The risk of choosing the best

It would seem to be common sense that given a choice of several options, you should choose the best one. But, the determination of ‘best’ is often a tricky business.

When I was selecting a survey vendor for my employer, SurveyGizmo rose to the top pretty quickly. It had the features and the plan that made sense for us. Really it was not much of a contest – they had features the competitors just didn’t offer.

Right choice, right? Well maybe not.

If I choose them because they are the most desirable, then so will everyone else. In the world of web-based services where service is offered at some level for free, choosing the best means taking the risk that you may not have the product available when you need it.

As the best choice is discovered, the load on their resources goes up, and availability of the product goes down. Today I find that I often cannot get to my data in a timely manner, sometimes can’t even get to the site, and the response from SurveyGizmo is that server response is getting slower during business hours and I should run reports in the evening.

While this phenomenon isn’t unique to the web or cloud offerings, it’s in this industry where it is felt most sharply.

Mojo Monitor Mishap, or the Peril Of Poor Partner Picking

I’ve started reading the book “Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back if You Lose It” (Marshall Goldsmith) (affiliate link) and I love the book so far. It’s a little similar to another good book, “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment” (Tal Ben-Shahar) (another affiliate link) in that it operates on the principle that you will improve what you focus your attention on. For those looking for a magic bullet it might be a disappointment, but for those looking for simple techniques to help themselves it’s a great resource.

Anyway, one of the things to do is to monitor your mojo, basically a combination of happiness and meaning, by rating yourself after major events and at various times throughout the day. Sound like a great problem for an iPhone app to solve? Sure!

They made a mojo app, but instead of being great, it isn’t. They made three mistakes.

Mistake #1: They picked the wrong partner

They partnered with an unrelated service that doesn’t complement their cause.

The mojo app is part of the Rypple app. Rypple is an anonymous review service, more or less identical to the Checkster of old. The gist is that you join, and so does everyone else from our company (something not likely to happen east of California) and then you can give each other anonymous feedback. Great idea, and as soon as companies are filled with well-adjusted, confident, open-minded, web-savvy folks with a genuine interest in improving each other it will work great.

I figured this out only after spending quite a lot of time on the Rypple site. The first thing they ask for, before you can use anything, is permission to send push notifications. Then they ask for a work email address. Not a good feeling. Plus, I’m not at all interested in Rypple or what it does. I like the concept, mind you, but my company and culture simply aren’t compatible with this kind of thing.

This is why Mojo+Rypple is such a bad combination. One is an individual exercise that can be done privately. The other is a social exercise where the first thing they ask for is your work email address.

But I want to do the mojo exercises recommended in the book, so I download the app. Thankfully it accepts my personal email address, and fortunately the non-mojo part of the app isn’t too intrusive.

Mistake 2: The app doesn’t support the book or the brand.

I wasn’t even sure I had the right app when I downloaded it. I had to go back to the mojo site to make sure. there wasn’t any obvious branding that told me I had the mojo app – of course, there wouldn’t be until after I registered because that’s the first required step. Even after I registered I wasn’t entirely sure.

Mistake 3: The app is unintuitive, and doesn’t work

It’s not clear how to enter your mojo until you grok the idea that first you start by entering an event, which is similar to entering an appointment. Then you can enter your happiness and meaning values. Not the ten values described in the book, just happiness and meaning. There is no way to just add them quickly without entering an event. Entering an event is more than enough of a hurdle to make it easy to put off.

The app is supposed to be able to wake up on a regular interval and prompt you to enter these values – every hour or a multiple there of. Only it doesn’t work. Every time I go to the app the time-based reminders are turned off. I turn them on, but when I return, they’re off. Oh yeah, and it doesn’t wake up, either.

For an app that has perhaps 7 buttons, this is pretty poor quality control.

A book this good deserves it’s own app, and the author’s brand deserves one that works well.

Curbing competitive intelligence dissapointment

If you see two competitive intelligence folks talking to each other, you can guess the conversation. One is telling the other about how the Big Boss has just paid them a visit. The BB had heard some very juicy, surprising, and disturbing news. The BB had come down to inquire how they’d happened to miss the briefing on this item. The CI guy had to explain he’d heard nothing about it. The BB replied with the obvious: Why do we have you here if you’re not going to find this stuff out for us?

