Sweet and Sour Chaos is a tale of an intelligence analyst trying to find a “purpose” for herself after escaping from an intelligence agency to industry. Konstantina must save her colleagues from a disaster.
This fictional story illustrates challenges in taking intelligence practices and adding them to project management in industry – a part of the agile mindset. In this context, intelligence practice is like research and analysis “on the hoof”. See more, below.
Sweet and Sour Chaos – the story
1: The sweet smell of chaos
Konstantina woke from a dream where she was chasing a criminal mastermind with a face like a warthog. Her feet were stuck in treacle and from the safety of a tree her boss was yelling at her to hurry. Every time she stumbled he threw the head of a dead civilian at her. She could see their faces.
A nonsense, in the way of dreams. She been plagued by weird dreams when she was in the Agency, and now, two years after leaving, they’d morphed. And the more bored she became with work, the more often she had the dreams.
Konstantina felt throbbing in her chest. She turned in the bed so her husband would not realise she was having another of her moments. Through the venetian blinds she could see the flicker of lights from the road. The rumble was steady at this hour of the morning, with no rattling trucks or ambulance syrens.
There was a danger to these moments. Go to sleep too quickly and the dream restarted. She needed to shift her focus to happier things. Good times with her husband when they shared their passion for people photography. Anything but the job, and writing blogs and marketing material for a company whose products she’d never buy. It was a long way from finding the masterminds in criminal cartels, and bringing them down.
The office was quiet when Konstantina arrived. The offices covered the second floor of what had once been a sprawling department store, and had now been reduced to a simple retail outlet on the ground floor. The offices on the top floor had been shut off entirely after the Covid-19 lockdowns, yet there were still plenty of desks from which to choose. There was a specific spot by the window she liked because of its view down to the canal and the small park beyond. And more than that, she liked sitting opposite Benny.
“It’s a disaster!” Benny announced as he sat down. Life was never routine with Benny, however much he yearned for it. That was why she liked him. Benny reminded her of an exercise ball. He was round where she saw herself like a stick. He had pale skin and fair hair when her hair was thick black and her skin the colour of a digestive biscuit. And he was emotional when she felt empty inside.
“And now …,” he said. His nose wrinkled, making him squint. It accentuated the roundness of his face. “It seems they’ve trained me to some kind of high-speed intelligence cyclist. I mean, Tina, do I look like a spy?” He invariably referred to her as Tina.
Konstantina felt the hairs prickling on her neck at the words intelligence and spy. Too many memories. “Benny, calm down. How many coffees have you had?”
“Then tell me slowly, what are you talking about. I mean, what is an intelligence cyclist? My last job was in a think tank, on geopolitics and policing. I never heard of an intelligence cyclist.” The think tank had been specialist, writing for government bureaucrats to help with understanding and seeing options. But it was academic. Her crunch came when she was caught in a bitter row about whether Putin had invaded Ukraine for idealist or pragmatic reasons. Neither side accepted her argument that it was a mistake based on internal confusion and scatty thinking.
“You worked in a think tank?” Benny’s eyes widened. His panic seemed to have been diverted. He leant forward over his desk, avoiding the scatter of computer equipment. “Did you ever meet any real spies?” he whispered.
Dangerous question. “I sometimes ask myself that, but then, how would I would know? They’re so secretive.” She smiled as a diversion. “Intelligence cycling. Do you mean, an action-on intelligence cycle? Prioritise, research, analysis and disseminate. And do it all very fast, like in the same day. And with everyone on the team involved from the start so they can learn from each other.”
“The guy taking the training course said the cycle can take several days. And if it was bigger than that, just break the problem into small chunks.”
“Okay, same thing. But I don’t get it. We’re a publishing company, not an intelligence agency.” She looked across the floor to a glass cabinet holding a printed book as a historic memento. Now everything was digital. “Why are they trying to get you to work like this?”
“Because of this big technology project they pulled me into. They keep saying how important it is for the company, but what I’m seeing is loads of chaos. I mean, this is going to be a disaster. I just worry that they’ll blame it on me.”
“Benny, you’re a user experience researcher. How can they blame it on you?” she asked, but he just shrugged. “And did they really send you on a training course, then expect you to be able to do it immediately, without any practice?”
