By Stevie Cook & Marcel Plichta
One of the key skills in analytic tradecraft is understanding the purpose and usefulness of structured analytic techniques (SATs). Even if you don’t need to use SATs daily as an intelligence analyst, familiarity with these techniques will help you make sense of incomplete or contradictory information, generate hypotheses, and manage uncertainty. This guide will go through why structured analytic techniques are important for intelligence analysts, how to select SATs that are useful for you, and some resources on SATs, many of which are free.
With an ever-increasing demand for actionable intelligence in a congested information environment, arming yourself with sound analytical tradecraft techniques enables you to discern opportunity from threat, and provides significant value to your customers. Successfully applying Structured Analytical Techniques (SATs) not only develops your analytical ability but increases your credibility as an analyst within the intelligence community, essential when getting your foot on the ladder in pursuit of a career in intelligence.
1.0. What are Structured Analytic Techniques?
Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis defines an SAT as “a mechanism by which internal thought processes are externalised in a systematic and transparent manner so that they can be shared, built on, and easily critiqued by others.” (source). Essentially, SATs are a range of analytical techniques intended to improve intelligence analysis by addressing two sources of human error:
- Systematic biases
- Random noise
Throughout this guide, you will note there are multiple SATs which can be used to accomplish effective intelligence analysis. For example, you could use “Brainstorming” to elicit relevant information when starting a project. Followed by a “Cross-Impact Matrix” to develop an understanding of each variable and how this may have a relationship with other variables. This can then be bolstered by using a “Key Assumptions Check” to identify the working assumptions underlying your work. This can also be offset by using “What If?” Analysis, which allows you to recognise the possibility of future consequences and enables the decision-maker to contingency plan.
While these are well-known SATs, there are many more to familiarize yourself with. The rest of this guide will cover why analysts benefit from using SATs, and how they can go about it.
2.0. Why Are Structured Analytic Techniques Important?
The human brain has evolved to deal with uncertainty quickly, a process often expedited by unconscious assumptions, perceptions and beliefs. One of the most well-known examples is confirmation bias; when your preconceptions about an issue get in the way of interpreting new information. Biases are annoying in daily life, but in an intelligence setting they can lead to flawed products and even intelligence failure. SATs are not the only way of dealing with cognitive bias, but they are developed specifically for analysts to deal with them in their daily work. Using SATs, you can catch issues and reflect on your analysis well before you start drafting the product. It’s also easier to get feedback from peers or supervisors.
Early intelligence agencies ignored how these factors might affect analysis. Analysts initially learned key lessons through experience, and often after making mistakes. “It is simply assumed, incorrectly, that analysts know how to analyse,” wrote CIA veteran Richards J. Heuer in his 1999 book the Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (source). As Heuer and others started looking at ways to improve analysis, they developed Structured Analytic Techniques to formalise their findings.
Standardisation of the process
Essentially, SATs are designed to identify and challenge these assumptions by exploring alternative interpretations whilst structuring information coherently. In turn, this enables us to review our analytical process and identify any errors, promotes thorough and comprehensive analysis, mitigating against potential analytical shortfalls (source). This can massively bolster our ability to present a comprehensive and insightful intelligence picture to key decision-makers and major stakeholders. This also promotes analytical transparency to prospective consumers. (source).
If you manage analysts, understanding SATs and successful implementation of SATs into your workflow helps you get the best out of your team. SATs can save analysts time by streamlining analytical focus and mitigating against going down “rabbit holes”, co-ordinating collection and reducing time for editing whilst enabling you to produce a higher quality and impactful intelligence analysis. Adapting relevant SATs into templates will help standardise the process across products and improve the quality of products themselves.
3.0. Knowing What Structured Analytic Technique to Use
The sheer number of techniques can be daunting for analysts. There are dozens of SATs. Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, for instance, lists 66 “core” techniques, from “several hundred that might have been included.” Don’t fret. Using Heuer and Pherson’s SAT selection process as a handrail, the table below provides a examples on how you can apply a few SATs to tackle any problem-set (source);
Here’s a practical example of how and when an Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH) can be used;
- Identify the possible hypotheses to consider. If possible, use a group of analysts with different perspectives to brainstorm possibilities.
