Competitive Intelligence

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Courage - the key value in the success of intelligence?

I recently read a blog post from Doug Stephens of Retail Prophet in Canada on the subject of courage.Doug helps retailers deal with future strategic challenges, and has some remarkable insights about retail and leadership. He says that courage is one of the key values of leading change management, not only the courage to do new things, but the courage to let go of old opinions.

This immediately struck me in terms of what it means for intelligence as a whole. Many of us think of ourselves as information professionals, data analysts, yet much of our work is also about managing the emotions of people receiving that information. No doubt you have faced the negative side of this, giving executives bad news. I remember one project where we compared commission rates of competitors' sales representatives. It came to light all-too-late that the executive had long since decided the outcome of our study. When it showed that competitors had a new, different, more successful approach to sales, the flood of anxiety and anger at this disappointing reality was really the most work of the entire engagement.

Maybe you have experienced the positive side of courage in intelligence. I remember another group told to look at the future of their industry but forbidden from the outset to discuss any changes in the company's business model. "Tell us about the next 20 years of our industry," they were instructed, "but don't go off on any foolish tangents about innovating the business model - we know our core business!" Much to their risk, this group wanted to be intellectually honest to top management and provided a variety of strategic scenarios, some kind to their business model, and others showing potential risks. What the Board and the CEO loved the most? Their candor and rigorous description of potential risks - even though this ultimately disobeyed their initial orders a little bit. Their courage paid off in major kudos and career advancement.

Do any of you have profile in courage? Either its exemplification or its conspicuous lack would be interesting.

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I don't have a profile in courage to share off the top of my head but I will suggest that the ability to put courage to work communicating skeptical insights depends highly on the self-esteem - or inversely proportioned narcissism - of your client. Those personal characteristics, I believe, will become the definition of enlightened managers sooner or later. The more narcissistic the receiver/actioner of your insight the more likely they are to discount your contrary assessment questioning their assumptions as impossible since it didn't originate from behind their own eyes.

Whether or not you agree that narcissism is a cultural virus propogated by the celebritization of our society and too many "American Idol" style programs on network television, I think this helps explain some of the evolutionary effects on cognitive decision-making that you and I have discussed before Eric. Access to an open source web or corpus of information or the growing access to Web 2.0 tools for manipulation of that information simply doesn't explain - even partially - this evolution by itself. Biologically, or at least, psycho-socially, we're changing as a species to advantage worldviews that enable institutional sustainability. Presumably this becomes biological at some point (assuming the bearers of enlightened worldviews procreate and educate their children at a rate greater by comparison than close-minded competitors), though I'm unconvinced of this in the long run since our peers tend to be less, rather than more, prodigious than the dogmatic. Clearly you and I and those like us need to have more kids (even if you've only just had your first, congrats again, by the way).

If not biologically in the long run, then socially in the short run, this means the old rules and those who follow them will be disadvantaged by comparison simply in terms of their institutional survivability and, therefore, will propagate their ideas less successfully so that their style of idea-generation, decision-making and executive performance will eventually die off as newer, better ones are created. But back to my point...

The character of the narcissist is so ignoble, toxic and (unfortunately) prevalent because of the ruthlessness of its rewards so far, that I think the simple absence of this personality trait among leadership is a significant indicator of future success (of their institution if not the leader) simply because decisions will be given fuller consideration of contra-indicators before swinging into action on them and driving their organization off the proverbial cliff. The implications for personality profiling are manifold in this assessment regime but I really wonder how much advantage this conveys... as I said above, while bad for the institution, narcissism is generally pretty rewarding for the narcissist; otherwise we wouldn't have so darned many of them, right?

Circling back to your original hypothesis on courage, the most valuable (if not necessarily valued) intelligence has always been about what's been missed and, while you don't have to be a narcissist to dislike being told you've missed something important, the widespread belief that intelligence deliverables need to be politicized to be heard means that the foundational principles upon which the program has been deployed were fundamentally flawed. In this sense, intelligence people need to be a lot more selective about where and for whom they work. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, know your client and know yourself and every victory will be yours.

