Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems
J. Richard Hackman (Author)
Publication date: 05/12/2011
Intelligence professionals commonly are viewed as solo operators. Here is an analyst, alone in a cubicle at Langley, calling up images and reports on a secure computer, consulting historical materials on the cubicle shelf, thinking deeply about the implications of ambiguous but worrisome recent developments. There is an undercover officer making seemingly casual social contacts overseas to identify locals who might have access to useful information—and then inducing the most promising of them to share what they know or can find out. And down there is a clandestine service trainee, straining to acquire the knowledge and skills of the trade, worried about washing out, unsure about having what it takes for a successful career in intelligence.
Engaging images such as these are the stuff of spy novels and movies. They sometimes even are accurate. But that’s not how it generally happens. Although there are indeed many heroic individuals in the intelligence community, most intelligence work actually involves extensive and intensive collaboration with others—with colleagues in the intelligence community to be sure, but also with outsiders such as people from other government agencies, academic researchers, and employees of private-sector organizations.
The analyst activates a network of contacts both inside and outside government for ideas about what those worrisome developments might portend. The clandestine officer works with a team to cultivate and exploit sources of information. Even in training—which is still more individually focused than real intelligence work—instructors are discovering the pedagogical power of team exercises in which trainees may learn as much from teammates as from their teachers. So we have across the intelligence community fusion teams, training teams, special activities teams, networked collaborations, management teams, scientific teams, and more. Moreover, as electronic technologies for communication and coordination become more powerful and pervasive, teamwork-at-a-distance is becoming more the rule than the exception. Teams are everywhere in the community, and they make a difference.
Teams have great potential for solving hard problems in challenging contexts. They obviously bring more knowledge, skill, and experience to the work than any single individual could. They provide flexibility in how members are deployed. They offer members nonstop opportunities for real-time learning. And they have at least the potential of integrating members’ diverse contributions into a creative product that is just what is needed. Yet, as an extensive body of research has documented, teams also can go badly wrong, spinning their wheels and not even finishing their work or, perhaps, falling into a syndrome known as “groupthink,” which results in a true fiasco. A team is akin to an audio amplifier: whatever comes in, be it Mozart or ear-grating static, comes out louder.
What Helps and What Gets in the Way
The intelligence community has more than its share of unique features, some of which facilitate collaboration and teamwork, and others that get in the way. For starters, the people who work in U.S. intelligence organizations are, as a group, extraordinarily talented. In 2008, for example, the CIA received over 120,000 online job applications, and offered positions to only the very best candidates. But it’s not just the raw talent of intelligence analysts, operations officers, and technologists that is impressive, it is also their deep personal commitment to public service. I’ve been involved with the community for over a decade now, both as a researcher and in an advisory capacity, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I am in awe of the dedication of most of the intelligence professionals I have encountered. Again and again I have spoken with people who could make much more money and have much more time for personal pursuits in the private sector—but who stay where they are because of their commitment to what they are doing. They know that their work contributes directly to the security of the nation and to the well-being of their fellow citizens. Indeed, a community-wide employee climate survey published in 2007 showed that almost 90 percent of the respondents affirm the importance of their work and, moreover, their satisfaction with their coworkers.
Intelligence community leaders do not have much reason to worry, therefore, about the dedication or smarts of the people who do intelligence work. Arranging things so the work can be accomplished efficiently and well, however, is another story. Virtually all organizations in the intelligence community are large bureaucracies, and one does not need a doctorate in sociology to know that bureaucratic policies and practices sometimes frustrate even the most capable and best-intentioned employees. Worse, the intelligence community is not just a large bureaucracy, it is a whole set of them, linked together in sometimes-hard-to-fathom ways. When you have an intelligence budget that exceeds $80 billion, more than 850,000 professionals holding top secret clearances, and a workforce that is distributed across nearly 50 government organizations and 2,000 private companies, management is, to say the least, a significant challenge. So it is perhaps not surprising that only about 40 percent of the respondents to the climate survey reported that their leaders engender motivation and commitment in the workplace, or that good work is recognized and reinforced. Even fewer respondents felt that appropriate steps are taken to deal with poor performers.
Secrecy also poses significant problems in getting intelligence work done. Although absolutely essential for some intelligence activities, the need for secrecy has spawned a labyrinth of compartments and such a pervasive disposition to classify materials that it sometimes can be nearly impossible for intelligence professionals to obtain the information they need for their work. And there is the difficulty of navigating between being too responsive to what policymakers want to hear (and thereby becoming politicized) and being insufficiently responsive to their needs (and thereby becoming irrelevant).
