They say if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. That ethos is every bit as valid in competitive intelligence as it is when it comes to organizing a wedding (though with less risk of scorn from your future in-laws). 🙈
To learn more about the long- and short-term planning that’s so important for a well-tooled competitive intelligence program, Erik Mansur, VP of Product Marketing at Crayon, sat down with August Jackson, Senior Director of Market and Competitive Intelligence at Deltek and a pioneer in the competitive intelligence industry.
Key topics include:
- Cultivating calm in competitive intelligence
- Your cross-functional CI stakeholders
- Allocating CI resources in the right places
- Competitive intelligence planning 101
- Methodologies for competitive intelligence planning
- “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”
Cultivating calm in competitive intelligence 😌
Q: Is planning part of your DNA, or do you ever feel uncomfortable with it?
A: I've always been a big planner. I'm a big fan of David Allen's Getting Things Done and the OmniFocus software. I'm diligent about sitting down every week to do reviews. Every quarter, I do my off-site and do some planning. That's always been my nature.
One of the reasons I joined Deltek, in particular, is that they run project-focused organizations, and I thought, “Now here are some people who are going to understand project management,” and a lot of people do. But you know that saying “the cobbler's children have no shoes?” It applies to project-focused organizations too. We still have moments of panic where there’s something that needs to be done right now.
When I joined, there was a lot more of that last-minute panic, then I think people began to see the benefits of programming and planning competitive intelligence, such that now there is a sense of calm around a lot of the projects. I would say at this point, 60% of our activities are planned out.
A lot of things we do are just on a cadence – quarterly readouts for members of the board, quarterly readouts for our sales and leadership, and those sorts of things. We do still get a lot of bespoke project requests coming our way as well; those can sometimes be a little bit more hectic.
Q: That’s a really interesting point – cadence breeds calmness. Deltek is a process-focused company, so they want to instill a sense of calmness in your customers, but were there any growing pains in getting the organization to think the same way about competitive intelligence?
Absolutely, there were. There was a time when mid-market companies generally didn’t have dedicated competitive intelligence functions. One of the things I'm excited about for the profession now is that everybody wants a competitive intelligence team, particularly SaaS companies.
But when I came on board, there was very little maturity in competitive intelligence. The company had realized they needed a dedicated function, but there was still a bit of a Chicken Little “the sky is falling” moment anytime a competitive development happened.
One of the things I really focused on in my first year at Deltek was working with stakeholders to give them a perspective on what our competitors were doing. Let’s say a competitor wrote a blog post with a load of FUD about Deltek; we sit down and think about what that means for us and what reaction, if any, that justifies. Most often, it doesn't justify any sort of reaction.
That perspective has now permeated throughout the business, so rather than seeing a development in the market and being like, “Oh, my gosh, we have to do something,” there's now this exercise of sitting down, evaluating what’s going on, and thinking about what options are best for us and our customers.
Your cross-functional CI stakeholders 🙅♂️
Q: CI planning doesn’t happen in a vacuum; you need to loop other stakeholders into the process. Who are your stakeholders, and when do you loop them in? Do you lay the groundwork yourself and then bring them in for validation, or are they involved from the get-go?
A: I like to bring people in from the get-go. In some ways, you're never done planning, reevaluating, and rethinking because things change all the time. As I mentioned before, I'm a planner, but I'm also somebody who likes to go back and look at things as they progress as well.
In terms of who those stakeholders are, it really runs the gamut. When I came on board, I endeavored to be very collaborative in how we do competitive intelligence here, so I would engage people at all levels in all functional units throughout the business. Now, I've got a good number of people that are my go-to's for input and insight.
Sometimes I'm going to them and explicitly asking for input; sometimes it's just a matter of listening, observing, reading what they're writing, seeing what their KPIs are, and trying to determine the best ways the Market and Competitive Intelligence team can lean in to help them achieve their objectives.
