How to Make Better Biz Decisions


It sounds incredibly broad, but Gary Maag and David Kalinowski of Proactive Worldwide (chairman/CEO and president/CEO respectively) know why you're probably making flimsy decisions as an entrepreneur.

And, yes, it sounds like a Joel Olsteen soapbox speech, but they also know how you can be a better entrepreneur, make better decisions, and change your business brain.

For more than 15 years, their Schaumburg-based research and consulting firm has made the synapses in financial services, life sciences, industrial goods, and many other fields fire much faster.

How? Again, this is going to sound a bit Tony Robbins-esque, but it's through the power of competitive intelligence, which is fully explained in their new book, New Directions: A Competitive Intelligence Tale. To find out what this is all about, I gave Maag a call, and don't be deterred by the buzz words: It's a legit way of thinking that truly can help you make better informed, less kneejerk decisions. After all, this is your livelihood and reputation at stake.

What is competitive intelligence?

Gary Maag: We call it primary evidence-based intelligence work, or insight, and the formal definition is we take aggregate competitive and market information and develop it, confirm it, rate it, speak to multiple sources in the industry through primary intelligence gathering and analyze that information and put it into a format that allows clients to make better strategic decisions. It really allows our clients to take the guesswork out of decision making. There are billion-dollar companies that make multibillion-dollar decisions on anecdotal information or hearsay or maybe they talked to a colleague that talks about a direction or a trend or something a competitor may be doing. We always talk about the difference between guessing and knowing your market. Why would you guess what's going on in your market when you can actually through evidence-based intelligence work?

Intelligence work is different in the fact that there are so many research firms that look at what's happened in the past, rear-view focus, and make some tools to help you figure out what's going on now. But we really look at primary evidence-based decision support as a way in many instances to predict the future. Not only predict the future but also in many instances influence that future by the information that we're able to gather through this process.

Why do people make poorly informed decisions? If that isn't too broad to answer.

Gary Maag: No. 1 is time. Oftentimes folks who run businesses have a lot of balls in the air, so they don't have time to think proactively about what's going on in their marketplace. When push comes to shove and they have to make a decision, they make it on anecdotal information or on a whim. There's also a lot of ego that comes into play. Folks that wind up getting into market or into an industry for 30 or 40 years, you can't tell them anything new. "I know what's going on. I know what competition is doing, so I'll make the decision based on my own knowledge."

I'm kind of a military buff and the military is often accused of preparing for an enhanced version of the last war instead of planning for the next war. What they ultimately do, it's like a buff and polished tweak of what they're currently doing, thinking that tomorrow's business is going to be very similar to today's business, so they just make a few buffs and polishes and think it'll be fantastic. We want the entrepreneur not to fall back on that default button and assume that tomorrow is going to be very much like today. You have to look for those game-changers.

So they should not run their businesses like the military, then.

Gary Maag: No, not like the military. It's really understanding and really being forwards-thinking through intelligence working and not to make the assumption that tomorrow is going to be like today. Again, my point is that oftentimes that's just what the military does. When you look at the blitzkrieg, I mean, the blitzkrieg was revolutionary. It changed the face of the military. You look at guerrilla warfare or urban combat? Those things were game-changers that changed how soldiers were trained. If you always thought, "Well, you know, we're gonna do something a little different," then you get these blitzkriegs that totally revolutionize units that cover territory very rapidly and change how war is conducted. Oftentimes we're not looking for those game-changers, and when we find them, the disruptive entrance can really have a huge impact on our business.

You're based out of Schaumburg, and I'm curious: Does operating out of there offer you any advantage at all in your field?

Gary Maag: No, to be honest with you, it really doesn't. So many businesses are virtual now. You've got folks in Texas that are running divisions in Wisconsin and vice versa. It really doesn't provide us any advantage because we're a global organization. We're not primarily interested in working in Schaumburg or the Chicago area.

You were in Vienna last week, right?

Gary Maag: Right.

Have they heard of Schaumburg over there?

Gary Maag: [Laughs.] No, no, no. Chicago, yes, but Schaumburg, no. But it's interesting because of what we do with evidence-based decision support and competitive intelligence, more and more organizations, big and small, multimillionaire conglomerates and very small organizations are realizing that they have to stay on top of the competition and that means competitors that are both the usual suspects and new entrants that they never even thought would enter the market or be a competitor. They've got to stay on top of those types of issues and those types of fronts and unforeseen opportunities as well to stay ahead of the curve. More organizations are seeing CI as a primary component of their business.

Let's say an entrepreneur is reading this and realizes, "Gee, I should really be making decisions better." You're basically talking about changing the way people are thinking, which doesn't happen overnight. What's an easy first step people can take to get there?

Gary Maag: You've gotta ask questions. You've got to ask your senior leadership team the proper questions to get them to start thinking outside the box. I call it the "big bang event" where something happens in your market and they won't understand what's going on with your competitor. I don't think that's the case any longer, because that's reactive. Proactive is where you've got to start asking the senior leadership the questions. It's the curve balls you've got to start paying attention to. A lot of what our research focuses on is a long-term opportunity and threat quadrants of the SWOT analysis.

I thought you were just going to recommend people check out your book.

Gary Maag: [Laughs.] And it really does. It gives a great road map to be able to identify the essence of what CI does and how it can impact a business and keep that business ahead of competition for years to come. 

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also the host/creator of GameSpy's recurring web series God Mode News, and a columnist for EGM. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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