The January 6 US Capital Insurrection Select Committee: Asking the Right Question Drives Everything Else
Steve: Jay, do you think the January 6 Select Committee asked the right question?
Jay: Albert Einstein famously said “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask. For once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in 5 minutes.” Intelligent Analysis agrees with Einstein, that a well formulated question — in our book we call it the key intelligence question (KIQ) - will lay the groundwork for an objective, evidence based final report. Indeed, getting the question right should be the committee’s first, and arguably the most important, step.
Steve: That sounds easy.
Jay: It’s not at all. Why it matters so much, for example, is reflected in the difference between these two questions:
Steve: Those two questions sound quite alike.
Jay: Let me explain the difference. What’s wrong with the first one is that it answers the question in the question. It assumes that white supremacists were involved. From that point on, the focus of gathering information and inquiries will be to make that argument. Conversely, the second question is an open question which leaves room for a broadly-based assessment that begins with no preconceived outcome, regardless of personal opinion. An open question shifts the focus to the data and can blunt the impact of deeply held biases and opinions going in. A question that answers the question leads to cherry-picking reporting and leaving aside the possibility of more nuanced analysis.
Steve: So, if the committee had selected the second question, how could they have answered it?
Jay: The committee could have broken down the KIQ into what we call sub-questions, that must be answered in order to answer the broader KIQ. These can be wide-ranging and probe more deeply into different aspects of what happened, for example:
Steve: It seems like a structured process is needed, to avoid falling into the trap of formulating a KIQ that answers the question in the question.
Jay: Exactly. Our book includes an extensive chapter on formulating the “right question,” including a tool to help bring discipline to the process that would please Einstein.
If you’ve landed on this page, you’ll probably appreciate that Intelligent Analysis isn’t just A book for Jay and myself, it’s THE book that we’ve felt compelled to write ever since our collaboration began in 2016. The methodology at the heart of our book is so fundamental to the practice of sound decision-making that we’re constantly looking for opportunities to discuss, teach and practice it, as well as learn new applications and examine high-stakes decisions profiled in the news through our distinctive lens. We hope that your contributions to this discussion thread will help us do that, and simultaneously stimulate your own thinking and decision-making practices.