- Make a list of significant evidence and arguments for and against each hypothesis.
- Prepare a matrix with hypotheses (H) across the top and evidence (E) down the side. Analyse the “Diagnosticity” of the evidence and arguments— that is, identify which items are most helpful in judging the relative likelihood of the hypotheses (+ = Likely, – = Not Likely, – – = Unknown / Cannot Be Determined).
- Refine the matrix. Reconsider the hypotheses and delete evidence and arguments that have no diagnostic value.
- Draw tentative conclusions about the relative likelihood of each hypothesis. Proceed by trying to disprove the hypotheses rather than prove them.
- Analyse how sensitive your conclusion is to a few critical items of evidence. Consider the consequences for your analysis if that evidence were wrong, misleading, or subject to a different interpretation.
- Report conclusions. Discuss the relative likelihood of all the hypotheses, not just the most likely one.
- Identify milestones for future observation that may indicate events are taking a different course than expected.
4.0. Tips for Using Structured Analytic Techniques
- Understanding Consumer Requirements and Self-Regulation:
- What’s the requirement? Whilst it’s easy to become overly-engaged in collating data and evidence for the problem-set, it’s critical to understand the overarching context of the issue. Ensure you allow for regular intervals to ask yourself; what is required of you and how are you going to frame the issue. This will streamline the application of the SAT.
- Who is the consumer / target audience? From the outset of the tasking, establish who the target audience is, what format the consumer wants to receive the final product, and on what timeline. A larger, thematic product will likely require more time and a specific SAT in order to unpick multiple and complex factors contributing to the overarching issue. You’re aiming for your product to be a timely, impactful and aesthetically appropriate vehicle for your intelligence analysis, tailored to the consumers requirements.
- “So What?”. By asking yourself what the “So What?” is throughout the analytical process, you can explore the significance of the issue and identify the implications of the problem-set to the consumer. Here’s some questions to facilitate the “So What?” (source);
- How does this event affect us? How does it affect our future?
- Why is it important? What critical questions does this information cause us to ask?
- What conclusions can we draw from this experience?
Using the AIMS framework is a terrific way to address the above and to conceptualise the structure of your product:
- Audience: Who is your primary audience?
- Issue: What key issues are those consumers struggling with now or will be dealing with in the near future?
- Message: What is the bottom-line message you want to convey?
- Storyline: With the bottom-line message in mind, how can you best present the storyline (or “overall package”)?
- Team work makes the dream work:
- Collaboration with new, alternative and existing subject matter experts (SMEs) and / or internal and external teams allows us to not only recognise and challenge our cognitive biases, but also provide new insights into the problem which you hadn’t previously considered. Others may help you identify a new intelligence gap or present questions the consumer may pose in the future. Collaborating on SATs can also be promoted by senior analysts and intelligence managers; facilitate the use of SATs in the workplace, show your analysts examples. A fun way to do this is to apply SATs to historical events or even popular films or TV shows. If analysts disagree with which SAT you’ve used or the subsequent findings, it means you’ve got them engaging with SATs.
- Using social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter allows you to network with others; exposing yourself to alternative thought processes and facilitating analytical debate. Create your own analytical team, host analytical technique sessions with those you’ve networked with to work on a problem-set.
- When collaborating with others, it’s important not to inadvertently create Information Bubbles, Confirmation Bias, Echo Chambers and Group Think. SATs go a long way in tackling cognitive biases, but ensuring you’re aware of alternative narratives via other analysts will add another filter against such biases (source, source).
- Invest in SATs: Remember that SATs are tools meant to get you thinking. You only get out of them what you put into them. If you are just going through the motions of an SAT to make your supervisor happy, then they won’t really help you produce good analysis.
5.0. Common Mistakes When Using Structured Analytic Techniques
- Undefined question: By not defining the question, you’ll be unable to collect the relevant evidence, select the appropriate SAT and ultimately not meet the consumers requirement. Questions are by far the most important tool available to decision-makers and analysts to achieve good intelligence results. With the right questions, decision-makers can precisely determine their knowledge interest and analysts can arrive at helpful answers with the right questions. If elements of a question are not sufficiently defined, then that expands the potential question space and makes it challenging to collect the most relevant evidence. Properly managing stakeholder requirements is mandatory for intelligence teams to be effective in their roles. Requirements provide clarity, direction, and stakeholder alignment, enabling intelligence teams to produce information that is timely, relevant, and useful. (source, source, source). Refer back to AIMS to guide you.
