The difference between secrets and mysteries

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Posted by Matthew Stibbe

In an interesting piece on Egypt and the US intelligence community over the weekend on NPR news, General Michael Hayden tries to explain why the US intelligence community did not predict the instability. He talks about the difference between secrets and mysteries.

Intelligence knows the difference between secrets and mysteries

To explain this, he borrows from what a CIA colleague, John McLaughlin, likes to say: There’s a difference between secrets and mysteries. “He said you can’t hold intelligence services accountable in the same way for mysteries,” Hayden says. “The broad movement of Egyptian society isn’t a secret that was hidden in somebody’s safe that somebody should have expected us to purloin. This is far more difficult to understand.”

Minuteman missile guidance computer in the Computer History Museum
Minuteman missile guidance computer in the Computer History Museum. I took this picture in 2002. In the 60s, this was top secret. Now it’s just a mystery.

Make the future or predict it

The same sort of thinking is useful in business. You can study a market and know your products and your competitors. These are facts. You can make plans, develop new products and try to guess what your rivals will do. These are secrets. But the trends of the market, whims and fashions of customers and the impact of fundamental innovation are mysteries. Gathering intelligence is important, not just at MI5.

The important thing about mysteries is not that they are unknowable but that they are unpredictable. However, that doesn’t mean you should ignore them.

Good companies work hard to explore mysteries. They go cool hunting, do a/b tests, run war games, brainstorm, talk to customers and keep their ear to the ground. For example, I love how Jonathan Ive talks about Apple’s innovation process. Great companies start with a powerful insight or big idea, solve their mysteries and move markets and fashions themselves.

What are the mysteries in your industry? How can you explore them? Can you change a mystery into a secret or a fact? How can you create your own?

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