Faster is not necessarily better

March 28, 2014

An article in the recent Smithsonian magazine talked about speed in thinking[1]. It mentioned a psychology experiment where volunteers had to answer questions that were either typed clearly in a very easy-to-read font or were slightly blurred and therefore harder to read. This study concluded that “people who had to work harder ended up processing the text more deeply and responding to the questions [about the text] more accurately.”

Somewhat related to that was an interview on one of the cable news channels (I do not recall which) to the effect that recent studies show that people being guided by a “gut feeling” or “hunch” were likely to be right about 54% of the time. To put it another way, their odds of being right in such a speedy “analysis” were only slightly higher than what would be expected by sheer random chance. Yet, in such cases, those so guided usually have a very high (and unjustified) level of confidence in their conclusion.

In the ongoing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 search, every day we see the newest “sightings” of wreckage replaced by others, in another area of the sea, rendering prior “knowledge” moot.

So what does this mean for competitive intelligence? It means that the easy research, the easy to do analysis, or the “obvious” conclusion is not necessarily going to get you to the truth. In fact, the harder you have to work to dig out the facts and then to make sense of them, the more likely it is that you will get it right. As the same article said. “When we want a well-reasoned decision, we say think long and hard, which isn’t all that different from think slow.”


[1] “This month we’re thinking about Speed”, Smithsonian, April 2014, 15-16.

Putting it all together


March 21, 2014

I would like to share a couple of tips with you about blocking out a report or memo when you concluded your competitive intelligence research.

First, aggregate your secondary research which is typically reports, news articles, memos, and other written materials. There are several kinds of programs to do this, but the goal is to put it in one place so you can methodically go through it. Now collect your notes on interviews and other solicitations, if any, the same way.

Next, take a look at your project and create a working outline. Now convert these headings into questions. Following that, read straight through all of your secondary material and then read straight through all of your primary material.

Make notes of any gaps for follow-up.

Write or dictate answers to the questions you have laid out, without further reference to either your primary or secondary research. What you’re looking to do here is to capture the synthesis which you have formed about all of the materials and communicate that in as simple and straightforward manner as possible. I suggest dictation using a simple program like Dragon.

Why dictate? I find that most people tend to speak more simply and more directly than they write. By dictating, you force your summary to be simple and direct.

Now go back to your research materials and, using a split screen, weave those specifics that you find in those files piece by piece into the answers you have dictated to your questions.

If you find that you have materials that you not accounted for in your outline, did not try to force them into the flow that you naturally put together. Consider creating an appendix or other attachment summarizing particularly important facts that do not fall neatly into your analysis, but that you or some future reader should understand or recall.

I suggest that if you do this in more than one day, and you should do it that way, consider creating a new document each day and saving the previous day’s draft. That way, if you go back and find that you are uncomfortable about something that you did, you will not lose all of the work that you previously put into it.

Then put it aside, and reread it, at least one day later. Finally, read it backwards. By that, I mean start with the last question you answered. Read the question and then the answer, and then go to the question before that, etc.

What you are doing here is leveraging the analysis that is going on that you have developed while doing the research and making sure that you have not ignored some important fact that you collected simply because you did not synthesize it correctly.

 Now change the questions to positive statements. Usually you can do more than just removing the question mark.

Oh, don’t forget to run down those gaps you spotted. Or at least note their existence in your final report/memo.

Fools rush in?

March 14, 2014

Recent news coverage  has focused on disasters or potential disasters, including the loss of a Malaysia Airlines plane and a major building explosion in New York City. What the media reports surrounding these have illustrated is not only that stories develop over time, but increasingly that the first information that is developed is often wrong or wildly wrong.

The same is true in the competitive intelligence research you do. You have to start somewhere. So you start. The first data that you collect is not only often given unnecessarily heavy weight, it often has an additional impact on your later research and analysis. If the first sets of data you collect begin to outline what appears to be a plausible situation, scenario ,or strategy, you then instinctively tend to look for and assimilate more quickly the data that supports that (only preliminary) synthesis.

In other words, you can be trapped by what you hear or read first. When doing your own competitive intelligence research, be very wary of this. At some point during your research step back and, in a way, restart. Look for something different, explore the meaning of an odd fact that seems to stand out just a little, or reinvestigate what appeared to be a dead end earlier. What you’re trying to do to take off those blinders that you put on in the very process of trying to understand something not previously understood.


March 7, 2014

 I recently finished rereading The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy. In light of the current events in Ukraine and Crimea (when did we drop “The”?), it makes a powerful case for those who believe that history repeats itself.

Professor Kennedy seems to be spot on when calling our attention to “Muslim fundamentalism”, and America’s “number one” position among world powers which he said puts it in the position of global overreach – where the sum totals of our global interests and obligations is far larger than our power to defend them all at once (Ukraine again). However, a closer look at this book, finished in 1986, show the danger of going on the record with any prophecy (or as we less honestly call it in intelligence, a prediction, projection, assessment, early warning, or scenario). For example, he completely dismissed the possibility of what was then starting the economic collapse of the Soviet Union.

These differences illustrate how difficult it is to predict the future. As he frankly said “Unforeseen happenings, sheer accidents, the halting of a trend, can ruin the most plausible of forecasts; if they do not, then the forecaster is merely lucky.” Or, as Yogi Berra, the great Yankee baseball player put it, “The future ain’t what it used to be.