- Inappropriate SAT selection: With so many SATs available to you, it can be easy to default to using the same techniques. However, as an intelligence analyst, you should not become too comfortable with any selection of techniques. Instead, continuously push your cognitive process boundaries by incorporating other SATs (source). You can also use SATs to explore new analytical ideas or hidden problem-sets. This can be an effective way to drive the analytical process and direct the intelligence collection.
- Analysis vs Collection-Driven Intelligence: Evidence can drive SAT selection, rather than the analytical need driving the evidence collection. This shortfall can mean the analyst does not have a rounded intelligence picture due to prioritising the SAT over the intelligence.
- Infallible SATs: Another mistake is assuming that an SAT automatically makes your product better or more legitimate. Only use a SAT if you’re confident that it’s adding real value. Otherwise, you’re just wasting you and your customer’s time. Don’t assume that correctly applying an SAT will automatically make your product “the truth.” Analysts deal with uncertainty and conflicting information, and while SATs help you manage it, they don’t make you omniscient. You can do everything right and still be wrong for reasons out of your control.
6.0. Resources on Critical Thinking and Structured Analytical Thinking
6.1. Books about Analysis and Critical Thinking:
- The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richards J. Heuer Jr. (available for free here)
- US Army Intelligence Analysis Guide ATP 2-33.4, especially Chapter 4. (available for free here)
- Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed (link)
- Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Khaneman (link)
- How Intelligence Analysts Can Improve Critical Thinking and Writing Skills by Edge Staff (available here)
6.3. Reference Materials for Different Kinds of SATs:
- Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis by Randolph H. Pherson and Richards J. Heuer Jr. (link)
- A Tradecraft Primer: Structured Analytic Techniques for Improving Intelligence Analysis (available for free here)
- A Tradecraft Primer: Basic Structured Analytic Techniques (available for free here)
7.0. Frequently Asked Questions about SATs
7.1 Can professions other than Intelligence Analysis use structured analytic techniques?
Yes, because SATs are a way to structure your thinking; journalists, academics, investigators, or anyone else dealing with lots of information and uncertainty can use SATs. There’s often overlap between SATs and investigative techniques used in everything from business analysis to healthcare. Resources like the ones linked above therefore make assumptions about who is doing the analysis, why, and for whom. As a result, you may have to adapt methods for your specific workplace. Here’s an example of an ACH being applied in a financial crime scenario”
7.2. Are SATs useful for GSOCs, current intelligence, watch floors, and other fast-paced environments?
Many SATs are meant for longer-term products that can go into more detail, but others can be quite useful. For instance, your team could develop indicators that you update as new reporting comes in. Additionally, fast-paced environments are more prone to cognitive biases, so trying to implement shortened versions of SATs like Red Teaming is useful, even if you do it informally.
7.3. Which SATs are Useful For Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) and Social Media?
Social media and other open-source material is often contradictory, incomplete, and sometimes deceptive. Such a contested information environment can make things even harder for analysts who don’t have the same tools as large corporate companies or government agencies. Analysts working with open-source material should pay particular attention to SATs that challenge assumptions and help deal with uncertainty. When dealing with OSINT, analysts should use variants of ACH where possible, and constantly do Key Assumptions and Quality of Information checks (listed in the free resources above) to separate the reporting itself from the analyst’s interpretation of it. OSINT analysts could also benefit from data visualization and aggregation SATs if they work with lots of data.
8.0. Case Studies in Using Structured Analytic Techniques
- Multi-layered approach: You may find that each SAT may only provide one piece of the puzzle, and therefore, may require different SATs for various stages of the analytical process. Earlier, we established how “Brainstorming” can be supplemented with “Cross Impact Matrix”, and later bolstered with a “Key Assumptions Check” and “What If? Analysis”. Using a multi-layered approach not only provides you with more opportunities to identify other variables contributing to the problem-set, but mitigate against potential analytical shortfalls.
