pushing_a_car

Building from my post about intelligence being a well-informed “opinion”, this item in the Wall Street Journal last week reminded me of another story of good intelligence informing smart decisions…highly opinionated intelligence, I might add!

The crux of the story is no amount of wishful thinking changes the laws of thermodynamics.

We are often told that the “promise” of the new age will be storing energy. Well, this promise isn’t new. In fact, it is very old.

Volta invented the first battery around 1800, and it is believed Persians may have had batteries in the early centuries AD (the “Baghdad Battery”). Unlike our ability to manipulate silica to double computing capacity every 18 months, advances in battery technology are SLOW moving.

Which brings us to our story.

Not long after Procter & Gamble purchased Gillette in 2005, my technical competitive intelligence team was asked to look into a potential investment the company was considering in a firm called A123 Systems.

A123 was a spin-out from the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that claimed to have a breakthrough in lithium iron phosphate battery technology that could revolutionize electric cars.

The Duracell brand, which had only a weak position in the lithium ion space, saw big potential: Get in on the ground floor of the mass production of “good & cheap” electric car batteries and stick the Duracell brand on them. Tie the brand to environmental friendliness and innovation. Be a key part of the electric automobile future. Management appetites were whetted, to say the least. Plus, A123’s technology came out of MIT, so it must be great, right?

A certain consulting firm was hired to vet A123 and they pronounced the plan to be good.

Luckily, an old gray hair P&G engineer sent the package to my team to have a look.

We came to a very different conclusion. Our “opinion” was that A123 was mostly promises and not much property.

First, the “technology” A123 promised didn’t diverge far from existing lithium ion processes. Its promise of industrial scalability, uniform quality and long life didn’t seem very convincing.

We determined this by looking at lithium ion battery intellectual property (i.e., patents).  The consultants hired to do due diligence looked only at US intellectual property. They did not look at the massive record emanating from Japan.

Japan was the pioneer and leader in lithium ion technologies. The Japanese IP record was rich and included many “inventions” that led to commercial dead ends, most especially in the area of fabricating large, stable power cells. These lines of development in the Japanese IP record were exactly the same pathways A123 intended to pursue if they could find a deep pocket investor.

Further, we asked the strategic question: If the promise of A123’s technology was so convincing, why were they coming to P&G? Wouldn’t a firm in the automobile industry or in power and controls be a more logical and enthusiastic audience?

We presented our findings to key finance and R&D leaders. Needless to say, we were not very popular. In fact, we were surprised by much of the vehement blow-back from executives in the battery business. It was angry and accusatory … potentially career impacting.

People trusted A123 because of their legacy and position. They wanted to believe that very smart technologists given enough resources could coax a rapid breakthrough into existence.

We stuck to our opinion. Our assessment was fact based, and historically and intellectually sound.

Management listened. They compared our analysis to the opinion of internal advocates and the third party due diligence effort. We won on the merits and P&G avoided making a huge financial mistake.

Years later, of course, A123 Systems filed for bankruptcy after they attempted to scale up manufacturing for Detroit.

They were purchased out of bankruptcy and have indeed created novel and interesting batteries for automotive and industrial applications. The power quality produced by the A123 process is impressive. But the promise of scaled up, mass produced “good & cheap” electric car batteries continues to be elusive. (We’ll have to wait and see if Elon Musk can deliver on the promise.)

In business, well informed opinions -what we call “intelligence”- need to drive decision making. Wishful thinking and conventional wisdom, not so much!

Check out this video of a Red Tail Hawk taking out a drone. Old answer to a new problem … Falconry, anyone?

I can remember way back in ancient history when I got a 64 count box of Crayola Crayons … the box even had a sharpener incorporated into the package. How could it have gotten any better than that? Well, now look how far they’ve come. Pretty cool! And check out Data Pointed … many cool visualizations of data.

crayola chart

YourOpinionMatters

Our friend, Ben Gilad, has a great post up on LinkedIn Pulse about the difference between data, information and intelligence. He uses this week’s story about H-P’s pending split-up to illustrate:

Take the case of the failed merger talks between HP and EMC. Assume you are a competitor (or a customer, or a potential partner, or a start-up looking to be bought, etc., etc.). The information about HP/EMC is all over the place but it means virtually nothing. If in your company, all you get is information, it means you have no intelligence capability.

Data (not fully verified): The talks lasted for about a year, and failed. Some speculated they failed because both Tucci (EMC’s boss) and Whitman (HP’s boss) feared shareholders will reject the proposal (which would have forced Whitman to leave? Tucci is retiring anyway).

Information (verified): After the failure of its talks with EMC, HP announces it is splitting itself up into a Printer/PC and an Enterprise divisions.