However, these factors are dependent largely on the fluid, uncontrollable personality of leadership... not the courage of the analyst, unfortunately. The courageous analyst serving bad managers can only either passively hope for or actively facilitate the egress of their narcissist client such that a more enlightened leader can take over... or, seeing no such successor, they will have to do likewise and move on to greener pastures where their talents are appreciated. I'm sure, like me, you know legions of people who have done exactly that.

In short, I think we're at a point now where enlightened leadership is only just beginning to be appreciated among top management peers as more than new age mumbo-jumbo and that means that organizations will never be big enough for both a narcissistic manager as an intelligence client and a courageous skeptic as intelligence analyst.

One of you will have to go.
Aptly worded Arik,

We are all "Prisoners of our Perception".

I agree that courage is a key attribute and maybe is the most important. However, I am more intrigued by what comes after the courageous act. That is, suppose a CI person tells the hard truth to his or her senior management audience, then what? There may be arguments, retributions, disagreements or kudos. Or something else. Maybe changes?

If the hard truth was indeed truth, then the "what comes next" challenge defines the CI person. For instance, often it is the case that the competitive intelligence highlights a competitor's strengths. Compared to what? Well, obviously, the performance of the company and, more specifically, the performance of one or more senior managers. That is a touchy subject and few welcome such negative comparisons (especially in open forums). The comparisons (and implied required responses) strike at the egos of senior managers and it is no small matter for them to change courses.

Thus, in an odd way, I think that compassion is as important as courage. It is the empathy with those that must (should?) change as a result of the "hard truth" that actually enriches the analysis and presentation of results. Looking to not only the "what" but the "what next" topic invariably leads us to people and organizations making changes.

After all, without the change (when it is justified), what was the value of the competitive intelligence?

-- Tom Hawes

Interesting thoughts all the way around here. When I put together Arik and Eric's posts, what I see is not only the courage of the intelligence person/group/analyst but also the courage of leadership to accept that they can't know everything and to then value the courage of the intelligence function to bring forward risks and concerns and opportunities. I believe that truely courageous and humble leaders are rare and that putting aside the narcissism that leads them to their early success is critical for long term success but there are few who do that which may explain why there are also few CI units which have the ability to influence in the C-suite.
Wow, you said it! Thanks Mel
Melanie has really put it together. EVERYBODY needs to have humility and courage to make an organization work in a fast-paced environment of change. However, most sadly, our military-style bureaucracies encourage territorialism, punish dissent, ridicule curiosity and flexibility, and put reputation management above actual value contribution. So people are caught in a trap as the attempt to be successful AND recognized for that success in a bureaucracy.

If intelligence wants to be relevant in the 21st century, it needs to incorporate much more empathy and awareness of social engineering involved in these complex situations.

If you look at the values that Melanie proposes here, you'll understand why I still get up in the morning wanting to contribute to this profession. This is difficult and noble stuff, resulting in the fate of nations and individuals.
Gary Hamel remarked on this brewing culture conflict in a post earlier this year on his Management 2.0 blog at WSJ, entitled "The Facebook Generation vs. the Fortune 500" - enjoy:

The experience of growing up online will profoundly shape the workplace expectations of “Generation F” – the Facebook Generation. At a minimum, they’ll expect the social environment of work to reflect the social context of the Web, rather than as is currently the case, a mid-20th-century Weberian bureaucracy. If your company hopes to attract the most creative and energetic members of Gen F, it will need to understand these Internet-derived expectations, and then reinvent its management practices accordingly. Sure, it’s a buyer’s market for talent right now, but that won’t always be the case—and in the future, any company that lacks a vital core of Gen F employees will soon find itself stuck in the mud.

With that in mind, I compiled a list of 12 work-relevant characteristics of online life. These are the post-bureaucratic realities that tomorrow’s employees will use as yardsticks in determining whether your company is “with it” or “past it.” In assembling this short list, I haven’t tried to catalog every salient feature of the Web’s social milieu, only those that are most at odds with the legacy practices found in large companies.