I suspect everyone who’s ever done competitive intelligence work has had this moment, probably many times. CI is often sold as an asset that will prevent surprises, and when surprises still happen it’s no wonder those in charge ask why.

The problem isn’t that CI is ineffective, it’s that it’s not implemented properly.

I think the problem is that while CI can help with surprises, the mechanism is different than people often expect. First, let’s look at the method that doesn’t work. The one that grew out of traditional military thinking.why the traditional thinking doesn’t work so well for business.

CI grew out of military intelligence, and much of traditional CI doctrine comes from that history. After all, business is war, right? Well, not really.

In the military intelligence is gathered at the bottom. The folks in the field, the people observing the enemy, people sifting through data gathered from everywhere. It has to be this way, because the leadership of opposing sides either isn’t talking to each other, or isn’t saying much if they are. After all, if they got along they probably wouldn’t need to spy on each other quite so much, right?

So intelligence is gathered at the bottom, analyzed in the middle, and presented to the top. Obama isn’t on the ground in Afghanistan, so he’s got to rely on the people who are.

Business has a better mechanism.

Opposing leaders not only chat with each other on a regular basis – through trade associations, trade shows, charity work, and other occasions, they probably have a rapport with each other. They probably have much in common. Business is not war – the leader we vanquish tomorrow could show up as the CEO of our best customer tomorrow – and everyone knows this. This is the reason that the traditional bottom-up CI mentality is probably going to fail in being the source of all new juicy stuff. It’s not that it is inherently flawed, it’s that there is a more effective mechanism at work int he business world.

Who has a better chance of hearing of a possible new direction or intention? The guy who’s got a rapport with the target CEO and is having dinner with him tonight, or or someone a few layers down who might hear the same news as a rumor filtered downward through the target chain of command, and back upward through their own COC?

That’s why the BB is hearing about it first. That’s not a bad thing, and once it’s understood a CI effort can be rearranged to provide much better value.

In business CI is better seen as a tool for understanding and validating what is learned, not as the source of learning.

Traditional or not, CI folk do have good means to sift through data, consider many facts from disparate sources and validate what is coming in.

Upon hearing something new, the BB shouldn’t be concerned that she heard it first. Instead she should be happy she’s got a CI team who has the time to investigate it, validate it, and tell her what it really means. Was this real? Was it a trial balloon? Or was it just a little polk to get a rise out us?

Leaders need to realize they not just consumers of intelligence, they’re sources of it.

Until they realize this, and leverage it, they will be disappointed.

IPad – folks are missing the point

I’ve read several cooments now, and heard even more about how the iPad doesn’t fit. It’s too big to be handy like an iPhone, and too limited to take the place of a laptop.

I think people are missing the point.

I think the iPad is a stepping stone device. I think it represents what we all will be carrying in the future, but it will take another iteration or two.

The reason is that while computing and communication are merging faster than ever, the traditions of the two formerly separate camps are hard to break. But when they are broken, the iPad will be the answer.

People say they don’t want to carry something that big because they haven’t seen what the size has to offer. The iPhone evolved from the phone, which originally allowed one to do little more than talk to someone. It was a necessary evil, and thus need to be small and light.

The laptop is reall still a desktop made portable, but netbooks have shown people can be happy with far less.

In the end I think the iPad will be
profitable, but it will be the next version that really changes the game.

Encourage your employees to leave

Should the day come when I’m running my own business, I’m going make the following standing offer to my employees:

If you wish to leave, I will pay you 5% of you salary, plus an additional 1% for every year you’ve worked for me to do so.

I’m sure it would maintain a focus on how people are treated, and for those folks who’ve gone stale and are feeling trapped, it would offer an escape. More than likely the person hired to replace them would make enough less to cover the deal anyway.