Competitive intelligence (specific perspective on “facts” and information): This is not a strategic move at all, it’s a financial move. Who cares (except for the financial markets)? What would the two separate divisions do differently than what they have done before?

OK, you get it.  But you’re thinking:  Isn’t this “intelligence” example just opinion?

Of course it is!

It is informed opinion that gathers together facts, experience and knowledge and provides an “accurate” assessment of the situation. It is not the hip shooting, unicorn conjuring kind of opinion. It is reality based.

Somehow in our fascination with data and information we have banished “opinion” to the dunce corner. We forget that data and information are inanimate … they just sit there. It is opinion that gets things done. It makes sense of the facts and points to a course of action.

Intelligence is the process of creating well informed, data based opinions. No decent business leader, investor or entrepreneur can operate without these “opinions.”

When Steve Jobs looked at the emerging electronic music market in the late 90’s and said “this sucks,” it was his opinion. It was a well informed opinion that changed the world!

One would have thought that “Political Correctness” would have stopped at the shop doors of the CDC and other healthcare operations like Dallas Presbyterian Hospital. But one would have thought wrong!

In our 21st Century compartmentalized brains we seem to regret … even resent … the fact that honesty and competency are closely linked ideas. It is very hard to do the right thing or to do things well when you have to submit yourself to the tortured mechanisms of the “public relations” apparatus. When you have to avoid “truthy” language so as not to offend people, pretty soon, you forget the truth.

The truth about Ebola … or any fill-in-blank contagion … is you have to contain it to kill it. Look up the word “Quarantine.” As in: “Yes, so sorry you’ll have to miss your Monrovia relatives at the holidays, but Liberia is under Quarantine.”

The OMG moments in this dog and pony operation regarding Ebola are mind numbing. If you haven’t already seen the clip below, here we have Sanjay Gupta, not one known for donning tin-foil hats, having to operate in the land of unreality, interviewing the director of the CDC. It is a pitiful display:

When will we come to our senses? Please pray these clowns aren’t as incompetent as they appear!

 

 GO_CARDS

Well, sadly another poor season for the home team (the Reds). But luckily we have other affiliations.

My brother, who grew up on the Cincinnati Reds, seeing all the greats of the 60’s and watching the emergence of Sparky Anderson’s “machine” in the 70’s, is now a committed St. Louis Cardinals fan. My young son is excited for the Cardinals, because they a “Meemaw’s team” … she lives in St. Louis.

So how could the Wall Street Journal list the Cardinals as “the most loathsome team in Baseball”? Sounds like sour apples.

Well, today, the mayor of St. Louis, Francis Slay, responds. Link is here. But here’s the payoff pitch, and it’s a good one!

…I feel compelled to deliver a simple message to America: We’re sorry.

Sure, we’re sorry the Cardinals have won 11 World Series championships, two since 2006. But there’s much, much more for which we owe all of you a heartfelt apology.

Indeed, we’re sorry that New York and San Francisco are 2.3 times and 1.7 times respectively more expensive to live in than the St. Louis metro area.

We’re sorry for producing one of the world’s best-selling batteries (Energizer) and two of the 10 best-selling beers in the world—Budweiser and Bud Light.

We’re sorry that the four largest metro areas in the nation lost nearly 25,000 financial-service jobs between January 2007 and September 2012, while St. Louis added more than 5,500 in the sector.

That guy Jon Hamm? Yeah, we’re sorry for raising him here and sending him out into the world for your entertainment delight.

We’re sorry for our diverse community in that more Bosnians—over 60,000—call St. Louis home than anywhere outside of Bosnia.

We’re sorry for Forest Park, our beautiful 1,300-acre urban park comprises an award-winning zoo, science center, art and history museums, golf courses, ice rink and green space.

We’re sorry for not only being home to 18 Fortune 1000 companies, but for developing one of the most promising and fastest-growing ecosystems for startups and entrepreneurs, delivering innovations that are being used by businesses and consumers world-wide. You know, like that pesky social-media platform Twitter (St. Louisan Jack Dorsey ) or credit-card processing device Square (St. Louisan Jim McKelvey).

We’re sorry that at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Richard Blechynden served tea with ice, thus inventing iced tea (although not the rapper/actor Ice-T).

We are, in fact, actually kind of sorry that our state animal is the mule, but that’s another discussion for another day. The point is that we here in the Midwest are not a boastful people. We’re humble and quietly go about our business, inventing the things you use every day, entertaining you, finding employment for your citizens and handing you losses on the baseball field regularly. (We’re especially sorry to Chicago.)

Don’t hate us because we’re beautiful here in St. Louis. But if you do, just know that we’re sorry. Go Cards!

tskNow for something completely off topic.

