Friday, May 22, 2015

Three Simple Ways To Make Your Next Analytic Team Work Better

We do a lot of intelligence analysis projects at Mercyhurst using teams.  We do this primarily because this is the way intelligence work generally gets done in the real world and we want to replicate those conditions in the classroom.

There are many good books on how to make teams work of course.  My favorite, Hackman's Collaborative Intelligence, is required reading in several of my classes, for example.  In the hundreds of analytic teams I have managed since I came to Mercyhurst, there are three rules, however, that are simple to execute and always just seem to work.

All other things being equal, have one or more women on your team 

People always talk about diversity in teams being a good thing generally and, frankly, I agree with the sentiment.  If you aren't persuaded by the morality of this argument, though, there is another reason that ought to get your attention:  Having one or more women on a team improves team performance (You can see the hard evidence here and an easier to read version here.  The chart below comes form the latter link).  

Anecdotally, I have seen this work many, many times.  Of course, these are averages and all other things are rarely equal but if you have the chance to put a guy on an all guy team or an equally qualified woman, I would pick the woman every time. 

You can see the whole article at 

Don't brainstorm!  Use Nominal Group Technique instead  

Traditional brainstorming - you know, where someone gets up and writes ideas on a chalkboard as people shout them out - doesn't work.  Lots of studies have shown this (see the screenshot below) but you likely don't need to read them.  You have probably been in too many of these sessions yourself and understand how inefficient brainstorming is at generating new ideas while avoiding groupthink.  

A better technique is available, however:  Nominal Group Technique (NGT).  

This list of research showing brainstorming failures comes from another interesting alternative - Brainswarming.  For more, see:

The key to NGT is to pose the problem first and then have people write their ideas down independently of one another.  Only after everyone has written down their ideas should people compare notes.  While comparing notes you are looking for two things.  The first are the ideas that everyone (or almost everyone) generated that are essentially the same.  The fact that the same idea occurred independently multiple times probably means that it is important or at least worth investigating further.  The second thing is what I call a "positive surprise".  Positive surprises are those ideas that only one, maybe two, group members come up with but as soon as they read them out loud everyone acknowledges that they are great ideas.   

During your first team meeting require people to focus on relevant skills instead of their job titles when introducing themselves 

Imagine this.  You are at your first team meeting and people are going around the room introducing themselves.  One says "I am Joe Shmo, the Balkans analyst at the CIA", and the next says, "I am Mary Shmedlap, a counterintel analyst at FBI.".  Pretty common, right?  It is also pretty ineffective.  These kinds of introductions have a tendency to reinforce the divisions within a team.  

Far better is to focus on the skills the individuals bring to the team.  This comes directly from Hackman but is one of the most powerful techniques available.  I have my teams write down any and all skills they have that they think might be relevant to the project.  Expertise in the targeted problem area is important but I also ask team members to write down ancillary skills that might be important such as proofreading or graphic design skills.  

I also ask team members to include skills which might not appear to be directly relevant to the task at hand right now such as calligraphy.  Intel analysis rarely comes with a roadmap and it is often unpredictable at the beginning of the project what skills will turn out to be relevant at the end of the project.  

Finally, I also get them to talk about their personal preferences in terms of workflow - are they the kind of people who like to get everything done early or are they last minute kind of people?  Do they work better at night or are they early birds?  You would be surprised how much a conversation like this, early in the life cycle of a group, smooths things out over the long haul of a project.

That's it!  Three proven techniques for improving team performance backed by research.  Let me know how they work for you!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Intelligence And Cookies

(Note: This is entry number 2 in a three part series on some of the things I have learned about intelligence support to entrepreneurs from running a number of crowdfunding campaigns. For Part 1, click here.)

Ah!  Cookies!  Who can resist a good cookie?  Fresh out of the oven, homemade, imprinted with pictures of horses and bunnies and dinosaurs...


