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Pluralistic Ignorance

May 13, 2013 Leave a comment

How often have you heard something – and not questioned it, as you don’t want to appear stupid, foolish or ignorant?

Too often people accept what they are told and don’t question information. In educational environments this leads to a failure to learn. In business environments, it leads to bad decisions and bad strategy. Received wisdom becomes the operating principle rather than reality – especially when things have changed or are changing.

The reason people don’t question is that they don’t want to look foolish in front of peers, bosses or employees. Rather than highlight something that doesn’t make sense, they prefer to keep quiet so as not to appear stupid. The term for this is “pluralistic ignorance“. It is especially a problem in cultures where “losing face” is an issue. (I wrote about this almost two years ago -see  Competitive Intelligence & Culture). In such cultures, employees find it difficult to question superiors – there is almost a belief that superiors are in their position as they know more and are better.

Pluralistic Ignorance” is a phenomenon that prevents people questioning, when they fail to understand something or when they disagree with an issue, because they feel that they are the only ones not understanding or agreeing. It leads to “group-think” whereby a group of people fail to face up to their lack of knowledge or address false/inaccurate information because they don’t wish to appear foolish by questioning it.

In business it is important to emphasise communication and openness at all levels – and encourage questioning. This is especially key for effective competitive intelligence, but can be just as much a problem in CI as in other corporate areas if CI people aren’t looking out for it. For example, in CI there is the risk that a key piece of intelligence is missed because the person (perhaps a sales rep) doesn’t pass it on. They are sure that the CI team will already know this / that senior management is sure to know this – and so they don’t want to look stupid by passing it on.

The solution appears easy – build a corporate culture that rewards those who share information, even if it is already known. The difficulty is that such openness often contradicts other aspects of the corporation including hierarchical aspects – where one needs to address chains of command to pass on information. This leads to problems where the person at the bottom passes on information to their superior. This person then qualifies the information (exaggerating good news and softening bad news) when they pass it up – and by the time it reaches the actual decision-maker the information has been so transformed as to become meaningless and often false.

An example of how pluralistic ignorance works can be seen in this video of a college lecture. This brief (5 minute) video is the first in a course on behavioural economics. The lecturer, Dan Ariely of Duke University Business School (and TED speaker), is aware of the problem and halfway through this lecture shows how it works.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9wHttUayMo

The iWatch – is this the next disruptive innovation from Apple?

February 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Apple has developed a reputation for creating new markets that didn’t exist previously. The iPod was not the first mp3 player but it created a mass market. The iPhone launched the SmartPhone era – showing BlackBerry the potential of an Internet enabled phone, in a way that has almost killed BlackBerry’s manufacturer, RIM. The iPad was the next innovation – but since then nothing at all except rumours. The rumours include an Apple TV that would shake up the television industry, and an Apple watch – the iWatch. The AppleTV was said to be the next big innovation – and was briefly mentioned in Steve Job’s biography, where apparently Apple had something that would really shake up the TV industry. Nevertheless, the rumours relating to this have died down – and the iWatch is the latest rumour target.

One idea on the iWatch

My first thoughts on seeing images of the rumoured iWatch were why?

Why would anybody want something like this on their wrist when there were so many beautiful products from Citizen, Seiko, and higher-upmarket, Rolex & Patek Phillipe, among many others. It didn’t even have the look of the Swatch watch.

I also couldn’t see it as a replacement for a SmartPhone – as it’s too small to do all the current functions expected of phones that seem to be getting bigger, not smaller. So I personally dismissed the iWatch as just rumour, or a sign that Apple had lost its mojo, if it turned out to be true.

Nevertheless, the rumours have become pervasive – and so I’m sure that they are either a smokescreen or reflect something real.

