The Boring Side of Espionage

John Sipher | LinkedIn | Medium

How do organizations insure that everyone is moving in the same direction?

Lots of people ask me if the spy game is as exciting as it is in the movies. While it is far tamer and less sexy than most of the fictional portrayals, it is nonetheless an engaging and fulfilling career.  A life in the clandestine service involves living overseas, learning foreign languages, meeting interesting people, engaging with critical issues, having the opportunity to impact policy, using alias and disguise and writing – lots of writing.  Frankly, stealing secret information from adversaries is challenging and fun.

That said, it would be a lot easier if overseas field officers could steal what we personally thought was most interesting, or most available. It would be less of a challenge if we could simply gather low hanging fruit, or recruit those spies that are most amenable to working with the U.S.   It doesn’t work that way, however. We are only empowered to collect information that our top policymakers need to make critical decisions, and steal secret information that cannot be gathered by any other means. If nobody else can do it, we will at least try.

How do we know what to steal? A spy in the field cannot just collect what he/she wants. Instead, there is a bureaucratic (but necessary) process that determines what exactly we are looking to collect.

The U.S. National Security apparatus goes through an annual alignment process that is similar to the process that the best companies in the world undertake to insure they are running efficiently and effectively. This alignment process dictates what information each agency is directed to collect.

Alignment is simple concept, but something that too many organizations find difficult to execute. A professor at a Business School executive course I attended explained that he is able to discern high functioning organizations from less successful ones by asking two simple questions. He said that you should be able to ask anyone in an organization, from the top to the bottom, “What do you do?” and subsequently, “Why is that important?” By repeating that process three or four times with the same individual, you should be able to get to quickly the mission and vision of the enterprise. For example, by repeating the questions to a custodian at the CIA, the inevitable answer should be, “because we collect intelligence to help keep our country safe.” Everyone in a well aligned, high functioning enterprise is aware of their role in meeting the organization’s mission.

From my experience in the private sector however, I see too many companies that have entire teams working on projects totally disconnected from anything the leadership is trying to achieve. These siloed teams are almost like zombies that continue chugging along happily unaware that they are not contributing to the organization’s success.

So, how does the alignment exercise work in the Intelligence Community? 

Every year or so the National Security staff develops a document for Presidential approval entitled “The National Security Strategy for the U.S.” This document outlines the values and goals that the Administration wants to emphasize in its foreign policy, such as preventing the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction, combatting terrorism, strengthening the alliance with Europe, seeking stability and peace in the Middle East, rebalancing to Asia and the Pacific and advancing democracy and human rights (from the 2015 National Security Strategy).

The document is meant to provide the foundation for Executive Branch Agencies as they develop their own blueprint to achieve these objectives. From these overarching objectives, the Pentagon develops the “National Military Strategy” and the State Department produces the “Quadrennial Diplomatic and Development Review” (QDDR). For its part, the Intelligence Community generates the “National Intelligence Priorities Framework” (NIPF). The NIPF, in turn, provides guidance to the 17 Agencies of the U.S. Intelligence Community.

This document is just a fancy means of translating exactly what the White House needs to know, and which Agency is best positioned to find out.  It translates strategy into execution. For each Agency, the document assigns priorities in a matrixed fashion to inform planning, budgeting and resources. The specific guidance to individual agencies becomes the goals that the leadership can use to assign owners and accountability. If the Administration needs to know what is happening at a specific Iranian nuclear facility and has no other means to find out, they will task the intelligence community to find out. If the NSA can do it, great. If not, the task will fall to the clandestine service of the CIA.

So, an officer on the street may not realize it, but what he/or she is collecting at great risk to his/her sources (and sometimes to the officers themselves), is something that nobody else can acquire, and is in direct furtherance of the Nation’s needs. As such, the top and the bottom are aligned via a cascading process that translates policy-maker wishes into strategy, and ultimately execution.

When an intelligence officer writes up a report based on information from a source, the report specifically calls out exactly which part of the NIPF is satisfied by the information.

From my recent years working with the private sector, I too often see carefully crafted strategic priorities presented in a PowerPoint slide shown once at the annual strategic summit, only to be then lost or forgotten. Indeed, a Harvard Business Review study showed that less than 14% of employees understand their organization’s strategy. Not surprisingly, they also report that less than 10% of all organizations are able to successfully execute their strategy.

Alignment done properly bonds an enterprise’s objectives and strategy with execution, and provides all levels a common understanding of the organization’s mission.   That in turn, makes it easier to insure accountability and measure success.

After a career in the clandestine service I moved to CrossLead LLC., a software and services firm dedicated to improving organizational performance and communication. We focus on translating strategy into execution. We use an interactive, SaaS enabled software platform to digitize strategic planning, cascade strategy and objectives directly to workflow, and provide a transparent means to communicate progress. That way, everyone clearly understands how their work supports the organization’s mission. Additionally, the inter-dependencies between previously siloed activities are made transparent, and status updates are available for everyone to see.

The American people are often uncomfortable with the fact that our country has to spy on others. However, espionage is a necessary function for any nation state, and the work of our intelligence officers is difficult, dangerous, fun, and ethically challenging. To do it right, it is also bureaucratic.  The alignment process is boring but critical.  The clandestine service is just one small piece of a larger networked and aligned foreign policy process. When done right, you can at least rest assured that we are not stealing for stealing’s sake. There are not unconnected zombie operatives out stealing whatever they can. So next time you read a story about an intelligence mission gone bad, you at least know that what we were trying to get was worth the risk.

Is your organization aligned?