That is the good idea of Lisa Van Riper, the creator of the Tiny Hands On A Roll Kickstarter (closing in a little more than 24 hours). Little kids like to "help" when it comes to baking but kitchen implements are often too large, too unsafe or too uninteresting for little kids to use.  How can you keep them engaged without them getting frustrated?

Lisa hand makes laser engraved, bakery quality rolling pins that are exactly the right size for small children.  They work just like a good rolling pin ought to work but are sized for tiny hands and completed with customizable laser-engraved images that make the rolling fun.

Check out her project page (just click on the image above).  Her images are beautiful, her products demonstrate an over-abundance of quality and care in manufacturing.  Something like this ought to just kill it on Kickstarter, right?

Yep.  Except for one small detail (and my second lesson learned);  Timing.

Every crowdfunding project creator worries about timing.  What is the best day to launch? What is the best time of day to launch?  How long should the campaign be?  When is the best time of month to launch?  When is the best day to end?  What days should I avoid?  

These are all good questions but it is easy to be hyper-focused on these tactical issues and miss the strategic (or, at least, seasonal) trends.

Take a look at the chart below.  It is taken from Google Trends and shows the US search trend for the term "rolling pin" over the last ten years or so.  Talk about strong patterns!  Every peak is in December and every trough is in...ahem...April.  

Hindsight being 20/20, it is obvious why this is so.  Rolling pins are strongly associated with the scratch baking frenzy that begins shortly before the end of October and only ends around the time people are waking up late and cursing the winter sunlight of January 2nd.  In terms of searches for the term "rolling pin" at least, that frenzy is almost three times as strong in the fall as it is in the spring of every year since 2005.

We figured this out before we launched, of course.  Lisa wants to expand her business and she wanted to get this product line out there now and not wait till the fall.  She has already explored other ways to sell the product after the Kickstarter campaign is over and she will almost certainly do well in the fall with these products (when not only baking season but also toy season kicks in).  Our solution was to adjust her expectations - and her goal - accordingly.  

Not every product has this strong of a trend associated with it.  That said, if you have to swim upstream, you at least want to know about it beforehand.

Next:  Intelligence And Vigilantes

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Intelligence And Coffee

It has been said (at least by me) that coffee is to intel as air is to life.  In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has reportedly recognized coffee, along with sugar and alcohol, as part of the three basic food groups of intelligence professionals everywhere (note I said "recognized" not "approved of"...)

So, it is no real surprise that I am beginning what I hope will be a three part series on the intelligence lessons I have learned running various crowdfunding campaigns with Roast Assured, a project that is not just about coffee but about the perfect cup of coffee.

Roast Assured is a client of our Quickstarter Project here at Mercyhurst.  Quickstarter allows us to match aspiring, energetic college students and their skills with entrepreneurs who need those skills to help get their crowdfunding projects off the ground.

I received a $10,000 grant from the good people at Ben Franklin Technology Partners last year to help local entrepreneurs run some campaigns (and recently received a much larger grant to run lots more campaigns over the next three years).  Since then, I have run five campaigns (three of which are live right now) and have spoken to nearly 30 other potential creators.

What have I learned?

Lesson #1:  Entrepreneurs need lots of intelligence support.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the number one requirement of an entrepreneur is reliable intelligence about the environment in which they are operating.  Most entrepreneurs know their idea inside and out.  They know all about their current operational capabilities and limitations. Everything else is almost always enshrouded in varying degrees of fog.

To a certain extent this should be expected.  Clearly there are levels of expertise when it comes to entrepreneurship.  Most of the people who come to me are raw and untested. Some of the people I do see come to me better informed than others but I don't see many serial entrepreneurs or experienced business people.  The fundamental truth seems to remain, though, entrepreneurs love their ideas and know them quite well.  The rest ... well ... not so much.

Much of this intelligence needs to be tactical, real time support, however.  I call it "just-in-time" intelligence.  Intel support at this level is all about being able to fill in the gaps immediately and with just enough info to keep things moving.  To put it in terms most national security intelligence professionals will understand, with entrepreneurs, all of the alligators are at your ankles and all of the targets are 50 meter ones.

