January 17, 2017
How do these observations apply to competitive intelligence?
From General (and former President) Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”
From legendary science fiction author Isaac Asimov: “To succeed, planning alone is insufficient. One must improvise as well.”
They mean that planning of any sort must not end with the plan. Being a part of the process means learning to work with all others similarly situate, even after the plan is done, to take necessary action based on accurate intelligence. You and they must be constantly alert to all of the changes that will impact the plan, or even render it useless.
You may be asked to work with strategic planners and provide CI, whatever it is called. Keep in mind that the need for such intelligence never ends at the “completion” of the planning cycle. Whether or not recognized by the planners themselves, CI is even more vital to the entire planning and execution process once the plan is done.
Why? Your competitors and the competitive environment will not give you the luxury of staying static or doing what you expected them to do in response to your firm’s actions, just to accommodate your planned efforts. Stay linked to those throughout the process and focus on keeping them updated rather than waiting for the next cycle or even the next updating meeting.
 Quoted by Dean James Stavridis, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, in “Trump’s national security strategy leaves too much unsaid”, Time, January 22, 2018, p. 45.
 Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy, Ballantine Books, 1983, p. 126.
December 6, 2017
So, you want to grow your personal competitive intelligence expertise, or maybe grow what your CI team can do for your company? Doing that often takes you and your team through several stages of development, each of which requires additional skills and work, but which also provides increasing benefit to the ultimate end users of the CI.
This is where you produce and use of CI to understand what and who is going on – here and now. You would be surprised (then, maybe not surprised) how little some companies know about their competition, or even who their major competitors are. Don’t believe me? Let relate a real experience with a client.
A business development manager at the client, a new hire, wanted us to help identify the firm’s top competitors in each of its 4 key markets. What she wanted to see was what strategic moves they had made in the past few years, and how well those efforts turned out. The goal was to learn from their successes and failures.
She told us that, when she went to senior managers, what she got was confusing and conflicted. (Everyone who is surprised, raise your hand) The executives did not agree among themselves who they were competing with and in which market niche.
So, we did our research and gave her a list of the top ten current competitors, by gross sales, for each niche. The results were interesting.
Of the 10 competitors, the senior managers, as a group, identified 6 or 7 in each niche. So far so good.
In each niche, they had identified 1 or 2 firms as competitors who were not currently competitors and had not been in that niche for a minimum of 2 years. Bad. Obviously, they were not paying close attention to what was happening in niche by niche.
What about the others, the missing 1 or 2 in each niche? They were firms that were current competitors that no senior manager, let me repeat that, no one, identified as in the top 10. Even worse, in 3 of the 4 niches there was one of these “stealth” competitors among the top 5! Talk about blind spots.
Now you begin to understand the history of the key competitors, which can lead to at least a partial understanding of its culture and its view of the world. Businesses and their executives and managers are molded by what they have succeeded (and failed) at. This stage should include a look at key executives, particularly those who have joined the firm in the past 2-3 years. They were hired for a reason. What was it?
Don’t think culture is important (or even real)? Consider the attempt by Kraft Heinz to acquire Unilever. According to a report in Fortune, one of the several reasons that the Unilever board rejected the offer was the radical difference in corporate cultures. 
This stage involves identifying the capabilities or potentialities of your competitors. What can they do that they are not doing how? How skilled is the workforce? How good/efficient is its supply chain? What strategic alliances do they have or might they logically create?
The final stage involves ascertaining your key competitors’ intentions. That is, now that you know where they came from, what they are really doing, and what they can do that they are not yet doing, you start analyzing available evidence to determine where they are going to go tomorrow. Now you are at the top of the CI food chain. Congratulations! From here, lies the world of early warning systems – another important topic.
 “Change World”, Fortune, Sept. 15, 2017, p. 82. “Unilever’s board rallied behind [the vision of ‘making sustainable living commonplace’] to help stymie an unsolicited takeover bid from Kraft Heinz.”
August 28, 2017
Earlier this year, I wrote a blog dealing with the “circular economy”. Since then, I have done some digging into this topic and conclude that (a) the circular economy is, not might be, coming, and (b) competitive intelligence as we know for firms that are a part of this will have to undergo major changes as a result.
One consequence is that I have written a longer piece on the subject, which you might enjoy reading. A brief extract may interest you:
“The rise of the CE [Circular Economy] will necessarily have major impacts on competitive and strategic intelligence. They appear to fall into 4 broad categories:
- A change in the stature of CI.
- A reduction in [CI] employment opportunities with firms in the CE, while increasing it in firms outside of the CE.
- Greater opportunities for those trained in defensive intelligence.
- A need for new skills and education for intelligence personnel working in the CE.”
The full paper is “Ten years gone, holdin’ on, ten years gone ”: The Circular Economy and the Evolutionary Trajectory of the Competitive Intelligence Profession.
August 18, 2017
Our new book, Competitive Intelligence Rescue – Getting It Right, is a powerful “how-to-do-it-better” book, the first guidebook on competitive intelligence that uses case studies to provide behind-the-scenes insights into how professionals can improve competitive intelligence processes. This unique approach uses real-world case studies (carefully masked) to expose common CI challenges and presents a simple methodology for spotting problems, understanding how to rectify each problem, educating others to bring about improvements in a process, and testing and validating that the changes are working.