And then there is the external context of intelligence work. On one side are our adversaries, including non-state entities whose technological and scientific sophistication presents analytic and operational challenges beyond anything that the community has had to deal with before. On the other side, our side, is the U.S. political establishment, some members of which seem always to have their “intelligence failure” rubber stamp at the ready.
Perhaps most worrisome of all is the sheer volume of the work to be done. The number of potential adversaries has proliferated (one analyst told me how much he missed the “good old days” when one could focus mainly on the Soviet Union). Simultaneously, new collection technologies and methods, along with the flood of open source information now available, have increased by orders of magnitude the amount of data flowing into community organizations. Trying to keep track of it all can be overwhelming.
Searching for Solutions
There is no obviously best way to structure and manage intelligence work. The people are great and the work is important, to be sure, but the frustrations in getting the work done correctly and on time are escalating. In the years since 9/11, many commentators have had their say about how to “fix” intelligence, and every new revelation of some slip-up or oversight generates more diagnoses of what went wrong and what it would take to keep it from happening again. The prescriptions are a varied lot: Change the culture of the intelligence community. Simplify the organizational structure. Give intelligence professionals access to better information technologies. Require more sharing of information across agencies. Make social networking more accessible. Improve the recruitment and training of intelligence professionals. Institute a community-wide leadership development program. And more.
This book offers an alternative approach. Its premise is that the frontline work performed by intelligence professionals—how that work is designed, how it is staffed, and how it is led—may be a good point of departure for improvement efforts. A report on analytic pathologies from the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence reaches a similar conclusion: “Analytic failures stem from dysfunctional behaviors and practices within the individual agencies and are not likely to be remedied either by structural changes in the organization of the community as a whole or by increased authorities for centralized community managers.”
Moreover, since intelligence work increasingly requires coordination and collaboration among people who have a diversity of knowledge, skill, and experience, it often is necessary to create teams whose members come from a variety of intelligence disciplines and, in many cases, from different intelligence organizations. Carmen Medina, a veteran intelligence analyst and former director of the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, has written that what is most needed these days to generate the insights that policymakers demand are interdisciplinary teams that cross traditional institutional boundaries. Consistent with Medina’s view, the response of the National Counterterrorism Center to the failed attempt to bring down an airliner on Christmas Day in 2009 was to form “pursuit teams” composed of professionals from across the intelligence and law enforcement communities to prioritize and pursue terrorism threats.
Perhaps the most compelling reason for giving close attention to intelligence teams is that it is feasible to improve how they operate and how well they perform. It can be extraordinarily daunting to fundamentally change either whole institutions (cultural inertia is awe inspiring) or individual persons (trying to alter how a person thinks, feels, or acts without taking account of his or her group memberships is an exercise in futility). Because teams are located right at the nexus of the individual and the organization, they are accessible to those who seek to improve how intelligence work is performed. For all these reasons, teams appear to be a good place to start to make things better.
The challenge is to identify what it takes for teams to exploit their considerable potential while avoiding the dysfunctions that await the unwary. Although it assuredly is true that leaders cannot make a team be great, we do now know what conditions they can put in place to increase the likelihood (although not to guarantee) that a team will be effective—that it will generate a first-rate product while simultaneously becoming stronger as a performing unit and fostering the learning and professional development of its individual members.
To do that, however, we must get beyond conventional thinking about how teams work. Our natural impulse is to search for the specific causes of the effects in which we are interested—to search for the “active ingredient” that makes a team effective. But there is no single cause of team performance. Instead, as this book will show, it takes a set of conditions, operating together, to help a team move onto a track of ever-increasing competence as a performing unit.
There are six enabling conditions, each of which has its own chapter in Part II of this book. Although these conditions are explicitly based on social science research and theory, they are presented here as imperatives for action, as concrete things that those who create, lead, or serve on teams can do to help their teams succeed. The job of those who create or lead teams, then, is not to exhort members to work together well, not to personally manage members’ collaborative work in real time, and certainly not to run their teams through a series of “team building” exercises intended to foster trust and harmony. The leader’s job, instead, is to get the enabling conditions in place, to launch the team well, and only then to help members take the greatest possible advantage of their favorable performance circumstances. Indeed, my best estimate is that 60 percent of the variation in team effectiveness depends on the degree to which the six enabling conditions are in place, 30 percent on the quality of a team’s launch, and just 10 percent on the leader’s hands-on, real-time coaching (see the “60-30-10 rule” in Chapter 10).
The optimistic message of the book is that intelligence teams, for all the challenges and uncertainties they face, can perform much better than they usually do. Moreover, if community leaders find ways to improve collaboration and teamwork where the actual work is being done in their own units, there is at least the possibility that what is learned will diffuse, laterally but perhaps also upward, to improve the quality, speed, and agility of intelligence work throughout the community.
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