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Lessons From Three Very Different Schools of Thought

Over the past decade I had the privilege of being a part of three different settings featuring three distinct ways of thinking: a Yeshiva (a center for Jewish studies), Israeli military intelligence, and a leading management consulting firm.

Each setting is very different from the others, but they share a common denominator: the constant use of different types of information, logic, analytic processes and heated debates to arrive at actionable conclusions, even when complete information is lacking or there are no clear right answers.

To give a brief overview:

  • In a Yeshiva, students analyze biblical, Talmudic and religious legal sources to understand and analyze scholarly debates and often to reach a practical halakhic (Jewish legal) conclusion.

  • In army intelligence, officers and soldiers use diverse sources of information (e.g. open source intelligence, visual intelligence etc.) to make assessments that ultimately inform strategic and tactical decisions.

  • In management consulting, consultants use data and client interaction to make informed recommendations for a change for the client.

From each institution I have learned distinct ways of thinking that affect the way I approach questions today. In this article I wish to share some of my learnings on concepts and analytic tools that I learned in each setting.

Yeshiva

A day in a Yeshiva consists of rigorously studying ancient and new Jewish texts - especially the Talmud, a 1,500 year old collection of rabbinic discussions on a variety of subjects ranging from theology through ritual observance and practices to civil law. The study of these texts requires utilization of a variety of analytic tools, including the following concepts:

  1. The Havruta Dialectic - upon walking into a Beit Midrash (the learning hall of a Yeshiva), one immediately sees - and hears - this unique system of learning. Each student is paired with one other student, creating a “Havruta”, or learning couple. Most studying at a Yeshiva is done in a Havruta - two students study and interpret texts together, often engaging in heated arguments about the meaning of the text. This system requires each partner to be active (unlike a typical contemporary schoolroom in which a student can be passive) and brings together two styles of thought, allowing the students to gain insights they might not reach on their own. I have found this method effective in non religious contexts as well. Bringing together two minds on a certain subject can produce wonders and illuminate previously unclear subjects.

  2. The Synthesis of Ukimta - the Talmud is rife with disagreements: differing opinions, explanations, statements and sources. Yet it often tries to make the different stances in a given argument compatible with one another, showing that they are actually not disagreements, despite their initial appearance. A common method for achieving this synthesis is via an “Ukimta” or (roughly) “a standing” in Aramaic. In an Ukimta, we redefine or limit the scope of one or both of the opposing sides so that they won’t conflict. For example, if we find two differing opinions on whether it is permissible to perform a certain action on the Sabbath, we can reclassify one of the opinions, say the permissive opinion, as referring to a holiday and not the Sabbath, and therefore state that the two opinions might actually be talking about entirely different cases and need not be viewed as contradictory, but rather as compatible. I find this method to be useful in everyday arguments, which I often find are not arguments at all if we clarify what precise scope and context each side is referring to.

  3. The Practical Nuance of the Nafka Mina - as mentioned, differing views and approaches are very common in the Talmud. However, it is not always immediately apparent what the disagreement means and what its implications are. A useful tool for understanding these is the “Nafka mina”, or in Aramaic - “what comes out”: a hypothetical situation in which each approach would result in a different practical action. This allows the learner to sharpen the understanding of the reasoning behind the disagreement and its potential practical implications. For example: say there is an argument on the nature of the good and what ethical duties humans have in relation to it. Is the action that leads to the greatest good for the most people the moral one, as claimed in utilitarian ethics, or are there moral imperatives that must serve as a basis for action without regard to overall outcomes, as thought by deontology? The infamous trolley problem is a thought experiment that can serve as a Nafka Mina that helps us understand the implications and the nature of the disagreement between the two views. The trolley problem imagines a difficult moral choice: if a trolley is about to run over five people, and diverting it to another track would kill a single (different) person, should we divert the trolley? The utilitarian view would typically say yes, since less people would be killed, while the deontological view would state that no, one should not actively cause the death of another person. This thought experiment thus commonly aids ethics professors in presenting a Nafka Mina, or practical (though hypothetical) difference between the two moral approaches.

Intelligence

Intelligence is an important aspect of the national security of any country. Intelligence requires the analysis of various sources into a coherent picture, crucial for decision making, of the current situation at the strategic, operative, and tactical levels. This analysis necessitates methodical ways of thinking about a complex, sometimes messy and usually unclear reality:

  1. The Importance of Specifying a Paradigm - a paradigm is a set of assumptions that are used as a basis for all analysis on a certain subject. This paradigm is a crucial pillar of intelligence analysis; even if we are not aware of it, it will still be there, affecting all analyses. Paradigms, for example, can take the shape of assumptions on the basic abilities or intentions of the enemy. As with many features of military intelligence, the most famous intelligence paradigms in history are usually the infamously wrong ones. The most prominent Israeli example is the paradigm from the early 1970’s according to which Egypt would not invade Israel if it was militarily incapable of defeating Israel. This paradigm was wrong; Egypt went to war in 1973, despite knowing it would likely lose from a purely military point of view. Even when not performing intelligence analysis, it is beneficial to attempt to identify and detail every unsaid or hidden assumption, otherwise the entire analysis might be based on wrong assumptions. Being aware of the existence of an implicit paradigm allows a thinker - on any subject - to effectively evaluate whether the basis of all analysis is sound.

