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Apr 30 / heathgross

Six Degrees of Connection

Improve the ROI and sustainability of competitive intelligence in your organization by linking CI to Strategy using six analytical tools.

 

In order to increase the ROI, and thus the sustainability, of CI within your organization, it is essential to link research with strategy.  While there is a growing dialogue concerning the need to increase the impact of CI on strategy, the majority of the discussion is theoretical in nature.

The goal of this session is to provide the CI professional with six practical analytical tools that will enable the practitioner to convert research findings into research based strategic decision support.

The term polarization keeps popping up in the media; talking heads from Fox to MSNBC, and every channel in-between, are lamenting the division in our country’s wealth, healthcare and political views.  Polarization occurs when parties are split on how they perceive a problem and on how that problem can and should be resolved.

Our industry is not insulated from this trend.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the need for competitive intelligence to be more closely aligned with strategy.  For those who prescribe to this view, competitive intelligence is regarded as a decision support tool, one that works hand in hand with other business disciplines in a broader consultative context.

Yet others suggest that competitive intelligence is a stand-alone product.  It is the sum of primary and secondary research and analysis; it is the product of a research organization, one whose goal is to find answers to questions.

The difference is less in the output and more in the goal.  Research organizations are focused on finding answers, consultative organizations are focused on finding solutions.

Based on the title of this blog it is probably pretty easy to figure out where I come down on this argument.  While we have plenty of clients that hire us to serve as there research vendor, I am convinced that we provide greater value when we are able to serve in a consultative role, as a thought partner that seeks to not just find answers, but to find solutions through research based decision support.

At the Pharma CI European Conference in February 2013, Dr. Daniel Pascheles, Vice President, Merck & Company, in his keynote address, encouraged fellow CI professionals to look for ways to link CI to strategy, thereby increasing the value of CI.  Later in the conference, Philippe Revardel, Associate Vice-President Corporate Strategic Intelligence, Sanofi, echoed these same sentiments in his session entitled, Leveraging Intelligence in the Strategic Decision Making Process.

I too spoke at this conference in a similarly themed session entitled, The Answer to CI ROI: Increasing the Value of Competitive Intelligence Through The Realignment of Research Objectives (View Presentation).  What is interesting is that there was no coordination between the three of us and this was never presented as a conference theme.  I don’t believe this is a coincidence, but rather another indication of a paradigm shift in our industry, one that will continue to polarize CI practitioners, dividing those who perceive themselves as researchers vs those that view themselves as consultants and strategists.

At the end of the day we can’t just talk about linking CI to strategy, we actually need to do it.

Another reoccurring theme I have been hearing is that while the idea is appealing in theory, many CI practitioners are not sure exactly how to do this.  Are there systems, tools and techniques that can enable us to move from the theoretical to the practical?

I am not claiming to have all the answers here.  But I did want to take a first step.  I wanted to share six tools that we use on a regularly basis to help our clients transform intelligence into insight, research findings into business decisions support.  Some of these we developed in-house, some are time-tested tools and others are modifications of widely used techniques.

I hope that you find these useful in your effort to link CI to strategy, thereby improving the value, and thus, the sustainability, of CI in your organization.

View Tools

 

 

Apr 29 / heathgross

Secondary Research – An Essential Piece To Any Consulting Firm

UnGoogle Yourself

Secondary research is an essential piece to any strategic consulting firm’s solution portfolio. While few would argue this statement, most experienced CI practitioners can easily forget about the foundational nature of secondary research. Without reliable and intentional secondary research, primary research will not hit its intended target and the overall project goals will not be met. Let’s look at three pieces to the secondary research puzzle.

Don’t Let Google Stop You

No, this is not going to be a rant about Google taking over the world, but about the over reliance on Google in secondary research. Now that Google basically owns online search as we know it, it can be easy to stop short of great secondary research. If you have been hiding somewhere the past few years, read this article about Google’s command of online search. What Google’s domination in online search can lead to is complacency and stagnation in secondary research. Google is a reliable starting place in the effort to ground primary research in solid secondary, but research falls short when Google is the only tool employed to cast a wide net on a topic or person. It would be like in fishing if you continued to cast a line in the same spot with the same bait every time. You may get some decent size fish here and there, but you could be missing the big fish just upstream because doing the same thing every time has gotten decent results in the past. Don’t settle for just getting some decent size “fish” here and there; be willing to go deeper and wider in secondary research.


What Else Is Out There?

While there is no doubt that Google offers a plethora of helpful and timely information, as mentioned above secondary research cannot end just at Google. Here are some sources that may get overlooked in the tendency to use Google as a crutch:

Social Media/Blogs – Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook – In an effort to get noticed, people often share more than their companies would probably like.

