Intelligence Analysis, Chimps & Hammers

By Panjandrum / 5 March 2014 / Humour?, Intel Analysis, Intelligence 101, Other, Psychology of Intelligence

There’s an old adage that states that “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. It’s sometimes known as ‘Maslow’s Hammer’ or ‘the Law of the Instrument’, but perhaps the most entertaining variant is the use of the term “Birmingham Screwdriver” to describe a sledge-hammer.

Sure enough, if you’ve just spent the last month on a course learning how to use geospatial information systems, you’re going to be pretty convinced that whatever today’s intelligence requirement is, the solution involves a map. Likewise, if you’ve just come of the HUMINT course – you’ve guessed it – all you need is a well placed human source.

But it goes far deeper than this. I recently had a dreadful, dawning realization of something so startlingly obvious I almost fell off my chair. I hesitate to write it down it’s so utterly banal, but am working on the assumption that if I overlooked it, others may too:


People who work in intelligence naturally and instinctively think in terms of intelligence. If something is not working, then the solution is probably one of the following:

  • We are missing the information we need.
  • We need more analytical horsepower to make sense of the information.
  • We need to convince the leadership to take intelligence output into account.
  • We are not deploying our intelligence resources as efficiently as we could.

But clearly this is wrong. Sometimes – perhaps most of the time – the problem is not obtaining, understanding and disseminating information. It’s possible to have perfect information, but still make really bad decisions – or avoid making any decisions at all, because decision making relies on more than good information alone. You need capable, rational individuals who are able to use intelligence to good effect. Good intelligence supports the decision maker, but if the decision maker has the mental faculties of a chimp, the quality of the intelligence becomes nugatory.

Having mastered use of the Birmingham Screwdriver, this inspirational thought-leader is well placed to make some impressive intelligence-driven decisions...

Having mastered use of the Birmingham Screwdriver, this inspirational thought-leader is well placed to make some impressive intelligence-driven decisions…

So what? What does this mean and why does it matter? Well, it probably provides a useful explanation for why intelligence analysts don’t rule the world, which is of passing interest, but there is a more serious point too, perhaps aimed predominantly at the consulting analyst:

Before you start work, ask whether the problem you’re trying to solve is an intelligence problem: Is it an absence of actionable intelligence with is preventing good decision making, or is it the chimp in command of the organisation? Clearly, if it’s the former, you stand a reasonable chance of success, but if it’s the latter, not only is failure guaranteed, but it’s likely to be that particularly grinding, demoralising kind of failure where you end up being held responsible for the shortcomings of a chimp.

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  1. Pingback: Cognitive Bias in the Consumer of Intelligence - IMSL Insights

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