Decision-making learnings from India’s James Bond

Soumitra Sharma
Jun 2 · 4 min read

I have always been fascinated by Ajit Doval, current National Security Advisor (NSA) to Prime Minister of India. At least from what I have been able to research, he is India’s first NSA to have also previously been an intelligence agent & ground operative behind enemy lines for decades. This makes his talks on defense strategies & decision making really fascinating, as he speaks from his experience on the ground, dealing with extremely high-pressure, high stakes situations.

I recently came across Mr. Doval’s interview called Talking Point. Similar to the Art of War by Sun Tzu, which has fascinating leadership & decision-making insights from ancient Chinese military knowledge & strategies, Mr. Doval gives some interesting insights from his intelligence & military operating experience, particularly around tough decision-making.

Here are some key takeaways from this interview:

  1. What makes a decision tough? — a decision is tough when its consequences are “large” —quantum of impact is large, or impacting large number of people, or consequences remaining for a long period of time.
  2. Objectives (why)→Decision (direction) →Option (how to execute) →Execution — this is the full-stack framework for tough decisions.
  3. Clearly articulate your objectives for taking a decision — take out all adjectives and adverbs, only have nouns and verbs. Make it as simple and crisp as possible. eg. “ I am taking a decision to [ACTION] on [SUBJECT] on [SCHEDULE]”.
  4. Do an objective analysis of your capabilities before taking a decision & choosing optimal execution option — what resources are at your disposal? What is your level of understanding of the subject?
  5. Do an objective analysis of your state-of-mind before taking a decision & choosing option— am I angry? Am I fearful for my life? Am I fearful for my family? It’s almost impossible to take objective decisions under any sort of heightened emotional state.
  6. Each decision option has a cost, associated time and probability of achieving your objectives — you need to choose the option which is most effective on cost and time, while having sufficient chances of achieving your objectives outlined earlier.
  7. Frequently, decisions are right but option chosen is wrong — important to differentiate between the two (my interpretation is that decision is more about direction while option is more about executing on the direction). Wrong options typically get chosen due to lack of experience, knowledge or sufficient preparation.
  8. Manage your fears by articulating them clearly — once you do this, in most cases, you realize that the fear isn’t as big or binary as you thought. Then, mitigate the specificities of this fear via hard-work, preparation and using your knowledge/ expertise.
  9. More important than obsessing over how to take a decision, is being prepared to cope with what happens after a decision has been taken — human brain has limited capabilities and we aren’t crystal gazers. In most cases, vital decisions are taken under stress, anxiety and uncertainty. Given nobody really knows whether a decision is right or wrong, it’s more important to think about how you will cope with the aftermath, in case the decision doesn’t pan out the way you expected.
  10. Assume that the “as-is” situation will unexpectedly change after your decision — be mentally prepared to cope with a new set of reactions, externalities and realities. Trust your capabilities and resources.
  11. While taking vital decisions, work out a “worst-case scenario” and prepare for it — first, figure out if you can survive the worst-case scenario. Second, work on bringing down the cost of this scenario, to bring it to an “affordable” level where the risk becomes worth-taking. Doing this requires time, preparation and knowledge.
  12. More important than making the right decision is making the decision right — you need to use your commitment & hard-work to ensure that once the decision is taken, it delivers positive results.
  13. For decisions with potentially massive impact, always have a “fallback position” — having a contingency plan is crucial.

In addition to these widely-applicable insights, Mr. Doval also talks about his execution style. I found these points interesting so also including them below:

  1. Solo — prefers being a solo operator. In an intelligence mission, risks go up as dependencies on other people get added, especially due to potential Prisoner’s Dilemma in case the mission blows-up. He might totally believe in a mission, while someone else might be doubtful. Hard to achieve success in a doubtful state of mind, particular as an operative agent. He doesn’t like to expose other people to risks that he, personally, is willing to take.
  2. Surprise — doesn’t use the same operating strategy/ style more than once. This forces him to articulate a fresh set of assumptions every-time, and validate them again. This takes out any historical bias from decisions.
  3. Speed — if you are fast, even if the enemy knows about your mission, you can still beat it say even by a few secs, achieve your goals and escape out of the situation. Key is to strike fast and get out fast.
  4. Secrecy — in any type of situation, being able to hold vital information and secrets within you is critical.

While we consume majority of our content from successful founders, investors and business gurus, it’s important to diversify sources of knowledge and refer to learnings from other disciplines. Personally, I have found 2 such diverse areas very useful for both professional and personal learning — 1) creative arts (movie directors, artists, authors etc.) and 2) military (navy seals, intelligence ops, historical warfare strategies etc.).

Let me know if you found this piece helpful, and what non-venture areas do you refer to for fresh insights.

Soumitra Sharma

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Building & investing in tech startups, Founder — Operators Studio, ex-VC, US-India-China Tripod expert