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Quotations & Competitive Intelligence

March 26, 2010 1 comment

I’ve been reading Seena Sharp‘s new book “Competitive Intelligence Advantage

The book is good (at least so far) – and an easy read which is more than can be said for a lot of business books. More importantly Seena’s approach corresponds with mine. She emphasises that competitive intelligence is not just about competitors but about understanding the total business environment and how it is changing, and using this knowhow to make effective business decisions. This means it’s not just a how-to-do-it book like many of its competitors but a why-to-do-it book too. This is important. Many businesses still fail to understand why they need competitive intelligence. If you don’t understand the need, why do it. Others see the focus as primarily on competitors – but they already “know” all about them so are “OK” (or so they believe). The book exposes this canard – and shows why surprise is so dangerous for companies.

Although so far, I have mostly praise for the book, there is one niggle. Making decisions on inaccurate intelligence is dangerous. It is always important to check facts first rather than to assume that just because something is common knowledge or sounds right it is correct. In the world generally, there have been many mistakes made based on information that turned out to be rumour or false. Part of the role of analysis is to verify information – and act accordingly. Failure to verify information is a route to strategy failure.

So what is my niggle. It relates to a quotation on page 20: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” This is a great quotation – and it is widely used. A search on the Internet turns up multiple examples – and most claim it was written by Charles Darwin, in his works looking at evolution. The problem is that Darwin almost certainly never said or wrote this. A few years ago, I wanted to use this quotation in an article I was writing – and needed to provide a reference. I searched through Darwin’s complete works online and couldn’t find it. I then contacted Nigel Rees, an expert on quotations who couldn’t either. Replies to a post I made to the FreePint Bar suggested that the attribution was probably false (but nobody knew where it originally came from). The series of posts at FreePint both by me, and others, debunk a few more commonly attributed quotations too. (E.g. “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics” was definitely not originally said by Mark Twain as many claim and possibly not by Disraeli either, as I and others had thought.

Whenever I use a quotation I try and attribute it – and give a reference for the source, where possible. Maybe it’s because I’m pedantic or overly thorough. However I also believe it is part of the mindset needed for effective competitive intelligence. Just because something is commonly believed doesn’t make it true and I wish Seena had either stated that the quotation was “attributed” to Darwin instead of being by Darwin – or found the source.

In fact, the source was probably a close follower of Darwin – such as JBS Haldane. And Haldane supplies a lesson for all involved in competitive intelligence: just because something is unexpected doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

A discussion between Haldane and a friend began to take a predictable turn. The friend said with a sigh, ‘It’s no use going on. I know what you will say next, and I know what you will do next.’ The distinguished scientist promptly sat down on the floor, turned two back somersaults, and returned to his seat. ‘There,’ he said with a smile. ‘That’s to prove that you’re not always right. Found at Today In Science History‘s page on Haldane – quoting from: Clifton Fadiman (ed.), André Bernard (ed.), Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes (2000), 253.

Attacking a castle – or a competitor!

February 19, 2010 Leave a comment

The leading management guru, Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s, latest blog post discusses ways to attack a castle: Four Ways to Attack the Castle — And Get a Job, Get Ahead, Make Change.

Although the article is talking about job-seekers and change agents, the same applies to competitive intelligence and strategy, and I’ve sometimes used the same analogy in my training courses.

So how does attacking a strong fortress compare to competitive intelligence collection. Well – the approach that some still seem to think the best approach – is the full frontal attack. Go for the key contact and hope that they will speak to you. The problem is that these people tend to be surrounded by gatekeepers, guards and you may not even get their name, never mind getting to speak to them. This is the corporate equivalent of having hot oil poured down upon you.

Moss Kanter describes four other approaches that can also be used for CI collection.

1) Find other doors.
Rather than target the main entrance with your battering ram, look for a door that’s not guarded. If you want to interview somebody, don’t call switchboard and ask for the purchasing manager – as switchboard will ask what it’s about and you will find yourself in an interminable voice-mail loop ending with a “send an email to suppliers@companyname.com”. Instead, use networking tools – such as LinkedIn – to find the name of anybody involved in purchasing within the target company and ask to speak to them directly. Knowing the name means you get put through and bypass the switchboard gatekeeper.

2) Befriend the fringes.
Be polite. Switchboards get fed up with rude callers – so be friendly. Chat – and treat the operator with respect. They may know more than you think and you may get a name that way.