I started to think about it.  The watch market can be divided up into a number of sectors. One sector views watches as a form of jewellery – and this is the market Rolex, Patek Phillipe follow. To an extent it is also the market that Citizen and Seiko chase too – although their watches also emphasise functionality, with the Seiko Solar and the Citizen Ecodrive watches that don’t need batteries or winding. Further downmarket, Swatch tries to be a fashion item. However all have a basic raison d’être – to tell the time. I couldn’t see an Apple watch easily replacing the jewellery element (or at least not initially). I doubt it will be a solar product – and so (again initially) it won’t replace Seiko or Citizen. It could compete with Swatch, but from previous Apple history would be much more expensive and so bring little to the pie.

The next question is who wears watches today – and that gave the clue to why I think the iWatch is real. Most watch-wearers are Generation X or older.  Millennials / Digital Natives don’t wear watches. They use their SmartPhones to tell the time. That’s the clue – and the target. A SmartWatch – especially if it could interact with existing devices – makes a lot of sense, as it could provide a more compact device to supplement their iPhone, iPod and iPad or even replace them for around the house, workplace or college dorm. I think that contrarians that say such a device won’t work are falling for the mistake I think I made, by not thinking about how people tell the time today. The potential problems revolve around the other expected features. Will it also be a phone? A music player? A portable sat-nav device? How would these work ergonomically?

Assuming that the iWatch is real and not a smokescreen for something else, the argument that it won’t be attractive fails when you see some of the suggested design concepts. Some are very attractive and wearable as both a fashion item and even as jewellery. The potential objections to functionality are also less if the iWatch were to interact with other devices.  The problem here is that there may be an expectation that the interaction is with another Apple device – which would mean that the iWatch would not be a stand-alone product. This limits its potential considerably. What about linking to Android phones – that have overtaken the iPhone in overall market share – or a Windows computer? If this were to be allowed then I think the iWatch would be another Apple success story.

If this is the case, then it does something else. The onset of quartz watches in the 1980s was highly disruptive to the Swiss watch industry. Initially the Swiss industry dismissed such timepieces as cheap and nasty, but in classical disruptive innovation style, they soon overtook mechanical watches to become the dominant format. The rise of quartz watches caused serious damage to Switzerland’s watch industry – until it recognised the threat, and created products such as the Swatch. An Apple iWatch that succeeds promises to be equally disruptive – and overtime, most of us may end up wearing such products.

The impact of disruptive innovation – on PCs and on Retail

January 17, 2013 11 comments

Two recent items highlight the impact of disruptive innovations on industries. The first is a presentation from the Business Insider called the The Death of PC. The second is an article looking at Amazon and mentioning its March 2012 purchase of Kiva Systems.

Since 2009, the PC market has hardly grown. In the same period, Smartphone & Tablet sales boomed. Many tasks that used to be done on PCs are now done on these newer devices: email, web-searching, social media, and more. This has had a massive impact on the traditional PC market and its suppliers such as Intel and Microsoft. Whereas Apple’s and Samsung’s share prices have grown substantially, Dell & HP have been static or fallen. The introduction of both Smartphones and Tablets illustrate how disruptive these technologies are to the traditional PC industry – although as the The Death of PC presentation shows, things are actually more complicated. This is typical for a disruptive innovation – especially in the earlier stages.

Disruptive innovations do not always kill the products and industries they replace. What they do is change them radically. Smartphones haven’t killed the camera industry. They have, however transformed it so that DSLR and higher-end / special function cameras are now the main products sold. The cheap mass-market snapshot camera has gone – who needs one, when a Smartphone does everything that they could do, and much more. Disruptive innovations also mean that companies that fail to adapt quickly enough disappear. Kodak’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy is an example of this. Kodak and photography were synonymous – but the company failed to anticipate how digital camera usage would change the way people process photographs.

