2021/01/05: Three Plans Every Intelligence Analyst Needs at the Start of the Year

2021 is only a few days old but you’ve probably spent a little time pondering your goals and resolutions for the year ahead. In this spirit, we outline below three plans that we believe every analyst should prepare at the start of every year to support their professional development.

  1. The Reading Plan

Knowledge is the most important asset an analyst brings to the table. The trust invested in you, the responsibility you are given, is a reflection of what you know, and by extension what you can do. Knowledge is the mean to authority and respect. The knowledge we acquire through books, policy papers and news articles is made richer still by the reflection and analysis we engage in, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Experience matters and is itself a worthy teacher. But reading yields the best return. Knowledge aside, reading improves empathy, enhances communication and reduces stress - goals every analyst should strive for. It can also prevent cognitive decline – something to think about if you believe your analytic credentials can serve you past the age of retirement.

Alas, a structured reading plan is the exception rather than the rule among most analysts. Given the time we spend checking the news and browsing the web, we’d be forgiven for thinking we read enough already. But the clicking, scrolling and scanning common to our professional lives does not support the deep literacy or deep smarts demanded by our profession.

A reading plan is therefore something every analyst should lay out at the start of the year. It instils discipline and order and increases motivation. It can maximise the value of reading and the enjoyment you derive from doing so. When working to a plan, you don’t need to waste time pondering what to read next. Instead, a reading plan can focus your efforts on those books most likely to get you ahead. Indeed, the sense of accomplishment one feels at the end of a book provides the energy and motivation to start another.

Reading plans are as powerful as they are simple. A simple text editor is all you need to list the books you want to complete by year’s end. What you put on the list is up to you, but consider the following recommendations:

  • Start small. Get back into the habit by reading books that are well written and relatively short (150 - 300 pages tops). John Micklethwait’s recent book “The Wake Up Call” is one such volume that packs an awful lot into 170 pages.
  • Schedule time in your day. Half an hour at the start of the day or at the end, or over lunch soon adds up. An hour and a half every day compounds even faster. Either way, be realistic as to what’s possible and when. Will it be 20 minutes or 20 pages? Get into a habit and stick to it. If a week goes by when you read nothing at all, worry not, but get back to your reading plan as quickly as possible lest one week becomes two or more.
  • Experiment with different tools and formats. Printed books can aid knowledge retention but they’re not always convenient. An e-reader can be ideal for those who commute. Others may prefer listening to audiobooks while doing their chores. Find out what works best for you. A hybrid approach is usually the most beneficial.
  • Mix it up. Man cannot live on global security and intelligence alone. Your reading plan should include a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Embrace interdisciplinarity. Pick books related to your interests and current professional focus alongside books on completely unfamiliar topics. Consult the excellent list of books at A Year of Reading the World for suggestions on what to read from different countries.
  • Try your hand at personal development. “Self help” tends to get a lot of flack - too glib, too cheery, too “American”, etc. And yet, such books offer sound guidance on how to improve your ability to connect, engage and communicate with others – again, qualities every analyst should cultivate. Experience suggests they are also an excellent source of tools to support critical and creative thinking.
  • Devise a system for capturing your insights and reflections. Don’t trust your memory, no matter how good it is. Develop an approach to note-taking that lets you easily record and retrieve the knowledge you gather.

2. The Learning Plan

Your reading plan should be developed in parallel with your learning plan. Learning is not a “one and done” activity. Master Analysts are life-long, independent learners. Such learning is worn lightly for it is never complete. Even so, the desire to learn is the natural and irresistible consequence of the curiosity that all analysts are endowed with but are sometimes wary of exercising.

A learning plan should help you clarify the topics you should explore and the skills you need to master over the next 12 months. It should reflect your career objectives and your desire for personal development.

Realising this plan need not cost you an arm and a leg. There are plenty of low-cost training providers one might consider, as well as hundreds of low cost / no-cost, self-paced learning programs on the web. If you prefer learning alone, there are dozens of YouTube channels you can consult on everything from analytic reasoning to the visualisation of data. The pandemic has also made it easier to participate in virtual events - lectures, webinars, conferences, etc. - and to engage experts from around the world (one positive from an otherwise challenging year).