On protecting ideas

Seth Godin wrote a good post about ideas, and how much time and energy is spent fruitlessly protecting them. I can’t help but wonder if he’s gotten a C&D letter recently 😉

It’s amazing to me that there are people who, in the context of their own idea, perceive that the idea itself is worth something (usually quite a lot). But in the context of an idea you wish them to buy, the idea is worthless without any development.

I think the psychology of idea value is fascinating. I know, intellectually, that even my best ideas would be impossible to sell until I’ve developed them, but that doesn’t keep me from feeling this wave of protective paranoia when I get a really good one 😎

Our own inspiration seems like a gift, other’s inspiration seems like luck.

I’m not sure I agree with the part about building a reputation as someone who comes up with great ideas by giving them away, however. Most people who aren’t good at coming up with ideas think they need only one good idea, so there doesn’t seem to be much market for folks with lots of ideas.

I think it’s better to focus on developing ideas than the ideas themselves. They have a short shelf-life.

What should SCIP do?

A while back Ellen asked me to suggest what scip should do.

I’ve thought about this for quite a while, and until I read SCIP’s mission and goals, I really couldn’t articulate what was wrong. Having read them, now I can.

When I read SCIP’s mission and goals, it’s clear to me that there’s not much focus on increasing value for members or their employers. Instead the focus is on increasing recognition for SCIP and CI. The problem is that without value there isn’t anything to recognize. I left SCIP because it stopped adding value to me and my employer and became impossible to justify.

Things like certification, codes of ethics, and having a Body of Knowledge sound good, but they don’t help members or their employers thrive or even survive.

Consider what SCIP stands for: Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals. The emphasis is on the professional, not the profession. Compare that with ASQ, or AMA, or BMA.

When I used to work for a ~100 million company, I was asked to create a CI function. It was in conjunction with pricing, not a dedicated position. A sensible move. Based on the reactions I got from others, and observations, I think it’s pretty odd to have a formal CI effort in a company that small, let alone a dedicated person. But for the sake of argument let’s say that $100 million is the minimum company size to have a dedicated CI professional. $100 million companies and larger account for about .2% of the total number of companies out there – an unneccessary limit on market size, and a huge loss in potential value to bring.

Focus on the value created by the profession, not the recognition of the profession.

Let’s look at a few graphs. First, competitive intelligence’s popularity as a search string in google:

A decline. Not usually the sign of something that is increasing in value.

Let’s compare with business intelligence (red line):

Ouch! A nice reality check. I tend to think of business intelligence folk as IT report writers, but really it’s understanding your business and companies are interested in that.

Then let’s add market research:

Ok, no wonder when you say competitive intelligence most people say ‘Huh?’ Competition is only part of one’s market so we shouldn’t be surprised. Also notice the downward trend, even in market research.

Google trends is not the final word, but I think the data are useful because they help put things in perspective. CI can be useful, but it’s not a solution. It’s part of the solution, and a part that needs to earn its keep.

The most valuable stuff I ever did in CI fed middle managers who used to make profitable decisions almost immediately. It was also some of the cheapest & easiest stuff I did. It wasn’t glamorous, and it didn’t even brush against the c-suite, but it didn’t need to. There needs to be a strong focus on creating value whereever possible. If the value’s there, the recognition will follow.

The value needs to be accessible. Real world stuff that non-PhD, non-ex-CIA people can do and it needs to address the needs of companies that exist in large numbers. This means small companies who will NEVER have someone do CI full time. Pharma, insurance, aerospace and giant consumer products companies have a strong interest in CI, t the CI approaches & budgets of those companies are irrelevant to 99% of the companies out there. They’re not a useful example to anyone but their peers.

So what to do?

How about this mission and these goals:

Mission: SCIP will show companies how to enable better decisions through competitive intelligence by educating their staff, providing guidance in ethics, and enabling them to learn from the community they form through SCIP.

Goal 1: Make CI accessible to more companies

  • Increase the usage of CI by smaller companies through education and outreach.
  • Create membership opportunities aimed at the part-time practitioner.

Goal 2: Increase the value CI brings

  • Education practioners on how to identify and communicate the value intelligence brings to decision making.
  • Educate practioners on how to identifiy and anticipate situations where intelligence can bring value.
  • Educate practioners on how to obtain the intelligence they need to bring value.

