Tell the Story

April 27, 2016

The other day I received the nicest complement. I asked Carolyn Vella, my partner in all respects, to read a draft of a report we were preparing for a client.

Why Carolyn? Because she is my toughest critic. How tough? Well, when I got a contract for my first book (actually she got it for me), I was thrilled. I sat down and started. Soon I had an introduction and several chapters done – or so I thought.

Carolyn took a look at them to edit them and soon gave them back to me. The introduction was crossed out with the sole marginal note “B*** S***”. I then looked at her edit of chapter 1. She had crossed it out completely with the pithy editorial observation: “More BS”.

I was shocked, but she was right. They were terrible. By the way, I still have the original manuscript. Anyway, as you can see, she is one tough editor/reviewer.

Reviewing this report, she spotted an error on page 9 where I had misspelled an executive’s first name. And that was it. So I asked “Anything else?”

She said “Yes. I enjoyed reading it. It was interesting.” A business report that was enjoyable to read, that was interesting? And you thought that an interesting business report was an oxymoron.

What made it interesting? It looked at a target and told a story, with a consistent “plot line”, without too much jargon (one of the many flaws of that first MS), without many footnotes[1], and with headings that let the readers know what was being discussed. And those headings created a table of contents that let readers go right to a portion that they might need to read, and to skip those they did not need.

Why, other than ego, try to make a report interesting by telling a story? It is very useful because people remember when they read, or hear, something interesting. In my experience, they retain more from those documents or presentations than they do from ones that are critical, or important, or strategic, or vital – or as we silently label them – boring.

Keep that in mind. To get your point across, try, at least a little, to be a story-teller.

[1] Carolyn treats footnotes (and parentheses) as inventions of the Devil. As one trained to write in law school (legal writing is a true oxymoron), I still find it difficult to write without either. Once I did law review article that had over 300 footnotes.

Lessons for CI from Games

April 14, 2016

We all have heard of game theory – how mathematical models can help us to understand how decisions are made.  As you can guess, it has important applications in CI analysis.

I think that there are other things those of us in competitive intelligence can learn from ordinary games:

  • From Poker – Skill in analyzing your own status is vital to success, but bad stuff can still happen. In CI, that translates to some surprise is inevitable, no matter how great your data collection and analysis.
  • From Mahjong – A successful pattern in approaching a problem once may not work the second time. You have to be willing continually to try new approaches. In CI, approach common, repetitive data collection and analytical problems in differing ways. Throw away those blinders of “doing it the right way”. Try the wrong way once in a while.
  • From slot machines and lotteries – Winning, and winning big, is possible, but, in the long run, failure will be more common because someone else is controlling the odds of you winning. In CI, if you depend only on data from your target, ultimately you will find yourself misled by their data, their world view, and their shortsightedness.
  • From Chess and Go – Patience, practice, and study generates more success against more difficult opponents over time. In CI, success coming from repeated effort, from continued learning, and from patience.

Why no CI?

Why don’t more firms use dedicated competitive intelligence personnel or teams? That is complex issue, with at least 3 different trends contributing to it.

The first, as readers of this blog know, is the rise of the DIYers. That is, the increase in the number of managers and executives who, officially or not, with or without training, develop some or all of the competitive intelligence that they need for their product/service development, management, and sales responsibilities.

The second and third, to my mind, arise out of changes in the competitive structure in the United States, at least.

The second one is what has been called “co-dependency” among larger firms in the technology industries[1]. As one author put it, “tech’s big guns must play nice with one another”. That is, the major tech companies are so intertwined, even interdependent in some areas, that they no longer compete vigorously, here I stress vigorously, on every front. If there is less competition, do they feel less need, or no need, formal for competitive intelligence activities?

The third is a related trend, but not limited to the technology industries. That trend is the notable decline in competition in many US industries[2]. One recent analysis argued that the presence of “steep earnings” in many industries may indicate monopoly positions or at least the stifling of competition through regulations and tax rules, influenced by (expensive) lobbyists in those sectors. Let’s go a little further – if there is a monopoly position or a near monopoly position, there is no competition, real or threatened. So why have any CI? Against whom is it directed?

Another analysis indicates that, in many US industries, consolidation has produced oligopoly or near-oligopoly positions. Now, again dig down deep in your economics lessons. What are the characteristics of an oligopoly? It is a market dominated by just a few sellers or suppliers. And what does that mean for that sector? In some cases there can be excessive, even explosive, competition, leading to very low prices and the eventual destruction of a firm. But, in most cases, there is a tendency towards cooperative behavior – overtly or covertly. Sometimes that cooperation can violate the anti-trust laws.[3] Falling short of that illegal activity is the growth of a tendency to live and let live.

In either of these two cases, there is no longer pure competition. So why should the desire to aggressively utilize something as “competitive” as CI be present?


[1] For more on this, see Erin Griffith, “The Line Between Love and Hate”, Fortune, April 1, 2016, p. 44.

[2] See “The problem with profits”, and “Too much of a good thing”, The Economist, March 26, 2016.

[3] There may be a tendency for those in these markets to avoid conducting any CI on the mistaken basis that such activities could be considered as anti-competitive, because they involve tracking a competitor and its pricing. The actual legal line is colluding with competitors with respect to pricing, etc.

DIY and Silos

April 1, 2016

I am in the process of reading a very challenging book, Big Boys, Big Egos and Strategic intelligence by Joseph HA.M. Rodenberg and Antoinette Rijsenbilt (2015). You will see a review of it when I have finished it.

I was taken by a discussion in the middle of the book as it may apply to the DIYers. The authors divide the competitive intelligence continuum as they see it into 4 overlapping parts:

  • Competitive data collection
  • Industry & competitive analysis
  • Competitive intelligence
  • Strategic intelligence.

The authors note that the first 2 are the “responsibility of departments/individuals dealing with market research, marketing services, marketing intelligence, market intelligence, marketing, customer insights, market insights, and other nice buzzwords.”[1]

To me, and I suspect to my readers, this also includes DIYers, that is, those who are not CI professionals, but need and provide the CI necessary for their own work. The authors’ observation about these people, operating within the intelligence continuum, applies equally to all DIYers. They observe that “[s]enior managers are not really reached [with their intelligence].” In other words, DIYers may produce actionable intelligence – but keep it to themselves.

To truly benefit their team and organization, the DIYers must find a way to share their CI insights with others in the firm, particularly those engaged in providing CI on a full-time basis. They must not silo that intelligence. While what they DIYer has found may seem fragmentary to the full-time CI professional, it does represent the result of diligent research and analysis which can make the full-time CI professional’s job easier and ultimately benefit the entire firm.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. A very large local firm had its engineering research team co-located at its local manufacturing facility, a few miles from headquarters. A corporate manager, seeking to bring CI into the firm, started an intelligence audit – he began to interview key potential customers and internal data sources.

Early on, he spoke with the director of engineering research. The research director asked why the firm need to set up a CI function. The corporate manager said, well, in case our largest competitor decides to get into applying an emerging technology he named, “We need to know that”. The director replied, “They are already looking into that”. When asked “Are you sure?”, he explained that he knew this from the direction of technical papers presented and published by the competitor’s researchers and from job interviews with employees seeking to leave the competitor or who had already left.

The corporate manager asked, in amazement, why the director did not tell anyone at the corporate level about this. The engineering research director’s response: “I did not know anyone else was interested.” Silos.

[1] Page. 113.