Planning CI Research and Analysis

February 2, 2017

There are a lot of tricks to planning and executing effective CI research and analysis. Here are three proven ones:

  • Drill down on what you are trying to find out. Whether it is for you or for someone else, before you start your research, ask what decision you (or someone else) can make or action you (or they) can take once you are done. If you cannot answer that, step back and rework the assignment. That way you avoid wasting time in the “nice to know” swamp rather than staying on the “need to know” highway.
  • Scope out where you will probably be looking before you start looking. Divide the potential sources – and leads to other sources – into primary and secondary. Start with and plan to finish the first round of secondary before starting the primary. Save the primary for when you have “mastered” the issue, so your interviews will be short and to the point. You can avoid wasting a valuable, hard to schedule, interview getting what you could have collected from reading.
  • Again, before you start, write down your key question, the core of your assignment. Then, list the 3 or 4 questions you must answer to get to the core question. If necessary, break down the sub-questions one more time. You now have your research outline. Think it through. How likely is it that you can conduct the research and produce the necessary analysis – under your time and cost constraints? Put a number on it. You and I know it is only a rough estimate, but you are already calling on your subconscious (or your gut, your call) to help on your project. Look at the numbers you assigned: why is it the third question has only a 25% likelihood of success, while the fifth question is at a 90% likelihood? How you can restate the third question to make it more likely to succeed in answering it?

In other words, don’t start until you have it clear in your mind where you are likely to go – even if you do not always know where that is.

When Perfect is not Correct

December 2, 2016

When you have finished your CI research and analysis, stop and look at the results – very skeptically.

Let’s assume you are doing a profile of a competitor, a private company, so you do not have the (un)helpful SEC filings to walk through. Despite that, you think you have produced a pretty d*mned good product, covering all the basic information on that target.

Step back. Is what you see too perfect? By that I mean, you do not see any obvious omissions, everything seems linked. That perfection may be a warning sign.

Now really think about that. How likely is it that this could really happen? Did you ever get that complete a profile before? Next consider where you got all this great data that supported your analysis. Was virtually all of it from the target, directly or indirectly, that is from its website, local news articles, press releases, industry articles, etc.? Was any of it from filings with local/state/federal government or from third parties that (supposedly) verified the facts?

  • The former can be, and often are, manipulated by the target. Think disinformation. Disinformation is “Incomplete or inaccurate information designed to mislead others about your intentions or abilities. When used in the arena of international politics, espionage or intelligence, the term also means the deliberate production and dissemination of falsehoods, fabrications, and forgeries aimed at misleading an opponent or those supporting an opponent.”[1]
  • With the latter sources, there is at least a chance that the filings were made under oath or that the verification was properly done, so maybe you have something closer to the truth. But that is not always the situation – remember (here fill a reference to in your favorite example of a business fraud).

A tip-off may be that the data you developed is largely from the targets and is too consistent, too uniform, too, well, what you expected to find. Stop and look hard for what is missing. If you were starting over, what facts about the target that you would expect to be able to develop but which are just missing? Is that “perfection” possibly a sign that you are being drawn into a picture painted by the target, while missing what it is painting over?

Be skeptical of your own results. Sometime a perfect result just means that you are seeing only what the target wants you to see, not what there is to see.

[1] McGonagle and Vella, Proactive Intelligence, p. 11.

Look Back?

November 16, 2016

One of the common, and key, mantras of CI is that it is forward-looking. You have almost certainly been told, at least once, that CI is not a rear-view mirror, looking at what is behind you and your firm. Rather it is something that should be used to anticipate what is coming and provide support for decisions to deal with coming events and trends.

Yes, that is true, but that is not always the case. Sorry.

A character in a novel I recently read, The Power Broker (Stephen Frey), made this point rather well.