In competitive intelligence roles, at least historically, there's tended to be either a focus on sales enablement and helping the organization win new business, or there’s a function dedicated to helping executives make strategic decisions.
Here, both those roles are integrated into one team, which is a challenge in and of itself. Sometimes I wonder if that was the best way to pitch my competitive intelligence competencies within this organization because there are trade-offs involved in trying to do both. Usually, there is some bifurcation, and we haven't done that.
But back to your question, we‘re engaging with the Chief Sales Officer and her VPs and directors, all the sales managers, and sometimes the individual reps, sales engineers, and SDRs. We want all those different perspectives. We're engaged with the marketing, product marketing, and product teams as well.
Our partnerships and alliances run the gamut. We're highly collaborative, and we're always reinventing the plan together. It sounds chaotic, but it's not.
Allocating CI resources in the right places 📝
Q: You mentioned the fact that some companies bifurcate so there's an air gap between the sales enablement side of competitive intelligence and the business strategy side of competitive intelligence.
You guys have bought it all together. Sometimes that could be chaotic, but from a planning perspective, at least one side knows what the other is doing. That must make it much easier to unite towards common goals that affect both business strategy and closing and retaining new business. Is that right?
A: Absolutely. Where it becomes a challenge is mostly with resourcing. Top of mind for me is that we only have so many units of time, attention, and effort. Where best can we put those on the chessboard to win, particularly in a very crowded and dynamic market?
It's a matter of multiple markets as well because, in the different industries that we sell into, we face different competitors. It’s important to recognize that in trying to do all those things, you run the risk of spreading yourself very thin. That's something we're always pushing back against.
Q: How do you decide what to prioritize and where to allocate those resources? And who needs to be involved with those decisions?
A: Thinking about what the business is trying to achieve this year helps guide where we place some of the chips. Of course, the CEO and the exec team have their goals for the year, and we want to align and support those as best we can.
On the sales enablement side of CI, the issue of resourcing is very important. In crowded markets, you have to very carefully pick and choose which competitors you're going to focus on. That's driven by a lot of data to understand who we’re coming up against.
Most often, we focus on the opportunities that are either individually or in aggregate going to drive the most revenue, and that determines how we focus our attention on competitors in the market today.
So it is a mix. In both the strategic bucket and the sales enablement bucket, you still have to make decisions about where you're going to put those priorities.
Competitive intelligence planning 101 💡
Q: Let’s get down to CI planning 101 for, say, a product marketer who has competitive intelligence as part of their job description. You mentioned making sure your activities roll up to the business goals. What's the next step after identifying which shooting star you're aiming for?
A: That's a great question, and it's really complicated. I like to sit down and think about everything I'm going to deliver in terms of enablement over the period of time I have in front of me.
In a product marketing role, where you have competitive intelligence as part of your functional remit, so much of what you do is going to be focused on tactical plays. You’ll be looking at the enablement around being able to market and sell a particular product, for example.
There's also going to be a little bit of that strategic angle as well because product marketing teams that have a competitive intelligence role are often guiding the product roadmap.
You need to look at those two pieces of the role and decide what you are going to do on each side. On the product roadmap front, that might be more informed by what the business is trying to achieve in the long term. The sales enablement piece is likely to be a little more tactical and short-term.
You need to break down what you’re going to do for each side and make sure you have a deep understanding of the KPIs for all the different stakeholders. Then you’ve got to assess your own goals based on those KPIs.
Successful competitive intelligence teams align their key performance indicators with the KPIs of the stakeholders that they're trying to support. What are the things you can do that are measurable, but also contribute to your stakeholders’ KPIs and demonstrate that you’re aligned with their success as well?
Q: So the advice for a small product marketing team with competitive intelligence as an additional function is to start your planning process by understanding what the deliverables could be, identify the stakeholders, and then align towards their KPIs. That's awesome.
As you're embarking upon a planning process, whether it be CI 101 or the graduate-level courses that match your experience, are you building KPIs and benchmarks into the plans and then looking back to see how you're progressing?
