Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Competitive Intelligence
Secrets of Ray Miller  

Non-baseball organizations in competitive fields, like their baseball cousins, have competitive intelligence (CI) departments. In baseball, that's the advance scouting function that sends individuals to observe upcoming opponents play, tracking individual and team tendencies, seeking weaknesses they can exploit, charting managerial decisions, and then reporting it back to the team.

In large business or government organizations, there is usually a formal CI department or specific jobs that have the responsibility for it (think product marketing manager in a software company, for example).

Baseball is much more capable & effective than other industries, though, because to some degree, it makes CI everyone's responsibility, pushing it out beyond the dedicated advance scouting group. Some players invest energy trying to steal signs, others hang out with opponents near the batting cage before games.

Non-baseball organizations, especially in the business and professional services world, would be wise to copy baseball's unusually broad CI efforts.

Ray Miller, the legendary pitching coach for the Baltimore Orioles, uses a method that's uncommon even in CI-rich baseball. Beyond even combing through his pitching-coach peers' (the logical "competitors") wisdom for lessons, he went straight to the enemy for intel. As he says, "I learned more about coaching pitching from listening to hitters than listening to anyone else".

When Frank Robinson, one of the 15 greatest career hitters of all time, became a coach with the Orioles in 1980, Miller sought him out. "I talked pitching to him, he talked hitting to me," Miller explained. The pitching coach noted how similar the mechanics are, that looking at the mechanics of the other side gave you a little extra perspective. And, of course, Frank Robinson knew a lot of pitching, what was easy to read and what made his job harder, and all of that external (competitor) wisdom added an uncommon perspective to Miller's understanding.

That kind of approach (I'm no suggesting it alone, but that type of search for additional, related perspective) is a significant part of what has made Miller extraordinarily successful, with three Cy Young award winners and seven 20-game winners to his credit.

Organizations in competitive fields should consider encouraging everyone to explore CI as a sideline as baseball does. Different people bring different backgrounds and experiences to their perceptions, making possible delivery of different insights. True, not all will be useful, but that's true of dedicated, trained CI department specialists, too. And having everyone rolling up their sleeves and doing some level of CI work together, even a small amount, increases social cohesion, reinforces the us-v-them drift that, in measured quantities, boosts organizational torque.

And consider, too, Miller's CI Method. You can always talk with mutual customers or prospective customers, talk to industry-watchers, but consider a Miller: go to trade association meetings and query your peers at competitors directly. Listen to them talking with their peers, analyse their world view and responses to things.

Your dialogue with direct competitors, especially your peer equivalent in that organization, is a powerful CI gathering tool. Too few people do it, probably out of fear. But then too few people succeed, too.

Miller has an usual curriculum vitae, and we'll take advantage of his wisdom for a few other lessons later. He has gone from pitching coach to manager to pitching coach to manager to pitching coach, a path few baseball management folk have had, and an equivalent path fewer outside of baseball have had. Unsurprisingly, he has a lot of interesting and uncommon insights he was willing to share.

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