“Everything happened for a reason, and it was always best to know what that reason was. Having information, knowing why something happened – whether it was good or bad for you – was the key to success.” (p. 110)

Keeping this in mind, we should use CI during our annual reviews, which should accompany our strategic planning activities. You are doing that kind of review, right? When looking back on the previous year (or even previous quarter), we should be checking off the successes we had and the failures we suffered. But, don’t just assume that you succeeded because of a great plan and failed because, well, stuff happened. Life is not like that.

We need to do more – use CI to find out why things went poorly as well as why they went well. Knowing that is critical to developing and executing effective plans going forward.

Connecting Dots

November 2, 2016

Over the last two weeks, I first reviewed AFIO’s Guide to the Study of Intelligence and then dealt with a couple of important lessons from that book. In this blog, I want to point out yet another one. This one deals with analysis[1] – always a subject of interest.

Carl Ford, a retired intelligence officer, provides a pointed comment about analysis:

“Intelligence collection’s scatter-shot nature also makes it easy for analysts to fall into the ‘connecting the dots’ fallacy. Just because one has a dot does not mean it is, or can be, connected to other dots.”

When collecting your data, particularly if you are a DIYer, you must refrain, not an easy task, from jumping to conclusions about what that new dot means. It may mean nothing – it may mean something. But if you immediately categorize it as one or the other, you are engaging in weak – at best – analysis. In such cases, your own blind spots, biases, group think, etc. can quickly take over, causing your already weak analysis to become flawed analysis.

Not only should analysts keep this in mind, but their clients should be educated on this as well. This is particularly critical for those CI clients who demand regular reporting if “what you have found so far”. They, just as the CI analyst, can often be swayed by what dot is first found, even when that dot is later found to lack relevance or even credibility.

[1] Carl Ford, “My Perspective on Intelligence Support of Foreign Policy”, pp. 159, 160.

10 Rules for Doing Your Own CI Research and Analysis

October 13, 2016

I want to share 10 basic rules with you DIYers which you should keep in mind when doing your own competitive intelligence research and analysis:

  1. Be honest – admit that you have not always been focused on what your competitors are doing: Even if you have been trying to keep up with what the competition is doing, your efforts have almost certainly been sporadic and incomplete. If you are not really keeping up, you are probably just assuming you know what the competition is doing. Never assume you know what your competitor is doing, and, more importantly, never assume you know what it is planning to do!
  2. Know who your real competitors are: They may not be who you think they are. Ask your customers what other firms else they considered before they chose you. Those should be considered competitors, too. And keep an eye on your partners, suppliers and even major customers. They can, and often do, quickly turn into competitors.
  3. Ask lots of questions: If a customer leaves, find out why he/she is leaving and where he/she is going. Keep track of the answers you get. You may find a pattern that warns you of emerging competitors or new initiatives. Then you know what to focus on.
  4. Familiarize yourself with the competition — as they really are – today: Take the time to visit and revisit their stores, study their facilities (if possible), check out their web sites, and find out who owns them. Regularly track data about your competitors in the public domain – press releases, newsletters, new government filings, etc.
  5. When you study your competitors, never assume they see things the way you do: Your competitors have their own vision of the marketplace – and of your firm. Even if you think that vision is dead wrong, always keep in mind that they are guided by it and will operate in accord with it, not on how you think they should behave.
  6. Decide what’s important – and what is not: There are some things you can’t do anything about no matter how much you know about them. Focus on supporting important decision-making, not on merely satisfying your own curiosity.
  7. Don’t assume there is nothing you can do, even if you know what your competitors are up to: Effective CI does not always provide an opportunity to develop a competitive advantage, such as launching a new product. But sometimes it provides a vital early warning of a threat that can help you survive!
  8. Don’t get pressured into trying to measure exactly what CI is doing all of the time: While there are many aspects of CI where you can measure the impact, you cannot attach a number to everything CI can do for you. For example, what is the value of knowing a competitor will beat you to market or knowing that a competitor’s planned initiative will run into problems because the construction of the plant supporting is behind schedule because it still lacks some key permits?
  9. Be realistic: With the increasing focus on security on all fronts, some sources of raw data CI that were available in the past are no longer open to the public. Others may not be in the future. Always keep these changes and possible changes in mind
  10. Do it right – or don’t do it at all: CI is an ethical, legal activity. Never let yourself get pressured into doing anything that is not totally ethical and legal. There is never any good reason to be unethical or illegal.

