Cover Image: How Spies Think

How Spies Think

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Member Reviews

This is a great book for anyone who likes or tends to analyse others' motives, especially the motives of governments and political interest groups.  Conversely, I suppose, it would also be a good reference work for those governments and groups, helping them work out how best to influence their targets, because Omand demonstrates how their current attempts might be recognised and countered, therefore need to be changed.

The book is logically set out, as you'd expect, given the author is a former intelligence officer. It is easy to read, probably reflecting his experience of presenting complicated concepts to laypersons. The only parts that I did not enjoy were the fictitious scenarios.

With thanks to the publisher and to Netgalley for giving me a copy of "How Spies Think" in exchange for this review.
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This is a fantastic book. The title is a bit click-bait but it is essential reading to anyone who works as an analyst in a public department. It is very well-thought out and reasoned. It also presents Omand's experiences, which obviously have been sanitised, but it helps you re-think how you approach a topic. What I liked most of all is that this is a very fresh approach and a different way of thinking about the process. Highly recommended and would be happy to share a chapter with my colleagues.
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I requested this book because as a young graduate, I once dreamt of doing post-grad studies in the department where this author teaches, the Study of Intelligence at King’s College, London. Life took me on an entirely different path, but it was interesting to glimpse what might have been in this book.

This book is hard to define. Is it a history book, giving glimpses of intelligence work in the last 50 years? Is it is a management self-help book? Is it a book about the ever-increasing issues that plague our society, such as cyber-warfare, fake news, the rise of artificial intelligence? There are elements of all of these.

The book seeks to ‘empower people to make better decisions by learning how intelligence analysts think.’ And as such, it does this, going through his four-part model of how to look at the decision-making process, at considering the information you have, being aware of the limitations on your choices. And whilst this was interesting, it felt more applicable, I think, to those in big finance, or corporate negotiations than my more suburban existence.

Yet whilst most our lives seem somewhat distant from the life of high intelligence, the author every now and again really does make his guidance and suggestions commonplace - because as he points out, we have more information at our fingertips and less time to use it properly. He uses historical examples to remind us that history does not repeat itself, showing that reality is far more complicated than the easy narratives we may receive from the government or the media. He also raises the danger of being caught into a narrative which is difficult to escape from, and the dangers of making assumptions of different nations and cultures, and on consideration (it's about 10 days since I read it) this was more useful than I imagined. 

I enjoyed his suggestions for dividing up knowledge into specific portions, and of a chart method to weigh decisions. The reminder of showing your working when making decisions and writing reports will stay with me. Every now and again, the text lurches into a more general direction, giving us guidance on how to use the internet, or how to manage relationships. One of the most useful sections was on the assumptions that groups can fall into when making decisions, and how voices and alternative positions can be easily lost. I am not sure if his suggestions in negotiating tactics will be useful in my sphere, but they were interesting to read and provided food for thought.

A fascinating chapter comes at the end when the direction of the book changes, and we glimpse a hypothetical political situation in 15 years time. It was chillingly believable and projected the dangers of fake news, and the increasing threat of a decline in public rationality, the rise of narcissism, and digital manipulation. 

There was a moment early on where the author used equations to explain his thinking, reasoning, and analysis – like others, I found this very off putting, and I could have easily given up early on. As to whom I would recommend this book, that is more tricky. It’s too specific for a zany Christmas present; it’s probably not specific enough for someone who works in high finance. However, it provided a glimpse of another world and encourages the reader to be discerning and thoughtful, and that cannot be a bad thing in this day and age.
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Coming from an engineering background, this book is incredible for splitting down specific decision making in to deliverable steps with real life examples from David Omand himself.  It is definitely an insightful into his career within the MOD and the Government if you are interested in that.
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Well written book by an ex-intelligence officer, this book takes us through various scenarios and various intelligence crisis in the British government and MI6. With clear explanations this book is awesome
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I was very much looking forward to reading this book given the strong reputation of the author - David Omand. It started really well with Omand setting out very clearly the importance of why  it is so important to assess, question and re-visit assessments and assumptions. But I found it got bogged down very quickly as it moved from introduction to more detailed explanation and I couldn't get much past the explanation of Bayseian theory. My contrast is with Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise - which covered similar ground - and in a style and with examples which made it easier to read and understand.
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How Spies Think: Ten Lessons in Intelligence is probably one of the most in depth and concise books written about the mysterious world that makes up all the intelligence services. Written by  the former director of GCHQ it is the book to read for everything you've ever wondered about what it's like to be a spy.
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