September 11, 2015

“Get it right the first time, that’s the main thing...”

...sang Billy Joel. And what’s true for romance may also be true for policy analysis. Getting it right the first time is the central theme of former national security intelligence analyst Philip Mudd’s recent book, The Head Game: High Efficiency Analytic Decision-Making and the Art of Solving Complex Problems Quickly.  And the key to getting it right the first time is to ask the right questions, which means beginning “with the question of what we need to know, or our customer needs to know to solve a problem,” Mudd states. And we need a book to tell us that, you ask? Evidently.

Mudd writes from experience. One day, he briefed President Bush in the Oval Office about a terrorist threat, succinctly laying out the facts. When he finished, the president asked, “What do I do about this?” This was Mudd’s a-ha moment:
That day, the president’s problem wasn’t in understanding the details of that particular threat stream. It was determining what to do in response to the threat.... The difference between the two questions—whether to start with details of the threat reporting or with how to add context for the president, so he could figure out how to respond—might sound subtle, but it’s not. It is at the center of good analysis.

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Mudd goes on to detail how framing the question sets the stage for high quality analysis. Framing the question helps the analyst pick out the data needed to answer the question, develop metrics needed to see how the underlying problem is changing, and determine what’s missing. “Good questions, though, are hard to come up with, and we typically overinvest our time in analyzing problems by jumping right to the data and the conclusions, while underinvesting in thinking about exactly what it is we want to know,” Mudd explains.

Mudd’s method could help economic development policy analysts address the problem we posed in an earlier blog, namely how to hear the economic signals amid the economic noise.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal had to say about The Head Game: