Cooperative Intelligence: Kindness in Competitive Intelligence

Earlier this month several sources including Tom Peters and The NY Times publicized What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. This was author, George Saunders‘ key point in his graduation remarks to students at Syracuse University. There is some validity to Huffington Post Mitch Joel’s remark, “We go to work and turn from kind loving family members, friends and community citizens into military generals who use warring terms to get through the work day (“let’s crush the competition!”).

There has been a lively discussion on the Association for Strategic Planning’s-ASP-LinkedIn Group around the conflict between the profit motivation in business and kindness based on Mitch’s article, “In Business, You Can Still Be Kind.”

Kindness comes in many flavors. I feel Jim Sinegal, former CEO and Founder of Costco, was a kind leader with a longer term outlook for financial profitability, growth and relationships. He put into place kind practices to employees and customers, which over time have benefited stockholders. Costco takes good care of its employees financially and has more of a big brother culture. They pay employees well above the minimum wage that the competition pays, and provide decent health benefits. Recent customer surveys place Costco among the top companies in America.

No, I don’t think there needs to be a conflict between kindness and good financial results. That more gruff, “I gotta win at your expense mentality,” does proliferate many business deals and corporate cultures, but it doesn’t need to.

That’s how I came up with the idea of cooperative intelligence almost 10 years ago. I heard colleagues in the competitive intelligence world complain that senior managers would not listen to what they shared. They ignored their good advice around the competition, the competitive landscape, disruptive technologies—all the good stuff they collected.

Cooperative Intelligence: Leadership

Many had not figured out how to give executives the information and tools they needed to make the decisions at hand or perhaps in a format that executives could devour. It’s back to having an attitude of kindness. Rather than pushing out what you think is “good stuff”, have conversations with executives to find out what they need, when they need it and why they need it. Sounds simple, but it’s not especially in large companies, since everyone else is vying for senior management’s attention.

So you need to be patient, and serve those people in your organization who more readily appreciate and understand competitive intelligence. Don’t worry, over time, the executives will find out about your good work.

Cooperative intelligence is kindness: you give without an expectation of something in return. People realize that you genuinely want to help them in their work. After all, competitive intelligence is a support function. You need to keep giving, and eventually those you support will provide you with great tidbits on the competitive environment since your giving is infectious, and they just can’t help themselves. This has been my experience in setting up competitive intelligence programs since 1985. People are attracted to you by your good example of producing the goods they need and your giving attitude.

Cooperative Intelligence: Connection

Part of cooperative intelligence is realizing than anyone you meet can be a valuable contact, and you make each person feel that way. You make them feel like they’re the only person in the room that matters as you listen to them intently and ask good reflective questions so they know you’ve heard. This is a great way to build your network, and it works well provided you have the discipline to stay in closer touch with those who are immediately relevant to your work.

Cooperative Intelligence: Communication

Cooperative intelligence also includes good communication skills. The most important communication skill is the ability to listen with an open heart without judgment and to be entirely present. In conversation, many of us interrupt others as they are speaking, and can’t wait to make our point. The other person is painfully aware from seeing or feeling our impatience as we eagerly await our turn to speak.

If we listen fully to what others say, we often notice things they haven’t shared in words, and their body expression tells us more. Good listeners wait patiently for the other person to finish what they are saying. They trust and truly receive the words of others, and realize that sometimes people don’t require a reply, they just need to be heard. They listen intuitively and kindly.

A second cooperative communication skill is to share what you learn with those in your company in the format and frequency they are comfortable with. This encourages them to open up and respond to your emails or whatever form of communication you agree on. You also need the judgment to realize when something is so important that you need to break the rules and get it to the person as expeditiously as possible.

While competitive intelligence is not a kind business function, it is a forward looking and necessary discipline, and we can be kind people when we bring cooperative intelligence practices into our work.

Gain Competitive Advantage through Risk Management: NCBA’s Story

Kendal Frazier, Senior VP at National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA) spoke at our Denver Association of Strategic Planning meeting on the subject of crisis and risk management. To appreciate NCBA’s risk management program, it’s helpful to understand this industry. They are HUGE, a $70 billion industry. Cattle are raised in every state, and occupy more land than any other industry in the US. There are over 800,000 in beef cattle; and 200,000 in dairy cattle. The two key goals of NCBA are to protect the safety of US cattle and thus protect the health of beef consumers and maintain consumer confidence in the product. There are strict rules to reduce the risk of disease entering the US cattle market from imports. There is a big push for risk communication: that is how NCBA will react to bad news such as Mad Cow disease!

