Walk and chew gum at the same time?

June 16, 2017

A recent article[1] observes that “Microsoft is learning from Amazon.com…[basing] more of its decision-making on data-driven experiments and what it thinks customers want rather than what competitors might be doing.” Woof. Does this mean that Microsoft has NOT been basing some decisions on what customers want? Or does it mean that Amazon.com doesn’t use competitive intelligence (CI) in its decision-making? I doubt either is true, but this observation reflects a tribal attitude towards actionable information in many corporations.

Exactly what is the problem with basing corporate decisions on holistic intelligence dealing with the totality of the competitive and marketing environments? The default choice, alas, in some firms is evidently market research (MR), without any CI. Maybe the MR people do a little (what they call) CI, but usually they do not. If there is any CI process, it is likely reporting to the planning function, but not supporting sales and marketing as well. These silos hinder effective operation. That is like driving your car with clear side and rear windows, but with a shattered, opaque front windshield.

For example, say that MR including the “voice of the customers” research, discloses a need/desire of customers that they are also willing to pay for (an oft-ignored issue). Would it not help to know if CI disclosed that (a) one major competitor has previously rejected this opportunity (and why), (b) a second major competitor is ready to roll-out a new product/service to meet this need in the next 30 days, (c) a third competitor has done similar research and saw no such opportunity, and/or (d) another smaller competitor has the technology to enter this niche, but currently lacks the funding to do so? I think so.

Maybe Microsoft is right here. Why buy Safeway just because Amazon.com is buying Whole Foods?

[1] Matt Day, “Microsoft borrows from Amazon’s philosophy as its cloud grows”, The Seattle Times, June 7, 2017, http://www.seattletimes.com/business/microsoft/microsoft-borrows-from-amazons-philosophy-as-its-cloud-grows/

Is Early Warning for You?

April 7, 2017


You have probably heard, and even thought about, having an early warning system. Why? Well, early warning is an area where CI skills are quite valuable. However, there are some major issues that you should consider before going further.

In case you are not familiar with it, an early warning system provides – wait for it – early warning of major economic, environmental, market, and political changes impacting the organization’s businesses. In practice, it can often one of the most effective way of communicating strategic intelligence to senior management.

Let’s look at a few issues that are not readily evident:

  • Commitment – By commitment, I am referring to both time and money, and most importantly, participation by management. Without active management participation, an early warning system is just a set of musing given to management. Participation includes the commitment to act on it.
  • Bottom line – It usually takes a long time to see the results of an effective early warning system. And, they are often impossible to quantify. What is the bottom line impact of avoiding the future entry of a new firm into part of your market? How much would you have lost if you did not launch a new product defensively?
  • Verify results – This is related to the bottom line problem. Avoiding problems (or crises), beginning reacting months earlier than you might, and the like often serves to lower risks and potential costs. But, again, you may not be able to see that. Take for example, the parallel of a watchman on a merchant ship in World War II. He is scanning the horizon, looking for anything that could pose a threat to the ship, its crew, passengers, and/or cargo. He spots what he thinks might be the periscope of a submarine. On being told, the captain begins evasive maneuvers, which costs time and fuel, moves the crew to combat quarters, which reduces their ability to do ordinary work, and calls for naval and air assistance to hunt down the sub, which ties them up. The result – the ship is not attacked by a sub. But, was a successful attack going to happen? The captain will never know.
  • Changing the future – Well-done early warning systems can make it impossible to measure, or even to verify, results. Why? Because, first, they are talking about trends (probabilities), not hard facts. And second, by responding to a warning, they may have changed the predicted future. Think about it.

I am not saying that an early warning system is not valuable. Shell’s experience seems to show that it can be extraordinarily valuable. What I am saying is that if you do this, do it right, control expectations, get by-in early and often. Then, effective early warning will product its real benefits: doing many things better, faster, and smarter while reducing risk and the exposure to risk and avoiding the many traps of short-term thinking and actions.

Ready, fire, aim

May 18, 2016

A recent syndicated article by Washington Post’s Sarah Halzack[1] dealt with the rise of fast-casual dining and its impact on the overall restaurant industry. Her conclusion is that, based on new industry research, fast-food and fast-casual restaurants “are essentially siloed”. In other words, with a few exceptions, their customers tend to stay with similar types of restaurants and do not cross-over.

But is that what the restaurants see? She says that they see instead headlines like “How Chipotle is killing McDonald’s”. With respect to that, she notes that Chipotle “might be better off not trying to emulate Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu, but instead trying to win over Panera customers.”

For those of us in competitive intelligence, we see here a classic case of skipping one of the first steps in a competitive intelligence assignment – determine who are your competitors – really!

