Competitive and Market Intelligence: Leadership, Strategy, and Innovation

“The military are excellent planners; the private sector are great at execution. There are strengths and limitations of both paradigms, and we can learn so much by talking to each other.” – Retired Maj. Gen. David Fraser

At last night’s Communitech Competitive and Market Intelligence P2P, we were treated to a presentation by Retired Maj. Gen. David Fraser, the COO of INKAS Armored Vehicle Manufacturing.

In this session, he examined private sector business and the military, contrasting their differences and explaining how each can learn from the other in order to be more effective; specifically, Mr. Fraser dived into several topics, including: strategy, planning, teamwork, innovation, and leadership.

Sprinkled throughout with anecdotes both from the battlefield and the business world, this session was both entertaining and enlightening.

Before we get into my notes, here’s a little bit more about our speaker:

His 32 years with the Canadian Armed Forces was highlighted with operational tours around the globe leading multinational forces, a tour in the U.S., commanding the army training and education command along with numerous staff and project management positions. Mr. Fraser is a member of several boards and a mentor at the Ivey Business School.

[aside: I’m not entirely certain how to refer to Mr. Fraser without inadvertently being disrespectful; the blurb above says “Mr. Fraser”, though, so I’ll just go with that]

In his opening remarks, Mr. Fraser flatly said that “You ignore intelligence at your own peril: the more you understand your environment, the better prepared you’ll be.”

He added that the actual environment or situation will never be exactly what you think it will, but intelligence and preparation create the best chances of success.

After a pretty wide-reaching disclaimer (“Everything I’m going to say is a generalization, and it’ll all be wrong (for some situation).”), we got going into the presentation itself.

A Tale of Two Paradigms

Mr. Fraser said that, in general (see disclaimer, above):

  • The military are excellent planners…but have flawed execution
  • The private sector are great at execution…but don’t take the time to plan effectively

“There are strengths and limitations of both paradigms; both are right (and it’s not about right or wrong), and we can learn so much by talking to each other.”

Strategy

The right strategy depends on situational awareness, and enables you to make the best decisions you can (subject to your intelligence). As Theodore Roosevelt famously said: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

But you must begin with clear objective, or “end state”, that you want to achieve. Sound familiar?

For instance, in the private sector your aim might be to dominate a market and generate maximum profit (yikes, it seems so cold when written out like that).

So you’ve got your goal, and you’ve chosen your strategy…you’re done, right? Wrong! Mr. Fraser explained that the first principle of war, and of business, is “Selection and maintenance of the aim.” That is, you can never lose sight of your aim, as that’s your guiding light, your compass, to keep you on track.

Mr. Fraser explained that the first principle of war, and of business, is “Selection and maintenance of the aim.”

Selection and maintenance of the aim, as a single concept, is crucial to ensuring that the right path is chosen, alternatives are put in place for back-up, and appropriate tools are chosen for the task.

Ask yourself three questions: What is? What if? What next? The answers – as much as you can get them – arm with with situational awareness, and, in Mr. Fraser’s words, “Situational awareness lets you make informed decisions, rather than (uninformed) gambles.”

While he came back to the subject of leadership in more detail later, Mr. Fraser took a minor segue here, while discussing the importance of situational awareness: he explained that, as a leader, your team looks to you to make a decision…whether you know what to do or not. Your tone, demeanor, etc. are important. He advises that we, “Get rid of the emotion (…you can do that later). But get the facts.” Look like you’re in control, maximize your situational awareness, and then make the best decision you can with the information you have.

Information Requirements

Like situational awareness and selection and maintenance of the aim, information requirements was another recurring concept in Mr. Fraser’s presentation. In addition to the broader areas of information (e.g., business landscape, market dynamics, etc.), he mentioned:

  • Friendly Force Information: anything about your own team that you need to know (e.g., strengths, weaknesses, limitations, financial numbers, delivery dates, etc.)
  • Priority Intelligence: information about your competition (e.g., their details, strengths and weaknesses, etc.)

Critically, though, a leader needs to identify when he or she needs to know what.

Critically, though, a leader needs to identify when he or she needs to know what.

That is, not everything has equal urgency or importance. As Mr. Fraser described it, “If someone has been killed or wounded, find me, wake me up; tell me immediately.” He contrasted this information with general updates that can be done daily, others that can be included in a weekly summary, etc.

Making your information requirements clear lets you methodically move forward in a prioritized manner, rather than just running around and tactically executing like crazy.

Planning

In addition to the information requirements needed to plan, Mr. Fraser touched on three other areas in some detail: targeting, the business plan, and coordination.

Targeting

By targeting, Mr. Fraser means a very deliberate process by which you identify your prospects (starting with markets) and your competitors.

For instance, when looking for your growth markets, you need to – very deliberately – gain a deep understanding of what’s happening in all your potential markets (e.g., ease of business entry, can you actually get paid, what are the government dynamics, ease of doing business, etc.). Then, combined with an understanding of your own resources and, of course, a clear knowledge of your overall aim, you can begin to refine your focus until you’ve very deliberately chosen your optimal targets.

Regarding the competition, you want to know what they’re doing, what’s going on in their markets, etc. That way, you can be prepared if they come on the attack, and you can attack them if you so choose.

Mr. Fraser advises that it’s much better to, “Take the time up front, to avoid wasting time and resources on the back-end.”

