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Business Lessons from 'The Triple Agent'

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Joby Warrick's book "The Triple Agent" contains some lessons for business leaders in his non-fiction account of a CIA intelligence operation. An Al-Qaeda supporter who was thought to have been turned against that organization became a suicide bomber against his handlers, killing or seriously wounding numerous individuals in a face-to-face meeting at Camp Chapman in Afghanistan. The following concepts are apparent from Warrick's narrative and are reminders of how carefully leaders must proceed in our contemporary world.

Every action produces unintended consequences. Leaders must think about these. For example, if there are perceived wrongs, memory may be very long. Organizations need to consider how their actions will be understood by outsiders, particularly in the context of regional cultural and social history. In today's world, the possibility of violent revenge cannot be ignored.

Individuals and organizations tend to filter information in a manner that supports their needs and confirms their preconceptions. This frequently occurs unconsciously and is a well-known phenomenon. A single-minded focus that excludes all but one interpretation of events may be disastrous.

An executive can never have too many facts and should carefully consider how unique or atypical the current opportunity appears to be. Some opportunities are indeed too good to be true.

Dissenting opinions from experienced operational staff should not be lightly ignored. Does the organizational leadership appreciate their concerns, and are there alternative methods of achieving the goals that address these concerns? Organizations need to encourage a full discussion of the merits of an initiative.

Individuals rarely rapidly change an established outlook on life or a worldview, and one should allow some time to pass before accepting a radical transformation at face value.

Independent verification of third-party information that is critical to the success of a project must be undertaken. If the information can't be verified, one should proceed cautiously. Executives should not attempt to achieve results to the exclusion of careful, due diligence.

Established operational procedures need to be reviewed to determine their appropriateness, but once found to be useful, they should be followed. Making exceptions not only undercuts order but may invite disaster. For example, pilots have checklists for good reasons.

One should not solely rely on rational analysis but also consider well-developed intuition. If one has a bad feeling about a project or situation, do not ignore this feeling. The imagination that considers "black swan" events is linked to this ability. Not all similar events end in the same manner. Today, the unexpected outcome seems increasingly possible.

The more people are involved in a project, the greater the risk of communication failures or misunderstandings. There must be clear channels to communicate timely information from field staff to headquarters and back again. This information flow must be constantly monitored.

Perhaps we can best honor the individuals described by Warrick through learning from their experience.