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Judging information quantity and quality – with Air Marshal Sir Graham Stacey

The latest episode of The Value Perspective podcast shifts its focus to military matters in the company of senior RAF officer Sir Graham Stacey – including assessing the quality and quantity of your information

11/02/2020

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An important ambition for our current series of podcasts on the subject of decision-making at times of uncertainty, here on The Value Perspective, was that we should look beyond the boundaries of finance and investment. And so it is that the latest episode sees us talking to Air Marshal Sir Graham Stacey about how decisions are taken at the very highest levels of the UK military.

Stacey – who joined the RAF in 1980 and has served in numerous theatres of conflict, including Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Gulf, Iraq and Kosovo – accompanies us on a diverse conversation that, in addition to a great overview of military decision-making, takes in ideas such as dealing with ‘catastrophic success’(when things go unexpectedly well) and ‘red-teaming’ (employing people as in-house devil’s advocates and contrarians).

Given Stacey operates in a world where decisions literally can be a matter of life and death, we were keen to learn what constitutes ‘enough’ information to proceed when you are planning a military mission. Not for the only time in our conversation, he pushes back on our question, observing: “It is interesting we have leapt straight into a discussion about volume of information in order to make decisions.

“I would turn that on its head and focus on what you need to know – after all, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, then you are really going to struggle to find it. Once you have analysed a problem and you know what decisions have to be made – not ‘could’ or ‘might’ be made or might be ‘nice’ to make – then the information you need to make those decisions may become clearer.”

Stacey flags up what the military terms ‘CIRs’ – critical information requirements – or, at the highest level, ‘CCIRs’, which are the commander’s CIRs. “This is not the totality of data out there but what you absolutely need to make a decision,” he explains. “That can start to focus minds because, in this day and age, you can be ‘fire-hosed’ with information – so concentrate on what you need.”

A second key consideration is time, believes Stacey, adding: “The best decision in the world is useless if it is an hour too late. You really have to understand when you need to make a decision by and I was brought up on the one-third/two-thirds rule – that, as a commander, I should consume a maximum of one-third of the available time to give the people under me two-thirds of it to plan and make preparations.”

Summing this all up as “knowing the decisions you want to make, knowing the information you need and then being really honest about the timelines”, Stacey also acknowledges the importance of moving with the times. “We are going through a cultural change in the military,” he says. “A lot of senior people like highly classified, very accurate, very auditable pictures and intelligence – old-style ways of doing business.

“But nowadays, with open-source information, big data and analytics, you can show people trends, you can show them analysis but you can’t really show them a picture. An interesting example is a proposition put to me a few years ago: if we wait for Russian tanks to reach the border, it might be too late – so why aren’t we analysing the purchase of shampoo and toothpaste near Russian barracks?

“That may seem silly but the first thing people do before going anywhere is head to the shops – so that is the mindset. Of course, when you tell a politician you want to deploy forces because toothpaste sales have gone up, you get a funny look but actually it might be the right course. So, in a changing world, we are having to ‘think new and think bold’ – but the critical point overall is to concentrate on what you need to know.”

With the right quality of data just as important as the right quantity, we also take the opportunity to ask how the military deals with situations where there might be, well, an agenda behind the information received. Stacey suggests we are being too diplomatic here, adding: “I would say there is likely to be an agenda. Any information from a third party or an external source will come with something in it for them … probably.

“It may not necessarily be malicious or evil but it will be in their interest so the first thing is not to take anything at face value. Without wishing to drag in more and more process, a single source telling you what you want to know may make you feel good temporarily but you do need to check it. Go back and find multiple sources, cross-reference the information, tell people in your organisation to follow it up.”

This can protect against ‘confirmation bias’ and Stacy adds: “If all the information is reinforcing how good your plan is, you need someone in the organisation to stand up and say: ‘Something’s not quite right here – either we are being fed misinformation or we are only collecting information that builds on our own theories. So go out and find me something else – find me a doubter, find me an alternate point of view and test it.’

“Countries have made strategic decisions on flimsy, single-source information but, when you take a decision, you have to take a deep breath and ask … why? Part of your decision-making process has to involve just being sensible, checking your information and being slightly cynical about it – so build that in.”

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