Not All Interviews are Alike

July 24, 2018

“[A co-founder of Zoox, a self-driving car “hopeful”] reached out to some of the biggest names in the field and told them he was making a documentary on the rise of self-driving cars. The plan was to mine these people for information and feel out potential partners…. [He says] ’In my defense I might have been making a documentary.’”[1]

Legal? Yes. Ethical? No! Why? Let’s look at ethical standards in CI:

  • SCIP’s Code of Ethics requires its members “[t]o accurately disclose all relevant information, including one’s identity and organization, prior to all interviews.”[2] Never happened. Unless he said he “might” be making a documentary, instead of that he was.
  • The Helicon Group “[n]ever employs questionable data collection activities. These are techniques, otherwise legal, which, if made public, might tend to embarrass Helicon’s reputation or that of a client.”[3] What sort of reputation does this person and his firm have now?

Now, what should these “big names” have done to protect themselves from this individual as well as CI professionals seeking competitively sensitive data? Here are a couple of suggestions for them (and for others):

  • Check out anyone seeking an interview. Is this person really who/what they say they are? In this case, he was a video producer. Maybe close enough to a documentary maker to skate by.
  • Do the conditions look and sound right? In this case, the interviewer showed up with a “Canon and a bullshit microphone”. Does that look professional? Probably not.
  • What is the interviewers approach? This one relied on flattery. Warning! No one is really that interested in what you are doing – except your competition.
  • What kind of interview is being conducted? This one was two hours long – another warning! After a while, your defenses fall and you speak more freely.
  • Also, it was conducted in a “grassy field”. Maybe it was sold as a good background for the video. But, it could have been a way to keep this person from his computer or other interruptions that might force him to reconsider “why am I still talking to this person and exactly what am I saying?”

[1] Ashlee Vance, “Hype Machine”, Bloomberg Businessweek, July 23, 2018, p. 53.



A Suggestion


I have finished rereading very well-done book which carefully indicates to the reader the differences among hard facts, highly likely facts, and conclusions based on an analysis of incomplete evidence.

Warning – the book deals with the Holocaust.

The book is Richard Breitman’s, The Architect of Genocide – Himmler and the Final Solution[1]. Specifically, I am referring to Chapter 8 (“Cleansing the New Empire”), and Chapter 9 (“Heydrich’s Plan”)[2].

In those chapters, Professor Breitman analyzes everything from meeting notes to travel schedules, and from the parallel use of language to the way in which orders were communicated and followed by the Nazis in organizing and conducting the brutal murders of millions. In so doing, he clearly delineates “incontestable facts” from his own “deductions”[3] in a style that those of us in intelligence would do well to emulate.

I recommend reading this, if only for that careful style.

If you prefer another topic with a similar style, I can suggest any of Ron Chernow’s wonderful biographies, including Washington and Hamilton. He also clearly separates hard facts (“it happened”) from his interpretation or analyses (“probably”, “likely”).

[1] Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

[2] Pp. 167-206.

[3] As he puts it, “Not everyone will agree with all my deductions – which are identified are deductions, not incontestable facts.” Op. cit., p. 32.

Everything Old is New Again

July 10, 2018

In the past, I have written about the benefits of making sure that your secondary CI research includes digging into local newspapers, including “Locally Sourced and Organic” and “Be Careful What You Wish For”.

But, I should note that this idea is not new. In fact, it at least 150 years old!

During the Civil War, General U.S. Grant was not always in direct communication with all his generals. In the case of General Sherman’s march through the South, he relied on reports in – yes – local newspapers in Richmond, VA, which was about 125 miles from his headquarters in Washington, DC. These Confederate papers evidently included stories about fighting which enabled Grant to figure out where Sherman was and how well he was doing.

But all good things must come to an end:

“…Richmond newspapers [eventually] awoke to the realization the [General] Grant traced [General] Sherman’s mysterious movements [fighting in the South after the fall of Atlanta] through their own columns.”[1]

[1] Ron Chernow, Grant, Penguin Press, NY, 2017, p. 473..

Be Careful What You Wish For

June 12, 2018

Our local newspaper, the Reading Eagle, has a weekly supplement, Business Weekly.

I want to dissect a piece there (without mentioning the name of the firm because that is not relevant) to show you what can sometimes be found on private companies in local newspapers.

This piece focuses on a private local company that has moved into new quarters.[1] Here is what it disclosed:

  • The size of its former manufacturing facility.
  • The location of the new space for the firm’s factory and office.
  • The size of that new facility and how much space is dedicated to production there.
  • The cost of renovating the new facility, as well as the source of a public loan for that work. Often the files associated with such loans can contain other competitively sensitive data.
  • Data on a solar power, including what percentage of the plant’s total energy the 50 thousand watt array provides (which lets you calculate its total power consumption).
  • What kind of injection molding equipment the plant uses.
  • A statement that an additional machine is on order to join to the current (specified) number already on site.
  • What its customer surveys show about the reasons customers pay a significant premium for the firm’s products.
  • Year over year sales increase percentages for the past 7 years. Fortunately, the base amount is not specified, but one year might be available from other sources. That would allow you to calculate the current sales levels.
  • The company’s plans to change all its packaging.