Financial Reports – Reports provide a large amount of data tailor-made to widen one’s understanding of industry verticals and company structures as well the typical financial data associated with quarterly and yearly reporting.

Alerts – Whether you are trying to track hiring practices, website updates, or product launches, utilizing alerts can be a helpful tool to stay on top of the competitive landscape.

 

Fake it ‘til you Make it

This phrase has floated around for the last few years, and while ultimately it is a bad thing to base your business on, there is a principal here we can learn from. Working in the competitive intelligence industry, our clients come from any number of different industries and we need to be able to quickly adapt and gain an understanding of their business and the vocabulary associated with it. Good secondary research allows you to step intelligently into any industry and be able to then leverage your CI skillset to deliver high quality, actionable intelligence.

The point truly isn’t to be able to pretend like you know something when you are absolutely clueless, it is to highlight the fact that there is a steep learning curve on all new projects. When working in an industry where we help our clients stay ahead of their competition, there is always something new to learn about. Whether it is a competitor they hadn’t considered before that is gaining ground in the market or a new product set to launch in the next six months to a year, we have to be able to learn the most relevant industry information possible, and do it quickly. This is where having a variety of resources, and knowing which ones to leverage for specific knowledge, is key.

Getting Personal

It can be easy to think of secondary research in a dry, detached sort of way, but detailed secondary information can drive great primary conversations. People want to talk to people that they like and detailed secondary information can be helpful in deciding the best approach to take. For instance, if an opinion leader’s profile mentions they are from small town Ohio and you are too, lead with that common connection. This works with even high level sources. If you happen to find that a source has written widely on a particular topic, you may get that person warmed up by mentioning how insightful their publications have been.

 

Winning


As we have seen, great secondary research must incorporate more than just Google. Also, secondary research must have as its primary purpose to grant personality to primary research and gain the edge in fast adaptation with client needs and goals.

Secondary research void of thoughtfulness ends up only in market research. If the goal is strategic intelligence, then you are looking to provide actionable intelligence that is timely and thoughtful. Leveraging secondary research for that purpose will keep long-term clients and gain new ones.

 

Mar 18 / heathgross

“What’s After Next?”

Leveraging competitive intelligence to identify innovation white space

 

Today many companies are surveying the market and asking themselves, “What can we make next, how can we improve our product and what would be innovative?”  ‘What’s next?’ can often lead to incremental innovation, continued competition and a lack of differentiation. Instead we should be asking, ‘What’s after next?’  Leveraging competitive intelligence, organizations can look beyond what is next, gaining valuable insight into ‘What’s After Next’, will enable you to pursue true product differentiation, find open, uncontested markets and leap frog the competition.

Speaking of leapfrogging, do you remember this?  Frogger is a great illustration how important it is to plan your strategy several moves ahead.

 

Are We Asking The Right Questions

 

It isn’t hard to figure out what the unmet market need is.  Consumers are pretty vocal; ‘I want my phone to be able to do this’, ‘I need an app that can do that’; ‘we need a medical device that is capable of…’  The problem is, everyone is asking those same questions and getting the same answers.  While they may tackle the issue differently, the result is a new wave of products that address the same need, though their approach and ability to meet that need may differ.  The result is threefold:

  • A race to be the first to develop and launch, leading to compromised quality or capability
  • Minimal differentiation
  • Incremental innovation

Is there a way to innovate that avoids this trap?  Yes.  Don’t base your innovation strategy on what is next, instead, look to ‘What’s after next’.

If you want to reach the Lily Pad, or in this case “white space”, you have to navigate dangerous roads, roaring rivers, crocodiles and snakes.

 

Looking for ‘What’s After Next’

 

How do you do that?  It requires a very different process.  Most innovation today is based on what consumers want or need today.  While there is some consideration for what is already in the competitor pipeline, the focus is usually on how to do the next thing better.  Again, this results in waves of similar products hitting the market within the same window, forcing them to compete on price and features, rather than on meeting an unmet need.

A smarter use of our innovation resources would be to focus on ‘what’s after next’.

 

Where is the white space in the innovation pipeline?  There is a three step process we can use to do that:

1)     Map the consumer needs

2)     Map the innovation pipelines of the competitive landscape

3)     Look for white space opportunities beyond what is next

For those organizations that are more risk averse, and that have the resources, there is another step that can be used:

4)     Develop a strategy that balances low-risk incremental innovation with higher-risk white space innovation.

 

Looking For Whitespaces

 

How do you find the innovation white spaces? Figuring out what the competition is working on can be challenging. While their ‘next’ innovation may be fairly public and well known within the market, their pipeline is likely less public. There is a chance they are already working on their ‘What’s after next’ innovation. A common technique for gaining insight into future innovation is by examining the paper trail created in the R&D period of innovation. Conducting patent analysis, analyzing new hires and studying the competitors’ technology licensing and acquisition strategy are all useful techniques in trying to ascertain where a competitor might be innovating ‘after next’.

