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Structured Analytic Techniques: How to create clarity from chaos when tackling complex issues.

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Over the past half decade it feels like the world has become a more dangerous and complex place. We have lived through a pandemic, an experience which many would liken to a dystopian horror story. The spectre of war in Europe has returned with the impacts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine reaching us here in New Zealand, affecting our food prices and supply chains. The rise of China as a global superpower also brings with it the danger of international conflict. The effects of climate change are now being felt by nations across the Pacific leading to a growing threat to people and livelihoods, as well as a rise in political activism against governments and democratic institutions.

In the midst of all this chaos, it can be difficult for businesses and organisations to feel confident in their decision-making processes. This is where the intelligence analyst comes in. Their role is to collect, analyse and interpret information from a variety of sources to provide accurate and timely intelligence to decision-makers. To achieve this, an analyst needs to be knowledgeable about a portfolio or problem set, but also needs to be able to translate that knowledge into insights that provide clarity in the face of uncertainty. One way of achieving this is by using a set of tools that are known as Structured Analytic Techniques.

A Beginner's Guide to Structured Analytic Techniques

Structured Analytic Techniques (SATs) are used by a wide range of professionals in various fields, including the intelligence community, business, government and academia. However anyone who needs to analyse information, solve problems or make decisions would benefit from using them for a number of reasons:

  1. SATs provide a systematic and structured approach which can help the analyst translate their intuitive judgements into a coherent assessment.

  2. Having a group of people who know how to use the same SATs can improve collaboration and communication between them, helping to promote the exchange of ideas and the identification of alternative perspectives.

  3. Peer review is a critical part of the quality control process for assessment development. SATs provide a mechanism for understanding an individual's thought processes, allowing for potential biases or assumptions to be more readily identified and addressed.

  4. By providing a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of the problem being examined, SATs can help decision-makers focus clearly on the important aspects of a problem, helping them to make more effective decisions.

Glasses bringing clarity to an out of focus image.
Structured Analytic Techniques are tools which better enable analysts focus and analyse a scenario or problem.

Which Technique to use?

As mentioned, SATs are a group of analytic tools which can enhance the quality of an assessment. Are you trying to determine how a body of evidence compares across a number of hypotheses? An Analysis of Competing Hypotheses will help evaluate each scenario against the facts. Do you want identify the problems and pitfalls within an existing assessment? Use a Pre-mortem Analysis to understand how your analysis could be flawed. Need to understand how a situation might evolve? A Cone of Plausibility can help identify and evaluate a range of possible future scenarios. There are dozens of SATs, and a skilled analyst will be able to select those appropriate to any given problem set. Correct application will help improve the rigour and validity of an assessment. They may also identify areas of uncertainty or weakness that require further investigation.

Where do I learn more?

There are a number of ways to learn. Several companies run online courses on intelligence analysis, where structured analytic techniques make up a section of the course. Another source of information is the book Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, by Randolph H. Pherson, and Richards J. Heuer. This is a fantastic resource which provides comprehensive coverage of a range of techniques. Another alternative is signing up for a course with Blackthorn. We offer a two and half day Foundations in Intelligence Analysis course which teaches a group of SATs which are commonly used within intelligence agencies around the world. Participants have the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions, collaborations and debates that will enhance their learning experience. At the end of the course students will come away with a level of knowledge and practical experience that they can immediately apply in their daily work. To find out more, or sign up for a course, click on the links below.


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