Controlling ambitious projects is notoriously difficult with project management techniques. Some project risks are so complex they can’t be quantified or managed effectively, and there are others which are so unknown they can’t be described coherently. The only things that are certain are that there will be surprises: unknown-unknowns.

Either the ambition needs to be reduced, or an advanced approach to risk management is needed.

Intelligence-led project management extends the agile project management. Threats are managed with the rigour of the intelligence profession.

Intelligence-led project management can be achieved by existing staff with limited extra training. There is no need for highly skilled people, like intelligence analysts. And it doesn’t require secrecy or involve ethical dilemmas.

Key for control of ambitious projects is the “action-on all-risks intelligence cycle”, and the management style to support this.

Salt sink in Death Valley USA. Driied waterhole in rock, with heavy signs of salt
Salt sink in Death Valley USA. The hottest place on Earth where every breath hurts. Discovered in 1849 by settlers trying to take a short cut, with disastrous results. Stop project failures. (Picture: Adrian Cowderoy.)

What justifies intelligence-led project management?

Intelligence-led project management is labour intensive and takes management time. So why do it? Will it work? Who is involved?

Combat threats

Intelligence-led project management is used to combat major threats.
That includes projects with …

  • high-impact risks that could impact on people or the business,
  • complex risks that need to be broken into smaller manageable chunks,
  • interlinked risks, where changes to one effect others,
  • projects with changing goals, and
  • projects dominated by unknowns.

The need for agility

At the time of writing, I’ve used this in technology projects based on IT, data transformation, and for organisational change. It potentially applies elsewhere, if the threat is high and there is right kind of leadership (as below).

Intelligence-led project management needs a project that follows one of the agile development disciplines. I’ve used it with Kanban and classic Scrums. It could also be used with DSDM or the Scaled Agile Framework® (from Scaled Agile, Inc). To avoid upsetting the main cadence of sprints, there needs to be an increased budget for spikes devoted to intelligence activities.

Intelligence-led project management could be used in the early phases of projects that follow a classic engineering  structure – concept, initiation and design. Beyond that it becomes too disruptive to “good” engineering practice. However, projects of this kind usually don’t have the leaders with the special skills needed.

Special leadership skills

A high threat alone does not justify intelligence-led project management. There must be leadership at all levels.

The skills below are all practical things that don’t require training in secret intelligence techniques.

The sponsors and senior stakeholders must accept that hard decisions may have to be made in the project, such as changing some parts of the ambition. And it may need to be done quickly – within days or weeks. (The good news in an industrial context: these changes may open new opportunities that lead to new outcomes and benefits.)

The project leadership team must have a positive attitude. In project contexts, that team includes the project owner, project manager, and product manager. For strategic programmes, it’s the equivalent roles and the change manager.

  • They must embed the action-on intelligence process as normal.
  • Team members must be actively encouraged to speak out about suspicions and worries.
  • Free thinking and divergent opinions should be encouraged.
  • There must be no words of complaint when the technical and delivery teams encounter setbacks.
  • Very tight control of messaging is needed within the project and to external stakeholders. At any one time, the key players must all be using the same narrative. Every time they change, the new narrative must be consistent, including the reason for the change.
  • And the project leadership needs to have a thorough understanding of the broader context of the project within the business, to help guide analysis of options.

For the different delivery teams within the project:

  • They need to be vigilant for anomalies that could indicate risk.
  • They need to prioritise which of these to focus on, and which to delay. (That’s an area where the senior leadership can help.)
  • They will need to have a budget for research – actively going out to find information that can help with understanding, or improve the analysis.
  • There needs to be a broad range of analytic skills. Business analysts cover some elements, but I’ve found we also need architects, usability analysts, marketing, security, operations, and statisticians. They contribute to the analysis alongside their existing roles.
  • Dissemination is critical. Work-in-progress needs to be shared, so everyone involved can access it if needed. And when the team has reached a provisional stepping stone for presentation, they’ll need an agreed high-level view.
  • The delivery team needs awareness of the current messaging. They need to warn the leaders when the messaging needs changing (or “realignment”).
  • The investigation is cyclic following an action-on all-risks intelligence cycle. (In an agile environment, the cycles can have a cadence of anything from a day through to two or more weeks.) After a presentation to the senior leadership team, there is a process of directing the next step of research..

To do, or not to do …

If the above conditions cannot be met, look to alternative strategies such as changing the ambition for the project, moving responsibility to another team that is better equipped, or going into a research and discovery phase.

If the conditions can be met, then intelligence-led project management could work, and you can control ambitious projects.

Getting started with the intelligence-led project management process

Here are 10 separate activities needed to make the intelligence process work. None of them are optional, although you’ll be better at than others. And it only works if the prerequisites above have been satisfied.

1. Build executive level support

2. Invest in stakeholder communications and tight messaging

3. Monitor the unknowns – see more

4. Find people with research abilities

5. Find and develop people with analytic abilities

6. Build an “action-on all-risks intelligence cycle”

7. Build an understanding of context

8. Enable broad and open project-level discussion

9. Introduce an aggressive approach to managing risk, such as CONTEST

10. Learn and improve this process

A spiky cactus among loose shingle
A cactus in Death Valley USA. (Picture: Adrian Cowderoy.)
Leading an intelligence-led project management process can sometimes feel like sitting on a cactus.

More about intelligence-led project management

On this website …

There is a growing collection of materials information here about how to apply intelligence methods to industry projects.

Unknown unknowns was the first area I documented. In 4 ways to manage unknown unknowns and their opportunities there’s a practical guide of how to respond to the symptoms of unknowns, and take them through to manageable tasks … or close them as irrelevant.