But there is still an even better way: competitive intelligence can be leveraged to provide details of competitor R&D and innovation strategies. This information can then be used to identify the innovation white spaces.

TO LEARN MORE: Please contact Sedulo Group. And later this month we will add a video for a more detailed understanding of identifying the innovation white spaces.

Jan 14 / heathgross

Think like the competitor. Act like the competitor. Beat the competitor.

Illustration by Yinan Wang

 

How many of you remember this dialogue?  If you don’t know what a dial-up modem sounds like, you are probably too young to remember this movie.

Scientist:         General, are you prepared to destroy the enemy?
General:          You betcha!
Scientist:         Do you think they know that?
General:          I believe we’ve made that clear enough.
Scientist:         Then don’t! Tell the President to ride out the attack.
Colonel:           Sir, they need a decision.
Scientist:         General, do you really believe that the enemy would attack without provocation, using so many missiles, bombers, and subs so that we would have no choice but to totally annihilate them?
[Loudspeaker]             One minute and thirty seconds to impact.
Scientist:         General, you are listening to a machine! Do the world a favor and don’t act like one.
[Loudspeaker]             One minute and twenty seconds to impact.

 

Recently my firm was asked by a major pharmaceutical company to support a war game exercise for one of their OTC brands.  Every time I hear the term “war game” I can’t help but think about the 1983 movie, War Games, staring a very young Mathew Broderick.  I was 13 years old when I first saw this movie and even then this particular dialogue stuck with me.  “General you are listening to a machine! Do the world a favor and don’t act like one.”  What a great line, one that we would all do well to listen to, in both business and life.

Over the past couple of years our firm has steadily evolved from a tactical oriented competitive intelligence agency, focusing almost exclusively on just answering KIQs (Key Intelligence Questions), into a full service competitive strategy firm.  One aspect of that evolution has been an increase in opportunities to support our clients’ strategic decision making process.  I have always believed that, if done right, a war game exercise can be a great tool for decision support and team building.

In today’s business environment we have become increasingly dependent on technology; a war game reminds us that computers are no match for the human mind when it comes to creativity and understanding human motivations:  two key ingredients to developing effective business strategies.

Computers are great for storing and mining data, for extrapolating, calculating and projecting… but computers only know what we teach them.  Computers have no emotional intelligence.  They lack the ability to understand human motivations.  They cannot create or truly strategize.  Sure, they can cram data into algorithms and models that certainly can provide insight.  But they can’t think. For now, at least, thinking is still the sole domain of humans.

Developing a strategy to counter your competitors’ messaging requires that you understand how the competitor thinks, what motivates them, what keeps them up at night.  It requires you to put yourself in the shoes of the competitor and ask, “What would I do if I were them?”

That is the true essence of a war game – that is really what a war game is.  War games come in all shapes and sizes, but at the end of the day, that is the goal of every war game: to role-play the enemy (competitor) in order to try and predict what they might do.  A war game enables you to develop contingency plans and offensive strategies that can proactively disrupt or blunt the predicted actions of the competitor.

Of course there are other factors involved in developing a business strategy besides just the actions of competitors.  A good war game will factor in a number of variables into the scenarios, exploring both the macro and micro influencers, from the general economy to regulatory, technology and consumer trends.

I could probably write a book on how to conduct an effective war game (in fact a number of people have) but for now I will leave you with a few simple suggestions:

  • Know Your Enemy: Ok, so this is business and these aren’t really your enemies, but they are your competitors.  Having robust briefing decks on each competitor is key.  You want the teams to have the decks a few days before the war game so that they can learn as much as they can about the role they will be playing: How does the competitor make decisions?, What is their culture like? What kind of budgets do they have?  These are just a few examples of the kinds of things the teams will need to know in order to effectively think like the competitor.
  • Don’t conduct your war game in a vacuum:  One mistake I see a lot of companies make is basing their war game scenarios on too many assumptions.  Certainly you can’t know everything your competitor is going to do (if you could you would not need to do a war game), but conducting research before the war game is one of the keys to success.
  • Don’t rely solely on secondary research:  Most companies are very good at gathering secondary research, but when it comes time to plan your strategy, it is generally worth the investment to hire a good primary research vendor to fill in as many of the knowledge gaps as possible BEFORE the war game.  See ‘Are You Driving Blindfold?’ for more on this.
  • Have fun, be creative:  For most people, the idea of a full day or two of ‘Strategy Development’ sounds like as much fun as a root canal.  There a number of things you can do to keep the war game fun, so explore some options with the idea that a war game can be a team building process as well as a strategy development exercise.
  • Immerse the teams:  Using things like video, competitor name tags and props can help to immerse the teams, enabling them to ‘get into character’.  The more the teams feel like the competitor, the more likely they are to think like the competitor.