A: Absolutely. We have a very thorough process built around KPIs and balanced scorecard initiatives. We've combined qualitative and quantitative KPIs to evaluate how we’re supporting our stakeholders.
We regularly go back and evaluate ourselves based on those KPIs to see if we’re still driving the level of success that we wanted to drive for our stakeholders. It's both a matter of evaluating whether we’re meeting our own benchmarks and also reevaluating our performance in relation to the stakeholders’ performance and how we're delivering value inside the business.
Methodologies for competitive intelligence planning 🎓
Q: Talk to me for a minute about SWOT analysis. Do you use SWOT analyses or any other techniques to get your stakeholders who may not be mavens of competitive intelligence into the planning mindset?
A: SWOT is a great place to start. That's why it gets a lot of both love and hate from the business world and competitive intel. I absolutely love it, and I've definitely grown in my SWOT methodology over the years.
I’ve learned that opportunities and threats can often be very similar for all of the competitors in a particular industry because they are purely external and completely outside of your control. That's one of the things that I think a lot of people who are doing SWOT analysis get wrong.
We've done some great brainstorming sessions by looking at competitors' SWOT analyses too. When you take all the strengths, opportunities, and threats, and mix them together, you can come up with a course of action. It’s an exciting brainstorming exercise.
SWOT, for me, is part of something that I call “the stack” – three analytical frameworks that can help anybody understand the competitive landscape and develop insight into what's going to happen in an industry across various timeframes. SWOT is actually at the bottom of the stack, and it’s a valuable tool for understanding individual players within a market.
At the top of the stack is something called STEEP analysis. The acronym stands for social, technological, economic, environmental, and political, and it's an organizing framework to understand the trends and uncertainties that are impacting a particular macro-environment or industry. I find it a fantastic framework for making sense of an overwhelming amount of information.
From there, we can begin to do some other really powerful analytical exercises, like scenario analysis and implications wheels. But to understand what the macro-environment is today and what it’s going to look like in a year or five years, or 10 years, steep analysis is top of the stack.
In the middle of the stack, you have Porter's Five Forces, which is all about who has power in this particular market or dynamic. It evaluates buyers, sellers, substitutes, and the intensity of the competition among them. You can use this framework to quickly get an idea of whether an industry is dominated by a few large buyers and if they’re being threatened by new market entrants.
Combining these three frameworks is a really powerful way to understand the macro-environment, who has power within it, and the capabilities and opportunities for each player.
“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” 🧐
Q: How rigid or loose are your plans? Do you try to build in a little bit of leeway, recognizing that even if you try and embark upon a certain course, outside events might throw everything into flux?
A: Great question. You're bringing to mind the Eisenhower quote – “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” Or maybe it was Yogi Bear or Mark Twain who said that.
Q: Or Mike Tyson – “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.”
A: Absolutely. The TL;DR is that I remain pretty loose. Planning is important, but I do try to leave some slack. Things can come up, and you need to be able to pivot. Even as you're throwing the plan out the window, having that plan in the first place means you know exactly what you're throwing out the window, and that's useful as well.
It's a terrible situation for a parent to be in, but an example could be a parent who's a really diligent planner, but then their kid falls in the park and breaks their arm. And all of a sudden, that’s the most important thing they’ll be dealing with. Everything else can go by the wayside until the kid is safe and feeling better. It’s the same when you’re putting out fires at work.
Some people might look at that and think the planning was useless because it got thrown out the window, but the planning also helps you get back on that horse. Anytime a fire breaks out, I feel empowered to go to the people to whom I’ve made previous commitments and say, “Sorry to do this, but I gotta push these plans down the road,” and 99 times out of 100, everybody's on board with that.
So I do weave some margin into the plan. Even if that fire never happens, usually the margin gets eaten up anyway by administrative trivia or an expansion in the scope of the project.
Q: August, I could sit and talk with you for hours, but it’s time we wrapped things up. Thank you for chatting with us today.
A: Thank you for having me along.
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