Competitive Intelligence

Tactical, Operational & Strategic Analysis of Markets, Competitors & Industries

Competitive Intelligence: Check Your Sparkplugs (or 10 signs of impending failure)

I was eighteen years old, fiercely independent and ready to go to college. We were living in Wyoming at the time and the college was in Florida. The long road trip ahead of me was the first one that I had ever undertaken by myself. I would have to make all the preparations beforehand, all of the decisions along the way and, of course, I was responsible for how I performed in school.

But first my trusty VW Bug had to get me there.
I set about to show everyone (especially my parents) that I could handle all of the preparations. I plotted the route for my 4 day journey. I decided on everything that had to go with me to college and made sure that it would fit in the car. Most of all, I prepared the car.

I checked the tires, the windshield washer fluid, the oil levels and so on. Boy, wasn’t I being thorough? And without any help to boot. About that time, my father asked if I had checked the sparkplugs. Well, I hardly needed any help from him or anyone else. I was a grown up and besides, didn’t he see what a great job I was already doing? “I’ll take care of it!” I snapped and he left the subject alone.

The departure day finally came and I drove off south through Colorado. Goodbye to living full time with the family. Hello to the college life. Independence day had arrived and I was doing just fine.

The first day was uneventful. I made it through the mountain passes of southern Colorado (barely) and arrived late in the day in Dumas, Texas. Somewhat nervously I checked in to the motel while halfway expecting that they would tell me I was too young to be traveling alone. All I remember about that night was the excitement of being on the road. I couldn’t sleep so I got up at 4 AM to start the next day’s travel. I left the motel in the dark that Sunday morning planning to travel a great distance that day (wouldn’t everyone be impressed with my accomplishment).

That’s when it happened.


My VW engine began to misfire. It jerked as I tried to get up to highway speed. I was mystified about the cause. This had never happened before. What was I going to do? I limped into Amarillo looking for a miracle. Unfortunately, there were no car dealers open at 6 AM on Sunday morning. I decided to keep going for a while. Later that morning I stopped to call home. Specifically I wanted to talk to my brother because he knew a lot more about cars than I did (or do).

He asked me, “Did you check the sparkplugs?” Uh-oh. “Actually, I checked everything but the sparkplugs before leaving home,” I replied sheepishly.

Sometimes in corporate life we are diligent to check many things.

We check with our organization to make sure that we are following the right processes and are appropriately aligned. We check our budgets and priorities to ensure that there is agreement between the two things. We check within our team to clarify roles and expectations. We check with our bosses to understand how our performance will be evaluated. So many checks and they are all important. But, what if we forget to check something critical?

For instance, suppose we forget to check on what the competition is doing or we poorly understand the overall competitive environment. When this happens, the organization begins to misfire. There are 10 signs to look for that indicates such misfires.

1. It is common that people throughout the organization cannot name the important competitors.
2. The existing strategies cannot be stated succinctly and convincingly.
3. Competitive intelligence is a distributed part-time task with no focal point person.
4. More energy goes into perpetuating a stagnating business rather than deciding on a better business.
5. Competition is talked about infrequently and without great insight.
6. There is a growing sense of being behind the competition and slowly reactive to new information.
7. Long term strategies, future vision and challenging objectives become discredited as do their advocates.
8. There are multiple versions of competitive analyses dealing with the same topic.
9. The number and severity of competitive surprises is increasing.
10. There is a growing sense that the understanding of existing customers is degrading.

If these conditions are evident, it is time to change.

From that roadside phone booth (no cell phones in those days), I realized that maybe I should have checked the sparkplugs. After buying new plugs and stopping early for the day, I set about inspecting the old sparkplugs. Well, when I took them out and looked, I could see that they were all corroded and badly in need of replacement. Once the new plugs went in, the car ran like a charm. (After I recovered from embarrassment, I apologized to my father.)

Here are the lessons that I took from all of that.

Things misfire for a reason. Wishing the cause away is not sufficient to correct the problem. Ignoring the problem because it is embarrassing does not help. And, sometimes it helps to simply ask for help from someone that knows more. Finally, with the root cause addressed, things can work well again.

This is the challenge in competitive intelligence for many companies. Their misfires causes need to be corrected and they can be with the right help. Great performance is important and with all that is going on in the economy, it is a life threatening issue to operate at less than peak efficiency.

Does someone you know need to check their “sparkplugs”?

Strategically Thinking Blog
JTHawes Consulting Website

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