As with your reading plan, keep things simple. Ask yourself:

  • What skills do I need to improve or develop this year?
  • What are the specific goals I should aim toward?
  • What steps are needed to acquire the level I desire?
  • What formal qualifications would enhance my career prospects?
  • How might I acquire these qualifications?

Your learning plan should not be limited to professional achievements. Are there personal goals you should aim toward? Learning to cook is a skill we routinely champion in our courses. Why? Because learning to cook obliges you to follow instructions. The more recipes you can memorise, the greater your capacity for innovation and adaptation in the kitchen. What’s true for cooking is also true for any analytic discipline. Master the rules, then determine how best to break them.

But don’t stop there, learning that is unrelated to professional responsibilities can enhance the perspective needed to make you more successful at your desk. We’ve worked alongside analysts who were also dancers, decorators and sommeliers. Refining your senses in one discipline invariably yields benefits in another – and not just for sniffing trouble.

Granted, it is easier to draft a learning plan than it is to implement it. Thus, do not be too ambitious in your goals. Ensure your plan is realistic, and amend it as necessary if not. If an interesting learning opportunity comes your way consider taking it, even if it’s not consistent with your initial objectives. Real learning is often the result of brave ventures into the unknown. Either way, don’t forget to learn from your experience. Take time to reflect on what you’ve learned and how this has informed your development as an analyst.

Finally, never forget that the best way to learn is to teach others. Indeed, teaching is the quickest route to mastery of any discipline. Finished a course? Ask what you can pass on to your peers. Mastered a new tool or technology? Consider how you might extend your colleagues’ capabilities. A willingness to teach demonstrates a willingness to share. A willingness to share is what engenders trust. More to the point, it can influence the behaviour of others, and this is what we turn to next.

3. The Influence Plan

In intelligence, influence is often equated with expertise. However, real influence is largely a matter of referent power. Referent power will be familiar to anyone who has studied leadership. That said, it is not the preserve of leaders or those with an exalted job title.

Referent power denotes the ability to positively influence those around you, to inspire and motivate those eager to improve themselves. Referent power gives you recognition and respect, qualities that cannot be forced, only earned. It is critical to teamwork and collaboration, and to ensuring a healthy and productive workplace.

Analysts with referent power work to a higher standard. They labour to improve themselves and to develop those around them. They recognise that trust is the accelerant of organisational performance and so operate with integrity at all times.

Do you have referent power? Consider the following questions from Jill Geisler’s discontinued but much recommended podcast What Great Bosses Know:

  • How do colleagues assess my work performance? Am I seen as a top performer?
  • Am I a “go to” person? Do people turn to me when a task has a high degree of difficulty?
  • Do people view me as ethical? Am I known for honesty and openness?
  • Do people know what I stand for? If they know, do they believe I walk my talk?
  • Do people see me as empathetic? Do they think I have their best interest at heart?
  • Am I known as a good listener, one who does not jump to conclusions before hearing people out?
  • Am I cool under pressure? Am I effective and professional when passions are high or deadlines are tight?
  • Am I known as generous with my time and ideas even in areas outside of my immediate work responsibilities?
  • Do people feel comfortable confiding in me or asking me to coach or mentor them?
  • Do people feel better about the work when I am on the team?

Can you answer "Yes" to most of these questions? Would your assessment be validated by your colleagues? If yes, hats off to you. Remember, however, never to take your influence for granted. Maintaining influence requires a consistent effort. If not, worry not; it is never too late to start cultivating your capacity for referent power.

Ask yourself:

  • Where and how can I strengthen or develop my influence?
  • What are my weaknesses and how do I resolve them?

These questions should yield simple, concrete resolutions. Thus, how might you become a better listener? How might you defer judgement? How might you improve the quality of your questions, or your willingness to ask them? How might your better support your peers?

As with your reading and learning plans, don't bite off more than you can chew. Proceed slowly. Target one weakness at a time. Only move on when you are consciously applying what you've learned and are comfortable with it. Patience and balance are two key ingredients of referent power. Take this opportunity to practice them.

With that said, we wish you good health and much success in the year ahead!

Aleksandra Bielska