4 Lessons from the CIA for CEO Decision-Making

Intelligence failures by the CIA leading up to the Iraq war forced a thorough overhaul of agency decision-making processes, says The New York Times. There are valuable lessons for CEOs from that review in the way we evaluate employees, understand customers and anticipate competitors.

April 6 2012 by Marshall Cooper


Few business leaders evaluate and consistently review the quality of decision-making in their organizations. There is too little time to look back, say many CEOs, and results are often murky or inconclusive, even in retrospect.

Intelligence failures by the CIA leading up to the Iraq war forced a thorough overhaul of agency decision-making processes, says The New York Times. There are valuable lessons for CEOs from that review in the way we evaluate employees, understand customers and anticipate competitors:

  1. Be skeptical in evaluating information: Understand where specific information came from to help evaluate its accuracy–and relevance. Too often, decisions are made with faulty data, leading to undesirable outcomes. Solve this problem by asking people to source information on major assertions.
  2. Be more cautious in drawing conclusions: The same information can be interpreted in multiple ways by different people. Provide opportunity in your organization for conclusions to be challenged by alternative viewpoints. The CIA, for example, sets up “red teams” that are specifically tasked with finding weaknesses, errors and bias.
  3. Avoid “top-down” influence: If employees know that you, as CEO, are looking for certain conclusions, any meaningful decision-making process is rendered useless. People believe their careers are tied to conforming with senior management’s “vision,” so avoid politicizing your decision-making process.
  4. Beware of over-compensating for past errors and previous experience: While we are all products of past experience, but don’t be held hostage by it. People and markets change, so continually challenge what you think you know. But don’t get caught in “analysis paralysis,” and once a decision is made, don’t allow second-guessing. “Learning from past mistakes is imperative,” said Thomas Fingar, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council . “Worrying about them is pointless.”