BOOK REVIEW: Putting method in your thinking

The HEAD Game: High-Efficiency Analytic Decision Making and the Art of Solving Complex Problems Quickly,  by Philip Mudd

PHILIP Mudd was the deputy director of the CIA’s Counter-terrorist Centre. His occupation required that he provide the analysis that allowed for effective decisions by the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, the Transport Security Administrator, and the Directors of the FBI and CIA.

His work required him to be highly efficient and accurate in analysing complex problems. The consequences of poor analysis could lead to enormous destruction as in 9/11, or widespread panic, as after the Boston Marathon attack.

Drawing on his extraordinary experience, Mudd has assembled a highly useable and efficient set of tools to assist anyone who has to make important decisions that do not have a single, right answer.

Everyone faces decisions such as these at some point in their lives –what car should I buy, or should I sell my home and move to another. Professionally, we are often faced with this type of decision-making. Knowing how to do it better is a valuable management skill, that should be learned by everyone responsible for important matters.

The first step in the technique is to “think backwards”, because gathering a huge body of information is only useful if the information is relevant to the decision that needs to be made.  Consider the question: What will the weather be like tomorrow?

Gathering data that will allow you to produce an answer of “81% probability of rain”, is not valuable unless you know what decision the person asking the question has to make. If she wishes to know whether she should water the garden, “81%” would be an indication that it will probably be unnecessary. If she wishes to know whether she can have a picnic in the park in the afternoon, the “81%” answer would be a fine display of meteorological forecasting ability, but would be unhelpful. Letting her know that there is an “81% probability of rain in the late afternoon” would make it possible to decide whether or not to risk hosting the picnic.

“Thinking backwards” is the first step in being efficient in analysis, so that the right question is answered. Briefing the President on the level of threat is only valuable, if it will allow him to make an actionable decision. Anything else, would be a waste of the 30 minutes of Presidential time allotted that day to the evaluation of citizens’ security.  

One only has to think back to the last time an internal or external advisor gave you information, to remind yourself of how often you are fed irrelevant, time-wasting, analysis.

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The ability to formulate the question that the person receiving your input requires, is not a quick or easy task. It requires serious mental effort, and is probably not worth the effort for trivial issues.

“I use the word ‘craft,’ or ‘create’”, Mudd writes, “because we often assume that questions create themselves. Good questions, though, are hard to come up with, and we typically overinvest our time in analysing problems by jumping right to the data and the conclusions, while underinvesting in thinking about exactly what it is we want to know.”

Mudd explains how to break a question into its constituent parts. Without this step, gathering information is not efficient, even if it is correct. You can arrive at your destination by following the instructions on your GPS, or by driving up and down until you find the store. Both methods achieve the same result, but the first method is so much more efficient.

Mudd’s method continues with the identification of “bins” into which you will deposit the information you are gathering. The bins are the “decision-drivers”, that will inform the conclusion you arrive at. If you are buying a car, the drivers of that decision may be cost, reliability, seating, safety, size and fuel efficiency. Mudd recommends no more than 10 drivers, simply to force one to think of the real issues and to avoid gathering unnecessary data.

The hard decisions are never based on an exactly-known future. The purpose of analysis is to try to reduce uncertainty where there are no perfect answers.

To improve our analysis we need to set metrics as “guardrails” to warn if we are veering off the path. If “cost” is a “decision-driver”, what metric for the cost of a car would exclude it? R350 000? R200 000? If the car we like exceeds that metric, it is excluded from our consideration. Every decision-driver requires a set of metrics that bracket it.

Only when the question, decision-drivers, and metrics have been set, is it worthwhile gathering data. This way the decision-making process becomes highly efficient, and we do not spend time looking at cars (for example,) that are outside of the decision-driver’s metrics.

In addition to the examples I have used, (which Mudd mentions in passing,) he uses political issues with which everyone would be familiar to take the reader through his method. These are issues the CIA dealt with - Will Mubarak be in power in two years? Who will succeed the Shah of Iran? How serious is the recruitment of young citizens into foreign terrorist organizations? And many more.

The method is clear and efficient and the book is its training course. Knowing how to swim is no substitute for getting into a pool and executing the strokes. Going through Mudd’s examples will embed the method in your thinking.

Readability       Light -+--- Serious
Insights         High +---- Low
Practical        High +---- Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

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