While the more sensational story was around NCBA’s involvement in the Oprah Winfrey show in 1996, I more appreciated how NCBA implemented its risk management strategy when Mad Cow entered the US on Dec 23, 2003, and believe they reacted in a way that reflects cooperative intelligence principles.

On that same day, NCBA reached out to a pre-selected list of government contacts. They activated a dark website which had been developed just in case Mad Cow penetrated the US. At 5:30 pm that night, Ann Veneman, Secretary of the USDA, made the announcement. Then NCBA held a news conference with 140 media contacts. At 7:30 pm, they made announcements to state agencies, beef councils and affiliates, like McDonald’s who sells 3% of US beef. As of Dec 23, 20 – 30 people worked solely on this issue as prescribed by the emergency response process plan. They had a communication response plan all set to go and worked throughout the holiday season.

What lessons did they learn?

Practice, practice, practice–even down to the level of conducting media interviews.

Organize a team of spokespersons at the National and State level.

Organize your internal resources. Make sure that you have all functions around the table when these crises happen. You need everyone’s perspective: legal, marketing, administrative, purchasing, research, government affairs—all functions!

Drive consumers and media to your dark website. It was helpful to have already developed a dark website for Mad Cow disease.

Your enemies will attack: be prepared. NCBA had a list of enemy activist groups as part of their preparedness for this event.

Expect people to overreact and have your response ready (some schools said they would eliminate beef at cafeterias).

Communicate this difficult problem in easy terms to the consumer.

Make sure that industry amplifies what the government is saying.

Keep major partners in the communication loop.

The media is not the enemy, but is the battle ground. Choose multiple spokespersons for your message.

Evaluate how well your spokesmen come across in the media. Pull weak players and use the more effective spokespersons.

Give the ground team more support (the Washington State team where Mad Cow entered the US).

Being ready when a crisis hits is a huge competitive advantage! Scenario planning is a great exercise to flesh out which crises you should be prepared for. If you wait until the crisis hits, it’s too late, especially in today’s real-time world!

Your Employees are Your Competitive Advantage, REALLY

How many companies say “Our Employees are Our Most Important Asset,” but their actions don’t match these hollow words?

This is not the case at Southwest Airlines, where employees are valued in all phases of their relationship with the company’s management from the hiring process; allowing them to do their job and to make decisions that don’t quite follow the “rules,” but are often the right decision for the circumstance; to letting an employee go—tough LUV—who isn’t a match for the company’s culture.

Colleen Barrett, Southwest Airlines President Emeritus, was our keynote speaker at ASP’s (Association of Strategic Planning) annual conference. Her recently published book, Lead with LUV, co-authored with Ken Blanchard details Southwest Airline’s formula for success.

One of my favorite quotes from the book epitomizes Southwest Airline’s history:

“Profit is the applause you get for creating a motivating environment for your people and taking care of your customers.”  The airline has been profitable since 1973 two years after it was formed. Hmmmm treating your Employees as Customers works!

Another favorite quote: “We’re in the Customer Service business—we just happen to provide airline transportation.”

Southwest Airline’s employees do their best to ensure that Customers have a safe, on-time flight, for a reasonable price, with as little stress as possible, in a caring environment with a little humor to boot. In these tough times, Southwest Airlines does not charge an extra fee for luggage, unlike all its competitors who do. A resulting customer benefit is that the planes are not crammed full of luggage which takes a long time to stuff into compartments. A resulting operational benefit is passengers get on and off the planes faster, so Southwest Airlines can turn them around faster than the competition.

Employees follow servant leadership practices where they serve first and lead second at every level of the company. This promotes the egalitarian attitude that prevails at Southwest Airlines and makes it such a desirable place to work! Servant leadership was inspired by Robert K Greenleaf: A Life of Servant Leadership by James Sipe and Don Frick . In addition to traditional approaches, such as sending out cards on employees’ birthdays or anniversary dates of hire, the company sends notes of sympathy and condolence to employees when their family members are sick or die. As in cooperative intelligence leadership, all levels of management pitch in to get the job done. When the plane lands, everyone rushes to clean it out, including the pilots, as one of Southwest Airline’s competitive advantages is the speed with which that aircraft is back into the air producing revenue.

Southwest Airlines has a painstaking hiring process, and they run a lean operation. While many candidates have simlar professional qualifications and experience, it’s the right attitude and behavior that differentiate those who are hired and who stay—which is most employees. What differentiates my experience with Southwest Airlines, is the fun that the employees share with us customers.

One of my favorite customer service stories Colleen shared was just after 9 11 when one of the pilots rented a bus to take his stranded, stressed out passengers to the movies. He didn’t have to ask management’s permission, and didn’t tell management what he had done. Management heard from delighted customers. Southwest Airlines has many, many delighted customers. It has grown to be one of the largest US carriers from its humble roots in 1971, where it had to fight hard against the major US airlines to even enter the business.