As fictional illustrations of managing unknown unknowns, see my short story Too many presidents – how to protect data privacy rights. It looks briefly at an industry context. And for a longer story set in the intelligence world, see The secret devil’s advocate – a story of managing the unknown.

Project managers are often blamed for failing to manage risks effectively. And in intelligence work, disasters are regularly blamed on the analysts. In both cases, how much is really their fault? And how much is systemic or the fault of other people? The article Stop project risk analysis failure – 6 tips from (secret) intelligence estimation looks at this.

Suggested reading on intelligence methods …

“Securing the State”, by David Omand, 2011.

  • Sir David Omand was a former director of GCHQ, who also served 7 years on the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee.  He is a visiting professor at King’s College, London.
  • See chapter 5 on the intelligence cycle, and how it evolved into its current form. This covers the day-to-day activities. (His subsequent book, “How Spies Think”, looks at the broader context that spreads over weeks or months. See below.)
  • Chapter 6 on elucidation is revealing about intelligence weaknesses in research, analysis and explanation. Many of those weakness also apply in intelligence-led project management.
  • Published by Hurst, 2010, ISBN 978-1-84904-188-1.
  • See more at https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/securing-the-state/

“How Spies Think”, by David Omand, 2020.

  • A good read, but the book title is misleading. It’s both a manual to help consumers of intelligence understand the process, and also a teaching aid for university students of intelligence studies. Omand covers four separate processes that are essential to his former profession.
  • Simpler forms of these processes are also completely appropriate to managing threats in industry: Situation awareness, Explanation, Estimation of options or alternatives, and Strategic Warning for the executive to act.
  • Penguin Viking. ISBN 978-0-241-38518-0.
  • See more at https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/312/312746/how-spies-think/9780241385180.html

“Leading Intelligence Analysis: Lessons from the CIA’s Analytic Front Lines”, by Bruce E Pease, 2020.

  • Bruce Pease led intelligence analysis teams in the CIA over a long career.
  • The book focusses on intelligence analysis teams. It’s descriptions about managing specialists also applies to intelligence-led project management. There are key messages such as: don’t micro manage, encourage alternate opinions, and treat it as a production engine.
  • Sage publishing, ISBN 1-5063-9713-9.
  • See more at https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/leading-intelligence-analysis/book258717

“Critical Thinking and Intelligence Analysis”, by David T. Moore, 2007.

  • David Moore brings a career of experience as a senior intelligence analyst and technical director at the National Security Agency.
  • His focus is on applying critical thinking to the intelligence domain, and helping analysts think about how they think. He uses writing from a diverse range of sources to pack a short book with masses of ideas. As an education for a purely analytic mind, it also applies to people involved in intelligence-led project management.
  • Caveat: Moore writes as if critical thinking is the only thing that can be trusted, and only if it’s fully used. This misses the many people who have proven effective while relying on intuition, creativity and discussion. And it dismisses analysts who have spent a career rushing from one crisis to another, and developed a talent for communication. (After all, what’s the point of “truth”, if the customers don’t understand how it was reached?)
  • National Defense Intelligence College, Occasional Paper 14, ISBN-978-1-52382-300-0.
  • Available for zero charge at https://www.ialeia.org/docs/Critical_Thinking_and_Intelligence_Analysis_Copy.pdf . A printed version also exists.

Reading books about intelligence methods – the good and bad

Intelligence methods are impressively well documented, because they’re taught in universities. But some caveats:

  1. While some books are very good thorough, this sector also includes many that are wrong or highly misleading.
  2. The academic side of the intelligence community also perpetuates myths (such as the classic intelligence cycle, which was abandoned years ago by the leading intelligence agencies).
  3. When reading the better books, there’s much that is specific to security or policing threats. However only parts of it are relevant to intelligence-led project management in industry.
  4. Intelligence agencies and government are far more risk averse than industry. (See notes below.)
  5. Some of these books are expensive.

Finally: intelligence agencies are special

There are major differences between managing industry projects and protecting a state and its people, or conducting intelligence-led policing.

(1) Secrecy. Civil and military intelligence is so highly competitive that secrecy has become institutionalised, and people’s wellbeing and lives are at risk. That extreme level of secrecy is rare in industry, such as with company restructuring and takeovers. For conventional IT and change projects, no additional security measures are needed.

(2) Risk aversion. Civil and military intelligence agencies are highly risk averse. Nobody wants to be associated with an intelligence failure, where people are hurt. The risk aversion goes up to the top of their organisations, and the hard choices are pushed to the politicians – representatives of the people. Within industry projects, lives are not at stake and risk aversion is seldom that extreme or institutionalised. There is even the gambling opportunity to follow risky new ideas to counter other forms of risk.

(3) Data oceans. The intelligence services have access to so much information that selecting the right data becomes a problem. The complexity of some of this data is so extreme that it requires specialists to access and report it. The data available for industry is generally sparse, and it’s difficult to draw conclusions. Even when there is a “data lake”, such as for customer behaviour, it’s a very small lake compared to the oceans available to intelligence agencies.

(4) Situational complexity. Civil intelligence agencies, such as the CIA and SIS, have to understand a highly diverse planet, with leaders who succeed by intentionally breaking with the predictability of the past. Interpreting this takes a lot of analysts and discussion, and it still results in embarrassing surprises. Industry is narrower and more predictable. Sometimes the large challenges are from understanding what customers and suppliers need (which may not be obvious), and untangling the needs of the internal “stakeholders” within your own company.

(5) Ethical and legal framework. The ethics of military and civilian intelligence collection is debateable, such as whether they practice a duty of care (see more). In response, democratic countries started tightening the legal framework for intelligence agencies in the period after 1990. In the private sector, the ethics are generally much easier, and the legal frameworks are different.