On Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
boarded Northwest Flight 253 with explosives inside his
shorts. Fortunately, he was unable to get his makeshift detonator
to function. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the
Transportation Safety Administration, and various U.S. intelligence
agencies did not foresee this type of attack, a problem that former
National Intelligence Chief John Negroponte called a failure of
It has been more than eight years since the attacks on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon and five years since the 9/11
Commissions report National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon
the United States identified that the
United States most important failurewas one of imagination.
In discussing Flight 253, President Obama did not use that phrase.
Instead, he chose this language: In other words, this was not a
failure to collect intelligence; it was a failure to integrate and
understand the intelligence that we already had. The information
was there. Agencies and analysts who needed it had access to it.
And our professionals were trained to look for it and to bring it
Disregard for Americas Profound Failure
A 2005 The Public
Hurricanes & Learning Organization Obsolescence
discussed a study on how the United States was tackling this
important failure. At the time, the study found that out of 19,405
jobs, no new jobs recruited for imagination skills. Likewise, in
all the help-wanted ads for the U.S. governmentincluding the
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI), and the National Security Agency (NSA)there
were zero listings calling for outstanding imaginations. What is
the United States doing in 2010 to solve this failure of
There is a new administration and a new assault on the people of
the United States. A similar study conducted in January 2010
revealed 28,875 open positions listed on USAjobs.com, the official
job listing board of the U.S. government. In a random screening of
several hundred jobs, a search for the word imagination found only
11 adsnearly zero percent. None of these job listings were for
positions in U.S. intelligence agencies.
Imagination Versus Innovation
The term imagination seems to be feared. All sorts of government
leaders talk about innovation, but innovative ideas have already
been filtered into those that seem to have an application to
Imagination happens earlier in the process. It is in the world of
imagination that free-floating shards and fragments can be
conceptualized into something mind-blowing.
If those ideas are filtered too earlyso they have an immediate
impact on a particular problemwe lose the opportunity to imagine
what other views of the problem might look like. We are a very
innovative country, but that has not protected us from failures of
Imagination in Our Intelligence Agencies
A failure of imagination is one of the surest paths to an
intelligence breakdown, said former CIA Director General Michael
Hayden, suggesting that on some level, the CIA has a fundamental
understanding of the problem.
Leon Panetta, the current director of the CIA, said on the last
anniversary of 9/11: To keep America safe, we must stay a step
ahead, we must see where science and technology are going and we
must use them to our greatest advantage. Our work must be beyond
the capability and the imagination of our adversaries.
Even a few anonymous CIA philosophers have weighed in: Intelligence
community organizations need to institutionalize sustained,
collaborative efforts by analysts to question their judgments and
underlying assumptions, employing both critical and creative modes
This gets to the heart of what is meant by failure of imagination.
New concepts can continually come forward, if we encourage
unrestrained second guessing. It takes analysts who are dedicated,
open, and modest to persevere in this kind of work. Another
anonymous CIA writer puts it this way: What is required is a
continuous, iterative, largely informal effort by members of
organizations to understand, or make sense, of what is going on in
the external environment that is relevant to their goals and needs.
If these were mainstream ideas within the CIA, they would translate
into practice. They havent, and the CIA is simply not hiring to
this skill set. Failure of imagination is almost totally invisible
within the CIAs hiring parameters. And other agencies do not seem
to fare any better. We can find no evidence of any active
imagination programs in the FBI, NSA, the Office of the Director of
National Intelligence, and the National Counterterrorism Center.
National Intelligence Strategy
You would think that the National Intelligence Strategy (NIS) of
the United States would be the first to address this failure of
imagination problem, but there is no mention of it. Even the
National Strategy to Combat Terrorist Travel by the National
Counterterrorism Center fails the imagination test.
Security consultant Bruce Schneier tells us that at one time, DHS
brought in a number of science fiction writers to develop
worst-case scenarios. This is the closest acknowledgement by the
government to address imagination as a source of innovation and
Imagine a Failure of Imagination Failure
The failure of imagination diagnosis has not been taken seriously,
and there are a number of possible reasons.
Despite the 9/11 Commission report, the government does not really
believe there is an imagination failure. Schneier believes that
terrorism is a real threat, but were not any safer through security
measures that require us to correctly guess what the terrorists are
going to do next.