Southwest Airlines is true to its original goal to make air transportation affordable for most people. What’s interesting to me as a competitive intelligence professional is how Southwest Airlines has publicized its competitive advantages for years giving its competitors the opportunity to study, analyze and adapt them to their operation. The one thing that just doesn’t translate is the supportive, egalitarian and fun loving culture that Southwest Airlines has valued right from its inception.

I was one of the lucky ASP attendees to win a copy of Colleen’s book which she signed “with LUV”.

Win/Loss Analysis book gives you a process to learn why you’re losing business and how to keep more of it!

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Design Thinking for Strategic Competitive Advantage

Many strategic planning executives assume that their strong leadership will lead their company to grow and thrive. Some of us are more visionary and curious by nature. Others are more comfortable taking great ideas and immature products and improving them using their analytical, financial and marketing skills. The simple idea behind design thinking is that you need both traits in leadership: the exploratory innovative to produce great ideas, and the analytical that exploits the business, improves the offering, and develops the right processes to gain market share. In the spirit of cooperative intelligence here are some nuggets that Arik Johnson, Chairman of Aurora WDC recently shared with the Denver Association of Strategic Planning (ASP) chapter. Check out his presentation!

The ideas behind design thinking are well expressed in Roger Martin’s The Design of Business. Think of both the learning and the discovery process as moving through a knowledge funnel.  People need to apply analysis and creative thinking at different points within that funnel.

In Martin’s words, “This form of thinking is rooted in how knowledge advances from one stage to another-from mystery (something we can’t explain) to heuristic (a rule of thumb that guides us toward solution) to algorithm (a predictable formula for producing an answer).”

New firms emphasize exploration.  As they mature, they shift to exploiting known ideas, but if they stop at that point, other innovators will surpass them. Your organization must balance predictable or reliable production with validity, experimentation that leads to new ideas and commercial success. To protect a company, leaders must protect the exploration that leads to its validity. However, over time, organizations tend to emphasize reliability instead. We are too analytical which is good for refining current knowledge, but not great for innovating, the mystery stage. Sometimes we push product development too quickly once the product is in the marketplace, and customers aren’t ready to leap that far just yet. Or we make the product too feature rich and hard to use. This gives entrepreneurs a chance to enter the marketplace or competitors to gain share whose product is developed in balance with customers’ needs and acceptance.

Roger Martin gives examples of companies whose leadership supports design thinking. McDonald’s has perfected the hamburger business to be operationally efficient and serves the same hamburger product worldwide. The company creates new food products, and perfects production of products that the public supports.  For example, McDonald’s managers noticed customers were coming in with Starbuck’s coffee when buying their food at McDonald’s. So McDonald’s analyzed the market and developed an upgraded gourmet coffee to capture that business, which has been very successful.

Proctor & Gamble provides another example of applying successful design thinking.  P&G was losing market share across many of its numerous product lines. The company was investing considerable money into internal R&D and their products were losing market share due to lack of innovation. So they set up an external R&D lab (basically outsourcing their R&D), which has encouraged a higher level of innovation. As a result, their market share has climbed back up again.

A third example cited is Research in Motion (RIM) founded in 1984, but didn’t make it big until 1995. CEO Jim Balsillie was an intuitive thinker. Like many leaders with this tendency, he was distracted with new mysteries and got to the heuristic stage and then launched into the next project. It wasn’t until he hired co-CEO Mike Lazaridis to oversee sales and manufacturing (reliability) that the company took off. Now the company has the benefit of design thinking between the two CEOs.

Similarly Arik Johnson explained how he was influenced by design thinking when he promoted his brother Derek to CEO, due to his strong analytical and operational skills. Arik realized his visionary and exploratory skills were critical to create his business, but his brother’s skills would be more valuable in growing the existing business. Company founders are often entrepreneurial and visionary. Arik is now the company’s Chairman and has started an R&D lab, where he can focus on solving complex competitive intelligence problems and develop intellectual property around that line of business.

Morton suggests that to develop your design mind, broaden your “personal knowledge system.”  To start, be honest and identify the gap between what you think you know and what you actually know.  Living in the world of guessing is detrimental to business.  That’s why you need to understand both your known strengths and weaknesses as an individual and gain the knowledge you don’t yet have.

Design thinking and operating can give your company and you a competitive advantage since they provide a good balance between innovation and operational excellence. As a competitive intelligence professional I see another value to design thinking: it helps expose company and individual blind spots just as a course of doing business.  What a competitive advantage is that!

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