  2. The Benefit of Providing Possible Alternatives - intelligence analysis will often deal with uncertain situations, or attempt to predict how events might develop in the future. Though analysts can’t foretell the future, they can give an assessment of the likeliest possibilities. When trying to evaluate future or uncertain events, analysts will detail several possible alternatives based on everything that is known on the subject. The analyst will then assign each possibility a probability score ranging from high to low probability. The description of the potential eventualities, as well as the assigned probabilities, will be based on the analyst’s intimate knowledge of the situation. This is a great tool to communicate uncertainty but also to give the recipient the best analysis possible to cope with this uncertainty. Of course, this tool is useful not only in intelligence but in every field where information is needed to make decisions but the current or future reality is uncertain.

  3. The Honesty of Levels of Confidence - when giving an intelligence assessment analysts typically need to clarify the level of confidence they have in a given assessment. When the positive indications in favor of their positions are few or weak and uncertainty is high, the analyst may indicate this to tell the recipient of the analysis to manage expectations accordingly. When the analyst is very sure about a particular assessment, the analyst can indicate a high confidence level. This is crucial for decision making; a decision should not rely solely on assessments with low confidence levels, and the analyst must be honest about the level of conviction in the assessment. This is obviously useful not only in intelligence analysis but in any situation that requires analysis in an uncertain environment. For example, if a new COVID-19 variant is emerging in a mostly-vaccinated country, initial indications that the vaccine is effective on the new variant should not have the same impact on decision making as a large mass of peer-reviewed studies.

These concepts are further explored in Itai Brun's "Intelligence Research" essay.

Management consulting

Management consultants help clients answer diverse questions, including strategic, organizational, operational and other types of problems. Getting to the answers requires performing an analysis of information and data, and the field has formed several unique ways of solving problems:

  1. The Organizing Power of MECE - MECE is a very basic tool used in management consulting. MECE stands for “mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive”. It’s an incredibly useful tool, meant to ensure that the consultant is seeing the world in a structured way and solving problems in a logical and efficient manner. The “mutually exclusive” part means that when approaching a problem we break it down into parts that are distinct from one another, while the “collectively exhaustive” part means that we try to be as broadly comprehensive as necessary to ensure that we do not miss anything relevant to the issue. We thus divide a problem, question, work plan or recommendation into “buckets”, which are each distinctively separate but together include all relevant sub-issues. For example, say we wanted to lead a team in exploring markets around the world. A MECE way of breaking down the problem would require including all the relevant markets in the world, but also would have each country included only once in each sub-category. For example, we can divide the world into developed (e.g GDP per capita of over $10,000) and developing ($10,000 and under). If we had two people on the project, we would give each person one of the categories to analyze. A non-MECE way to categorize the world would be into developed countries and countries in the Western hemisphere, since we would miss some countries (developing countries in the Eastern hemisphere), and count some countries twice (developed countries in the Western hemisphere). The MECE breakdown of a problem is a useful first step to any analysis.

  2. The Pyramid Principle Top-Down Communication Style - when communicating insights from the consulting process, consultants use the Pyramid Principle, a term coined by Barbara Minto. The term calls for a top-down communication approach. TO this end, a presentation would start with the main conclusion, then back the conclusion up with several arguments, explanations or statements, then back each of these with several further explanations or data points, and so on. For example, a first-layer of the pyramid could be a recommendation - the company should enter the US market. The next level down would be the reasons for this conclusion: 1. The US market is growing fast. 2. There are few competitors. 3. The company is well-positioned to make the move to the US. Then, the next level down would be the arguments supporting each of these three reasons. An additional level could be a granular analysis of each of the arguments. This makes communication more efficient, persuasive and modular in a way that can respond to context and to the interests of the person to whom one is presenting. For instance, if I had a twenty second elevator pitch, I would only use the first layer. For a five minute presentation I would use the first and second layers. For an hour-long presentation I would use three layers, and at the end of the project I would leave a deck with 4-5 layers.

  3. The Practical Usefulness of Syndication - on a consulting project, the team will often go through an iterative process with the client. This means that after each stage of performing an analysis or reaching a conclusion, the consulting team will meet with all relevant stakeholders on the client side, share the analysis or recommendations with them, get feedback, clarify any disagreements, surface any assumptions and refine the analysis or recommendations. This ensures that the externally-led process and expertise is aligned with the “inside” expertise, and no source of expertise is lost. This also helps ensure the “buy-in” of the eventual recommendations by all the relevant stakeholders; they will be the ones to eventually implement the recommendations, so they should be a part of the process and have a say in it. This syndication process actually prevents a phenomenon which is a stigma surrounding consulting firms - that of a team handing over an irrelevant PowerPoint deck with no connection to reality at the end of a project; This does not happen with a proper syndication process. Using an iterative process to join several sources of expertise is incredibly useful in many contexts involving several stakeholders and multiple opinions.

This collection of analytic concepts used in vastly different settings (or perhaps not so different) is just a small glimpse into these worlds; however, the tools presented in this article can be useful to other settings that require the use of analysis. Every environment offers opportunities for inspiration, and in my experience mutual learning between seemingly unrelated domains can help generate deep insights.


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