all. Instead, they submit their personal views to a coordinator, the coordinator summarizes them and sends the results back to all participants, and that iterative process continues until convergence is achieved. And, of course, there are the numerous structured analytic techniques that have been developed for use by intelligence analysts in managing not just the cognitive processes they use in generating their inferences and assessments, but also the social dynamics of the analytic process.1

 

5 Specify a Compelling Team Purpose

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Here are two ways a leader can get it wrong in setting a team’s purpose. Wrong Way #1: “Something is going on in that region that doesn’t seem quite right, and I’d like you all to take a look at it. Let me know what you come up with.” Wrong Way #2: “I’d like you to monitor, around the clock, all the traffic that comes across your desk about ship activities in those ports. Every morning, give me a listing of all the previous day’s movements.”

What is wrong with these two pictures? The first one is something of a projective test, an inkblot. Members have to make assumptions about what the leader is most interested in, and what they infer may or may not be aligned with what he actually had in mind. Indeed, the leader himself may not have been entirely clear about just what was needed, perhaps because he had not thought it through carefully enough beforehand. As unhelpful as this statement of purpose is, it could have been even worse. For example, the leader might have told the team to go ahead and do “whatever makes sense to promote the national interest.” That would have been an inkblot without any ink, of no use whatever to members in figuring out what they were supposed to do or how they should do it. Vague direction like that may help explain the behavior of the “rogue” intelligence teams that one sometimes reads about. For many such teams, I suspect, the problem is not that members decided on their own to head off in an unfortunate direction but instead that the team’s purpose was underspecified by the leader who assigned the team its work.

 

6 Put the Right People on the Team

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“You go to war with the army you have, not with the army you wish you had.” That oft-repeated military saying also can be applied to team formation: You compose a team with the people you have, not with the people you wish you had. There is both wisdom and danger in that statement. It is wise because it encourages leaders to adjust their decisions about team design to reality rather than to delay launching a team until they can corral exactly the right mix of members with exactly the right qualifications. The statement is dangerous because it can encourage mindless expediency—such as when a leader composes a team of those individuals who happen to be readily available even if they do not have the competencies the work requires.

Finding the right balance between reality and expediency in forming a team requires thought, initiative, and occasionally a bit of political maneuvering. The first priority, of course, is selecting the right people. Does each candidate for team membership have specific capabilities or experiences that can help with the team’s work? Do all prospective members have basic teamwork skills, the demonstrated ability to work well with others on a shared task? If not, what might be done to find and recruit members who do have what is needed? And how can individuals who are known to be team derailers be kept off a team?

 

7 Establish Clear Norms of Conduct

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Something’s up in Boston. In a few weeks, the World Ecumenical Council will host a conference at which several extremely high-profile religious leaders from around the world will give addresses. The Rockwell Front, a fringe neo-Nazi group named after George Lincoln Rockwell, has issued a credible threat that it will do something highly dramatic to disrupt the conference. Meanwhile, a vial of the deadly hantavirus, which compromises the respiratory system and can cause renal failure, has been stolen from a research laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There are reasons to believe that members of the Rockwell Front may have been involved in the theft.

Various data have become available that, if properly interpreted and integrated, might make it possible to figure out what is going on. Several cryptic e-mails among Rockwell Front members in the Boston area were captured by a law enforcement electronics team. The e-mail messages clearly include planning details, but they are so riddled with code words as to be impossible to interpret from plain-text reading. Fortunately, a list of word pairs on a personal data assistant (PDA) recovered from a Front member provides a key that might allow the e-mail messages to be decoded (for example: Bug Dust = Diversions, Crabs = Explosives, Annexia = HazMat Lab). The PDA also contains what appear to be reconnaissance photographs of a building. If matched up with the architectural plans of the five buildings that are the most likely targets (the Hyatt Regency Hotel, the World Religions Center, the Federal Reserve Bank, One Financial Plaza, and the St. Paul’s Church meeting annex), it may be possible to pinpoint the intended location of the attack. Finally, two sets of photographic material may be helpful. There are poor-quality photographs (as well as sketchy biographical data) of those Front members who have some kind of connection to the MIT hazardous materials laboratory. And there is security camera footage of people entering and leaving that lab in the last few weeks.

 

8 Provide Organizational Supports for Teamwork

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If you doubt that the organizational context is critical for team behavior and performance, take a brief break from your own intelligence team and join me in the cockpit of a commercial airliner for a trip from Washington to Chicago.1 Even before the captain and first officer meet, the organizational context has exercised hidden influence on team dynamics—for example, through the Crew Resource Management (CRM) training they both had received and through the airline’s crew composition system.

The captain has not previously flown with either the first officer or the lead flight attendant. Before heading to the aircraft, she checks in at the operations desk and picks up the paperwork for the flight. She glances at the weather (good, except that some nasty-looking thunderstorms are developing in western Pennsylvania) and examines the fuel load (a little low, she thinks, since the thunderstorms may require holding or a diversion, so she takes the unusual step of ordering another 4,000 pounds).

 

9 Provide Well-Timed Team Coaching

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Rhonda M., a senior intelligence analyst, has a problem with the team she is leading, and she is not sure what to do about it.1 A few weeks ago, the chief of Rhonda’s unit asked her to pull together a team to assess the possible secondary consequences of an overseas intervention that was being planned. The intervention would significantly disrupt the channels through which massive quantities of illegal drugs were being moved from the country where they were produced to the countries where they would be sold. Although it was to be carried out covertly, the intervention was certain to be noticed and eventually it probably would become known who sponsored it. The administration official who requested the assessment was especially interested in knowing how the leaders of both the country’s political opposition and the drug cartels that operated there were likely to respond to the intervention. Even a successful operation, he thought, might create problems more serious than those it would solve. Because preparations were moving forward rapidly, he needed the assessment within a month.

 

10 Leading Intelligence Teams

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The preceding section of this book explored six conditions that foster work team effectiveness. When those conditions are in place, chances improve that a team will successfully accomplish its mission and, in the process, facilitate learning by individual members and the team as a whole. The implications for team leaders would seem clear: Get your team properly designed and supported, and then do whatever you can to help members take full advantage of their favorable performance circumstances.

So take a moment and reflect on a team you lead or on which you serve. How does that team stand on each of the six conditions? They are summarized below, and shown in checklist form in Figure 10-1.1

1. The team is a real team: a bounded set of people who work together over some period of time to accomplish a common task, not an amorphous set of individuals who are a team in name only (Chapter 4).

2. The team’s purpose is challenging and consequential, with desired end states clearly specified but the means used to pursue those ends left mainly to the team (Chapter 5).

 

11 Intelligence Teams in Context

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When intelligence teams are well structured, supported, and led, they can do very well—they accomplish their mission, they grow in capability over time, and they contribute to the personal learning and professional growth of their members. These benefits do not automatically appear, however. As has been seen throughout this book, mere exhortation to collaborate and team-building exercises intended to promote harmony and trust are insufficient to produce results. Teams have to be thoughtfully designed and supported if they are to be an effective means of engaging individuals’ resources in pursuit of collective purposes.

The bad news is that the institutional contexts within which intelligence teams operate often place serious obstacles in the paths of those who seek to properly design and support them, obstacles so daunting that more than a few leaders have decided that intelligence teams are more trouble than they are worth. The good news is that within each obstacle to teamwork also lies an opportunity for constructive change. This concluding chapter is organized as a series of assertions, things I have heard in the course of my travels around the community, each of which points simultaneously to an obstacle and an opportunity.

 

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