Lessons from the Corn Maze

September 23, 2016

It is Fall! Here in Pennsylvania, the corn maze is a seasonal custom. You know about corn mazes. A farmer plants a field of corn and then cuts down everything that is not a pathway, a dead end, an entrance, an exit, or a couple of surprises. When you are in the maze, you cannot see through or over the corn rows – you just have to make your way through – or call the owners for help.

For those of us in CI, there are lessons to be learned from the corn mazes – otherwise I would not be talking about them. Here they are:

  • When you start, you may think you know where you are heading, but soon you learn that is almost never the case.
  • After a short time, you begin to wonder if the journey will ever end. If you don’t get it right, it will not!
  • The proven way to get it done is usually the least efficient way to proceed (hint: for a corn maze it usually is to keep your right hand on an outside wall and following it around, and around, and around).
  • Getting confused can mean you are doing it right – you are watching and listening and not just meandering.
  • It will always take longer to solve it than you expect. Maybe more time than you have.
  • If there is help offered, like a map you can carry, always take it.
  • Think outside of the box, oops, maze. You have a map on your cell phone – use it. And if you are stuck, use it call for help. Use all available tools, not just the ones someone else gave you.
  • Remember, some barriers are artificial – if you are really lost, you probably can go through the corn rows, if you know in what direction to go.
  • Avoid going along the same path more than once.
  • Remember any dead ends you ran into so you avoid them the next time. Otherwise you will dead end again and again.
  • If you have a map, plan your moves in advance – do not “wing it”, or “go with your gut”.

Now, for maze, substitute any analytical problem. Enjoy.

10 Commandments for DIYers

September 13, 2016

In 2007, the CIA released a paper to the public title “Fifteen Axioms for Intelligence Analysts”[1]. Taking this as an inspiration, I would like to propose my own 10 Commandments, ok, Suggestions, for DIYers. The reason I did not just repost this is that (a) I put a link to it in the footnote, and (b) it dealt with governmental analysts, not DIYers, who are in a very different environment, with very different skills, and needs.

Here goes:

  1. Always know what you are seeking — and why. In other words, what can you do, or decide, with the CI that you cannot do or decide on now? If it is not actionable, it is not CI.
  2. Aggressively seek out the data that you need if you think you need it to complete your analysis. Who is to say that you are wrong about that? If you got that data, and found it did not help, next time you will do even better and be more efficient.
  3. Network, network, network. 80% or more of what you need is probably in the hands or minds of your associates in your own firm. The next 10% may be found in your own network. You DO have a network, don’t you? Nurture it.
  4. Have confidence in your own analysis and develop confidence in your judgments based on that analysis. If you do not have confidence, who else will? If you have confidence, others will see that and respond positively.
  5. Do not be afraid of being wrong in your analyses. Everyone is wrong sometimes. If you are wrong, acknowledge it, figure out why, and move on. That is called growth and maturity.
  6. Don’t be afraid of being right. If you are, why are you still working there?
  7. They are not you, and never will be. Avoid mirror imaging your targets at any cost. That is one of the greatest traps in intelligence analysis.
  8. Don’t keep your findings to yourself. CI is more valuable when it reaches – and helps – more people.
  9. If everyone agrees with your findings, then there could be something wrong. Have all of you looked at the situation with the same institutional blinders? Perhaps.
  10. Don’t take your CI work too seriously, or let your CI work take you over. Yes, it is useful, and even interesting, but you also have a life. Enjoy that. Unlike our friends in government, your work will not prevent (or hasten) the end of times.

[1] Frank Watanabe, How To succeed in the DI: Fifteen Axioms for Intelligence Analysts, first posted May 8, 2007.