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Thinking Hats

August 7, 2007 1 comment
This entry has been prompted by a comment (critique) on Jon Lowder’s CI blog that I don’t publish very often. I could try and make excuses (work, laze, inability – delete whichever is not applicable). However I won’t – as I think the complaint is totally justified. In fact I tend to have spurts – and publish when I get ideas. I’d prefer to blog something that fulfilled the aims I have for this blog then just use it for a stream of consciousness – much of which would be just a way of me asserting my ego. So thank you Jon for the prompt to think!

First – a couple of comments on Jon’s blog – if you’ve not ever read it. He has some great tips which I firmly second. For example, recent blogs mention the uses of LinkedIn in CI. I’ve been a LinkedIn user for some time – and have found it invaluable as a source for potential contacts. I’ve also signed up with other networking groups although my network is smaller on these – Xing, Ecademy, etc. Also – don’t ignore Facebook and MySpace. A lot of companies have signed up for pages on these networking sites, and you never know who or what you might find that could help with a project.

Jon mentions a new LinkedIn feature – the ability to ask questions, and get answers from other users as a strength of the service. Potentially it could be – although I felt the answers given were poor. I think a better service for answering questions is the FreePint bar which has a circulation list of approaching 100,000 expert searchers who answer questions on a massive range of topics – many of which are relevant for competitive intelligence professionals. (As an example, recent posts have looked at international tax comparisons, media monitoring, Swiss, Austrian & German company shareholders and Russian export regulations).

In the example Jon highlighted, half the answers suggested HitWise. This is a great service, but I’m not sure that it is the right solution for the questioner, from the bank JP Morgan-Chase, who was looking for competitive intelligence vendors for paid search – asking Is CI effective in Search? None of the answers given took into account the questioner’s origins in financial services – or asked what he meant by his question about whether CI was effective in search.

What Hitwise offers is a service giving customers knowledge on how Internet users interact with web-sites – your own and your competitors. You can use it to compare how your site is performing against competitor sites – and if this is what was wanted, then Hitwise would be a good solution. However Hitwise’s strength is not really for B2B web-sites, as these will generally receive much less traffic than the consumer web-sites for which the Hitwise service is best aimed. If what was wanted were vendors who were experts at secondary Internet search then Hitwise would not be the correct solution – members of the Association of Independent Information professionals (www.aiip.org) would have been a better bet – as most are experts at searching the Internet and other databases, and many, including us at AWARE, specialise in competitive intelligence.

In fact, another interpretation of this question is completely different and takes into account both the nature of the questioner and medium where the question was posed. LinkedIn attracts a lot of recruiters and recruitment agencies, and is used by these for looking for candidates. Search is sometimes used in this context so the question could have related to this i.e. Is CI effective in Recruitment Searching? If this was what the questioner really wanted then none of the 8 responses was satisfactory.

This highlights a lesson for all competitive intelligence professionals – you need to know, for each research request:

  • who is actually asking the question (i.e. you are asked a question by your boss, but this is because his or her boss has asked them a question – are the two questions the same or has something been lost in the transmission?),
  • why are they asking it,
  • what are they really looking to achieve with the answer.
Only then can you really answer the question. It’s a question of putting on your thinking hat to get behind the, often, easy looking question.

In fact, if you really want to study a problem it’s not one thinking hat that should be used but six! This idea comes from the work of Edward de Bono – and should be a key element of all competitive intelligence analytical approaches. Essentially every problem for which a decision is required should be looked at in six ways:

  1. Neutral: focusing on the data available, knowledge gaps, past trends and extrapolations from historical data. Unfortunately this is where a lot of CI people stop in their analyses – and just present the neutral view. This is rarely the full answer that the decision maker needs.
  2. Self-opinionated / emotionally: how will your customer react to the response you are giving him or her? Does your work answer the question they’ve posed – not the surface question, but the underlying driver that led to the question? You need to use intuition and your emotional instincts to look at the problem with this approach. What are the emotions involved? How will people respond to your research when they’ve not been through the process or followed the reasoning you took to reach the answer?
  3. Judgmentally: what are the bad points or weaknesses in your work or the decision suggested? What could go wrong? Be cautious and risk-adverse. This approach lets you prepare for the worst and makes you think of alternative options and create contingency plans if things don’t work as expected.
  4. Positively: now look at the good points and the benefits that will result from any decision. Even if everything looks like a disaster, trying to see the positive can help find a way out of the mess. It can also help show the value in the decision – in a way that may not be immediately obvious.
  5. Creatively: brainstorm a bit. Try and think beyond the problem for alternative solutions or approaches. Don’t criticise any ideas – just go with the flow. This approach allows you to come up with further suggestions and ideas that could add increased value to what you are suggesting. More importantly they show that you’ve really considered all aspects of the problem.
  6. Take an overview of the other 5 approaches: this final approach looks at all the other five and evaluates the responses, synthesizing the responses into a single coherent, balanced position. If there are too few alternatives then it may be time to go back to the creative approach. If everything looks perfect, then be really judgmental and see if you can come up with anything wrong at all – just in case there is some gremlin that was missed. If everything looks bad, go back to the positive approach and look to see if there is anything salvageable.
Answering problems and coming to decisions using de Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats technique will result in better solutions and safer, more resilient and robust decisions – avoiding potential disasters, while being able to feel more confident about the actions you commit to.

Abolish Negative Thinking

July 24, 2007 Leave a comment

When trying to obtain information it’s easy be negative about finding it – and to come up with reasons why it can’t be found. The problem is that human beings naturally tend to think negatively. This is destructive to creativity and the ability to get round problems, and find solutions that are achievable and effective.

As an exercise try and think up reasons why a piece of intelligence won’t be found. I’ll bet your list looks something like this:

  • We tried looking for this once before and got nowhere.
  • It’ll take to long to obtain.
  • We don’t have enough people.
  • It’ll cost too much.
  • We don’t have the software systems.
  • It’s not ethical to obtain this sort of information.
  • It’ll be protected.
  • We won’t be able to find out the relevant people to interview.
  • Nothing will be online.
  • Anything useful we will already know so it’s not worth looking.
  • We won’t be able to verify it.

How many of the above did you come up with? What other reasons did you consider?

Now try repeating the exercise – but this time think of reasons why the same information could be found. Most people find this much more difficult, and the list will be much shorter.

Good competitive intelligence – in fact good research in any field – requires an ability to overcome these negative thoughts and to discover reasons why something is possible. Sometimes the solution can be obtained by an indirect approach – lateral thinking. Often however the perceived blocks don’t actually exist and the information is in fact freely available. It’s a case of the old adage “if you don’t try you won’t succeed“.

So, if there is one thing to do today that will improve your ability to obtain the competitive intelligence you need tomorrow it’s to abolish negative thinking and to always look for the positive. In fact looking for the positive will have other benefits – as instead of seeing things as obstacles all of a sudden they’ll become opportunities.

The importance of lateral thinking!

February 9, 2007 Leave a comment
A story is told about a supermarket that was having problems with gangs meeting in its car park after the supermarket had shut for the night – trading drugs, fighting and generally making a mess and nuisance.

The supermarket tried various conventional solutions to solve the problem: fences, increased security, and the like. Nothing worked long-term and, moreover, they were all expensive. Then somebody thought that perhaps a different approach might work.

The gangs were all trying to look cool, and the supermarket car-park had gained a reputation as a cool place to hang out at night. So what did the supermarket do? They thought about what could make the car park an uncool place to be, and started up a loud-speaker system piping the music of Mantovani over the parking spaces. Quickly the problem disappeared – as what kind of “cool” 16-18 year old wants to be associated with visiting a location that plays the kind of “easy listening” music beloved by their grandparents!

I teach a weekly diploma course at Thames Valley University, as part of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Marketing‘s Marketing Research & Information module. One of the joys of teaching is that you often learn a lot from your students. Last week was no exception, and provides another great example of lateral thinking – combined with a crucial awareness of the importance of ensuring customer satisfaction while still making money!

One of my students had spent some time working as a hospitality manager in a Greek hotel. He was working the night shift, when a package group of 15 tourists arrived at the hotel. They’d just landed, and the time was 3.00am. All were tired, having had a delayed flight, and all were looking forward to the rooms that they’d paid for. Except because they hadn’t turned up, they had been treated as no-shows, and their rooms had been sold on.