“Yes. The guys at the top are desperate to be seen to get the situation under control. As I said, it’s chaos.”
“Chaos I understand. Chaos sounds sweet.” Konstantina’s attention was momentarily attracted through the window to the park. A kid with a helium balloon had let go of it, and the purple and silver bubble was rising into the air. “Who are the intelligence customers?”
“Do you mean our company’s customers? Or the internal stakeholders?”
“The stakeholders.” For a moment she wondered whether stakeholders were like vampire killers.
“Well, Tina, it’s across the board from production, marketing and sales, to commercial. Oh, and to finance.”
“Who is the top dog? The person who makes the big decisions.”
“That would be Primo Cannise.”
2: A new beginning
Konstantina had never seen a senior manager respond so fast. All she had done was comment that she’d experienced intelligence cycles as an analyst, and might have some tips to help.
She met Primo on a video conference call. He was in his home office, with a far wall that was covered in racks of shoes and boots, and a metal cabinet that looked like a gun cupboard. In separate windows there was his project manager and product manager. They had blank walls behind them, and said nothing. Primo was red-faced in a way she associated with habitual drinking. He had the same poker face expression she’d seen in the intelligence community. But he hadn’t learnt to control his questioning. Questions reveal weaknesses. Konstantina had been taught to hide her real questions among others that were irrelevant. He came out with them all at once.
At least he had situational awareness. “A training course in a new technique is not enough to handle the scale of our problems,” he admitted. “We’re still ***ed.”
“Are you sure? Intelligence methods can be fantastic at understanding complex questions, and for doing it lightening fast compared to the scientific method.” She talked, trying to keep to descriptions from textbooks. Do this, don’t do that, ensure you have plenty of those and none of these.
At the end of the meeting he was bouncing. “Konstantina, we need you. Can you join our team? I’ll sort it out with your own manager.” And in the video conference windows next to Primo, his two sub-managers smiled like children expecting a treat.
Konstantina had fought for years to win promotion in the Agency, and it had never happened. Progress depended on playing the political game, not by being good or enthusiastic. Here an opportunity had come on a plate. It was an aphrodisiac.
But their enthusiasm worried her. “I’m just an analyst – that’s all,” she explained to her husband that evening, during a pause in the television program. She shifted her position on the settee to sit cross legged and face him. “They seem to think I’m more than that.”
He scratched his beard. “When you were at the Agency, you complained the opportunities were blocked. Perhaps this is your time, to show what you can do.”
She wondered how much of her job he understood. His career was in portrait and sports photography, blissfully separated from the complexities and politics of her own. Sometimes she envied his career.
3: A certain attitude
In the end she was only allowed to spend half her time on the new project. It seemed marketing digests were still needed, even if they were read by only a few people. But it meant she could work with Benny. He’d do the research, she’d do the analysis, and then Primo’s two managers would pass it to people who needed to know, and decide on the next step.
In part, it reminded her of life in the Agency. But in the Agency there had been so much intelligence they had drowned in it. Here the snippets of truth were few and far between. It felt like doing intelligence within a darkened room.
Benny had just returned with a fresh cup of coffee. The thermos cup had a shape that flared out from its base in the way of the large camera lenses her husband used.
“Tina,” Benny said from the other side of the partition. “We’ve been focussing too much on how typical customers will react to the new website. We haven’t considered all the special cases – that covers a lot of people – a lot, as in a third of sales. If we get this wrong …” He paused to let her visualise it. Lots of angry customers, bad publicity, lost sales. “Heads will roll.”
“I hear you, but I was taught to ignore the screaming. We’ve got Primo and his two managers – it’s their problem to sort that out. We just get on with whatever is top of the list.”
Benny recoiled. “Tina, you’re very forceful. I took you for a quiet mouse.”
Am I getting bossy? she wondered. She was merely repeating the wording she’d heard her team leader use in the Agency.
The details of the work preoccupied her. There were statistics that contradicted each other, existing descriptions that were so out-of-date they were useless, and more questions than answers about how the new technology would actually work.