In the case of the PC market, so far it’s only the home PC that’s dying. The PC in the workplace is doing fine – and that’s because the type of task it is used for is different. It’s hard to work on a spreadsheet, or a complex graphic or even a long report using a Tablet and almost impossible on a Smartphone. These aren’t tasks that the home computer was used for. So Tablets haven’t changed the work PC – only the home PC market. However expectations have changed – and this has led to newer devices and cloud computing which promises to be as disruptive for the traditional hard-disk based PC and so the PC as we knew it last century is gone or going. It’s not yet dead – just changed.

Amazon’s purchase of Kiva Systems in another example of a disruptive innovation. Amazon itself has shown how disruptive e-commerce is to traditional retailing. The high-street and even the out-of-town retail outlets struggle to compete with Amazon on price. However they can still compete on service: if you want something on the same day, then such outlets beat Amazon, even if the price is higher. Further, Amazon’s warehouse distribution system could be copied and many of the larger retailers now offer online options. Currently both use human labour to select and package products for delivery – and this represents a significant proportion of retail costs. The Kiva Systems purchase promises to change all this. Kiva Systems manufactures robots and the software used to control them. The robots are designed for use in warehouses for accessing goods. They remove the need for a human being to go to the relevant shelf and remove a product for sending to a customer – instead a machine does this. Eventually such systems are likely to completely automate the distribution process – meaning that Amazon’s labour costs will fall dramatically.

Any retailer that still depends on human labour in their warehouses or retailing is likely to find it even harder competing with Amazon’s prices. Such retailers should start thinking now on how they could compete. Options include looking at ways of improving service or focusing on narrow niches requiring in-person expertise. Waiting and hoping that some shining knight on a white charger will come and rescue them is not an option. There will be no shining knight because, however much retailers may wish it was, true life is not a fairy story.

[After writing this post, Michel Bernaiche, Program Development Director of AurowaWDC and current Chairman of the SCIP board, pointed out this news story to me – highlighting how robots are impacting not just retailing but many other business areas – from hospitals & surgery to legal research. CBS News Video on Impact of Robotics in Industry]

Why six-sigma, just-in-time and lean manufacturing are dangerous!

December 10, 2012 17 comments

Six sigma is a great idea: make sure that your product or service is as close to perfect as possible with almost zero (3.4 in a million) faults. So is just-in-time (JIT) and lean manufacturing. All involve tight control on business processes and require businesses to focus on efficiency. You can’t have a JIT manufacturing process without being highly efficient in controlling all aspects of your supply chain.

The problem is that when circumstances change it can be difficult to adapt the processes quickly enough. When the change is disruptive then it’s likely to lead to business failure. Casey Haksins and Peter Sims describe this in a Harvard Business Review blog post: The Most Efficient Die Early.

The authors correctly point out that business must also expect the unexpected and plan to absorb it and cope with it. The problem is that pursuing greater and greater efficiency goes against this need for flexibility to change. Instead there needs to be a balance. Look for efficiency but not at the cost of losing flexibility. Success requires both.

Microsoft’s Surface and Disruptive Innovation!

October 27, 2012 4 comments

There is an old video with Bill Gates talking about Microsoft and Windows version 3, looking at multimedia, pen computing and an early tablet computer. Circa 1991! The technology shown in the video was forward thinking. Today we take it for granted. This was a time pre-web when only businesses had computers. Few people had computers at home and few knew about email or the Internet.

The idea of tablet computers is not new. Both Microsoft and Apple had looked at the idea years ago, but at the time the technology was not sufficiently fast, sophisticated or useful enough to grasp the majority of consumers’ interests. Techies loved such devices. (At about this time, ago, I had a boss who had a Psion Organiser.  He loved it. Everybody else wondered what he saw in it).

That’s the issue with disruptive innovations.  It’s not just the disruption that counts. It’s the timing. The Microsoft tablet was like the Psion organiser, and even the more tablet like Apple Newton device.

Apple Newton

The idea was a great idea but the timing was too early, and the product was not able to capture the consumer mind.

It’s not the first company that comes out with a disruptive innovation. It’s the first company that captures the consumer’s share of mind – their imagination.