Roast Assured is a good example of this.  Jack Barton, an expert coffee roaster and the creator of Roast Assured, has a great idea.  He wants to work with people to help them get their perfect cup of coffee.  He knows how different roasts and different grinds and even different flavorings and spices work together (or against one another) to change the taste of a cup of coffee.

What he really likes to do, though, is to put that knowledge to work for people - to help them craft their perfect brew.  He also wants to take it a couple of steps further.  First, he wants his customers to be able to name their coffee.  It can have personal significance, it could be the regular coffee in a small town diner or even the official coffee of some internet start-up. He even wants to work with you and his artists to craft a logo for your brand of coffee!

The bottomline is that it is your coffee with your chosen name on it.  Once you and Jack figure out the perfect blend, your named coffee goes into his database and you can go online and order another pound of Spy Roast (or whatever) anytime you want.

Beyond this, it gets tricky.  Who wants to buy this?  Where can we find him or her? How should we price this?  What's our value proposition?  Who will finance us?  Where can we get this made?  Who are our competitors? And on and on and on!

Virtually all the important questions entrepreneurs have are, at their core, questions about things critical to the success or failure of the project that are largely or completely outside the entrepreneur's control - in short, intelligence questions.  

One problem, of course, is that these raw, untested entrepreneurs don't typically have the money to pay for this kind of intel support.  This problem is unlikely to go away.  A second problem is that most of the entrepreneurial literature and many of the entrepreneurship training programs don't expose creators to the kind of intel tools and skills that could be so helpful in getting their projects off the ground. 

Next:  Intelligence And Cookies

Friday, March 27, 2015

What You Should Be Reading! (Blog List)

A few weeks ago, I asked ... well ... everyone: "What are you reading?"  I had noticed, with some dismay, that my own list of intel-related blogs and sources was a bit outdated and contained a number of now dead links.

Fortunately, my colleagues on LinkedIn, friends and acquaintances from a number of intelligence related email lists and the loyal (long-suffering?) readers of SAM were able to fill the void.  Without further ado, below is the list of all the blogs and other sources we managed to accumulate:

I asked my research assistant, McKenzie Rowland, to organize all the notes and emails and comments into a single user-friendly spreadsheet. We sorted the sites by how often they were mentioned by different people. There were lots of ties, though, so don't take the order too literally. 

Since I sent the announcement to all three of the major intelligence communities (National security, business and law enforcement), McKenzie also included a brief description of what we thought was the primary audience of the blog. We were lucky enough to get a number of non-US sources as well. 

Finally, I do not consider this list exhaustive. If YOUR favorite blog/source on intel didn't make the list, please leave a comment or drop me a note at kwheaton at mercyhurst dot edu!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tired Of Doing Analysis The Same Old Way? Need To Learn Something New? Then You Need To Attend THIS Symposium!

One of the top complaints I hear from analysts is that they do not get enough exposure to new analytic methodologies.  While the pace of technology and information collection has done nothing but accelerate, analysts oftentimes seem to be stuck in a time warp - using the same old methods in much the same old ways.

The Mercyhurst Chapter of the Society of Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) is doing something about that this Spring!

They have put together a one-day symposium on April 20 that will walk the attendees through a variety of new or rarely used methodologies that are perfect for business applications.  Covered methods include Social Network Analysis, Geospatial Preparation Of the Environment, Suitability Models and Strategic Group Mapping.  

Beyond the methods covered, the local chapter here has done an outstanding job of bringing in three must-hear keynote speakers:  Michelle Settecase, the Leader of Competitive Intelligence for the Global Markets Division of Ernst and Young; Mike Finnegan, the Manager of Enterprise Risk Intelligence for Target Corporation; and Patrick Daly, the Manager of Competitive Intelligence for Parker Hannifin.

Reduced rate registration is only available until 20 March, so hurry!