Konstantina had a chance encounter with on of Primo’s managers – the project one. They were on a staircase where the concrete walls made the sounds echo up and down the stairwell. Josh reminded her of a bee. He tended to wear black clothing with touches of yellow. And his focus seemed to be entirely on gathering nectar, in the form of detail for his different lists and registers. He never seemed to see the bigger picture. “Josh, where are the messages you’re sending out to the stakeholders?” He shrugged and said he’d send her a copy. “You’ve sent it without consultation? And you’ve not even given me a copy?”
Shortly after she saw the message he’d sent. “Josh, you just repeated the wording I used to explain it to you. That was internal casual chat. I expected you to polish the wording.”
“Oh!” he replied, “but I was busy.”
“And you’ve cut out the bit where I said it would possibly work. You wrote that it will work, as if it’s a promise.” “Yes, because ‘possibly’ sounds negative and our stakeholders don’t like people being negative.”
Josh is too busy to do his job? He changes our message? The guy’s impossible! Konstantina had to wait until the evening before she could say it to her husband. The timing was bad because he was on the floor, doing press-ups. He retorted that she was very hyper in the evenings these days. “You were never like this, even when you worked in the Agency.” “I’ve got worse?” “No, different. Better, I think.”
Konstantina considered what was happening. “In the past, I was just helping other people. This time I have authority. It feels personal.”
4: Pivoting on a tight rope
The storm warning began the next morning. Konstantina arrived at work to find Benny in a tizz. His expressions were changing so rapidly that he got muscle pains in his face, and had to massage the muscles. “Have you seen this new data about our customers?” he asked.“ It completely contradicts everything we said last week. They’ll think we’re total *****s.”
Konstantina felt a flutter in her chest. Muscular. A sign of nerves she’d felt before, though not recently. “Benny, it’s not personal. What do you imagine happens when a scientist’s theories are broken?” “They go away and cry?” “No, they bounce with excitement because it allows them to explore new theories. They’re like children with a new toy.”
There were no children when they went to Primo Cannise’s office, to give him the news. “Konstantina,” he said, “what do you mean by saying it’s a game-changing discovery?” He leant forward in his high back exec chair. Behind him was a bookcase with no books – a showpiece. “You’ve been in this project for three days and you’ve already done a U-turn? And it wasn’t on something small, but on an assumption we’re relying on.”
“Correct,” Konstantina retorted. No wince. Just a poker face, like she had used in the Agency. She took a chair and angled it towards him. If he sat, so would she.
“I’m getting pressure from above. They want to stop the entire project. This kind of contribution doesn’t help.” He rested his hands on his desk. Its surface was meant to mimic wood, but it looked plasticky.
Konstantina could feel her muscles tense. If it stopped, she’d be returning to writing marketing digests until the end of days.
“Are you sure this intelligence led approach actually works?” Primo continued. “It’s not as if we’re a huge intelligence agency with billions of technology and armies of experts.”
“No! I mean, Yes!” Konstantina had lost her patience. “Intelligence practice is not about size or technology. These methods are used by intelligence units of three or four people. They’re used in small military units, in policing, journalism, corporate competitiveness, and even by non-state armed groups – yes, even terrorists have intelligence units. If they can use it, we can.”
He glared at her, silently.
I’ve gone too far, she suspected. Analysts are meant to follow instructions. Never take responsibility. She wondered whether to recant.
No surrender! “Yes,” she said, “we’ll get reversals. We’ll take three steps forwards, and one step back. Fine, that’s progress. But if we stop and do conventional research, we’ll end up gazing about the past to try and predict the future. What we’re doing here is learning and rethinking as we move along. It’s much more effective.”
The silence returned. Primo Cannise breathed deeply. “Then we need to get our messaging sorted, and not say something is certain when it’s merely probable.”
She had said probable. Her words had been changed. Konstantina glared at the project manager, Josh. He was just a face in a computer window, but Josh’s eyes were darting from side to side. It left a sour taste in her mouth. She’d let him get away with it this time, but she swore that if he ever made that mistake again she’d be after him.
5: Go, or no-go
The days turned to weeks, and more. There were endless flow of research, analysis, presentations and planning the next step. But in Konstantina’s mind, none of it was as traumatic as the first cycle. The team started developing experience of who does what, and how the questions and results were communicated.
