From the book Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, “Several techniques for seeing alternative perspectives exploit the general principle of coming at the problem from a different direction and asking different questions. These techniques break your existing mind-set by causing you to play a different and unaccustomed role.”

Thinking Backwards. One technique for exploring new ground is thinking backwards. As an intellectual exercise, start with an assumption that some event you did not expect has actually occurred. Then, put yourself into the future, looking back to explain how this could have happened. Think what must have happened six months or a year earlier to set the stage for that outcome, what must have happened six months or a year before that to prepare the way, and so on back to the present.

Thinking backwards changes the focus from whether something might happen to how it might happen. Putting yourself into the future creates a different perspective that keeps you from getting anchored in the present. Analysts will often find, to their surprise, that they can construct a quite plausible scenario for an event they had previously thought unlikely. Thinking backwards is particularly helpful for events that have a low probability but very serious consequences should they occur, such as a collapse or overthrow of the Saudi monarchy.

Crystal Ball. The crystal ball approach works in much the same way as thinking backwards. Imagine that a “perfect” intelligence source (such as a crystal ball) has told you a certain assumption is wrong. You must then develop a scenario to explain how this could be true. If you can develop a plausible scenario, this suggests your assumption is open to some question.

Devil’s Advocate. A devil’s advocate is someone who defends a minority point of view. He or she may not necessarily agree with that view, but may choose or be assigned to represent it as strenuously as possible. The goal is to expose conflicting interpretations and show how alternative assumptions and images make the world look different.

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3 thoughts on “3 techniques used by CIA analysts to see alternative perspectives

  1. Thanks Michael these are very useful for assisting students and myself to approach design or writing creatively. Good for blogging and video creation too. Science, economics and on!

  2. Often a useful strategy in terms of risk management as well. In looking at different perspective I have always found the 6 thinking hats also very useful. The backward looking forward concept does seem sound to me and useful. I will try it.