SXSW Recap – CIA Shows New Ways to Solve Problems

Brad True, The Cannon 

Last weekend, The Cannon team joined tens of thousands of attendees descending on downtown Austin for SXSW 2019, spending 5 days attending panels, networking with attendees, and learning from some of the most accomplished entrepreneurs, marketers and innovators in the business. We even joined up with a group of 25+ of our Houston Innovation friends at an impromptu Houston dinner on Saturday night!

But the sessions and panels were definitely a highlight, and one of our favorites actually helped kick us off on day 1. Did you know the CIA has an entire team dedicated to injecting creativity into how its agents solve cases? The CIA’s Jacob Eastham and Nyssa Straatveit took a packed house of SXSW attendees through the agency’s internal creative process in an aptly titled session – Wombats and Wood Ducks – The CIA’s Secrets to Creative Problem Solving.

After a brief introduction, Eastham and Straatveit took a deeper dive into four of their primary problem solving tactics, utilizing easily recallable (and sometimes adorable) animals to help organize key points:

  • Wombat – an acronym of “What (o) Might Be All The”, the Wombat reminds us to reframe how we look at problems, taking a step back and asking open ended questions around what might be all of the potential solutions, versus immediately narrowing down our options based on preconceived notions and previous experience.
  • Wolf – Building on the Wombat, the wolf highlights the need to get out of our comfort zones and search in unexplored places for the solution, just as wolves do when they venture out into the wilderness. Too often we attempt to solve problems inside our previous biases when the best solution resides far outside of the box and is waiting for us to find it.
  • Wood Duck – The Wood Duck is different from more traditional ducks in that it mostly nests in trees, creating symbiotic relationships with squirrels and other tree dwelling mammals. CIA agents utilized this metaphor to implement analogical thinking, using information from one domain to solve a problem in another, unrelated domain. In this case, one agent was searching for a terrorist in a country where they were mostly sure he had set up shop, but couldn’t find him in the types of locations that were traditionally used by terrorists in that region. It wasn’t until an agent learned about the Wood Duck that they thought to search in typical civilian locations where they had never looked before, and the offender was found soon after.
  • Otter – Back in 2012, Whole Foods and the Smithsonian Zoo decided to let the public name one of the 11 new otters that had just arrived at the zoo. The result? A much more traditional than anticipated name – Kevin. The pattern-breaking nature of the unexpected naming crystalized a concept the CIA had already been working on for decades – how do we break traditional patterns to help solve problems?
    The CIA has an entire team dedicated to hunting strategic surprise and looking for things that break the normal patterns. The 1979 “Canadian Caper” Mission (more commonly known as “Argo”, thanks to the 2012 Ben Affleck produced movie adaptation) is a great example of this. Six staffers from the American Embassy in Iran were trapped in the Canadian Ambassador’s house following Iran protesters storming the American embassy. Did the CIA use their traditional tactics and covertly sneak into the city to rescue the six hostages? Nope, they instead created an entire fake movie to film in Tehran, including fake promotional announcements and posters, a fake script, director, & team led by undercover agents and pre-selected Hollywood-based consultants. In doing so, they made the solution so large and out of the norm for traditional CIA missions there was no way anyone would have suspected it was a clandestine operation. And thanks to this pattern-breaking thinking, the hostages were rescued and flown out with basically no incident.

While most wouldn’t have likely thought of the CIA as an innovative and entrepreneurial organization, they clearly have prioritized these solution-generating methods to help in their own day-to-day challenges. With (obviously) much lower stakes, entrepreneurs face similarly surprising and unforeseen problems that can pop up with no notice. Next time this happens? Try turning to a Wombat or Wood Duck and see if it helps find an unexpected solution.

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