The problem of playing it safe

Peter MerrittFunLeave a Comment

This item challenges us to truly examine our motives in giving advice to clients (or colleagues). We may be working in high-tech IT, but we are still not all that far from our hunter-gatherer ancestors… As always, I am indebted to my colleagues both here and in the US professional gaming community for the inspiration and basis of this article.


While Dr. Jones’ 1978 book Most Secret War is arguably his most entertaining, his 1989 volume Reflections on Intelligence is arguably more useful to red teamers. It deals less with events and more with principles and is truly a trove of consulting gems. For example, in chapter six Dr. R. V. Jones identifies a dilemma red teamers should find familiar.

He recalls,

“My first experience of writing a report for Churchill was immediately after he became Prime Minister in 1940, and I was asked by MI6 to produce a report listing all the novel weapons, however far-fetched, that had been mentioned in the files. The motive was primarily to ensure that whatever new weapons did in fact appear, Churchill would not afterwards reproach the intelligence service for not having warned him. Such an undiscriminating catalogue, however much it might protect the service, would have been of little value to the Prime Minister. This was yet another way in which an organization might attempt to ‘play safe’ and in doing to put a commander at a disadvantage.”

So where and how should the vigilant consultant draw the line? Does he or she “protect the company” or serve the client? Most consultants will assert “serve the client,” but we are all susceptible to biases, self-deception and ‘tribal’ attitudes. Nearly every consultant, for example, will be at least tempted to include just one more alternative, just in case the next one on the list is the one that actually happens. The problem, of course, is that another next one always exists…

Serving the client is not without risk, however. As Jones observes, analysts are also tempted to tell the client what he or she wants to hear. Jones emphasizes that it is a longstanding problem: “Clearly the commander-in-chief [who is told what he wants to hear] has not availed himself of the advice of King James I of England to his son, which was to choose counsellors who were ‘especially free of that filthy vice of Flattery, the pest of all Princes’.”

Winning this tangled game is easier said than done, and the issues in the moment are never defined as clearly as the issues in hindsight. Jones offers us no easy answer; even if he did, it would be suspect. In any case, he is wiser than that: he offers us his experiences, thoughts, and reflections, and, in the end, challenges us to apply them as wisely as he did.

Indeed.