As another technological example, the Apple iPod was not the first mp3 player. There were a few before  (e.g. the MDiamond Rio and the MPMan player) – but they didn’t have the panache of the iPod – and so were quickly overtaken when the iPod entered the scene.

At the same time, entering too late – or basing your product on competitors is also not the way – as Microsoft’s Zune product showed.

The jury is still out on Microsoft’s iPad type product – the Surface. This, at least, is not a copy but something different. To a large degree, it’s fate will depend on Windows 8 (RT). I think the Surface has a place – and I can see it destroying the netbook and low-value laptop market, and so it will be disruptive. I don’t believe that it will damage the iPad or most Android tablets (and also not the Kindle type e-book reader). People buy these for the apps – and there are too few Windows based apps. I don’t see this changing with Windows 8 either. (Why should an apps developer spend time and money building a Windows based app when the vast majority of tablet computers & smart phones are Android or Apple iOS?)

So who will buy the Surface. Techies – obviously! However businesses that currently equip sales people with netbooks or low-price laptops will also go for it as it is lighter, cheaper and trendier while offering the same or greater utility than the netbooks and laptops they had previously bought.

Of course time will tell. That’s what makes something truely disruptive – it’s often only after the new technology has taken over that you can say “but it’s obvious that it would succeed“. If this wasn’t the case – we’d all be flying across the Atlantic on another seemingly disruptive technology that failed to spread even though it provided utility, speed and worked. The supersonic Concorde aircraft never really took off, even though British Airways claimed it was profitable. Only British Airways and Air France flew Concordes. No other airline purchased the aircraft and the Concorde crash in Paris in 2000 effectively sealed its fate.

Great service leads to growth & profits – for Bettys, it’s a piece of cake!

July 9, 2012 1 comment

I recently visited a friend in Leeds – a major city in the North of England. On the Sunday, a group of us travelled the short distance from Leeds to Harrogate, a few miles away. Harrogate is a spa town – you can walk past the “Royal Pump Room” museum  and still smell the sulphur from the spring below. This is just one of several mineral wells containing iron, sulphur and other chemicals that made the town an attraction in the Victorian and earlier Georgian eras.

As well as the spa, Harrogate also features the first Bettys Tea room.

Bettys Tea Room

Bettys was founded in 1919 and has since grown to include a number of other tea rooms across Yorkshire. The family run company now also includes  Taylors of Harrogate, the tea and coffee merchants with brands including the best-selling Yorkshire Tea.

Our visit to Harrogate included a visit to Bettys for morning tea and cakes. We were amazed at the level of service provided.

One friend asked about the orange juice on the menu. “Was it freshly squeezed?” Instead of just acknowledging that it was, we were told that it had been – but not that day, but on the Friday, as it was squeezed off-site and not at weekends. We asked about the ingredients of one of the cream cakes – was it made with butter or margarine and was it suitable for vegetarians? The waitress wasn’t sure – so said she would check in the ingredient listings. It turned out that it was made using butter and was fully vegetarian.  It tasted superb.

I watched our waitress (on the bill it said her name was Jade) – and others. They smiled, they conversed, were friendly, helpful, and their body language showed a real care and attention to each customer.  They knew their products – and if they weren’t sure they didn’t lie or guess, but went to check. The service was impeccable.

It turns out that the superb service is no accident. I asked whether there was any training provided – and was told that each waitress had one-to-one training before starting, and they were expected to learn the menu and were tested. They had an induction phase where they were watched and it took some time before they could graduate to become a full waitress. This training showed – it wasn’t just in product knowledge but also in the whole interaction with the customer, that made our visit such a pleasure. Bettys even has a dedicated website devoted to working for the company at www.workingforus.co.uk.