Think of this as a research suggestion as well as a warning to companies to be careful about what they reveal to get local media coverage.[2]

[1] Jeff McGaw, “Brush with success”, Reading Eagle Business Weekly, June 12, 2018, pp. 8-11.

[2] Interestingly, our new book, Competitive Intelligence Rescue: Getting It Right, contain a case where a private firm finds that a published interview with the CEO is the source of leaked competitively sensitive data.

What isn’t there

May 3, 2018

Recently, I read about a new factory in a trade publication. I will not name the magazine or company because it is not relevant.

The article touted the new technology and safety of the plant, indicating that it was to replace a factory owned by the same firm that had been in the area for about 50 years. The company’s representative quoted in the article praised the firm’s long ties to the area.

At the very end, the piece noted approximately as follows:

“The company plans to fill all of the positions at the plant with employees from the closed facility.”

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? The workers from the old plant will migrate to the new one, right? Think of reading this very closely. How? Try moving the modifier, “all of the”. It now reads:

“The company plans to fill the positions at the plant with all of the employees from the closed facility.”

But the actual quote does not mean this. Now you understand that the sentence actually means some employees at the closed plant will NOT be working in the new one. What was not said was telling you more about what is actually going on.

“Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there.” Hugo Mearns


April 11, 2018

We all know, or should know, that the purpose of CI is to develop actionable intelligence. That means solid research, sound conclusions, supporting a specific action or decision.

One thing that we also all know is that the research that we do is rarely 100% perfect/confirmed/verified. We deal with estimates, approximations, and probabilities, whether it is “70% likelihood of happening”, “more likely than not”, or just “almost certainly”. But conclusions based on estimates are just that, based on estimates. Make sure that you, and other with whom you share your intelligence, never forget this.

Consider this:

“No probability, however seductive, can protect us from error; even if all parts of a problem seem to fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, one has to remember that the probable need not necessarily be the truth, and the truth is not always probable.”[1]

[1]Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, Vintage Books, 1967 , p. 17.


March 27, 2018

I have presented very frequently and continue to enjoy doing so. I would like to share with you a few tips. Some of these are my own; some come from my significantly better half, Carolyn Vella, who critiqued my early training presentations for the better; some are based on co-presenting with skilled presenters like Dr. Ben Gilad; and some are based on what I have seen and heard, liked and disliked. Here they are:

  • Check out the stage and the room 10 minutes or so before you start. Is everything plugged in? Does the mike work? How loud is it? Where can you move around? Are the floor mikes for questions working? Is your presentation really preloaded? (Hint: always bring a copy of the presentation on a jump drive in case there is a screw-up. It happens every so often.)
  • Help the audience. Tell them quickly what they will be hearing, and, at the end, remind them, in a sentence or two.
  • Continually reach out to the audience. If you are in a room, look at different individuals in the room from time to time. If it is remote, try to get responses, questions, and comments. Suggest that people “make a note of this”, or “raise your hand if this is not new to you”. If the venue’s technology permits, take polls, streaming the results live. Use short exercises that attendees can self-score and comment on. All of this keeps their attention and makes for a better learning experience.
  • You are a presenter, not a statue. If you can, move, at least a little. Step away from a podium, point to the overhead, or walk over to a table of attendees. Positive motion attracts attention. But never turn your back on the audience.
  • Make it clear. Avoid acronyms if possible. If that is not possible, at least define them on a slide when they first appear, and then repeat that definition to the audience again later.
  • Keep it short. PowerPoint slides have bullet points, not bullet essays. Keep the points around 6-7 words long. Don’t go down more than two additional levels. That is really getting in the weeds. It is also hard to read in hand outs or on a mobile device.
  • The overheads are just reminders – to you and to the audience. Write them that way and use them for that. If appropriate, use graphics and other attention-getting devices – but sparingly. They should remind you and them of your point, not just be cute.
  • Be careful of your slide contrast, pattern, and color selections. Avoid gaudy patterns, and stay away from flat, low context selections like black letters on a dove gray background. They can be hard to read in anything less than perfect light.
  • Moving transitions are nice – but only infrequently. Do it for ever slide and you are telling the audience to watch, but not to listen.
  • Modulate your voice. Not every word and every phrase is equally important. Using different tones and inflections communicates that. Besides, it keeps the audience awake.
  • Keep track of the time. Have a way to check the time while presenting and regularly refer to a sheet of paper in front of you telling you where you should be every 5 or 10 minutes, that is, “10:20 AM – Slide 26”. Always allow time for questions and comments at the very end. Note it on the overheads. End on time, no matter what.
  • Tell people that they can contact you after the presentation for any questions (and give contact details). Before you offer to give out a digital copy of the presentation, make sure that is ok with the event sponsor. Also, purge it of anything you do not want redistributed, such as exercises you developed and may want to use again.