You won’t get put through to the CEO or CFO or any C-level executive directly. Instead, you’ll end up speaking to their personal assistant – the guard and gatekeeper for your source. Like the guards and gatekeepers of old, these people know who passes by, and what goes on. So rather than insist on the C-contact, be nice to the PA and chat to them instead. You may well find that all you need to know comes from them instead.

3) Go underneath
Often, going to the top won’t help. If the information you require is sensitive, the people at the top know the sensitivity – including their PAs. They won’t talk and you will get nothing. Rather, consider the people who report to them, or who have managers who report to them. Such people may not know the whole picture – but speak to several and you soon will. Each interviewee will feel flattered that you view their knowledge as important – and won’t realise that the small bits of information they know, when combined with other small bits, can reveal the secrets the higher-ups would like to keep hidden.

4) Go around the castle
Rather than trying to contact the organisation directly, look for people who are now outside but know what goes on inside. These include ex-employees, obviously. However others may also know information – and be willing to share if asked in the right way. These can include your customers, your competitor’s customers, their suppliers, as well as industry consultants, trade association staff and many more similar sources.

Collecting competitive intelligence doesn’t always depend on looking for the obvious source. Like attacking castles, often the secret is to find the weaknesses that allow you to gain entrance, gather what you need to know and leave without anybody even noticing your visit.

Emotional responses

May 26, 2008 Leave a comment

I’ve not posted anything for months – not because I’ve not had things to post, but because of work pressures, and perhaps also not having anything I thought worth posting.

That’s not to say that things haven’t happened – but others will have posted on the London Online conference, the SCIP annual and European conferences in San Diego and Bad Nauheim, Germany, and the AIIP annual conference in Pittsburgh. I attended all – and each was worthwhile in its own way. (My favorite was AIIP – but then this is such a great organisation anyway!).

In the last few months I’ve also been to China where I led a workshop on CI, and on a personal level, celebrated my oldest nephew’s wedding in Jerusalem and saw the loss of my father a month later.

So what has prompted this post?

Well I try and link ideas to marketing and competitive intelligence. Those who know me will know that one of the areas I specialise in is competitive intelligence analysis and game theory. My talk at SCIP Europe (and also at the SCIP 2007 conference) was on Game Theory.

One of the areas I emphasise is that when looking at a competitor you should try and look at things from their perspective. Just because something looks stupid or illogical to you doesn’t neccssarily mean that it is stupid and illogical. It could also be that the competitor is viewing something from a different angle to you – and that if you switched viewpoints it would make perfect sense. Developing an ability to switch perspectives could save you $, £, €, or ¥ as it should lead to greater anticipation of how competitors are likely to respond and thus better and more effective strategies. The assumption is that competitors behave logically, and choose strategies based on the information and knowledge they currently have.

There is, however, an exception to this. Sometimes a competitor can be blinded by hatred, greed, fear, or another strong emotion. In such cases their decisions are likely to be stupid and illogical as they can’t see reality and instead, they base what they do on their emotionally biased view of the world.

As a result, when looking at a competitor it is also important to look for any emotional aspect in their decision making. Is this leading to how they behave or react? If it is, then you can use it against them to win out. Of course the same applies to you – and it’s important that you make decisions that are not based on emotional reasons. Decisions need to be made based on facts, evidence and logic – anything else will lead to vulnerabilities that can be attacked by a competitor.

There are many examples of companies that have made poor decisions based on emotion: a classic is the failure of the 2000 Time Warner – AOL merger, which was partly driven by Time Warner management’s fear of being left behind in a digital world. In fact many mergers fail as they are not really motivated by logic but more by fear of being left behind or greed – seeing acquisition as the best way to grow.

So when looking at a competitor, you need to

  1. assume that they are behaving logically – try to see things from their perspective
  2. consider that they may be acting emotionally, and not basing decisions on fact and logic.

Which of these two applies will depend on the pattern of decision making, the decisions made, and the competitor’s management. Part of the job of the CI analyst is to step back from their own emotional perspectives and, dispassionately, look at the competitor and decide what has led to their decisions and strategies: logic or emotion.

I still haven’t answered what prompted these thoughts.

Generally I try to understand the opinions and views of people with whom I disagree – and accept that often there is a valid rationale to these views. I fervently disagree with Islamic terrorist groups, and I totally support Israel. At the same time, I understand the view of the Palestinians and believe that they have a case. I understand the Islamic religious view of Hamas that Israel is occupied Islamic land and that only Islamic rule is valid. I don’t personally agree with this – but I accept that from some Islamic perspectives (not all) this is logical as it follows some Koranic precepts. So I’m applying my rule above of trying to understand the other side, and looking at things from their perspective.

