Want a Sharper, Stronger CIA? Hire Folks Who Look Like America

on March 24 | in CIA, Intelligence Analysis

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Earlier this year, the Central Intelligence Agency revealed its new Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, an intensive three-year push to address some of the Agency’s longstanding diversity shortfalls. No sooner was the strategy announced than several journalists and commentators questioned whether diversity and inclusion merited priority status at an Agency where being right is the only thing that should matter. Was the CIA simply being politically correct, some wondered? After all shouldn’t expertise be the only criteria for hiring and advancement?

Such arguments are outdated and ill-informed. Research over the last ten years is demonstrating that a diverse workforce strongly correlates with better performance for organizations across domains and disciplines. Diversity makes you more right!

Much of this recent research is summarized in a 2014 Scientific American article by Katherine W. Phillips, a senior vice-dean at Columbia Business School: How Diversity Makes us Smarter. She cites the numerous studies that show how companies with diverse management teams routinely outperform companies with homogeneous C-Suites.

But the research I found most compelling and applicable to the Intelligence Community was an effort to understand how racial diversity affected decision-making in small groups. Three-person teams—some homogeneous, some not—were tasked with solving murder mysteries, an exercise not dissimilar from analytic work. The groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the groups without.

Yet as an intelligence analyst, I’m not satisfied with this correlation. I need to understand how diversity leads to better analysis and decisions. The new research also sheds light on this question. Phillips notes that it’s not just that people with diverse background bring different perspectives and value other kinds of information.

Rather, simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.

In other words, diversity in a team raises everyone’s game. Groupthink is much harder to maintain when not everyone thinks alike.

In another study, this time of market traders, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, researchers found that markets populated with diverse traders suffered fewer and less catastrophic price bubbles than more homogeneous markets. As was the case for the solvers of murder mysteries, diversity facilitated the kind of healthy friction among traders that led to better decisions and upended conformity. The researchers discovered that price bubbles arose not only from individual errors or financial conditions, but also from “the social context of decision making.” This example is particularly compelling because the traders can be considered experts in their field. In other words, even when everyone is an expert, diversity leads to better results.

Speaking of experts, a growing body of research suggests that the Intelligence Community’s confidence in the individual expert model is misplaced or can at least be improved upon. The Good Judgment Project, funded by IARPA and led by University of Pennsylvania professor Philip Tetlock, has found that experts do no better and often worse than non-experts in predicting future international events.

According to Tetlock, forecasting is a skill that can be learned independently of a functional or regional expertise; training in probability and in cognitive biases can measurably improve forecasting outcomes. The “superforecasters” identified by the Good Judgment Project have even recently bested veteran political pundits in handicapping the Republican presidential contest. For example, unlike the political experts, they predicted Donald Trump’s successful campaign to date.

So my bottom line is that the CIA’s recommitment to an aggressive Diversity and Inclusion Strategy is not only good for society—which in a democracy must factor into government decision-making—but also great for the mission. If anything, the strategy doesn’t stress enough how crucial diversity of thought will become to the Agency’s ability to provide decision advantage for US policymakers.

Every year we are learning more about how the brain works, about cognitive biases, and the unique thinking styles each of us bring to problem solving. Our thinking styles are shaped not just by life experiences but by our neural wiring.

This research on cognition is in its early stages, but my hunch is that it will soon change the way knowledge organizations do their work. Today we assemble work teams in a haphazard fashion, often relying on crude indicators such as college majors or recent work experience to find the people we need. (Truth be told, sometimes we just settle for a warm body!)

But what if, in another decade or so, we will assemble teams to work on Iran or on North Korea based in part on the palette of cognitive skills best suited for dealing with the country.

Much work needs to be done before we can achieve such sophisticated deployment of diversity of thought, but I think our nation’s security and the world’s well-being deserves the effort. The intelligence Community through its sponsorship of IARPA’s Good Judgment Project has already gained significant understanding of the value of non-experts in forecasting. Other recent research from MIT suggests different problem sets require different levels of cognitive diversity. But if a team has too much cognitive diversity, it can become counterproductive.

That brings up one last point. Managers will need to learn new skills to deal with the higher levels of tension characteristic of healthy, diverse teams. As the research shows, it’s that friction that contributes to better outcomes. But during my years at CIA, many managers were not comfortable with strong disagreements on their analytic teams.

Diversity can only produce its benefits if individuals feel empowered to share their honest views and not just go along to get along. Those of us who think differently need more than just inclusion—we need to belong.


Carmen Medina is a former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence. A 32-year veteran of the Intelligence Community, Carmen is known for her expertise in intelligence analysis, strategic thinking, diversity of thought, and innovation and intrapreneurs in the public sector. Her experiences as a heretic at CIA is documented in the new book, Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within.

photo: Twilight Jones (Wikicommons)

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