2 July 2022

An Opinion Series on Innovation: How the Intelligence Community Kills Ideas


OPINION — I recently saw a creative idea killed. Like a professional hit, the kill was silent and non-attributable. Managers essentially neutralized the employee—let’s call him Matt. I’m confident Matt will never make another suggestion, much less offer another game-changing idea, again.

Idea rejection in bureaucracies is often a clueless crime scene. There are no fingerprints because no one says, “No.” Managers and co-workers use passive-aggressive put-downs, grimaces, or admonishments like:We tried it before.

Don’t rock the boat; be a team player.

It won’t work here; we’re different.

The boss will never buy it.

We have mission to do—no time for this.

In this case, like hyenas circling a fresh kill, several managers ganged up to ravage Matt’s idea—probably because it was a bit provocative and none of the managers had time to implement it. Here is the gauntlet they forced him to run:Appear before a panel of those same managers to brief the idea. (None of the managers offered positive responses or encouragement during or after the brief.)

The panel reassigned Matt to a new location to work on the idea.

They required him to report to another manager who was not known for innovative receptiveness.

They advised Matt to stop talking to outsiders (IC colleagues) about the idea.

They required that he write a detailed execution plan.

Then, he had to work up a detailed budget.

He had to coordinate with legal.

Finally, Matt had to go on a roadshow to formally brief everyone who might be affected.

Of course, big ideas that impact multiple units need to be vetted, but in this case, the employee had to do it all himself, with no top cover or buy-in. In effect, the managers forced the idea through the organizational meat grinder to polish, pulverize, and contort it until it became a minor adjustment to the status quo—the perfect way to anonymously choke innovation.

It worked. The exhausted employee abandoned his treasured idea, and news of the gauntlet sent a clear signal to other employees not to come up with any pesky new ideas or potentially game-changing problem solutions.

What stops innovation?

A CIA Director once asked me, “Mike, why aren’t Agency employees being more creative?”

Then, he added, “I’ve told them I wanted more innovation.”

Like most organizational leaders, he tried to logically sell a cultural and motivational message to be more innovative. In most cases, that doesn’t stick because our minds don’t work that way. Principles, values, and fears outweigh logic. For example, how often has your logic won a political argument?

If I could replay the conversation and answer him today, I would mention three powerful idea-killing forces that hinder innovation and will stop a CIA Director from unleashing change:Survival instinct (Human nature)

Cultural rigidity (Organizational nature)


Survival instinct

Human change resistance is a survival mechanism buried in all of our minds. It protects us from foolhardy or potentially dangerous ideas.

Rejecting ideas, especially terrible ones, got humans safely through the past 100,000 years or so. You’ll understand how potent change resistance is if you’ve ever tried to lose weight, quit smoking, or start an exercise program. Change resistance acts as a hidden brake inside our unconscious minds to slow us—even when we are trying to execute beneficial ideas.

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Ideas are not created equal. Some are better than others. However, ideas—good or bad—are a gift to be treated with respect by management. A manager who gives a quick no, issues a put-down, or injects a little humiliation ensures employees won’t offer another idea because it is a part of the human survival instinct to avoid pain. If you’ve ever been rejected you understand the pain Matt felt.


At times, various reviews and blue-ribbon reports on intelligence community activities call for the need for “transformation” or “culture change.” The monographs leave IC managers in the dark about what culture is, much less how to change it.

Simple definition: Culture is the way we do things around here. Another way to think about it is that culture is shared habits, or the cumulative effect of individual’s behaviors.

Examples of culture include whether we call executives by their first name, how new employees are treated when onboarding, how freely employees and managers share ideas, dress codes, and even the amount of stress placed on internal correspondence that is error free. All of these are shared, habitual workplace behaviors.

Breaking individual habits, such as diet, smoking, and exercise, are problematic. Breaking shared habits in culture is trickier, and this is where I rephrase management guru Peter Drucker’s expression, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” to, “Culture eats executives for snacks.”

When I asked several hundred IC employees to describe their culture, they listed Mission first. That’s good. However, other descriptors crept into the top 10, including Caution and Control. Needless to say, if one aspires to be a “learning organization” or an “agile organization,” caution and control are severe inhibitors.

A prudent level of caution and control makes sense because of the nature of intel work. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of the IC’s work does not involve life-and-death matters, and that’s where innovation becomes crucial. Yet, there is little personal upside to innovation for many employees in the IC, just lots of downside. As one person told me:

When someone proposes a new idea that fails, they are punished. If it succeeds, they aren’t rewarded; or everyone else takes credit.