The Business Plan

Mr. Fraser told us that the business plan at INKAS, “Is like any other business plan, but includes ‘what is?’, ‘what if?’, and ‘what next?’, so that people can actually read it.”

He stressed the importance of identifying performance metrics, while acknowledging the challenges of finding leading metrics (which let you anticipate and be proactive) rather than being dependent upon lagging metrics (that force you to react).

Meeting != Coordination

On coordination, Mr. Fraser flatly stated that, “The private sector could do more of this.”

Now, that might surprise many people…after all, ‘death by meeting’ is a private sector cliché for a reason. But it turns out (and this won’t surprise many people) that we’re doing meetings wrong: we’re meeting about the wrong things, we don’t have clear agendas, and we keep the meetings going even if they’re not working.

To lead to effective coordination, a meeting must have a clear agenda and a clear intention/outcome (and this is true for customer meetings, too; they must have an aim).

Mr. Fraser advises that we start by looking at our entire year and working our way back, to decide what coordination needs to happen at different intervals (e.g., quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily), and that we tie everything back into our information requirements.

He noted that it’s vitally important to, “periodically stop and ask how the system is working”. If it’s not working, then fix it.

Mr. Fraser noted that in his career, he wrote more and more the higher he got. That’s the kind of observation that’ll stick with me.

Mr. Fraser noted that in his career, he wrote more and more the higher he got. That’s the kind of observation that’ll stick with me.

Throughout the discussion on planning, Mr. Fraser kept coming back to the selection and maintenance of the aim; after all, all your planning is worthless if it isn’t in support of your primary objective. He stressed that this concept is especially crucial as companies seek to grow beyond being entrepreneurial, and into the realm of being larger and more industrial in nature.

Innovation

We didn’t spend too much time on innovation, only really enough for Mr. Fraser to say that, “Innovation is key to competitiveness and success”, and to remark how true innovation (contrasted with incremental changes, or fooling yourself) delivers huge and unforeseen returns.

As an example, he mentioned the University of Waterloo’s innovative approach to intellectual property (summary: you own it, not the university)…this policy has allowed innovation to flourish, and has had a corollary that donations to the university have increased (’cause lots of people have become rich off their own inventions).

Teamwork

In Mr. Fraser’s words, “It’s all about the team. Everyone has a role.” He illustrated this point by showing us some pictures from his deployments, touching on the specific role of each person.

In a business, it’s the same thing: “People are the most important asset we have.”

Mr. Fraser also identified a common challenge, “The balance between the individual and the organization is a constant struggle.”

That is, the greater organization is made up of individual parts, and is dependent upon both coordinated and emergent behavior. Go too individualistic, and you’re pretty close to anarchy; get too organized, and you snuff out the individualism that can lead to breakthroughs.

Leadership

Mr. Fraser’s definition of leadership is, “Getting other people to do what you want them to do”, with, “when they don’t want to do it” tacked on in a military setting.

He explained that leaders can give orders, but a far more effective strategy is to have people buy in and by extension to have them want to do the thing that you want them to do.

In Mr. Fraser’s view (and I’ve gotta say that I wholeheartedly agree), “In the private sector there are a lot of managers, but very few leaders.”

In Mr. Fraser’s view, “In the private sector there are a lot of managers, but very few leaders.”

He advocates finding and developing your leaders: your job is to work yourself out of a job (by moving up), and having someone developed to take over the role you vacate.

He stressed the importance of having the right management team (“If you don’t have the right one, change it.”) and how you can spot if you don’t have the right team (“People are covering for their manager, doing his or her job.”).

The 80/20 Rule of Leadership

We’ve all heard of the 80/20 rule, in all sorts of scenarios. Mr. Fraser applied it to leadership thusly: Your people see you walking around, keeping up morale, cheering them on, doing open coordination, and they think that this part is 80% of your job, and 20% is behind-the-scenes. But in reality, all that walking around that they see is only 20%, and 80% is behind-the-scenes. …and this is good! They shouldn’t see all the background stuff.

Human Geography

Mr. Fraser explained that a great leader understands human geography (i.e., people: their motivations, strengths, weaknesses, desires, etc.) more than anything else. And not just his or her own people, but the adversary as well.

On Process

A lot of the session dealt with the related subjects of process, strategy, information requirements, etc. But can things go wrong? An audience member asked how can you tell if you have too much process?

Mr. Fraser responded, “That’s your leadership challenge every day…finding that sweet spot.”

He trusts his gut, “the feeling that things are going well, or there’s too much process, or a meeting isn’t working” and told us, “Don’t be afraid to stop the process if it’s not working; don’t be afraid to change the process if it’s not working.”

He trusts his gut, and told us, “Don’t be afraid to stop the process if it’s not working; don’t be afraid to change the process if it’s not working.”

Key Take-Aways

Mr. Fraser quickly wrapped things up by reiterating that selection and maintenance of the aim is the primary principle of business, and that it needs to be supported by clear information requirements. Capturing it all in a plan, and reviewing/refining that plan periodically will maximize your chances of success.

And, on leadership, “People led well will never let you down. You will win when people believe that they can win, and that comes from belief in what you’re doing.”

My thanks to Mr. Fraser for an insightful and interesting session, to Communitech and the P2P folks for organizing and hosting, and to my fellow P2Pers for coming out!

Here are some pics from the event (photo credit to the P2P group).

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Posted in Leadership, Management

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