Remember, war games give us an opportunity to do what all of our technology can’t: think.  In a world where we are spoon fed data at a nauseating pace, war games give you a chance to step back, unplug, be creative, have fun, and in the process develop a creative business strategy that will help you out maneuver and outperform the competition.

Mar 29 / heathgross

10 Reasons Most Companies Don’t Know Jack About Their Competition

Do you know who your competition is?

Illustration by Cat Scott

Like many of my peers in the competitive intelligence community, I am a member of several competitive and market intelligence LinkedIn Groups. Recently I came across a discussion thread that summed up why …

Most Companies Don’t Know Jack About Their Competition!

A member of a particular group asked a very natural question that many folks new to competitive intelligence might want to know. The question:

“Does anyone know the best place to find company and financial information on a privately-held company? I have a budget and a tight deadline. Hoovers, One Source & D&B have nothing. Thanks.”

The responses to this question left me scratching my head. Below are ten of the responses:

  1. I would suggest checking the state records for which the company is incorporated. It varies and depends on state laws. Also, you may need to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain access. In most cases, it is very difficult.

  2. I have used manta.com, Reference USA (from my public library) and Skyminder Information Services as good backup resources. If the company is large….forbes.com has the top 200 privately held companies list.

  3. In Europe each individual country has a trade registry with some of the latter being public. Good access to the company’s official papers and financials.

  4. Here is a web site to get financial data about French private companies. http://www.societe.com. It is a French website. Hope it helps.

  5. Check with Capital IQ for private company financials, particularly for US based companies. It’s a subscription based service.

  6. For all Private Equity/Venture Capital backed companies, Dow Jones VentureSource is the one place to look. It is a subscription based service. Otherwise, in Europe, country specific and free DB are great. For France, www.societe.com and www.infogreffe.fr. For Germany, www.handelsregister.de.

  7. In Bulgaria full company trade registry history and financials for the last 4 years at https://public.brra.bg/CheckUps/Verifications/VerificationPersonOrg.ra Works only in Bulgarian.

  8. Orbis is a data source which provides company and financial info for all public companies.

  9. First check the secy of state filing to see what corp documents are available and then you can google the officers etc.

  10. I assume you checked your target’s website first of course

Secondary, secondary, secondary. Keep in mind this was a competitive intelligence LinkedIn Group, not market research. I am not suggesting that these recommendations are not valid; each of them has individual merit. What baffled me was that not one of my peers suggested primary research. As I have said many times before, the best way to get detailed information on a company is to pick up the phone and talk to someone!

Here are some questions you may be asking yourself…

But Isn’t Secondary Faster?

Perhaps no one suggested primary research because the member stated, “I have…a tight deadline”. It is true that primary research generally takes longer than secondary; however, in my experience it is possible to get primary intel within a very short time frame if one uses the right approach. Without knowing what was meant by “tight deadline” there was no way to know if the member had ten hours or ten days. Ten hours probably wouldn’t be enough, but generally ten days is plenty.

But Isn’t Secondary Cheaper?

What about the “I have a budget” issue? Maybe that is why no one suggested primary research; after all, isn’t primary research much more expensive? The answer: yes and no. It is true that some of the techniques mentioned in the responses are free. After doing some research of my own, I learned that all of the subscription based services mentioned (almost half of the responses) cost more than what we would charge for answering the same question. So, unless the member already has access to these secondary sources, primary research may actually be more cost effective.

What About Detail and Accuracy?

Primary research can generally provide far greater detail and with a higher rate of accuracy than secondary. Our research has demonstrated that the financial figures provided on companies via secondary sources can be off by as much as 200%!

We recently completed a company profile for a client in which we had only five days to perform the research. In five days, we were able to gather extremely detailed financial data that we were able to verify with the VP of Business Development. What is equally impressive is that we were able to do the study for less than $4,000. (Access our download center for a sanitized version of this report)

In Short

The reason most companies don’t know Jack about their competition is because if you limit your research to secondary, you will only know a) as much as everybody else and b) what your competitor wants you to know. In business, like in war, that is not the kind of intelligence you want to build a strategy on.

To those who are new to competitive intelligence, let me say this: Secondary research can be a great tool for gathering high level information quickly and efficiently, but it is important to understand that it comes with significant limitations. See The Four Disciplines Of Competitive Intelligence for more on this.