Overbooking is a not-infrequent problem faced by hotels. Normally the way round is to find another equivalent hotel, and transfer the overbooked guests there. Nobody is particularly happy about the arrangement.

  • The guests are unhappy as they had been expecting hotel A and got hotel B – and have to move on, when they were looking forward to resting from their journey.
  • The hotel is unhappy as the replacement hotel needs to be as good, if not better than the original. This means that the hotel has to pay for its mistake – financially, and if the replacement hotel is not better, in good will and reputation as well, which can be even more important.
At 3.00am, with tired and irritable visitors desperate to sleep, the problem is even worse. You have to phone around your competitor hotels in the area – speaking to the night staff – to find a replacement. Often the other neighborhood hotels will also be full, meaning that the group will have to be split up – guaranteed to cause problems. Furthermore, you are likely to have to book people in lower quality hotels. You will also need to arrange several taxis to transfer people to the replacements. All told, you have a PROBLEM!

Christos found another way.

The locality ran regular cruises to the Greek island of Santorini – which necessitated an early morning start, and a couple of nights on the island.

Santorini is one of those magical islands that, once visited, you never forget. It offers all that is best of the Greek islands – white washed villages, great beaches and views, fun restaurants, archaeological sites, monasteries and churches. However this is not all – it also has a volcano in the middle of the archipelago, with regular trips to see its caldera. This volcano has been attributed to the destruction of the Minoan civilization on the nearby island of Crete, and even the cause of the plagues that the Biblical book of Exodus mentions as having led to the release of the Israelite slaves from their Egyptian servitude (so, for example, the plague of darkness resulted from a cloud of ash that fell from the volcano). This eruption, 3500 years ago, was undoubtedly one of the largest ever volcanic eruptions during human history – much bigger than the infamous 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. The island has even been linked to the legend of Atlantis.

Christos knew that there were always places on this trip. He also knew that the costs of the trip, including the island hotel costs, would be considerably less than what would need to be paid to competitors to find beds for the group so early in the morning, as well as the less tangible costs in lost goodwill and so on. Accommodation on Santorini was much more basic and low cost – but the surroundings compensated for this.

Rather than apologizing to the group, and then getting on the phone to search for replacement hotels at 3.00am – a depressing and tedious task – he welcomed the group and said that they were really lucky. They were the hotel’s 1000th tour group and as such had qualified for a superb prize – a free trip to Santorini to start their holiday with a bang. The tour bus that would be taking them to the boat would be arriving shortly so there was no point in checking them in. They’d check back into the hotel in 2 days time, after their mini-cruise.

The tourist group may have been tired. But tiredness evaporates in such circumstances, and instead of an unhappy and probably angry crowd, you now had customer satisfaction par excellence. Instead of a short-night’s sleep and then a day recuperating by the pool, this group had been chosen to visit one of the highlights of any trip to Greece – for free. The tour group were overjoyed at their lucky break.

Next morning, the day-shift manager queried why the hotel was paying for 15 tourists to go on the Santorini trip. This was normally seen as a profit center by the hotel – as the margins were considerable. Christos explained the situation: how, instead of paying out to competitor hotels to accommodate the overbooked tourists, the hotel had covered its costs by just diverting the payments already made to the tour. Quickly the wisdom of the decision was realized, and it is now part of the hotel operating manual.

More importantly – this second story shows some of the skills all great marketers need:

  1. Ability to be able to think quickly, laterally and if needed, sidestep conventions and rules;
  2. Awareness of the importance of customer satisfaction: a happy customer leads to a strong reputation, and repeat purchase;
  3. Awareness of the importance of profit and that customer satisfaction needs to be balanced by an ability to make money.
Successful marketing is not all about reading the text books. Generally it is about solving everyday problems using innovative approaches. Many of these require skills in lateral thinking. Such solutions often are low-cost or save money, and build reputation at the same time. There are many examples of how lateral thought has been used to create opportunities or limit threats to the business. These two stories illustrate two different ways problems were solved through lateral thinking.
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