IT not interested in Windows 7? Hardly a surprise

You might be expecting an anti-Microsoft rant about how IT folk aren’t that keen on upgrading to Windows 7 (hat tip to twitter friend CXI) because of all the trouble they expect. The problem is that you could poll the IT community for almost any OS and you’d probably get the same response.

The problem isn’t that new operating systems are so poorly designed – most aren’t, even though I suspect Windows probably is – it’s that IT isn’t paid to improve things. They’re paid to avoid unexpected costs and problems, and keep employees from abusing the system and their employer. Unpgrades mean change, change means risk, risk by definition entails the unexpected, and the average professional IT manager is about as risk-averse an animal as you can find. They don’t get hurrahs when things are working great, they just get blasted when they aren’t. If I worked in this world I’d fight any upgrade because people don’t miss what they’ve never had. That’s why IT is called the ‘business suppression unit‘.

Whether it’s Ubuntu, Windows 7, or OSX it doesn’t make much difference.

At some point a more enlightened management, combined with a more tech-savvy workforce will demand innovation from IT, and will be willing to sacrifice the handholding and 99.99997% uptime commonly demanded today to get it. Those early pioneers will lose some sleep, but they will be rewarded. Then we will get past the industry of professional IT that IBM and Microsoft built, and see the innovation we see on the web in common business.

Better at branding than I thought?

I’ve always thought JibberJobber was just a clever idea. It’s a site designed to help job hunters manage all the stuff they need to be effective. What I really liked about it was that it’s inventor, Jason Alba, created the site while he himself was out of work. I think by now it’s successful enough he probably isn’t looking for work any more. How can you not admire someone like that?

Anyway, a while back he started a rebranding contest, and I was one of two winners. I thought my entry was good, but I didn’t really think I’d win. What a fantastic surprise!

Information isn’t power

On my way to work I often end up on the phone with an old friend. I keep threatening to podcast the conversations because they’re often pretty insightful, even if I do say so myself. To make up for it, they’re sometimes just drivel.

But back to the insight.

Today we came to a great conclusion:

Information isn’t power. It’s fuel.

To put it another way, information doesn’t do great things, it enables great things. In order to get the great things out of it, you have to act on it, which means it must have some value to drive action. It must be actionable.

But many folks have this backward. They think the action part is mostly supposed to be about gathering the information, and that once gathered it will somehow produce benefit by its mere existence.

Are you doing this? Are you collecting status reports from your people, filing them away, distributing them to people all in the hopes that by some sort of motive osmosis power will be extracted from them? It may be that those reports contain a lot of information, but it’s not actionable information because it’s not needed.

The best way to differentiate real buyers from tire kickers was to ask about the details of their need. When do they need the product? When do they want it delivered? Why do they need it? If there’s detail in the answers, then you have a real buyer. If not, then you have a tire kicker. They may be interested in buying someday but they don’t have the real need yet. It’s the same with information. If you need it, you know what you need because you have questions to be answered.

If information is fuel, strategy is the engine.

If you have lots of information lying around and don’t know what to do with it, it’s probably a symptom that you lack a focused need. Strategy is what guides the business and ultimately creates that need. Strategy is executed through tactics, which require planning, which in turn requires information.

Symptoms of the lack of strategy:

  1. You’re drowning in reports and other information, but you can’t seem to get value out of it. The need isn’t there, so the information isn’t actionable, and no action is taken from it.
  2. Major decisions are made (not thought about, not discussed, but actually made) as a reaction to outside forces. A customer demands new technology, cancels an order, or switches to a competitor and someone snaps and a decision gets made. The world is fluid and reacting to it is often a large part of business, but it shouldn’t drive the business.
  3. Discussions about “What business are we really in, and where are we headed?” and similar subjects erupt unexpectedly during meetings, and delay activity. The key here is that they delay whatever was about to take place. If there’s no delay, then the eruptions are more likely caused by a lack of communication on the strategy rather than the lack of strategy itself.

Do you have an engine to burn your fuel?