Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thinking Backwards

Over at Office Hero Headquarters blog, I discovered an interesting note about a book titled Psychology of Intelligence Analysis. The post intrigued me both because of my recent research on the FBI's transformation post 9/11, as well as my body of work on decision-making and divergent thinking. I'm eager to read this book, after I learned that it discusses techniques intelligence analysts can employ to insure that they have examined an issue from divergent perspectives.

One such technique involves "thinking backwards." Here is an excerpt from the blog post on this subject:

"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."

This technique reminds me of Gary Klein's work on "pre-mortem" exercises. Similar to thinking backwards, the pre-mortem involves imagining what a post-mortem analysis will be like BEFORE you actually launch a new project in your organization. Both thinking backwards and pre-mortem exercises help us discover and evaluate different scenarios for how the future might unfold. Leaders must remember that divergent thinking typically just doesn't happen on its own. It must be cultivated in most cases. These techniques help stimulate such productive divergence.


Dean said...

Just to demonstrate that analysts are trying to keep Heuer's work current with technological changes..the people at the Palo Alto Research Center created a freeware program of the analysis of competing hypothesis.

Available here:

Michael Roberto said...

Thanks for sharing!