To my peers who are either consumers or providers of competitive intelligence: You can’t find everything online. The internet is great, but if you really want to get forward looking, hard-to-get intelligence, it’s time to put down the mouse and pick up the phone.

I’d love to hear from readers about what your experience has been with primary vs. secondary research, particularly around private companies.

Want to see how primary research can help you? Contact Sedulo Group for a free custom competitor profile.

Feb 19 / heathgross

Market Research and Competitive Intelligence

The Two Heads of Janus

Competitive Intelligence vs. Market Research

Illustration by Cat Scott

There is no mistaking that Market Research and Competitive Intelligence are very different disciplines, yet they share the same end goal: providing reliable information to support the business decision making process. That is pretty much where the commonality ends.

At the risk of being accused of playing World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons, I’d like to make a metaphorical reference to the Roman god, Janus, to illustrate a point. In Roman mythology there is a two-headed god named Janus that is said to be the God of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings, endings and time. The two heads of Janus face in opposite directions; one head looks backward in time, while the other looks forward.

In many ways, Market Research and Competitive Intelligence are like the two heads of Janus.

Market Research gathers information by surveying lots of people, usually customers, in order to gather their opinion and insights on certain topics. Once the survey is complete, analysts apply various tools and techniques to extrapolate the data and postulate on its meaning. Market Research is useful for determining common opinions and identifying market trends. Market Research is built on historical data; looking to the past in order to gain insight to the future.

Competitive Intelligence, on the other hand, is not about talking to lots of people, it is about talking to the right people. When conducting Competitive Intelligence, if three reliable sources give you the same answer to a question, then the intelligence is considered triangulated and the analyst moves on to the next question. While Market Research generally focuses on customers, Competitive Intelligence focuses on key stakeholders and influencers. Because it involves talking directly to individuals that will shape the industry, Competitive Intelligence is predictive. Competitive Intelligence represents the head of Janus that looks into the future.

Combined, Market Research and Competitive Intelligence, like Janus, provide both a historical and predictive view.

An Example

A while back my Competitive Intelligence firm had a client that commissioned us to conduct a Competitive Intelligence study examining the tuberculosis (TB) vaccine market. The TB vaccine currently being used around the world was developed over 50 years ago and is not very effective. The market for TB is estimated to be somewhere between $500M to $1B annually. Before hiring us, the client had completed a Market Research study that surveyed over a hundred medical personnel in order to determine unmet needs and gain insight into what experts believed would be the future TB treatment paradigm. The research was extremely helpful in painting a picture of where the market was then and what was needed for the future.

Our job was to conduct Competitive Intelligence in order to determine what our client’s competitors were developing. We conducted Competitive Intelligence on over a dozen companies developing TB vaccines and were able to construct a comprehensive competitive landscape that included detailed product profiles, clinical trial intelligence, and anticipated launch dates. The intelligence came directly from stakeholders with firsthand knowledge, ensuring the predictive reliability of our findings.

The results of the Market Research report and the Competitive Intelligence study provided the client with a complete view of the market. Often times businesses feel they need to choose either Market Research or Competitive Intelligence to support their decision making, however in many cases there is real value in using BOTH.

The Same End Goal

Generally, companies use Competitive Intelligence and Market Research to support many of the same business decisions. Let’s look at a few examples:

Messaging

Market Research tends to focus on what customers think about a product. This focus is important because it will support the company’s marketing strategy and messaging. Similarly, Competitive Intelligence can focus on a competitor’s positioning and messaging, enabling companies to develop counter-messaging and sell-against strategies.

Product Development

Market Research can be used to gain insight into what customers want and what their unmet needs are. Using this information, companies can improve existing products or develop new products that fill a market void. Competitive Intelligence can be leveraged to help companies understand their competitors’ R&D strategies, product development pipelines and technology roadmaps. Combined, the two disciplines provide a comprehensive view of what customers need and what is being done to address those needs.

Pricing

Market Research is often used to help set prices for products and services, providing insight into what customers consider acceptable. Competitive Intelligence can provide detailed information on competitor pricing strategies, discount strategies, rebates, etc. Knowing how your competitor is pricing their products and services is a distinct advantage as you formulate your own pricing strategy.

As you can see from these three examples, Market Research and Competitive Intelligence can be used in combination in order to build a more complete view of the market. Like Janus, the two disciplines provide a view of the past and future, enabling businesses to build strategies based on both hindsight and foresight.

Limitations of Market Research & Competitive Intelligence

Market Research is excellent for gathering large volumes of quantitative and qualitative data which can then be analyzed in order to form a picture of the past and current market. Applying trend analysis, Market Research can give clues as to where the market is headed. The limitation of Market Research is that while it is very effective at communicating the current state of the market, it is less effective for providing insight into the future market.