I can even apply this (with difficulty) to some terrorist actions in Europe and the USA. The attacks on 911 were reprehensible, evil and criminal. However using the above principles I can understand these actions – as they fall into a logical pattern.

  1. Western Values represent an attack on Islamic values.
  2. Western Values are winning out – even in Islamic society.
  3. For Islamic values to triumph, Western values must be destroyed, so that the world realises that it’s only true Islamic values that will lead to human peace and happiness.
  4. What the West calls terrorism is actually a misnomer – and is, in fact, an attempt by true Muslim believers to alert their own governments to how they’ve been led astray, while at the same time to destroy the forces that are doing this – leading to a growth in Islamic values and beliefs.

What I fail to understand however, is how a follower of any religion can take advantage of people with mental problems and use them for terrorist activity. One of the basic principles behind all religions: Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist… is the protection of less-well-off and weaker members of society. They teach that it is a major sin to take advantage of such people.

The recent bomb attempt in Exeter, England, when an Islamic convert who was reportedly mentally ill, with low IQ and suffering from Aspergers, was so radicalised that he was preparing bombs to use to maim and kill people, suggests that the people behind him were not acting under any religious framework at all – but were driven by emotions only: hatred and fear. Worse, they bring shame on true Islamic believers, and through their actions will lead even more people to see Islam as an evil creed that only destroys and has no respect for the poor, sick and down-trodden. This is false! So called “Imams” who believe that they can recruit victims like poor Nicky Reilly have desecrated Islam and the teachings in the Koran and Hadith, and should be denounced by all true Muslims as false.

Management Partrnerships

August 11, 2007 Leave a comment
Last year I wrote a blog entry on leadership. That entry was based on an idea expressed by Rabbi Mendel Lew, and given in one of his weekly synagogue sermons. Today Rabbi Lew gave another sermon which I think has implications for management.

The topic was a strange verse in the Book of Genesis just prior to the creation of Adam’s wife, Eve. Genesis chapter 2 verse 18 is generally translated from the original Hebrew as follows: God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a compatible helper for him’. Two verses later (verse 20) the same idea comes up. The man named every livestock animal and bird of the sky, as well as all the wild beasts. But the man did not find a helper who was compatible for him. The Hebrew words “ezer kenegdo” are translated as compatible helper or similar variations (e.g. a suitable helper) but a more literal translation would actually be a helper against him or a helper who contradicts him / argues with him. (For linguists – ezer means “helper”, while kenegdo means “against him”)

So what does this have to do with management. The second verse quoted gives the clue – in that Adam was not actually on his own, as implied in the first verse. Adam had companions – dogs, cats, livestock, etc. However none could advise him or work with him. They were all subordinate to, and dominated by, him.

There are two types of managers

  1. those who seek to dominate those around them
  2. those who listen to, work with, and respect the opinions of those around them.
The first sort generates “yes men” and “yes women” who dare not question the wisdom and leadership of the manager. The problem with this sort of manager is that if they are wrong they will have nobody to tell them so. They will have helpers – but nobody to tell them when they are wrong, or even to discuss issues objectively. Nobody will risk contradicting such managers – and if such a manager did ask for the opinions of those around them, the answers received would be crafted to correspond to what people thought he/she wanted to hear. Essentially the helpers are a bit like a sheepdog rounding up sheep for the shepherd – very useful, but only so long as everything is straightforward and there are no problems. The moment problems occur, the manager – like the shepherd – will be alone. Essentially this type of manager has nobody to share ideas with: he/she has no peers to listen to, to respect and to view as equals.

For true management and leadership success this is not enough. You also need to hear contradictory opinions and take into account the views of those who disagree with you – who are against you. From the differing opinions you can then develop a balanced viewpoint – and end up making better, more profitable decisions.

In a recent blog entry (Thinking Hats) I suggested that prior to making a decision you look at the problem from six different perspectives, with the sixth being a synthesis of the other five. The same applies to management: to manage successfully you need to consider the opinions and attitudes of those around you. You need an ezer kenegdo whose opinions are seen as equal to your own, so that you can balance your and your peers’ views when making decisions.

However this only goes as far as the planning stage. When it comes to action, you need to think as one – and act as one. There should be no scope for different people to pull in contradictory directions. Successful managers should take on board diverse viewpoints, and then come up with rational strategic or tactical decisions that bring people together; that unify the various perspectives; and that lead to coherent actions that fulfill agreed business aims and objectives.

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