Stop project failures. Failures hurt, especially when they come from a naïve belief that conventional project management can handle unknowns and a rapidly evolving situation. It doesn’t need to be that way. With intelligence-led project management exceptional levels of uncertainty can be handled, with techniques adapted from the intelligence profession.

Good intelligence can thwart terrorists, change the direction of wars, and police environmental damage. It can also change the destiny of ambitious projects in technology, organisational change and content/media.

And it does not involve obsessive secrecy or intrusive behaviour or high technology.

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 works for project that have:
high-value and a strong business case,
with changing goals,
complex risks that are difficult to manage,
known-unknowns such as tasks that nobody knows how to do, and
unknown-unknowns
that will surprise us.

Use for the right kinds of project

I’ve seen intelligence-led project management used in technology projects based on IT, data transformation, and for organisational change.

The project must follow 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).

Intelligence-led project management would fail for the classic engineering approach of specification-build-test. It’s too disruptive.

Use when there is strong leadership

Strong leadership is critical when managing a major threat. That includes leadership at all levels.

The style of leadership varies with each individual. It doesn’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 managers. They need to be level headed, make it routine to face and resolve worries, encourage free thinking and openness, and build a network outside the project for dissemination and listening. Collectively, their understanding of the broader business will be pushed to its limits, and inevitably it will develop.

For the different delivery teams within the project they need to be vigilant, focussed on careful prioritisation, and good at communicating worries and potential solutions. They need to learn. And they need to work closely as a team, looking after each other.

External liaison is a key part of intelligence-led project management, especially in large organisations. Liaisons disseminate the relevant detail to a broader internal audience and key suppliers. The liaisons also listen to their audience and brings feedback and ideas to the project. They do that as well as their “day job”. It’s leadership, because they are influencing other people, and helping them come to terms with change.

Use when there is the right culture

As well as extending agile delivery practices, intelligence-led project management needs a shift in culture. Good leadership can help achieve that.

The culture must be capable of withstanding relentless pressure, a heavy load on specialists, indirect costs that were not planned, and broad and open engagement with stakeholders. There needs to be continual training for the people involved, and the project office needs to accept a different way of tracking total risk.

Getting started with the intelligence-led project management process

Ten separate activities. None of them are optional, although you’ll be better at some than others.

1. Build executive level support

2. Invest in stakeholder communications and tight messaging

3. Start searching for unknowns and surprises

4. Find people with research abilities or analytic abilities

5. Focus on leadership and liaison skills, and confidence-building

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 aggressively risk-averse approach to managing risk, such as in counter-terrorism

10. Learn and improve this process

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

Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare – lessons from counter-terrorism

In 2018, the UK Government published its counter-terrorism strategy,  (CONTEST). It’s useful in project management because of the risk reduction strategy it uses: Prevent, Pursue, Protect, Prepare. This can be adapted to high-risk projects …

Prevent. Safeguard the business and people by taking hard decisions about project scope, backup plans and budget. For example, “you can compromise on any of the project outputs provided X is saved”. The result is that the overall damage that can be caused is restricted.

Pursue. Aggressively identify risks and unknowns, and work to understand and manage those that are the most damaging. The difference from conventional project management is the level of determination and the enthusiasm of looking for anything that might be a hidden risk. The result is that the problems that occur are fewer and smaller.

Protect so that your organisation only on takes on high-risk projects when it’s essential. Strengthen the process for creating and funding projects, to avoid these situations. Track risks in business-as-usual so potential crises are predicted and avoided. The result is reduced vulnerability.

Prepare for the worst. Within the project, minimise the pain of potential problems. And in the project post-mortem, look for lessons of how to make it less damaging in the future.

The HM Government document for CONTEST sets out the context for the strategy, it describes how this is to be implemented across six areas, and it briefly covers the overall responsibility, funding and performance measures. Good intelligence plays a part of it.

This is not spying! Intelligence agencies are different

Managing an industry project is not the same as performing intelligence-led policing, or protecting a state, or conducting a military campaign.

(1) Industry is not obsessively secretive (normally)

Civil and military intelligence is highly competitive, and people’s wellbeing and lives are at risk. As a result, secrecy has become institutionalised. That extreme level of secrecy is rare in industry, such as with company restructuring, major product launches and areas with major PR and legal risks.

For conventional IT and change projects, there’s a benefit from being more open in order to reduce the time spent dispelling rumours.

(2) Industry hunts opportunities and accepts risk

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 in the same way. Industry is based on strategic ambition and opportunism, and we accept that more opportunity means more risk.

(3) Industry does not have data oceans

Industry generally has to make do with limited amounts of information. Even when there’s data mining facilities, it’s merely data lakes compared to the oceans available to the intelligence services of some nations. More often it’s a data puddle, and full of mud.

The intelligence services have access to so much information that selecting the right data becomes a problem. Analysts can become besotted with requesting yet more data rather than coming to a conclusion. The complexity of some of this data is so extreme that it requires specialists to access and report it.

(4) Situational complexity

For civil intelligence agencies such as the CIA and SIS, they have to cope with geopolitics and different levels, and with highly diverse cultures and personalities. The result is they have exceptionally large numbers of research assessors, analysts and specialists. And that leads to more rigid organisations, and an increased risk of group-think.

In industry it’s simpler.

(5) Different ethical and legal framework

The ethics of military and civilian intelligence collection is debateable, such as whether they are unnecessarily intrusive and whether they practice a duty of care. 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.

Whether industry is better or worse, is moot. But in the context of intelligence-led project management, the legal framework in industry is easier.

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.

“Securing the State”, by David Omand, 2011

Sir David Omand was a former director of GCHQ, and he also served 7 years on the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee. He is now a visiting professor at King’s College, London.

See chapter 5 on the intelligence cycle, and how it evolved into its current form. Chapter 6 on elucidation is revealing about intelligence weaknesses in research, analysis and explanation. Many of those weaknesses also apply in intelligence-led project management.

Published by Hurst, 2010, ISBN 978-1-84904-188-1.
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.
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.
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. Some of these ideas also apply to 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. However some people can also be 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:

Out-of-date concepts. Intelligence agencies have changed their practices over the last 20 years, and they have become highly professional. There are some books that are out-dated.

Misinformed. There are books by ex-practitioners who have only a partial grasp of the profession, or are trying to justify or glorify their own previous actions.

Irrelevancy. 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.

Risk aversion. Intelligence agencies and government are far more risk averse than industry.

Cost. Some of these books are expensive.

Revision history

Version 1, 2022/03/26. First article on intelligence-led project management, setting out a framework.

Version 2, 2022/06/19. Revised following additional articles on this website. Phraseology synched across articles on this topic. Tightened message at start. Reduced detail when there is elaboration elsewhere. Moved detail about roles into a separate article. Added lessons from CONTEST.