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Jan 6 / heathgross

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

illustration by Cat Scott

This is a picture of why many companies and products fail. How is it that a company with a multi-million dollar market research budget can get caught off guard? I will tell you how.

Several years ago I was doing contract competitive intelligence (CI) work for a CI firm. The firm had contracted me to provide primary research support on a project for one of their clients, a major pharmaceutical and biotech company. The project lasted almost a year. During that time I learned some very valuable, albeit disturbing, things about how some companies think and act. Since then I have witnessed this same problem in many of the companies I have come into contact with, from small, nimble, start-ups, to large, multinational conglomerates. It’s what I like to the call the See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil Phenomenon.

This is what happened. (I am omitting a number of details in order to protect the ignorant)

The client was developing a new vaccine, a vaccine for which there was no current competitor on the market. The company had already spent millions of dollars in development and was quickly approaching the pre-launch phase of the program. The vaccine had the potential of being a multi-billion dollar vaccine… but there was one problem. The problem wasn’t the science, it was sound. It wasn’t the market, the market was ready. It wasn’t even with the regulatory authorities; the FDA had already given subtle indications that a vaccine of its kind would be given a fair and speedy review. The problem was that the company was not alone. A rival biotech company was speeding along, neck-and-neck, with the development of a competitor vaccine. It was a race to the finish line.

The first part of my job was to talk to Key Opinion Leaders and provide feedback on how they felt about the two vaccines. By the time I got involved it was already clear to many in the industry that the client’s vaccine was slightly inferior. This was not good news to the client, though it surprised me that this was the first time they were hearing this news since both vaccines had been under development for several years.

My second objective was to determine what the launch timeline was for the competitor’s vaccine. If the client’s vaccine could get to market first, it could establish a strong market presence, limiting the scientific advantage of the competitor vaccine. However, after interviews with a number of key competitor stakeholders, I learned that the competitor program was right on schedule and might even beat the client’s vaccine to market!

My next objective was to provide ongoing monitoring of the competitor. I was to provide up-to-date competitive intelligence on the clinical trials, regulatory status, and pre-launch marketing activity of the competitor’s vaccine. This, as you will see, proved problematic: Not because I couldn’t get the intelligence (I did), but because of the See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil Phenomenon.

This is what I learned.

Problem 1 – See No Evil: The product managers, scientists, and marketing personnel driving the program for the client had never bothered to pull their head out of the sand and look at the world around them. For several years they had been developing their vaccine in a virtual vacuum, paying little attention to what their competitors were doing. They did not see simply because they were not looking.

Problem 2 – Hear No Evil: By the time I got involved in the project there was a growing minority of client employees that had begun to peek through the hands covering their eyes; what they saw concerned them. My reports were very clear: The client was losing the race and something drastic had to be done, and it had to be done quickly. But by the time the product management team began to voice their concerns, the executive team would not listen. They had spent millions on development and were sticking to their course. It was the blind leading the deaf.

Problem 3 – Speak No Evil: The CI firm that had contracted me had been working for this client, providing competitive intelligence monitoring, long before I was brought on. They had read the writing on the wall just as I had, but they had failed to sufficiently warn the client. It’s not that they were negligent in their duties; the reports contained all the facts. Anyone on the client’s side that would have opened their eyes or their ears could have seen and heard the warning signs. But they didn’t. And the CI firm did little to persuade them. This was one of those instances where the CI firm needed to grab the client and shake some sense into them (metaphorically, of course). But that would have been risky, that could have meant possibly losing the client. So, they did their research, typed up their reports, and said very little, and quietly watched as the client poured millions of dollars into a vaccine race that everyone knew they were going to lose.

And lose they did.

So what is the moral of the story?

For product managers and those mid-level executives charged with bringing a new product to market, or defending an existing market position: Open your eyes! Pull your head out of the sand! Ignoring the world around you will not make it go away. Rest assured, if you have a good idea, there is a very real chance someone, somewhere, is already working on it. Hire yourself a good competitive intelligence firm and find out what the competitive landscape looks like. If you are already doing competitive intelligence, then read the report and ask your vendor what they really think.

For executives: Open your ears. There is a good chance that someone, somewhere in your company is warning you of the impending iceberg. Someone in your company has a better understanding of your competition than you do. Listen to them. If there is no one in your company that can provide you with a comprehensive view of your competitive landscape, then that means no one is doing competitive intelligence. Find yourself a vendor you can trust, one that not only does great research, but one that will be objective and candid (I personally think that my firm, Sedulo Group, is your best choice, but for a list of other vendors visit the SCIP website). Hire them…and listen.

For Competitive Intelligence Firms: Yes, our job is to answer our client’s questions, but sometimes our clients don’t see or hear the world around them and, therefore, are not asking the right questions. You may be doing your job while at the same time doing your client a disservice. If and when you see your client heading down the wrong path, when they won’t open their eyes or ears, it’s your responsibility to grab them (again, metaphorically of course) and shake some sense into them.

Warning: I practice what I preach, and I can personally attest that there is risk involved here. Look for my post Getting Fired Never Feels Good to read what happened when I tried this recently with a client.

Every day companies are losing business because they don’t see, because they don’t hear and because no one is telling them what their competition is doing or plans to do. Don’t fall victim to this phenomenon: Open your eyes, open your ears, or, pick up the phone and call me – I will candidly tell you exactly what your competitors are up to.

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