So many issues in the public zeitgeist are mind-numbingly silly or stupid. The hullabaloo over campus sexual assault is just such an issue. But leave it to Camille Paglia to set the mind straight on this topic.

I commend to you: The Modern Campus Cannot Comprehend Evil

What a strange age we live in when a lesbian art critic does a better job framing “the talk” that every father should have with his teenage daughters, especially those headed out to college and the wider world.

Paglia is about the sharpest mind and sharpest commentator on the public scene out there. I wish more people steeped in conventional wisdom would take a hit off the stiff coffee she brews up. And I wish Paglia would write more.

Very cool!  Have a laser focused weekend.

Disunionflag

Tomorrow’s the “big” day. Having both English and Scottish roots makes me hope that the glorious union stays together. While Scots make up only a small portion of the total population, a Britain without Scotland will be like a lion without its heart. Everywhere in the great and noble history of Britain you find Scots at the head of the parade. Great inventors, engineers, scientists, philosophers, theologians, and business leaders carried around the world by the tide of liberal empire. Disunion would be a truly lamentable divorce.

UnUKinfographic

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In a post last week, we looked at the warning signs that a firm’s strategy needs work.

But what about your Midas operation? Your company is humming along and rolling up sales, transaction volume and market share like there’s no tomorrow. The sun is shining and you are rightly out gathering in the hay. When approached about strategy, you put up the hand.  “Not now!  Don’t need it!”

Well, please be careful. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the winds of change blow in and make a mess of things.

A small amount of thought about your strategy, and a careful look at the things that could derail progress, are likely to pay off in greater success.

Here are three questions you should be asking yourself:

Do we REALLY think the competition bell won’t toll?

I am surprised how many entrepreneurs think they can build and sustain a monopoly. They think their product or service is so great that no one will dare to challenge them. The sad truth is success attracts competition, and the greater the success the greater the attraction.

Just as the visionary sees the promise and works his or her tail off the create the solution, another class of visionaries see the opportunity to capitalize on the first mover’s ideas and success. They let the first guy or gal work out the bugs, establish the concepts and market demand, and develop the business model. Then they move in to optimize or innovate on the original.

The net of it is, competition is unavoidable. No barrier is ever high enough. Competitors come in through the front door, the back door, the windows, or burrow in through the foundation. They confront directly or obliquely. They look like you or they look like something completely new. They come in as better value or better features, or they show up as technology substitutes that obliterate your market.

Strategy is fundamentally about competition. How you will confront it; how you will adapt to it; how you will beat it. The good news is competition will make you stronger and better if you accept it and plan for it.

Does my firm and leadership team anticipate and prepare for the unexpected?

This does NOT mean investing a lot of time and money in futurists, trends work, scenario planning or other projects that promise to lift the veil on the future. The future is and remains unknowable.

What it does mean is that you accept and even welcome change. Companies that look forward to change will thrive more so than outfits that fear it. Therefore, some amount of study and preparation should always be going on.

  • Someone should be watching those market segments, customers and product lines that you put to the back burner as you focused on the big fish you’re currently swallowing.

  • Someone should be watching competition for changes in leadership direction and operating behavior or shifts in investment priorities.

  • And someone should be assessing your execution relative to how competitors are doing and against evolving customer expectations.

A recent study by leadership consultants, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, dug through the performance reviews of 50,000 business leaders to look for common characteristics of bad decision making. Among the most dangerous were: Laziness; Not expecting the unexpected; Indecisiveness; Remaining Locked in the Past; Personal Isolation.

Success often masks these bad habits. Change exposes them. Which bad habit is waiting to trip you up?

Bottom line, it’s easy to ride the wave, but managers and companies that are vigilant for the signs of change will be that much quicker to move to the next wave. The famous Andy Grove quote sums it up:  “Only the paranoid survive”.

Are we confusing planning with strategy?

Many successful firms will say they have a plan. They’ve learned to forecast with some accuracy and have thus enabled key managers and operating organizations to get ahead on hiring, inventory, infrastructure or financing. They know when they need capacity and capability and they’ve put detailed plans in place to deliver.

Often, these firms will put all their function or department level plans together and call them “strategic”. But “strategic planning” is not the same as strategy. The “strategic plan” might speak effectively about when the firm needs to secure new financing or when to put sourcing contracts out to bid. But it doesn’t typically tell the company what to do if competition lowers price or new technology appears that alters the customer proposition.

Strategy is the process of understanding change and making choices and new bets to address or harness change. It answers these questions.

However great today is, tomorrow will come and it will be different than today.

So even in the throes of strong growth and success, a brief time out to examine direction, to calibrate aims and objectives, to assess strengths and opportunities, is well advised. They are essential steps if you want your firm to live out Peter Drucker’s famous dictum that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.”