Now, three months later, they’d been through so many of the cycles that Konstantina had stopped counting. There were successes and setbacks, and things had steadily become clearer. People seldom talked in terms of things being completely unknown. And now, looking back, it seemed horrendous how chaotic it had been at the start.
But there were still doubts.
Launch day minus three. Tension was high.
“Konstantina,” Primo Cannise wrote to her, “Could you join the Go/No-go call?”
“What’s a Go/No-go?” she asked Benny across the partition.
“You’re involved in that call?” Benny’s eyes widened. “That’s like a launch decision for a space rocket.”
“A rocket launch? Painful.” That wasn’t the analogy in her mind. She was thinking of the action-on call made before a team set out to arrest on an arch criminal. There were still so much that could go wrong. And after an arrest, there’d been more problems when the lawyers arrived. She’d seen arch-criminals walk free and return to torment the innocents.
Benny was still talking. “It’s not the rocket’s blast-off moment, but a bit before when they decide it’s safe to launch. They can still abort later, but it gets painful.” He emphasised the word painful.
“They’re asking for me to make a decision? Oh, no. That’s much too dangerous. Intelligence analysts provide understanding, options, estimates, and some kinds of training. Other people make the decisions.” She repeated the same thing to Primo. But he countered that the she knew so much about the project.
The Go/No-go meeting was held in the board room, with its super-long table and pictures of former company leaders. It was formal, conducted by Josh, the project manager, while Primo glared silently at them. “Konstantina,” the attention shifted to her, “do you know any reason why we shouldn’t launch?” Everyone was staring at her, some across the table and others from their video conference windows.
“This is chance,” she retorted. “I’ve estimated the probabilities of things going badly wrong. You’re rolling a dice and hoping the odds are in your favour. If I had my way we wouldn’t launch until all risk is zero.”
“But that means delay and more cost,” Primo briefly glanced to one side at the potted plant with leaves the reached up to the top of the window. “If I and the executive accepts the risk, do you support a Go decision?”
Konstantina stared back. “What about the risk of the unknown? There are still things we don’t know, like how users will behave.”
“They’ll love it. It’s so much better than what we had before.”
“Yes, there will be fans. But there will be some who don’t like the change. They could get very angry. There was no way to tell with trials.”
“Konstantina, there are always people who grumble about progress. So I take this as a Go decision from you.”
“Decisions are outside my pay grade.” Konstantina felt like a humbug.
That evening when she returned home she barely ate the evening meal, and when the television was on, she stared at the screen without any idea of what they were watching.
6: A new world
Konstantina was up early on the day of the launch. Everything was in place, green lights from the tech team, but no-one was 100% certain. She watched the internal chatter as the final tech changes and checks were made. The detail meant nothing to her, but she was looking for sentiments and urgency. Nothing. Click, click. The new technology replaced the previous, in a flicker of an eyelid while customers were using it.
It’s like driving a car down a motorway and being beamed Star Trek fashion, into another car.
Konstantina played with the new system for a while, watching the dialogue as the tech checks continued. Then she forced herself to return to other work. Marketing digests still needed to be regurgitated.
The first warning came from the Support Desk. It wasn’t a an actual desk, but a cramped office in Bangladesh. They were receiving a lot of calls and messages from customers – more than they could handle. “What’s the pattern?” Konstantina asked in a video conference call with them. But they didn’t have answers, except that people were confused and asking questions that were only partly covered in the support help pages. “Okay,” Konstantina said, “if you tell us which pages are a problem, we’ll improve the wording. That’s easy.”
“Tina, stop worrying,” Benny said from the opposite side of the partition. “We did it.” It was role reversal. For months, she’d been calming him. Now he was helping her. He reached into his bag and brought out a miniature dog on a spring, plugged it into the USB port on the computer and watched as its head nodded and tail wagged.
Konstantina smiled. She’d been trying to block the memory, but could no longer. It was of a time in the Agency when they’d arrested a head of a mafia-like cartel. It had taken his henchmen several days to find the arresting officers. They didn’t kill them. Instead they went to their homes and burnt their families alive.
She returned to the data. Data has meaning. The sales figures showed a drop. That was expected as people learnt how to use the new site. No alarm bells there.