The results of this focus on excellence show in Bettys financial results. The company consistently makes a profit – and turnover and net worth has grown impressively over the last 5 years. This is despite one of the worst downturns for decades – showing that Bettys has come up with a strategy that seems recession proof. Although profits have not shown the same growth, they’ve remained stable – perhaps reflecting the value offered by the company, compared to competitors. (We paid more for our sub-standard tea on the self-service motorway café journeying up to Leeds).

Bettys shows how important service is for a business, and how appropriate training can lead to top-quality results, and evident staff satisfaction. (In 2007 Bettys was listed in “the 100 best companies to work for” compiled by The Sunday Times). This focus on quality, in the product as well as the product knowledge, attention to detail and customer focus can translate to the bottom-line result – and lead to turnover growth and profits.
Queue outside Bettys, Harrogate
The queues outside, waiting to get into the Tea room is evidence that Bettys is doing something right. The results – financial and reputational are too. It may look like a piece of cake to achieve this – but the numbers of companies that fail to provide adequate service shows that it isn’t. Maybe they should make a visit to Harrogate part of their own staff training!

Analysing weak signals for competitive & marketing intelligence

March 5, 2012 6 comments

I’ve just read an interesting blog post by  Philippe Silberzahn and Milo Jones. The post “Competitive intelligence and strategic surprises: Why monitoring weak signals is not the right approach” looked at the problems of weak signals in competitive intelligence and how even though an organisation may have lots of intelligence, they still get surprised.

Silberzahn and Jones point out that it’s not usually the intelligence that is the problem, but the interpretation of the gathered intelligence. This echoed a statement by Issur Harel, the former head of Mossad responsible for capturing the Nazi war criminal Eichmann. Harel was quoted as saying “We do not deal with certainties. The world of intelligence is the world of probabilities. Getting the information is not usually the most difficult task. What is difficult is putting upon it the right interpretation. Analysis is everything.”

In their post, Silberzahn and Jones argue that more important than monitoring for weak signals, is the need to monitor one’s own assumptions and hypotheses about what is happening in the environment. They give several examples where weak signals were available but still resulted in intelligence failures. Three different types of failure are mentioned:

  • Too much information: the problem faced by the US who had lots of information prior to the Pearl Harbour attack of 7 December 1941,
  • Disinformation, as put out by Osama bin Laden to keep people in a high-state of alert – by dropping clues that “something was about to happen“, when nothing was (and of course keeping silent when it was),
  • “Warning fatigue” (the crying wolf syndrome) where constant repetition of weak signals leads to reinterpretation and discounting of threats, as happened prior the Yom Kippur war.

Their conclusion is that with too much data, you can’t sort the wheat from the chaff, and with too little you make analytical errors. Their solution is that rather than collect data and subsequently analyse it to uncover its meaning you should first come up with hypotheses and use that to drive data collection. They quote Peter Drucker (Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, 1973) who wrote: “Executives who make effective decisions know that one does not start with facts. One starts with opinions… To get the facts first is impossible. There are no facts unless one has a criterion of relevance.”  and emphasise that “it is hypotheses that must drive data collection”.

Essentially this is part of the philosophy behind the “Key Intelligence Topic” or KIT process – as articulated by Jan Herring and viewed as a key CI technique by many Competitive Intelligence Professionals.

I believe that  KITs are an important part of CI, and it is important to come up with hypotheses on what is happening in the competitive environment, and then test these hypotheses through data collection. However this should not detract from general competitive monitoring, including the collection of weak signals.

The problem is how to interpret and analyse weak signals. Ignoring them or even downplaying them is NOT the solution in my view – and is in fact highly dangerous. Companies with effective intelligence do not get beaten or lose out through known problems but from unknown ones. It’s the unknown that catches the company by surprise, and often it is the weak signals that, in hindsight, give clues to the unknown. In hindsight, their interpretation is obvious. However at the time, the interpretation is often missed, misunderstood, or ignored as unimportant.

There is an approach to analysing weak signals that can help sort the wheat from the chaff. When you have a collection of weak signals don’t treat them all the same. Categorise them.