Competitive Intelligence is more suited to providing a truly predictive view of the market. By talking directly to competitors, suppliers, regulators and even customers, Competitive Intelligence is able to provide insight into what the groups are actually planning to do, rather than relying on predictions based on historical data. One limitation of Competitive Intelligence is that the sample size is generally too small to be considered “statistically significant”, which means that while the information is very useful in determining the specific actions of a company, it not effective for determining group opinion.

Market Intelligence: The Hybrid Alternative

An additional research option is Market Intelligence. I won’t go into detail here (look for a follow-up post later) but suffice it to say market intelligence blends the larger sample sizes traditionally seen in Market Research, with many of the benefits of Competitive Intelligence. Market intelligence is very useful for supporting activities such Voice of Customer and Industry Landscape studies; combining the detailed, granular intelligence produced through Competitive Intelligence interviewing techniques with the larger sample sizes used in Market Research.

One of the things I like about the Janus metaphor is that Janus is the god of gates and doorways. Janus stands in the doorway looking at the past and future, similarly it could be said that Market Research and Competitive Intelligence stand at the gateway of market success.

Leveraging Competitive Intelligence and Market Research enables us, like Janus, to position ourselves at the market threshold, looking backward in time (historical data) and forward in time (predictive intelligence) simultaneously. One cannot overstate the value that such a perspective could have in developing a strategy for your product or your company.

Feb 1 / heathgross

How Top Companies Use Competitive Intelligence to See the Future

seeing the future of your company

illustration by Cat Scott


What if you had a crystal ball that would allow you to look into the future? Whether you are an entrepreneur or an executive of a Fortune 500 company, the idea of being able to see three, five or ten years into the future would be invaluable. Think about this: Groupon did not exist three years ago. Five years ago no one had heard of Facebook. Ten years ago Yahoo was the leading search engine. If you build a business strategy based on a static view of the market, you are likely to get passed by your competition.

Well, I can’t sell you a crystal ball, but I can tell you how you can build one.

About six years ago I began to study and explore the concepts of Foresight Strategy, also known as Future Studies or (my favorite) Futurism. What fascinated me about this odd, often overlooked, discipline was the very scientific approach that is uses to gain insight into the “future.”

To be clear, I am not talking the Jetsons or Bladerunner here. I am talking about a systematic approach that helps us envision what the future might look like. We have all seen the Popular Mechanics magazines with city-size bio-domes and flying cars. While images like these might fall under the umbrella of futurism, Foresight Strategy is more focused on the business applications of the discipline rather than the fantastical view of the Matrix or 2001 Space Odyssey.

Foresight Strategy is an interdisciplinary field focused on postulating possible, probable, and preferable futures and the worldviews and myths that underlie them. There is a debate as to whether this discipline is an art or science, though I would argue that it is a little of both.

Three factors usually distinguish futures studies from the research conducted by other disciplines (although all disciplines overlap, to differing degrees).

  1. First, futures studies often examine not only possible but also probable, preferable, and “wild card” futures.
  2. Second, futures studies typically attempts to gain a holistic or systemic view based on insights from a range of different disciplines.
  3. Third, futures studies challenge and unpack the assumptions behind dominant and contending views of the future.

[wiki paraphrase]

It does not take much imagination to see how this discipline could be leveraged to impact long term strategic planning for businesses. Still not convinced? Watch the following video and you will be.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PJcABbtvtA]
These ads were produced in 1993, a full decade before any of these technologies were available. How did AT&T do it? I doubt very seriously that it was the result of a bunch of ad boys sitting around in a room dreaming up jetpack, flying-car scenarios. No, more than likely the creative team did their research. They likely turned to a number of technology experts and thought leaders and asked, “What new technologies do you think the next ten years will bring?” They may have even looked around at what technologies were being developed in their own labs, at the universities and, perhaps, even by their competition.

Foresight Strategy is not about dreaming up ideal futures, it is about looking at historical data and then using predictive analysis to develop possible future scenarios. I use the term “possible” because there are far too many variables to truly “predict” what will happen. However, by developing a series of possible and even probable scenarios, decision makers can build long-term contingent strategies.

In addition to possible and probable futures, many futurists support the concept of preferred futures. The underlying belief of preferred futures is that the future can be influenced by our present actions, which is good news for businesses. For instance, the possible and probable future of a particular market is based on a number of variables including technology, politics, macro and micro economics, etc. However, the preferred future would be a scenario that is more tailored to the desired outcome of, say, a particular business. The preferred future scenario would be presented with variable outcomes that would need to be aligned in order for the preferred future to be achieved.