In these cases, it seems that it took a third-party researcher to do the unthinkable – find out what a firm’s actual and potential customers see as its competitors, rather than what management or trade publications or strategy consultants or financial analysts know/guess is the situation.

You are warned.

[1] “What we get wrong when we talk about the fast-food wars”, Washington Post, May 11, 2016.

“We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us”

July 30, 2015

This quote is from the old comic Pogo, in a strip first printed in 1970. It is a reflection on the then-state of the environmental movement. But it contains within it a wise message for competitive intelligence.

A new book, Your Strategy Needs a Strategy: How to choose and execute the right approach[1], also evokes this. There the authors suggest that some successful corporate strategy programs “deliberately manage which approach to strategy [of the 5 described by the authors] belongs in each subunit (be it a division, geography or function) and [then] run those approaches independently of one another.”[2]

Consider how these concepts might apply to the way you (or your team) conduct your own CI activities. For example –

  • If a competitor is a highly structured, centralized organization that operates on rigid plans and on a fixed schedule, shouldn’t you probably focus some of your CI work based on that schedule? So, if they usually launch in the first quarter, should your CI work look at the preceding 4th quarter as a stress period?
  • If a competitor is decentralized, and highly flexible, then won’t your efforts have to be more consistent over the year and wide-ranging, rather than based on your internal schedule? Shouldn’t it be based on their schedules and history?

In other words, should your CI operations’ schedules, deliverables, and focus be determined more by your targets than your own employer’s structure, schedule, and culture?

[1] Martin Reeves, Knut Haanæs, and Janmejaya Sinha, 2015. Harvard Business Review Press.

[2] p. 177. Emphasis added.


A Little Different Look at Strategy

May 8, 2015

At the recent conference, I suggested a change – a tweak if you will – in strategy development[1]. I advocated adding a risk management approach to strategy development and monitoring. Let me give you a very high level summary of that.

Specifically, I suggested using the ISO 31000 framework[2] for risk management to fine-tune and continually refresh strategy development programs. Why?

I believe that strategy development professionals can markedly enhance the value of their work product by integrating the principles and methods of risk management into developing and then monitoring global strategy.

Today, while some senior managers may be involved with strategic risk management efforts, it is usually seen as very separate from strategy development. However, using ISO 31000’s risk management principles in strategy development provides all levels of management with a proven set of powerful tools not previously used by them.

To summarize, a risk management approach provides key principles that would be useful, very useful, for every strategy development effort:

  • Identify and then assess the risk in every
  • Avoid being paralyzed by the existence/presence of risk. Risk is everywhere. You cannot avoid it.
  • Continually seek out new data, especially after decisions have been made and plans launched.
  • Evaluate your options both before and after decisions are made.
  • Continuously monitor your own actions and the risk factors that you face.
  • Use the ISO 31000 framework to fine-tune and continually refresh your strategy development and monitoring.

How do you use that ISO 31000 framework?

  • First, employ risk identification techniques to disclose threats/opportunities – this gives a new focus. This also helps prioritize actions. But, it is critical to understand a key element of this approach. “Risk” is no longer to be seen as merely the “chance or probability of loss“. It is now to be seen as “the effect of uncertainty on objectives”. What is the difference? “Risk” should now encompass positive as well as negative probabilities. In other words, uncover not just threats, but also opportunities. To do this, those in strategy development has to learn to look for early warnings out many months, even years both before and after the strategy is developed. Unfortunately, most strategy development does not usually look that far ahead. Here, incorporating strategic/competitive intelligence early warning techniques and personnel is critical[3].
  • As a part of this, the strategy development team must learn to define targets that have not emerged. In other words, strategy development does not end with the launch of the plan – it is just beginning there.
  • Third, under ISO 31000, there is a constant interface with senior management – as opposed to only with more “tactical” customers downstream. Strategy development teams should piggy-back that access and keep senior management continuously involved in defining and developing corporate responses. Compare this with the “fundamental disconnect” of most 3rd party planning – AKA command and control.

[1] This blog is based on the presentation, “Globalizing Your Strategy Process by Integrating Risk Management into Strategy Formulation and Monitoring”, I gave at the 25th Annual Conference of the Association for Strategic Planning, May 7, 2015.

[2] For more on ISO 31000, see http://www.iso.org/iso/home/standards/iso31000.htm.

[3] Here I tip my hat to Dr. Ben Gilad who, as far as I now, was the first to suggest a connection between competitive/strategic intelligence and strategic risk in Ben Gilad, Early Warning, AMACOM, 2004.