1. All ideas compete on an equal footing.
On the Web, every idea has the chance to gain a following—or not, and no one has the power to kill off a subversive idea or squelch an embarrassing debate. Ideas gain traction based on their perceived merits, rather than on the political power of their sponsors.

2. Contribution counts for more than credentials.
When you post a video to YouTube, no one asks you if you went to film school. When you write a blog, no one cares whether you have a journalism degree. Position, title, and academic degrees—none of the usual status differentiators carry much weight online. On the Web, what counts is not your resume, but what you can contribute.

3. Hierarchies are natural, not prescribed.
In any Web forum there are some individuals who command more respect and attention than others—and have more influence as a consequence. Critically, though, these individuals haven’t been appointed by some superior authority. Instead, their clout reflects the freely given approbation of their peers. On the Web, authority trickles up, not down.

4. Leaders serve rather than preside.
On the Web, every leader is a servant leader; no one has the power to command or sanction. Credible arguments, demonstrated expertise and selfless behavior are the only levers for getting things done through other people. Forget this online, and your followers will soon abandon you.

5. Tasks are chosen, not assigned.
The Web is an opt-in economy. Whether contributing to a blog, working on an open source project, or sharing advice in a forum, people choose to work on the things that interest them. Everyone is an independent contractor, and everyone scratches their own itch.

6. Groups are self-defining and -organizing.
On the Web, you get to choose your compatriots. In any online community, you have the freedom to link up with some individuals and ignore the rest, to share deeply with some folks and not at all with others. Just as no one can assign you a boring task, no can force you to work with dim-witted colleagues.

7. Resources get attracted, not allocated.
In large organizations, resources get allocated top-down, in a politicized, Soviet-style budget wrangle. On the Web, human effort flows towards ideas and projects that are attractive (and fun), and away from those that aren’t. In this sense, the Web is a market economy where millions of individuals get to decide, moment by moment, how to spend the precious currency of their time and attention.

8. Power comes from sharing information, not hoarding it.
The Web is also a gift economy. To gain influence and status, you have to give away your expertise and content. And you must do it quickly; if you don’t, someone else will beat you to the punch—and garner the credit that might have been yours. Online, there are a lot of incentives to share, and few incentives to hoard.

9. Opinions compound and decisions are peer-reviewed.
On the Internet, truly smart ideas rapidly gain a following no matter how disruptive they may be. The Web is a near-perfect medium for aggregating the wisdom of the crowd—whether in formally organized opinion markets or in casual discussion groups. And once aggregated, the voice of the masses can be used as a battering ram to challenge the entrenched interests of institutions in the offline world.

10. Users can veto most policy decisions.
As many Internet moguls have learned to their sorrow, online users are opinionated and vociferous—and will quickly attack any decision or policy change that seems contrary to the community’s interests. The only way to keep users loyal is to give them a substantial say in key decisions. You may have built the community, but the users really own it.

11. Intrinsic rewards matter most.
The web is a testament to the power of intrinsic rewards. Think of all the articles contributed to Wikipedia, all the open source software created, all the advice freely given—add up the hours of volunteer time and it’s obvious that human beings will give generously of themselves when they’re given the chance to contribute to something they actually care about. Money’s great, but so is recognition and the joy of accomplishment.

12. Hackers are heroes.
Large organizations tend to make life uncomfortable for activists and rabble-rousers—however constructive they may be. In contrast, online communities frequently embrace those with strong anti-authoritarian views. On the Web, muckraking malcontents are frequently celebrated as champions of the Internet’s democratic values—particularly if they’ve managed to hack a piece of code that has been interfering with what others regard as their inalienable digital rights.

These features of Web-based life are written into the social DNA of Generation F—and mostly missing from the managerial DNA of the average Fortune 500 company. Yeah, there are a lot of kids looking for jobs right now, but few of them will ever feel at home in cubicleland.


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