Fortune magazine every year selects its Fortune 100, 500 etc. This year, on its website Fortune.com, Fortune provides its own SWOT (strength-weakness-opportunity-threat) analysis for each of the Fortune 100 companies.
If your firm competes with one of the firms so profiled, I suggest that you proceed to the Fortune 500 home page, select that firm and read the SWOT analysis there. It may provide you with some help. But don’t accept it as the end of your research or even worse, as a substitute for your own research and analysis. Regard it, at best, as yet another input.
Now, if your firm is one of those so profiled, also review the SWOT material on the website. If the analysis, whether of strength or weakness, opportunity or threat, is accurate, that means that your company is just that much more transparent to your competitors. You may want to think about protecting against that sort “disclosure” in the future – if you can.
What if you disagree with the analysis that you find here? First, think it through. Is it possible that the unnamed analysts who provided this for Fortune are correct and that you and your colleagues at your firm are not? If so, then you have gained an important insight.
Second, if it turns out that the analysis is inaccurate, dated because of very recent events, pointing out something that your firm is already doing something about, etc., do not just stop there.
Above all, please do not publicly challenge this analysis as incomplete or dated etc., or let your firm do so (if you can stop it). By doing that, whether in a press release or just in an email to a colleague or college classmate, you are simply letting your competitors know something they should not know. Don’t make a good situation, that is, one where competitors are potentially being misled by the mistakes of a third party, into a bad situation, that is correcting their (unknown) error.
Instead, consider how Fortune’s erroneous/incomplete analysis may impact how a competitor of yours will act. Then think through how your firm could/should react to their possible forthcoming (misdirected) actions. Think of it as a wrestling move: you expect an effort to charge at you, but you can step out of the way because you know it’s coming, and then bring down the competitor while it is off balance. In other words, anticipate a reaction to misdirection and then exploit it.
April 24, 2015
In the prior two blogs, I have touched on starting your own CI research and on time as an issue. Now, I want to get into the weeds. How do you plan to conduct your own research? (Yes, you should plan. Getting started without a plan is like deriving your car without a destination.)
Look at the questions you generated. Then look at your potential research sources organized in some sort of groups or clusters. We use the broad categories of Government & Non-profits. The Private sector, and Media to encompass vast numbers of specific resources under a few headings, but you can make up your own. Just make sure that all potential sources, both secondary and primary, are included in one of them.
If something triggered your research, such as an article in a trade publication or a report from a salesperson in the field, start there:
With respect to the article, read it again. When was the article published? From there, determine when the reporter or news service had to have gotten the information in the first place. You now have an idea of how old that information was. Use the article as a kickoff point: if you can contact someone who was quoted in the article, even if her/his contribution was peripheral to your concern, start with that person – call them, or e-mail them. What you are looking for is not just information from them, but also a lead to somewhere, something, or someone else. If you cannot call an interviewee, can you contact the reporter? As a reporter is not likely to give up information without an exchange, now or in the future, from you, exercise great discretion in making such contacts.
If your source for the information that led you on your research chase was a report from a sales representative, contact that sales representative. Was there anything else that she heard, saw, or even suspected? Again you are looking for leads beyond her. If she mentioned that she heard this information from a store manager, ask if she will do you the favor of going back to the store manager. Remember, you are simultaneously trying to build up a network of good contacts, so always be prepared to help out those who help you.
As you go along, look at each piece of data that you collect as being not only an element in building up an answer to your question, but as a way to find other sources of data. For example, if you find a reference to your problem in a trade publication, which is not one usually covering your industry, research elsewhere in that publication. They may have covered this particular topic, target, or problem earlier.
Never be afraid to ask someone who says they “cannot help you” to suggest someone who might be able to do so. If they do (a) thank them, (b) get as much contact information as you can, and (c) ask if you can use his/her name when you reach out to the new source. If you can, it often means the difference between getting a lot of cooperation and getting very little.
Here are several ways experienced researchers manage their research:
- Make sure you at least tried to access some resource in each of the large groups that we’ve given you or that you have created. It is not that each group will always have the data you’re looking for, but without digging into each one, you cannot be sure that you have looked at every particularly useful source of data.
- Stop about halfway through your research. Look at, either physically or in your mind, where you have gone. Have you found that interviews have been much more useful than secondary research? Has what you been looking for been disclosed, at least in part, by filings with federal, state or local governments? Use these insights to reset the balance of your research.
- Look at your research sources. One effective rule is that if you keep coming back to the same resources, such as particular government agencies, individuals, public records, trade associations, etc. you have probably exhausted the sources that can help you. It is time to shut down the research and begin the analysis.
When writing up your analysis, there are drafting tricks which you can use which I will cover at another time. Each of them requires that you have been disciplined in recording your research and analysis somewhere, rather than relying on your memory to retain everything. This is a critical point and should not be overlooked. Do not keep everything in your mind – always make and keep complete notes. And make those notes as soon as possible after interviews and other research steps.
June 15, 2015
In the previous blog of this series, I presented a quick guide to starting your own CI research. Now, I want to turn to time.
When you have identified what you are looking for, try to estimate how long you have to get the answers to your questions (that is when do you have to make a decision), and also how long it will take you to do the research and analysis. Keep in mind, these time frames are not the same. This does not mean you should be building a formal timeline; but always be aware the fact that, if you are researching this for a meeting, whatever you have when the meeting happens is what you must present.
Never feel that you must achieve perfection. You will never be able to do that. Intelligence is not like graduate university research, where the premium is put on perfection and closing out open questions. Intelligence is designed to be actionable, and timely. In other words, a perfect answer to the key question delivered a day late is worthless, but a largely correct analysis delivered on time may be invaluable.
Let us say that you have about two weeks to do this. Set a reminder to yourself at the end of the first week to do a quick mental review of exactly what you’ve accomplished. Then allow plenty of time for your analysis. Realistically, you are doing analysis as you go along, but always allow time to review all of your research and dig for the insights which you may have missed as you were collecting the data.
While there are no hard and fast rules on the subject, experience and research indicates that given a choice between spending 90% of your time on data collection and only 10% on analysis versus 50% on data collection and 50% on analysis, in most cases you will be better off doing the latter. So leave plenty of time for analysis and for last-minute data gathering to fill voids you missed the first time around.
In the last part of this blog, I will deal, at a little greater length, on structuring your own CI research.
June 3, 2015
Well, now that you’ve decided to do CI yourself, how do you do it? What I present here are tips based not only on how I do research, but how others also conduct effective research.
I will start by covering how to start, dealing with time, and doing the hands-on research.
First, write out an outline. Actually, you should be writing questions. Put down the first question, the big question that you want/have to answer. Then, break out the three or four specific questions that have to be answered so that you can do the analysis and draw the conclusions for the big question. If any one of those secondary questions is complex, break it down again.
Now you have an outline of your research. As a matter fact, a good trick is to save this and later write-up your report, whether you’re giving it to someone else or just retaining it for your future reference, by answering each question, using it as a working heading. Then, simply turn the questions into statements and use them as the real headings in a longer, final report.
When framing these questions, think in terms of action. That is, what decision will you make or what action will you be able to take as a result of your findings. If you cannot focus on a decision or action, ask yourself why you’re spending the time and other resources to dig this out data.
While “good to know” or “just getting some background”, is not always a waste of time, you will eventually learn that in many, perhaps most, cases it is exactly that. If you need to do background research, do background research. But that background research should have as its focus supporting a decision, or at least the framing of a decision to be made, and eventually the taking of or avoiding action.
In the next blog, I will deal with time and timing.