May 19, 2017

This week I was reminded of law school when I saw an article mentioning the “famously demanding questions” of law Professor Arthur R. Miller.[1] As a victim, and beneficiary, of some of those questions, I commend the author for his accuracy.

But that memory got me thinking about “push back” in competitive intelligence. You know, when someone asks you to get (develop) some information (intelligence) on a competitor, your proper response, also called the drilling down. You have to find out what decision or action hinges on getting this CI.

If a decision or an action (including the decision to do nothing) depends on this CI, then it is actionable intelligence, able to be acted on. If not, it is not actionable. Recall, that this distinction is also captured by the contrast between “need to know” and “nice to know”. You do not want to waste your time and your firm’s resources on “nice to know”.

But doing this is not always easy, particularly if the request comes from a superior, not a peer. There are several questions you can consider using or adapting to ferret out this critical information, as follows:

  • “Is there a deadline or meeting that you need this for?” That is, is this a part of something larger? What is that?
  • “Why is this a concern right now?” Or, why now? You heard a rumor? A sales rep reported losing a long-time customer? Sometimes knowing the trigger helps lead you to the CI.
  • “Has anyone else looked at this issue before? What did they find?” In other words, is this just an itch that you are scratching – again? Or did prior research come up short? Can you get a copy of it? It sometimes helps to know what was not satisfactory to do it right.
  • And my personal favorite: “Therefore what?” (A tip of the hat to said Professor Miller) Once you have this, just what are you going to do with it? What does this all mean?

[1] David Cay Johnston, “Raising the Curtain on a News Blackout”, The Quadrangle, Spring 2017, 32, 35.

Just connect the dots?

May 10, 2017

I just finished re-reading a mystery written just before the horrible events of 9/11. It made me reflect on the difficultly of satisfying the oft-repeated (but rarely fully appreciated) mantra to “connect the dots” and how difficult that can be, particularly in the context of any early warning process[1].

Let me give you a taste of a few things that leapt out at me from this story:

  • The tale revolves about  Islamic terrorism impacting the US.
  • The mission involves hijacking a passenger jet.
  • One individual notes these jets pose an explosive danger “within a hundred-yard radius” of the plane.
  • The author, commenting on the then lax security at airports, has a character note that “America wasn’t ready for any of this.”
  • The terrorist mission is religiously justified.
  • In one chilling scene, the terrorist is driven over the Verrazano Bridge, and sees the two World Trade center towers. His associate, not a terrorist, says, referring to the towers, “Maybe next time”, to which he replies, “God willing.”

Amazing, isn’t it? This is an author who was talking about, or at least predicting, the then-forthcoming attack on the World Trade Center towers, right?


These elements connect with 9/11 only in the way I put it. These “dots” are a very few among the hundreds of others in the fine 1,000 page novel by Nelson DeMille, The Lion (2000).

In this case, these specific dots did not predict or foreshadow 9/11. Take them in turn:

  • The Islamic terrorist who comes to the US comes from Libya, not Saudi Arabia, and is associated with the Libyan government. His mission involves killing former US Air Force personnel while he is in the US. There is no team.
  • The passenger jet hijacking gets the single terrorist into the US, where it is landed via autopilot. It is not flown into a target.
  • The person noting the explosive power associated with jets is the hero, in law enforcement, not the terrorist.
  • The comment “America wasn’t ready for any of this” refers to the hijacking, which resulted in the deaths of all passengers and crew due to poison gas.
  • While the terrorist sees his mission as religiously justified, it is also very personal and political.
  • The reference to the two World Trade center towers and “next time” recalls the failed 1993 attempt to blow up the south tower, and not to the terrorist planning to assault the towers again. In fact, the terrorist thinks the 1993 attack was cowardly.

The lesson? it is very easy to connect the dots in retrospect. Way too easy. Conversely, it can be almost impossible to figure out which dots to connect in advance, much less how they do connect. And the selection of which dots to connect is can too often be an exercise in proving what the analyst already believes is likely.

[1] Just a brief commercial message. Early warning systems are dealt with in a forthcoming book which I co-authored with my significantly better half: Carolyn M. Vella and John J. McGonagle, Competitive Intelligence Rescue: Getting It Right, Praeger, August 2017.

Pushing Back

May 5, 2017

One key skill among competitive and strategic intelligence specialists is mastering the art of the “push back”, also known as drilling down. That describes the vital interchange between the end-user (AKA customer) and the analyst (AKA provider) of the intelligence at the beginning. The goal is to make sure that the analyst provides actionable intelligence to the end-user.

So how does this relate to the DIYer? In many cases, you are both the analyst and the end-user. No, I do not expect that you will talk to yourself – although we have all been there, haven’t we? What I do believe is that there are lessons to be learned from the push back process to help you sharpen your own research and analysis processes.

Let me be a little more specific. In the push back process, here are a few, almost predictable, exchanges, which I will briefly dissect here. Now view them from you own perspective, when you are starting a research and analysis project. Are you at the beginning, the middle, or the end of this dialog?

An intelligence task is being presented in very general terms: “We need some current information on the Competitor”. [Bah!]

First push back: “What kind of intelligence – sales, new products, investments, new hires?” [Note the switch from “information” to “intelligence”.]

“We are concerned about a rumor that they may be acquiring one of our distributors.”

Next stage, push back a little more: “Do you know which one?’

“Yes, well, we think so.”

Press a little more: “What did that rumor come from? How did you hear it?”

“In a sales field report last month.” [Warning! Why so long to have the question come up? Is this going to be an unnecessary super rush job?]

Again: “Why do we need to know this” [What this means is “What will we do with the intelligence that we cannot do right now?” but you cannot usually speak that bluntly.]

“We may have to buy another distributor, or bring some of the logistics in-house.” [Now, we are getting somewhere.]

Closing it up: “Is there a meeting scheduled to consider this? If so, when?” [Setting a likely deadline]

“Yes – in 3 weeks.”

Now wind it up: “So we need to confirm the possible purchase of this distributor? Anything else?”

“Yes. Also, it would be nice to know [Warning! Keep vagueness from creeping in at the end.] what they are paying in case we want to make an offer as well.”

“Is that important?”

“Oh, yes, very.”

Bingo! Now we have a clear direction, with the goal of getting actionable intelligence to support identifiable action, and, not surprisingly to those of us who have been through this, which is well off on a tangent from the original, vague, directions.