9 Principles of Sherman Kent’s Analytic Doctrine

Read about the 9 principles of Sherman Kent’s analytic doctrine, starting with “1. Focus on Policymaker Concerns” on page 9 (you can skim the rest). Sherman Kent is a figure you should know about, and these principles of his analytic doctrine are core to what I think an intelligence analyst should be.

1. Focus on Policymaker Concerns
Intelligence analysts are needed because policy officials face challenges that analysts can help them manage, Kent would argue, through mastery of background knowledge, evaluation and structuring of all-source material, and tradecraft expertise. While attentive to problems not yet on the policymaker’s screen, the analyst’s first responsibility is to accommodate clients by producing assessments timed to their decision cycle and focused on their learning curve. This includes providing “actionable” intelligence that can help with curbing threats and seizing policy opportunities.

2. Avoidance of a Personal Policy Agenda
Kent would have agreed with a policy official who advised analysts to provide assessments that serve to help all players iron out their differences in the often-adversarial policy game. He would have opposed providing analyses that were intended for use by one set of policy players to force its views on others. For estimative analysis, this requires paying serious attention to seemingly less likely outcomes. For action analysis, this means identifying and evaluating alternatives, leaving to policy clients the responsibility to recommend and choose.

3. Intellectual Rigor
Kent advocated sound analytic tradecraft as the key to supporting the policymaking process without lapsing into policymaking. In Kent’s doctrine, information is rigorously evaluated for validity (countering Denial & Deception) and diagnosticity (managing “noise”). Estimative judgments are based on evaluated and organized data, substantive expertise, and sound, open-minded postulation of assumptions. Uncertainties and gaps in information are made explicit and accounted for in making predictions.

4. Conscious Effort to Avoid Analytic Biases
Kent saw no excuse for policy or political bias. He realized, however, that analytic or cognitive bias was so ingrained in mental processes for tackling complex and fluid issues that it required a continuous, deliberate struggle to minimize. From his days as a history professor, he taught analysts to resist the tendency to see what they expect to see in the information. He urged special caution when a whole team of analysts immediately agrees on an interpretation of yesterday’s development or a prediction about tomorrow’s. Especially regarding Vietnam, he also cautioned against a “been-to” bias; field exposure can be valuable, but a quick trip doesn’t necessarily provide revealed truths. One path he recommended for coping with cognitive bias was to make working assumptions explicit and to challenge them vigorously.

5. Willingness to Consider Other Judgments
Kent encouraged not only argument but also dissent, so long as the basis for the dissenter’s judgment is made clear (such as, reliance on alternative assumptions and different interpretations of information). In Kent’s day, before electronic coordination and review, it was common to assemble in a room 20 or 30 analysts with a wide range of factual expertise and points of view to review a draft assessment, at times fighting their way through the text paragraph by paragraph. The practice has persisted, and accomplished
analysts will know their text’s weaknesses as well as strengths and will learn how to draw the best final paper from these critical exercises.

6. Systematic Use of Outside Experts
As an additional check on analytic bias and blinders in dealing with complex substantive challenges, Kent would support taking account of a wide range of outside opinions. Certainly, analysts must keep up with the published and classified judgments of the policy clients they serve—not necessarily to agree, but always to seek distinctive information and assess underlying assumptions.
News media accounts and general and specialized journals should be reviewed for the same purposes. More directly, analysts should cultivate working relations with outsiders in teaching, research, and business who follow the same analytic disciplines and accounts

7. Collective Responsibility for Judgment
Judging from his practice, Kent would urge that analysts allow time for Directorate, Agency, and, when appropriate, Community coordination, not only to permit challenge and refinement of data and judgment but also for accommodation of collective responsibility. When face-to-face with clients, analysts should represent and defend the appropriate corporate point of view.
When circumstances require an individual judgment, analysts should make clear the source of their authority to speak to the issue.
8. Effective communication of policy-support information and judgments For busy policymakers, shorter is usually better, with key points stated quickly. But clarity of judgment is also essential. Kent recognized that uncertainty was an unavoidable factor in an intelligence assessment of complex and fluid issues. Compounding this inherent substantive uncertainty with analyst-generated confusion, however, was a cardinal sin. In particular, non-falsifiable judgments must be avoided. (For example, in Kent’s view, the judgment that something “may” or “could” happen conveyed the meaningless message that the odds ranged from greater than 0 to less than 100 percent likelihood). If the tradeoff is between adding length and allowing brevity to cause confusion (or worse, banality), provide a carefully measured dose of detail.

9. Candid Admission of Mistakes
Analysts must strive to master their subjects and tradecraft, but there is no law or theory of analysis that guarantees success in tackling tough challenges, or that eliminates the so-called perils of estimating. Kent believed that analysts should systematically review performance to search for improved practices as well as to study mistakes. 5 Mistakes will be made, but analysts can learn vital
lessons from critical review of failures, especially if review reveals recurring fault patterns such as mirror imaging, or assumptions that go unchallenged despite changing circumstances. Admission and explanation of analytic errors are likely to increase, not decrease, credibility with policy clients.