The leadership chain, including supervisors, managers, and executives, decides what ideas to accept or block. Let’s look at three innovation inhibitors:The absence of defined Senior Intelligence Service (SIS) roles

Management turnover

Leadership quality

The absence of defined SIS roles

We’ve all heard IC executives say, “I do mission.” But if the mission is choked by red tape, overwhelmed by technological change, and facing ever-changing adversaries, is “doing the mission” enough?

Some call an SIS promotion a “crown.” It is certainly a capstone to a career, but it should carry responsibility in addition to recognition of a successful career. For instance, are SIS officers shapers and keepers of the culture? Do they know how to change culture? Do they have a duty to reduce bureaucracy and inefficient processes? Do they have a role in removing barriers from employees? Should they act as “champions” to listen, coach, and provide top cover for innovation?

Too often, new SIS officers spend energy addressing problems in their unit, but do not act in concert with other executives in solving the broader organizational issues, no matter how pressing they may be. In effect, each SIS officer operates in their own bubble and not linked to the others.

I had discussions with change guru John Kotter about transforming the IC. He was aware of the turnover issue, and over the years, we had a running joke. When we bumped into one another, I’d ask, “What’s the first step to transform a large East Coast intelligence organization?” His reply was always, “You need a unified, committed leadership team at the top.” High turnover insures that can’t happen.

As part of their promotion process, potential SIS officers should think through their responsibility to improve the overall organization and submit a detailed write-up of how they intend to do it.

Without a well-defined role, new SIS officers find themselves in the position of a teenager writing an English paper without a thesis statement.

Management turnover

Even if SIS roles were understood and reinforced, we face calamitous management turnover rates from the director level down to the supervisors. Each time a manager changes position, reporting lines are ruptured, vision and direction changes, and relationship bonds are fractured. None of the other elite organizations I consult with match the damaging 22-month turnover I found in one IC organization.

As a result of frequent job switching, enlightened managers don’t stay in place long enough to provide innovation cover—their tours are often curtailed early to solve a pressing problem elsewhere. Innovation lacks time to sprout, much less blossom, before the next manager arrives with a new agenda. Rapid turnover can be justified in specific overseas postings, but not in headquarters.

Short management tours make management accountability more difficult—bad leaders can move on before seniors can assess the damage they’ve done. In addition, rapid turnover hampers long-term thinking—executives focus on getting results over the next 18 months rather than launching the needed long-range programs and executing long-term improvement efforts.

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Leadership quality

Years ago, I collected employee ratings on the 8,000 IC bosses they served over their careers. I was delighted at the percentage of both “Good” and “Outstanding” leaders, but the percentage of leaders they rated as “Poor” or “Awful” was disturbing because even a small percentage of bad leaders can have an outsized impact on organizational performance.

Bad leaders engender lower employee performance, create organizational distrust, and force some of the best employees to resign. However, they also generate cultural problems. in the short run, culture affects all the managers, but in the long run, the managers collectively affect culture. In this case, an autocratic boss develops his own microculture, one that is marked by higher psychological fear and far less innovation. Because culture is “sticky,” a bad boss can negatively affect an organization for up to five years after transferring out.

In organizations with two-year management turnover, a poor leader can ricochet around and serve in and “infect” three separate units within five years. The residual effect of lowered employee performance shows how a small percentage of bad leaders can have an outsized organizational impact.

In closing

Hundreds of long-gone, private-sector firms ignored the need for radical innovation, including Swiss watchmakers, Compaq, and Blockbuster. Hopefully, the IC can innovate fast enough that HUMINT and other vital IC functions are not added to the list.

Widely used change and transformation models often don’t deliver what they promise. They may pay lip service to the importance of employees’ and managers’ change resistance, the power of culture, and the difficulty of sustaining management commitment, yet these models too often underestimate the tenacity of these barriers.

What works when implementing change or spurring creativity? Take human nature into account when launching a transformation initiative. Despite the fact that humans are innately risk-averse, we see innovation all around. But how does this happen?

Step 1 is to define what makes people tick. We can do that by reviewing the current findings in psychology and neuroscience—for example, brain imaging is fine-tuned enough to give us an understanding of why humans are risk-averse and what managers can do to overcome it. I’ll dive into this more in part two of this series.

Step 2 is to apply leadership techniques that conform with the findings from Step 1—guiding employees around their innate change resistance. Best of all, this new way of leading and managing is less painful and easier to apply than current practices. I’ll focus more on that in part three of this series.

In Part II, I’ll visit a neuroscience lab and peer inside the brain to learn what went on in Matt’s head as his idea was killed. We’ll see how the tragedy goes deeper than just one fewer idea in the IC. The managers drowned his initiative—we’ll look into an fMRI to see why they may as well have fitted Matt’s motivation with tiny concrete shoes, wrapped it in chains, and tossed it over the side of a boat. And then we’ll ask whether the IC afford this.

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