- Nothing ventured, nothing gained: If you’re an aspiring intelligence analyst, or maybe want to flex your analytical muscles, try applying some SATs to historical events and see what conclusions / forecasting you’re able to discern. You can use events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Suez Canal Crisis, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Use Framing Techniques ahead of the 2024 US Presidential Race (source). Utilise your OSINT toolkit to collect evidence to dissect and forecast a current affair. You can use Beebe & Pherson’s “Cases in Intelligence Analysis: Structured Analytic Techniques in Action” as a primer (source).
8.1. Case 1: 9/11 and the formation of the CIA’s Red Cell
The 9/11 terrorist attacks are a pertinent example of how assumptions, perceptions and cognitive homogeneity hindered intelligence picture with catastrophic consequences. In the lead up to 9/11, CIA and FBI intelligence analysts were predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant American males therefore unconsciously blinkered from identifying threat streams presented by al Qaeda; generally Middle-Eastern, Islamic males (source). This was further identified following the 9/11 Commission Report and the Intelligence Reform Act 2004 (source, source). 9/11 highlighted multiple intelligence failures by the U.S. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies and reinforced the significance of applying SATs to mitigate against such failures in the future.
Following 9/11, the CIA formed the “Red Cell,” which utilised SATs, such as “Red Teaming” to produce alternative intelligence analysis (source). To further the effectiveness of the intelligence analysis, the team was formed of a mixture of junior and senior analysts, and did not include any terrorism experts and only one Middle East Subject Matter Expert (SME). This collaborative cognitive diversity will have greatly enhanced the application of SATs and mitigate against threat-to-life implications. This team was formed to challenge traditional intelligence SMEs and policy-makers’ cognitive biases.
As such, many of the declassified Red Cell analyses were created in the build-up to the 2003 US invasion in Iraq. The Red Cell attempted to establish potential actions Iraq President, Saddam Hossein, might take against US forces. A declassified Red Team memo from 2002 explored how Saddam Hussein’s personality might influence his reaction to US activity in Iraq (source). Another memo from 2003 titled “If Saddam Should Accept Exile…”. Both are examples of “What If? Analysis” being applied in a major international operation, and proved effective in challenging historical interpretations of Saddam’s likely Course of Action (CoA) (source).
8.2. Case 2: Grey Dynamics’ Key Assumptions Check
One of the more prominent ways Grey Dynamics uses SATs is within its products. You’ll notice the consistent inclusion of Analytical Summaries with a Key Assumptions check. For instance, one of our earlier products on Mozambique, found here. The analytical summary is an opportunity for analysts to discuss their approach and the quality of information about a topic for instance:
“We are confident that political violence in Cabo Delgado will remain consistent over the next six months. Our analysis is mainly based on French and English language media outlets, Think tanks and quantitative analysis from ACLED data. We assume that Maputo will continue to prefer gaining from international extractive contracts without implementing developmental projects. Were this assumption proven incorrect, we would expect a progressive decrease in political violence and, in the long term, the consolidation of a durable peace.”
Integrating the analytical summary into our products is useful for the analyst and the consumer. The analyst in this case is reflecting on the source of information, identifying one of the major assumptions and thinking through the implications if it were wrong. Consumers gain an insight into the analyst’s thought process and a sense of what could happen if some of the assumptions are incorrect, in turn, increasing analytical transparency and credibility.
You can explore more case studies applying SATs here.
9.0. Summing Up
Curiosity is perhaps the foundational attribute of intelligence analysis (source). Harness this curiosity effectively with SATs by;
- Flexing your analytical muscles
- Familiarising yourself with your own cognitive biases and critically evaluating your sources.
- Collaborating with other members; this will open your eyes to new perceptions and help you to tap into new audiences or re-engage with existing ones (source).
When used properly, SATs are an invaluable tool in your analytical toolkit. Not only can SATs enhance intelligence and threat analysis, but they can also be applied in a journalistic and academic capacity and can supplement financial and business analysis. Using SATs are an effective way to address cognitive biases, collaborate with cognitively diverse analysts, increase the effectiveness of analytical output, mitigate against risk, and exponentially improve credibility as an analyst in the intelligence community and with key stakeholders.