  • Are they about a known target’s capabilities? Put these in box 1.
  • Are they relating to a target’s strategy? These go into box 2.
  • Do they give clues to a target’s goals or drivers? Place these in box 3.
  • Can the weak signal be linked to assumptions about the environment held by the target? These go into box 4.

Anything else goes into box 5. Box 5 holds the real unknowns – unknown target or topic or subject. You have a signal but don’t know what to link it to.

First look at boxes 1-4 and compare each bit of intelligence to other information.

  1. Does it fit in? If so good. You’ve added to the picture.
  2. If it doesn’t, why not?

Consider the source of the information you have. What’s the chronology? Does the new information suggest a change? If so, what could have caused that change? For this, compare the other 3 boxes to see if there’s any information that backs up the new signal – using the competitor analysis approach sometimes known as 4-corners analysis, to see if other information would help create a picture or hypothesis of what is happening.

If you find nothing, go back and look at the source.

  • Is it old information masquerading as new? If so, you can probably discount it.
  • Is it a complete anomaly – not fitting in with anything else at all? Think why the information became available. Essentially this sort of information is similar to what goes into box 5.
    • Could it be disinformation? If so, what is likely to be the truth? Knowing it may be disinformation may lead to what is being hidden?
    • Or is it misinformation – which can probably be discounted?
    • What about if you can’t tell? Then it suggests another task – to try and identify other intelligence that would provide further detail and help you evaluate the anomaly. Such weak signals then become leads for future intelligence gathering.

With box 5 – try and work out why it is box 5. (It may be that you have information but no target to pin it to, for example – so can’t do the above). As with anomalies, think why the information became available. You may need to come up with a number of hypotheses to explain meaning behind the information. These can sometimes (but not always) be tested.

Silberzahn and Jones mention a problem from Nassim Taleb’s brilliant book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable“. The problem is how do you stop being like a turkey before Thanksgiving. Prior to Thanksgiving the turkey is regularly fed and given lots and lots of food. Life seems good, until the fateful day, just before Thanksgiving, when the food stops and the slaughterer enters to prepare the turkey for the Thanksgiving meal. For the turkey this is a complete surprise as all the evidence prior to this suggests that everything is going well. Taleb poses the question as to whether a turkey can learn from the events of yesterday what is about to happen tomorrow. Can an unknown future be predicted – and in this case, the answer seems to be no.

For an organisation, this is a major problem as if they are like turkeys, then weak signals become irrelevant. The unknown can destroy them however much information they hold prior to the unforeseen event. As Harel said, the problem is not information but analysis. The wrong analysis means death!

This is where a hypothesis approach comes in – and why hypotheses are needed for competitive intelligence gathering. In the Thanksgiving case, the turkey has lots of consistent information coming in saying “humans provide food”.  The key is to look at the source of the information and try to understand it. In other words:

Information: Humans provide food.
Source: observation that humans give food every day – obtained from multiple reliable sources.

You now need to question the reason or look at the objectives behind this observation. Why was this observation available? Come up with hypotheses that can be used to test the observations and see what matches. Then choose a strategy based on an assessment of risk. In the case of the turkey there are two potential hypotheses:

  1. “humans like me and so feed me” (i.e. humans are nice)
  2. “humans feed me for some other reason” (i.e. humans may not be nice).

Until other information comes in to justify hypothesis 1, hypothesis 2 is the safer one to adopt as even if hypothesis 1 is true, you won’t get hurt by adopting a strategy predicated on hypothesis 2. (You may not eat so much and be called skinny by all the other turkeys near you. However you are less likely to be killed).

This approach can be taken with anomalous information in general, and used to handle weak signals. The problem then becomes not the analysis of information but the quantity. Too much information and you start to drown and can’t categorise it – it’s not a computer job, but a human job. In this case one approach is to do the above with a random sample of information – depending on your confidence needs and the quantity of information. This gets into concepts of sampling theory – which is another topic.

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