Think of this as cracking a safe: All of the pins must be aligned in order to open the door. Knowing which variables need to be influenced helps strategic planners develop the short-term tactical steps that need to occur in order to achieve the long-term goals. These variables are often referred to in business strategy jargon as “strategic imperatives.”

While I am a fan of the idea behind foresight strategy, I find that the methods used are sometimes a bit nearsighted. Particularly, I was surprised, and admittedly disappointed, to learn how many foresight strategists relied largely on historical data. My undergraduate degree was in History, and my graduate work included quite a bit of statistics and trend analysis, so I certainly can appreciate the ability to build predictive models using historical data. Yet I can’t help but feel that if we base our foresight on hindsight we end up with less than 20/20 when it comes to envisioning the future.

How To Build A Better Crystal Ball

  • Don’t rely solely on historical data.
    I have found that if you want to build a more accurate view of the future, a key element is to talk to those that will help shape the future. If I am working with a client to help them develop a foresight strategy focused on a particular technology or drug market, I am going to make sure that we are interviewing the people who will impact that market.
  • Perform competitive intelligence.
    As mentioned previously, Foresight Strategy seeks to develop a holistic view, so I will be sure to conduct competitive intelligence and qualitative research, talking to regulators, thought leaders, competitors, suppliers, vendors and customers. Each one of these groups will have an impact on the future of the market. What is more predictive than someone telling you what their long-term strategy is? No amount of historical data can equal the value of good qualitative, primary based research.
  • Analyze qualitative findings
  • Test qualitative data against historical data (This Part Gets A Little Nerdy)
    Once I have analyzed the qualitative findings, I can test those results against the predictive outcomes generated from the historical data. Using this approach provides a more realistic balance between the subjective market view and the more objective trends in data.

Keep in mind the goal is not to generate a single predictive view of the market, but rather to build a series of probable futures. The strategy in Foresight Strategy occurs when we develop short and long-term plans that address the various futures, as well as a plan to influence the variables which will enable us to achieve the preferred future.

Think of it this way: it’s not so much a crystal ball, as it is a crystal cube, each side of the cube representing a possible future, like dice. The objective of Foresight Strategy is to develop a plan for each side of the cube, so regardless of how the die lands, you are prepared for the outcome. Developing and pursuing a preferred future, then, is like playing with a loaded die.

In summary: A good crystal ball gives you foresight, built not on hindsight, but on qualitative research and competitive intelligence that provides true predictive insight.

Look for a follow-up post I plan to call “How I Predicted the Housing Market Bust: But No One Cared” as an example of the predictive benefits of qualitative research.

How has Foresight Strategy helped your company?

Jan 25 / heathgross

Tweet, Tweet

Heath Gross on Twitter

illustration by Cat Scott

If you enjoy the sardonic ranting and raving of enGrossed.me then you won’t want to miss my twitter feeds. Just as bold and outspoken, I don’t pull punches and don’t mind telling it how it is. Mixing business speak and prose, like milk and wine, I like my readers to smile and learn and the same time. Isn’t that what life is all about?

Follow me on twitter @heathgross for news on upcoming blog posts, perspectives on entrepreneurism, philanthropy, business, thoughts about life and a general overall sense that the world is an imperfect place full of imperfect people. I promise to keep it fun.

Jan 20 / heathgross

Pros and Cons of ‘Do It Yourself’ Competitive Intelligence

do it yourself competitive intelligence

illustration by Cat Scott

I can say with confidence that 99% of companies in the world practice some form of competitive intelligence (CI). It may not be a formal, sophisticated process, but almost all companies have some way of trying to figure out what their competition is up to.

Often when I am explaining what our company does, individuals will tell me, “Oh we do that. My boss had me call all the competitors to try and get their price list.” This is what I call DIY CI, or Do It Yourself Competitive Intelligence.

In some ways doing competitive intelligence yourself is like trying to build a deck yourself:

A few years back my wife and I bought our first home. It was a nice, modest, three bedroom, two bath house on a cul-de-sac. One shortcoming of our new house was the deck; a small, dilapidated structure clinging to the back of our home. At the time I was still employed by Uncle Sam so cash was pretty tight, if I wanted a new deck I was going to have to build it myself. I had helped a friend build a deck once, so I wasn’t completely inexperienced, and, as most men will claim, I am pretty handy with power tools. If I was going to build a new deck, I didn’t just want a boring, run of the mill deck; I wanted something special. I took some time, and some chances, and drafted a nice big deck with an attached, screened-in gazebo. I borrowed some tools from my neighbor and set out in earnest. I’d like to say that my hard work and planning paid off, but the fact is, I am not a professional contractor; it was, after all, a do it yourself project. In the end we ended up with a lopsided, oblong octagon gazebo with a crooked roof and a door that scraped when you tried to open it. (To my credit, in addition to being fairly inexpensive, it was also pretty sturdy.)

