Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Strategic Planning Analogy #463: Where Secrets Aren’t Hidden

Back when I was in High School, I had a friend who wanted to date a girl.  Unfortunately, she did not want to date him.  She said that the only way she would meet with him would be if he came over to her house to have her teach a lesson from her religious organization.  Since that was the only way he was going to meet her, he said yes to those conditions.

Later, my friend had some misgivings about the conditions, so he talked me into joining the religious class with him at her house.  She gave us some religious books to look at and told us to read a particular page.  After we read the page, she asked us a question about the material.  I immediately gave her an answer.  She was impressed by what I said so she asked me how I came to that conclusion.

My reply was that it was not my conclusion.  There was a big footnote at the bottom of the page which had the answer she was looking for in it.  So all I did was read the footnote verbatim.    

After that, she didn’t ask me any questions any more.

Life is full of questions.  Business is no exception.  If you want a build a solid business strategy, you need to first answer a lot of questions regarding the environment, internal competencies, competition, consumers, assumptions, and so on. 

Sometimes, it can be difficult to find the answers to these questions.  However, at other times, the answers may be right in front of us, like that footnote in that religious book.  All we need to do is know where to look (like in the footnotes section) and there it is, staring us in the face.

One of the hardest bits of information to find can be the future strategic intent of key outside stakeholders and competitors.  It is usually in their best interest to keep that information a secret from you.  After all, if you knew their strategic intent, you could use that information against them.  They prefer the element of surprise to work in their favor, so they hide their strategic intent.

This blog will show where some of that supposedly hidden intent is actually out in plain sight, like that footnote.

The principle here is that even though competitors may not want to tell you their strategic intent, they are often obligated to tell others of that intent.  For example, they may need to tell their intents to a lender or the SEC or a zoning commission.  All you need to do is look at what they tell the others and the intent can be as obvious as that footnote in the story.  We will talk about several of these places.  

1) Jobs
If a company is planning to move in a new direction, that often requires an infrastructure or skill-set not currently in the company.  It may also require a restructuring of the business (which also may apply if a company is abandoning an area).

As it turns out, these types of changes often lead to new job titles and new hires.  So if you follow what types of people are being hired and how job titles are changing, you can find out what type of work and what type of organization is being developed.  And that will tell you the direction of the strategy.

I’ve read job descriptions where the whole new strategic intent is pretty much laid out in full.  Or the job description may say that the company is planning to enter the “such-and-such” business and is looking for people with expertise in that area.  Or a press release about job promotions may explain the strategic basis behind the reorganization.   Facts they want to hide from you are broadcast to perfect strangers through job boards, press releases and other job-related material.     

So where can you find this data?  Job listing aggregation sites like indeed.com are very valuable.  Search on a company and/or a job title and you can find all the relevant job listings.  The Signal feature of Linked In (look under the header for News) and various Twitter search options can help you track early hiring searches sent out via messages like Twitter.  Just search on the word “hiring” and all sorts of interesting things show up.

And of course, you can look at a particular company’s web site.  Two places of note are useful—the career page and the press release page (to read about promotions and reorganizations).

2) 10 Ks
Public companies are obligated by governmental regulatory agencies to report on key aspects of their business.   These documents need to be filed and can typically be accessed by the public.  The key information might not be at the top in the headlines, but if you look at the interior pages and footnotes, a lot of secrets are disclosed.  In the US, the key documents filed with the SEC (like 10Ks) can be found at www.sec.gov/edgar/searchedgar/companysearch.html.

For example, no company wants to later be cited for not sufficiently explaining all the risks to their business in the business risks portion of the document.  Therefore, they tend to go overboard and overstate risks.  These overstatements can allude to business risks of future strategic intents not otherwise discussed.  A great example of using a company’s filing to discover strategic intent can be found here, where the example of Microsoft is used.

3) In-House Documents
Some companies go to great lengths to keep secrets out of documents going out to the world.  However, they can often be less diligent in documents meant for internal employees.  And guess what?  A lot of company web sites have links to internal newsletters and other such documents.  And anyone can look at them.

By the way, sometimes it is difficult to discover the internal conventions for how company emails are assigned.  However, you can often find out what these conventions are in these in-house documents.

4) Employee Rants
Employees often say more than they should, especially if they are angry.  And some of them put these thoughts on the internet.  There are lots of places where this can be found.  If you can join a particular company employee group on Linked In, you can catch some of this gossip.  Or the Yahoo company message boards in the finance section often have insider comments from employees.  Just type in the company symbol and look for its message board.  Or go to Google and type in a company name followed by the word “sucks.”  Most major firms have at least one site devoted to rantings which can usually be found this way.  Or you can search on company comments on Twitter. 

I know of one high-ranking officer in a company who lost his job because he said too much on the Yahoo message board.

The Jigsaw Puzzle
Many times, press releases, interviews and some of the other sources mentioned above will give some hints about strategy, but not provide a complete picture.  They are like a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle—interesting but not enough to understand what the whole picture is about.  However, if you collect enough of this information from a variety of sources, you can end up with handfuls of jigsaw puzzle pieces.  They may not be all the pieces to the puzzle, but enough to know what the complete picture would look like.

So consolidate your individual pieces and look at them together.

Just because a company wants to keeps secrets doesn’t mean that the information cannot be found.  If you know where to look, a lot of those “secrets” are hidden in plain sight.   So look for them.

For the truly lazy, there are companies that will do the looking for you.  You really have no excuse.

1 comment:

  1. Gerald Nanninga,

    I thank you for these "witty strategic cues". Observe and analyze. or may be the whole OODA loop.

    I enjoyed reading this post