Among the feeds Konstantina received were social media postings about the website. There were “bots”, watching for anything that mentioned their website with strongly emotive words. Her surprise was in a chat room in India, with machine translation into an imperfect English. “Benny,” she looked across the partition, “did you check this out on the website? It looks like a couple of customers have found ways of cheating the system to get the same thing, for less.”
Benny mumbled. Over the next hour there were frowns. His mumbling turned to a throat cough. “You’re right. They’ve found a loophole in the logic. The techies don’t know how to fix it.”
“How could that happen?” Konstantina asked, but Benny didn’t know. “The news is spreading, judging from the social media. And I think it’s related to the support queries. The company is going to loose a fortune when news of this spreads and lots of people try it.”
Two hours later Konstantina found herself in a meeting room, half filled by people she didn’t know. And more had joined by video calls. There was lots of talk of what the fault was, and who could see it, and what needed to be done, and who needed to be involved. Then the reality: nobody had planned how to handle this.
They turned to Konstantina. “So much for improved intelligence. This is going to cost the company a fortune before it’s corrected. You didn’t predict that.” And before she could answer that she had warned them, they’d changed the subject.
Sweet and sour chaos.
“We didn’t prepare for so many customer complaints,” Konstantina admitted to her husband. They were in their kitchen, among the shiny red doors and glistening black counters. She was cutting vegetables and he was weighing and mixing the ingredients to put into their bread maker.
“You’re taking this very personally. They asked you for help with so-called intelligence analysis. There’s just you and Benny. You can’t do everything.”
“They say I should have warned them.”
“They’re like children. They haven’t learnt that if they keep sticking their hand in a fire, then one day they’ll get burnt. Do you think when they were young they blamed their parents every time they got hurt?”
Konstantina thought about Primo Cannise. “He’s going around telling everyone that intelligence methods don’t work. It’s infuriating. I was hoping to do this again.”
“Bad logic. You’re thinking deductively. Think laterally, creatively.” He loaded pine nuts and fried pieces of onion to the seed tray of the bread mixer. There was already a cup of brown rice mixed with the main ingredients.
Konstantina glared at her husband. She hated it when she found flaws in her analysis. From other analysts, it was the rough and tumble of work. “Is this an abstract statement, or do you have something specific.
“Think big. Go back to them and say you should have been given more responsibility. If you had, the problems wouldn’t have occurred. Be forceful, and make sure they remember. Tell them you are the person who wants to set up a professional intelligence service within their organisation. And with it, there’ll be fewer bad surprises, and people can sleep better in their bed.”
“Me?” Konstantina said. She waved the large cutting knife, pointing to herself.
“You wanted to lead an analysis unit when you were in the agency. Now’s your chance.” He glared at the knife. “Provided you don’t stab yourself in the throat.”
Commentary on “Sweet and Sour Chaos”
Escape from an intelligence agency
Everyone has the right to leave an intelligence agency. The first steps are hard. You may need help getting a new job, when your current job is secret. The agency’s clearing process is meant to help with that. However the first job is like an indenture – you need to see it through, so there’s something real on your CV.
As options, there are intelligence researchers and analysts in police forces, departments in government, political parties, think tanks, academia, security companies, business and market intelligence, and in technology challenges (such as this story). They’re techniques vary, but it’s still research, analysis and reporting. We’re likely to see an increasing number in environment protection and climate control developments.
Intelligence practices in technology projects
The background of the story involves intelligence-led project management. The technique works by treating failure with the same rigour as a terrorist threat, a riot or a corporate takeover. It reduces a threat, but doesn’t necessarily remove it.
If there’s residual risk, you should be preparing for the worst case. For more ideas about a balanced approach to threats, consider the 4P’s from the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST: Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/counter-terrorism-strategy-contest.
Within intelligence-led project management, only some of the team are directly involved in the intelligence process – there’s a lot else happening in the project. For those involved, it’s important they have soft skills, such as communications, openness and mentoring. For more, see Importance of soft skills and hope in an intelligence-led project.
In the story above, Konstantina demonstrates all 9 of the soft skills recommended for analysts.
For a different tale about soft skills versus hard skills, see Donat’s story.