Every company has competitors. Even if no one else does exactly what you do or makes exactly what you make, you still have competitors. Knowing what your competitors do, what they sell, how they sell it, how much they charge and what they are going to do next is important. Understanding even just these basic things about your competition will enable you to better position your company. Should you add a new product? Change your prices? Adjust your marketing? It is very difficult to compete in any market if you don’t know what the other players in that market are doing.

This is a pretty basic concept, of course. But how do you get that information? Oftentimes managers know what they need to know, but don’t know exactly how to go about getting it. In the absence of a formal process for gathering competitive intelligence they typically just task someone to ‘get’ the information. Because of requests like this there are probably 50,000 people online right now Googling their competition: browsing their competitor’s website, poring over financial reports, surfing through message boards, and sifting through press releases.

There are both pros and cons to DIY CI. Let’s talk about the pros first.

PROS OF DIY CI

  • It’s cheap.
    If your company or department does not have a budget for competitive intelligence then the easiest way to get information on your competitors is to do the research yourself, or have a staff member get it. You are leveraging the resources you have available and, in some cases, that may be your only option.
  • It’s fast… usually.
    Browsing a competitor’s website and reading through their quarterly reports does not take long. With a little practice and perseverance you can put together a very high level snapshot of a competitor in less than a day. That’s pretty fast. Of course the devil is in the details; there are limits to what you can learn with this approach. One pitfall to avoid here is what we call the rabbit trail. It is very easy to get so caught up in following every little twist and turn, every subtle hint of information, that before you know it you look up at the clock and realize you have just spent an entire day Googling a competitor and all you have to show for it is 120 bookmarks and a lot of disconnected bits of data. This is not intelligence and is seldom helpful for planning strategy.
  • It’s better than nothing…usually.
    Knowing a little about your competition is better than nothing at all. Trying to run a business without knowing your competition is just plain dumb. At the very least, DIY CI can provide you with a basic snapshot of your competition. If nothing else, this overview will help you identify your knowledge gaps, facilitating more efficient follow-on research.

CONS OF DIY CI

  • Limited Information.
    What happens when you can’t find the information you want through Google? What if your competitor does not publish their price list? What if their quarterly report does not say when they plan to open the new plant or how big it will be? This brings us back to where I started with this post.
  • It’s unethical.
    People often tell me how they ‘just called their competitor and pretended to be a customer’. This is a great idea in theory, but also highly unethical and, in some cases, even illegal. What I just described is known as pre-texting which was outlawed under the 1996 Economic Espionage Act. To some this might just sound ‘resourceful’ or ‘shrewd’, but by claiming to be someone you are not for the purpose of gathering information, you are in fact putting yourself and your company at risk of being sued, or worse, prosecuted. What I tell my clients is ‘there is nothing you are going to get by breaking the rules that is worth the risk.’

    So what does this mean? It means that a company conducting competitive intelligence internally should limit itself to secondary research, which unfortunately, as I have already pointed out, has severe limitations.

  • Lack of expertise.
    It is one thing to spend a day Googling your competition and building a nice little PowerPoint deck for your boss that provides an overview of your competition, but how useful is that? Believe it or not, there are big, multinational companies that make game-changing strategic decisions based on little more than the PowerPoint overview I have just described. DIY CI is limited by the expertise of the individual doing the research and the means that they have to gather the information.

As a competitive intelligence firm, we do not provide our clients with just data, or information; we provide them with intelligence. Intelligence is actionable, it is insightful. What we provide our clients is forward-looking and predictive. It is based on fact and analysis, not speculation and projections. Do you see where I am going with this? DIY CI can seldom produce the level of depth or granularity that you will need to make well-informed tactical and strategic business decisions.

If you can’t convince your boss or your senior executives to give you the budget you need to do real competitive intelligence, then it is imperative that you explain the limitations of what you can legally and ethically do within your skill set. If you really want to know what your competitors are up to, what they are doing today, and what they plan to do tomorrow, then you need primary competitive intelligence. Hiring a professional competitive intelligence vendor might help you avoid building a lopsided business strategy with crooked walls and a door that scrapes when you try to open it.

Note: DIY CI does not refer to companies that have sophisticated internal competitive intelligence functions. Generally these CI functions are responsible for overseeing the secondary research efforts, managing CI vendors, interfacing with internal clients and conducting tactical and strategic level analysis on the competitive intelligence that is collected.

Mar 4 / heathgross

CI in short: What is Competitive Intelligence?

competitive intelligence in short

What is competitive intelligence and why should businesses use it?

Learn all about competitive intelligence in this fun but informative video.

Video not displaying? Click here to view it in YouTube.