He is right that guessing correctly is an inappropriate foundation
for policy, but a population that is infused with creativity and
imagination trying to solve the nations problems and creating a
better, safer future for ourselves will likely garner positive
U.S. culture lives in perpetual denial. To be sure, denial is a
necessary psychological defense for some, but it is an intolerable
trait for the president of the United States.
Imagination Work Costs Too Much
Focusing on every alternative scenario is too expensive. Former CIA
Deputy Director William O. Studeman has said: It is cheaper to
counter a known threat than an imagined threat. This may be the
heart of why failure of imagination has not been championed by
anyone. Creating a program focused on imagination is just too
It is also conceivable that government managers have realized just
how short their careers might be if they allow their employees to
exercise imagination, even for good reasons.
Sources of Imagination
Consider some possible solutions to the failure of imagination
Time to Think
When I was a manager at CIGNA, my team was creating the CIGNA
Technology Institute, a new organization in the company. When the
challenge started to become daunting, I requested that each member
start taking one day a week to work from home. Spend some of that
day just thinking, I said.
Within two weeks, energy on the staff skyrocketed and ideas flowed.
We put together a complex, effective organization in record time
and developed the seven-second solution, which coupled online
learning with a live expert available 24 hours per day. It
guaranteed to learners they would have an expert within seven
seconds who could respond to their question.
We recommend that all government employees be given four hours per
week to just think and get their creative juices flowing. Why?
Because theyll be better able to tackle the failure of imagination
problem, and theyll get more done for U.S. citizens. Many companies
have sabbaticals for the same reason. Perhaps every six years,
government employees should have six months off with pay.
Eliminate Command-and-Control Organizations
Government agencies should be evaluated by teams designed by
leadership mavens such as Meg Wheatley to determine whether they
absolutely require command-andcontrol structures to function. All
organizations that do not necessitate that hierarchical rigid
control should be recalibrated into collaborative organizations and
the managers trained to use social processes to jumpstart their
Imagination Skills Training
Programs that teach people imagination skills that disrupt their
habitual thinking or patterns of thought and replace them with
fresh thinking skills should be offered to all 2,900,000 government
civilian employees within the next four years.
Trust More, Collaborate More
I spent four years in the U.S. Air Force Security Service. I had
extensive training in appropriate security practices. The
instructors phrase was loose lips sink ships. The rule was never
disclose anything that happens within these walls. These basic
principles were enforced and reinforced every dayaloud and in
During that time, I had the opportunity to spend a small amount of
time at the National Security Administration (NSA). Security at the
agency was very rigid, with Marines of mythic size scrutinizing
everything that went in or out of the building. These men and women
saw and heard everything.
One day after work, I went through the rigid security checkpoint,
staffed by these Marines, and met up with two NSA secretaries I did
not know. They gave me a ride into Washington, D.C. From the moment
they got into the car until the time they dropped me offamong their
stories about their bosses and childrenthey discussed classified
information. There was a very large disconnect between the theory
and practice of security at one of the nations preeminent agencies.
Even in NSA, the most secretive of institutions, if there is only
an illusion of control, why not open things up and get people
thinking about possibilities?
Need to Know Means We May Never Know
There is a sacred cow that underlies intelligence work. Before you
share knowledge, make sure the receiver has a need to know. This
was an operative principle when I was involved, and it is an
operative principle now. It absolutely gets in the way of possible
imaginative solutions. It is a gateway that inhibits imagination
every time it is invoked because it interrupts the spontaneous flow
of data, information, and ideas.
If we want to get the most out of employees and make them part of
the solution, let them freely and uninhibitedly toss ideas around
with all colleagues who have the same security clearance. Social
interaction is at the heart of the imagination process and what we
have now does not work.
Security consultant Richard Forno hits the nail on the head:
Contrary to Americas infatuation with instant gratification,
imagination is not quickly built, funded, or enacted. It takes
years to inculcate such a mindset brought about by outside-the-box,
unconventional, and daring thinking from folks with expertise and
years of firsthand knowledge in areas far beyond security or law
enforcement and who are encouraged to think freely and have their
analyses seriously considered in the halls of Washington. Such a
radical way of thinking and planning is necessary to deal with an
equally radical adversary, yet we remain entrenched in conventional
wisdom and responses.
We live in a world in which people are so desperate, they will
strap explosives onto their bodies and attack innocent people. Our
response must be to recognize the failures of conventional wisdom
and begin a dialogue that shakes the foundations that have cemented
us in place.