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Inman’s Rules: The Enduring Principles of Operational Intelligence

In this OODAcast we ask retired Admiral Bobby Ray Inman for insights into his approach to analyzing complex situation and managing intelligence efforts. Admiral Inman served in the Navy from November 1951 to July 1982, retiring with the rank of four star admiral, the first military intelligence officer to ever reach that rank. On active duty, he served as director of naval intelligence, then later director of the National Security Agency and as deputy director of Central Intelligence. After retirement Inman was chairman and CEO of the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC) in Austin, Texas, for four years and chairman, president and chief executive officer of Westmark Systems Inc., a privately owned electronics industry holding company, for three years. Inman also served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas from 1987 through 1990. He became a adjunct professor at The University of Texas at Austin in 1987 and was appointed a tenured professor holding the Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair in National Policy in August 2001. He recently retired from that position.

Decades ago he codified his principles in a list of rules he used to teach and lead others with. They are still exchanged and studied by leaders today, and they provided a good framework for our discussion in this OODAcast.

Inman’s Rules

1. Conservation of enemies: Be slow to anger and quick to build allies
2. When you are explaining you are losing: In most cases trying to explain away something never convinces the listener and just wastes your time. Learn from your mistake and move on. Sometimes the same thought is captured by the adage: When in a hole stop digging
3. Something too good to believe probably is just that, untrue: This remains important not just in national intelligence but in fighting fraud.
4. Go to the Hill alone: Supporting governance processes are just too important.
5. Wisdom in Washington is having much to say and knowing when not to say it: Never overwhelm decision makers.
6. Never sign for anything
7. The only one looking out for you is you: Take personal responsibility for your actions.
8. If you think your enemy is stupid, think again: Arrogance results in failure and surprise.
9. Never try to fool yourself: Too frequently it is easier to deceive ourselves rather than believe reality
10. Never go into a meeting without knowing what the outcome is going to be.
11. Don’t change what got you to where you are just to get to the next place.
12. Intelligence is knowing what the enemy doesn’t want you to know: It is about stealing secrets, not reading the news.
13. Nothing changes faster than yesterday’s vision of the future: Don’t try to simply predict, you probably need to conduct scenario planning over multiple futures.
14. Intelligence users are looking for what is going to happen, not what has already occurred: Intelligence is not about history. Just because history is easier does not mean it is the mission.
15. It is much harder to convince someone they are wrong than it is to convince them they are right: This observation leads to the important point that intelligence professionals need a high emotional intelligence and ability to convey the truth in ways that get it accepted even when it is not welcome.
16. For Intelligence Officers in particular there is no substitute for the truth.
17. By the time intelligence gets back to a user with the answer the question usually has changed: Especially in operational intelligence.
18. Always know your blind spots, get help to cover them.
20. You can never know too much about the enemy: Do not fear information overload, manage it.
21. Tell what you know, tell what you don’t know, tell what it means: This framework helps decision-makers contextualize insights into ways that make intelligence more actionable.
22. Tell them what you are going to say, tell them, then tell them what you told them, they might remember something.
23. Never have more than three points.
24. Never follow lunch or an animal act.
25. Believe is correct, intelligence officers never feel.
26. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: Be proactive and seek more insights on the situation
27. Boredom is the enemy, not the time to any briefing.
28. If you can’t summarize it on one page, you can’t sell it to anyone.
29. Always allow time to consider what the enemy wants me to think, is he succeeding or am I?
30. If you can’t add value, get out of the way.
31. Beware of mirror imaging: Thinking the adversary or others are the same as we are has contributed to most major strategic failures through the years, including the 20 year involvement in Afghanistan.

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Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of OODA LLC, the technology research and advisory firm with a focus on artificial intelligence and cybersecurity which publishes OODALoop.com. Bob is the co-host of the popular podcast The OODAcast. Bob has been an advisor to dozens of successful high tech startups and has conducted enterprise cybersecurity assessments for businesses in multiple sectors of the economy. He was a career Naval Intelligence Officer and is the former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Find Bob on Defcon.Social