Several cases there show the problems and issues in creating a new competitive intelligence unit. In our experiences, and by our, I mean Carolyn M. Vella, The Helicon Group’s Founding Partner and my significantly better half, there are typically 7 major elements involved in that process: financial and personnel, guidelines, training, internal marketing, networking, customers and their needs, and CI products and feedback. For those who would like to transition from DIY to full-time status, or for those who are already there, it is important to see the big picture so I will deal quickly with each over the next weeks.
The first element I will comment on is key financial/personnel issues.
From the financial end, a CI unit, even if it is made up of only one person, requires a commitment to proper funding for the unit, including for training, internal marketing, and networking. Ideally, the CI unit should have its own stable funding. That allows management to compare costs with results and for the unit to plan further ahead than one quarter.
From the personnel end, some one must be in charge, even if that is only one of his/her duties. Team responsibility means no accountability. And, the individual in charge must have direct, personal access to all internal customers, particularly the most senior or important. Filtering their needs often means failure to deliver. Also, once this is a full-time position, the individual there must be able to see a career path after CI. No clear path up means looking for a way out.
This is not the first time I have commented on these issues. Check out these past blogs for more on this:
July 5, 2017
On the relationship
- “I’m not the final client for this work.” That makes doing the work harder, since the consultant is going through a filter – you. And that means no opportunity for effective pushback or digging into the end user’s real needs, as opposed to its (different) stated needs.
- “We’ll promise you more business if you’ll cut your fee.” Unless you have that authority, and there is more business in the pipeline, do not hold out this faux carrot. And don’t you think this will impact the current work? Remember the saying, “There are three things possible, but you only get two: fast, cheap, or good.”
- “Your relationship is limited to the person who signed your contract.” (This involves a sad story in which a client was fired in mid-project, and his successors initially didn’t want to pay a pending invoice.)
On the submitted bid/proposal
- “We’ll share your proposal and/or approach with other vendors.” In other words, one consultant is now working for its competitors? Increasingly, proposals are submitted to potential clients with language forbidding sharing the contents. Respect it.
- “We’re really just looking for good ideas for our own people.” Why not pay a consultant to work with your team to learn how to develop better skills and approaches?
- “You’re column fodder.” That means you need to get three bids, but want only vendor #1. The other two bidders are there to fill out the columns on the evaluation matrix. Don’t do it.
- “Your bid is a bargaining tool.” Sometimes bids are solicited on an existing piece of work to keep an incumbent “in its place” cost-wise and otherwise. See number 6 above.
- “You’re not bidding on the same scope of work as others.” It is amazing how few companies issue formal RFPs or other engagement specs for CI these days, so they are often getting competing “apples and oranges” proposals.
On fees and payments
- “We always bargain harder with small vendors.” High quality small vendors without big time “brand names” are often seen as more likely to cut fees to win work. See number 2 above.
- “We only pay on 45 (or 60 or 75) days.” When that comes from a (large) firm which requires its own customers to pay in 10-15 days net, it translates to “We ride our accounts payable to enhance our cash flow.”
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.
March 17, 2017
One thing that those of us producing competitive intelligence strive for is accuracy. Well, to be more precise, our end users want accuracy – and can be very demanding of that. However, accuracy is a chimera.
Why? For several reasons, some independent, some inter-related:
- When we are assessing hard, current facts, such as the size of a new plant, we have a fixed target to focus on. Or do we? Do we want the square footage of the plant, its capacity, or its current production? The first is precise, the others less so. Capacity is, at best, an estimate. Change the equipment, move some around, and you change capacity. As for current production, as soon as you estimate (that word again) it, it may change. You know what I mean – the target starts or reduces a second shift the week after you finish your research and analysis.
- But not all current data is fixed. It is only fixed as of a moment in time. Take, for example, market share. What do we mean by that? What market? At what point in time or over what period? Do we also mean noting (past) trends (increases/decreases)? Does a market share that has steadily been increasing/decreasing mean that it will continue to increase/decrease? If so, why, how fast? Does it have a limit (other than 100%)?
- When we are focusing on a competitor’s short-term and long-term plans, what we are really assessing, at least in part, is the target’s intention. What does the target plan to do? Why? What will make it change its plans? How quickly can and will the target change its plans – and based on what future events?
- When we are assessing intention of a target, unless the target is an individual, we are assessing not only the intention of the CEO, but the intentions of the senior management team. Then, we must consider the ability – and willingness – of management and staff to carry out the direction of senior management. If you think that a firm moves in unison and accurately to the direction of its CEO, remember one word – bureaucracy.
- When assessing the success or failure of a target’s past actions, we must be very clear in our mind what we mean by success or failure. Is that from the target’s perspective, from my perspective, both, or neither? And what does the past have to do with the present and the future? Are the same decision-makers still in the same positions? Is the target facing the same competitive forces now as then?
- When assessing the likelihood of success or failure of a target’s current actions, we are dangerously close to the realm of conjecture. When assessing the likelihood of success or failure of a target’s intended actions, we have crossed over.
These are meant to show that the issues facing CI are squishier than your end users may understand. I am not saying that CI cannot contribute to a better understanding of what you and your firm face. It can and does. But it does that by reducing uncertainty. Any effort to force CI to deliver certainty will doom it to failure.