A Former CIA Executive’s Advice On How To Make Hard Decisions

A five-step decision-making process from a man who spent 25 years making life-and-death decisions.

A Former CIA Executive’s Advice On How To Make Hard Decisions
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Each day we make thousands of decisions. Most are fairly insignificant, such as what to have for lunch or what to wear. Others carry weight and consequences. Complicating things is our access to information; a simple Google search produces a million results in a split second, and that can lead to analysis paralysis.


Philip Mudd is accustomed to making tough decisions. As the former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and FBI’s National Security Branch, he has gathered information and made recommendations about some of the world’s biggest threats to national safety. During his 25 years working for the government, Mudd developed a system for analyzing complex data and assessing risk. While some of the decisions he made involved life and death, he contends that all complex decisions–government and civil–are major.

Philip MuddPhoto: via Wikimedia Commons

“Whether you’re combating terrorists or managing a pension fund, decisions should be made in similar ways,” he says. “Before you say your decisions aren’t profound, stop. Is it really soulless if it affects people’s lives?”

In his book The HEAD Game: High-Efficiency Analytic Decision Making and the Art of Solving Complex Problems Quickly, Mudd breaks down his decision-making process into five steps:

1. Find The Real Question

People often focus on the wrong question because they assume questions are self-evident, says Mudd. Focusing on better questions up front yields better answers later.

“Good questions are hard to come up with,” he says. “We typically overinvest our time in analyzing problems by jumping right to the data and the conclusions, while under-investing in thinking about exactly what it is we want to know.”


The right question provides a decision advantage to the person at the head of the table. Mudd says you can find the right question by looking backwards. Start with what you’re trying to accomplish and work your way back, instead of moving forward and making conclusions.

2. Identify Your “Drivers”

Since our minds have a hard time juggling too much information, break down complex questions into characteristics or “drivers.” This approach gives you a way to manage data.

When Mudd was working for the CIA, for example, he would sort data on Al Qaeda into information baskets that included money, recruits, leadership, communications, training, and access to weapons. When information flows in, rather than adding it to one unmanageable pile, sorting through it periodically, and offering a recitation of what appears to be relevant from the most recent stuff you’ve seen, file each bit into one of your baskets, says Mudd. He recommends limiting your drivers to 10 to best control the information.


3. Decide On Your Metrics

Once the question and drivers have been identified, decide what metrics you’ll use to measure how the problem and solution are evolving over time.

Mudd suggests comparing your thought process to the training process of an Olympic sprinter who measures success in hundredths of a second. “If we don’t, the analysis we provide will suffer the same fate as a sprinter who thinks he’s great but has never owned a stopwatch: he enters an elite competition, and reality intervenes,” he says.

Metrics provide a “mind mirror”–a system for judging your decisions. It provides a foundation for coming back to the table and assessing the process for success.

4. Collect The Data

Once you’ve built the framework that will help you make the hard decision, it’s time to gather the data. Overcome data overload by plugging data into their driver categories and excising anything that doesn’t fit, says Mudd.

“Too much data might provide a false sense of security, and it doesn’t necessarily lead to clearer analytic decision making,” says Mudd.


Aggressively question the validity of your data. Once you have your data sorted, give yourself a grade that represents your confidence in assessing your question.

5. Look For What’s Missing

Complex analysis isn’t easy, says Mudd; you must assume that the process is flawed and check for gaps and errors.

He says three common stumbling blocks are:

  1. Availability bias: The instinct to rely on what you know or what has been most recently in the news.
  2. Halo effect: When you write off the negative characteristics because you’re mesmerized by the positive attributes.
  3. Intuitive versus analytic methodologies: when you go with your gut.

“I hate intuition,” says Mudd. “It’s dangerous and it makes me nervous.”

Mudd says making complex decisions is hard work. “It’s a lot of fun to be an expert who bases their ideas on history and not a lot of fun to be an analyst who must always be assessing potential scenarios,” he says. “Every time you go into a problem, and before you rip into data, ask yourself, ‘Am I sure where I’m heading?’”


Correction: A previous version of this article had the headline “A Former CIA Director’s Advice On How To Make Hard Decisions”