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A Little Leaguer Takes Notes

... and a Career in Intelligence is Born

by Paul Houston, RivalScape founder

I spent my first 18 years of life 30 miles north of Manhattan in the little town of Pearl River in Rockland County, New York. Perhaps you know where that is. I'd like to tell you a true story that happened in Pearl River when I was 11 years-old, a story that reveals a basic insight into the philosophical framework underpinning Workforce Competitive Intelligence™ and the work we do at RivalScape Intelligence Consultants. It's also the tale of how I discovered the art and science of competitive intelligence.

Grampa shows me a new set of tools

I was a pretty good Little League baseball player, a pitcher mostly, in a very competitive league. I was a decent little athlete, but certainly not a great one. In other words, I needed an information advantage to give me an edge.

Fortunately, my grandfather was a great baseball strategist and had taught me to be a student of the game. He showed me the fine points of keeping a good scorecard and he also tested me on various situations while we were watching Yankee games together. Why did the manager do that? What would I have done in the same situation? So I guess you could say that I knew the game very well for an 11-year old.

Grampa was visiting one summer and I was telling him about my Little League team and how we wanted to win the championship but we were up against some good teams.

He said, "Wait a minute, you aren't playing tonight, but your competitors, you know, some of those tough teams you've been telling me about, aren't they playing tonight down at the stadium?"

After I nodded, he responded, "Well, then what are doing sitting here dreaming and talking about winning when you can be down at the ballpark learning everything you can learn about your opponents? Then you can use what you learn against them when you play them!"

Gotta have a plan

I said, "Wow, that's a great idea, Grampa, I never thought of that. I'm leaving right now!"

"Wait a minute," he responded, "not so fast. Two things. First, you need to take notes or you'll forget some of the key points you observe. Second, you need to have a plan for what you want to observe. Some details in baseball are more important than others, right?" I grabbed a pencil and a notebook.

We carefully went over what I wanted to collect on each team I would study. Then he said, "Oh yeah, one last thing, see if you can figure out their signals while you're at it. That worked for me 50 years ago, because the coaches never changed their signals since the kids would get all confused."

Well, within a few weeks I literally "wrote the book" on each team in the league. All I did was sit unobtrusively in the bleachers and take notes. I just watched and learned.

Putting my observations to good use

Intelligence, whether corporate, government or Little League, should have practical value. In modern business lingo, it should be actionable.

I was able to put much of my learning to immediate use. For instance, in one game, while pitching with a runner on first and no outs, I glanced over at the opposing manager and caught the steal signal being put on — the same steal sign I saw him give three or four times before when I was watching from the stands! It was exciting and gratifying to know in advance that the runner would be going. I picked him off base quite easily, not because I had a great pickoff move, but because I had actionable intelligence to work with.

There was another game where a certain runner reached first. I had observed this guy's base running tactics over several games and made a mental note of it for future use. He loved to catch the pitcher napping, foot off the rubber, usually walking around in front of the mound, and not paying attention to him. This runner was incredibly fast and would take off like greased lightning to second. By the time the hapless pitcher had noticed and made a frantic throw, it was too late to catch him.

You know the rest of this story. I had alerted my shortstop to be ready for a throw if this guy got on base. Then I pretended to be napping in front of the mound, all the time keeping him just inside the very edge of my peripheral vision. He took off and we caught him at second by a good ten feet.

I'll never forget how gratifying it felt to see the fruits of my competitive learning pay off in tangible ways like they did in those two examples. Those were probably the moments when my destiny was cast to become a Naval Intelligence Officer and later a corporate intelligence consultant!

However, I digress. Back to the 11-year-old "Little League Intelligence Officer." I made a big mistake.

Did I do something wrong??

The mistake I made was proudly walking up to my manager just before the league playoffs started, handing him the little black book, and saying, "Hey Coach, I've got it all here and I can brief you on it, everything about our opponents. I've even got their signals down. I got it by studying them most of the season and I've been using it the last few games!"

He said, "That is the worst example of sportsmanship I have ever seen! I don't want to touch that book, put it away and just go out there and play the game already!!"

I was crushed and confused. What had I done wrong? I had just sat there in plain view, in public, observing what was happening, taking notes and thinking. I hadn't pretended to be something I wasn't. I hadn't tapped the other coaches telephone calls when they were talking about their game plan. I hadn't "dumpster dived" to find their notes. I had simply watched and learned from publicly available sources. Certainly what is happening on a public baseball field in plain view is public information.

And my coach says "just go out there and play the game already!" I have to admit it was a discouraging moment. But, all in all, it was a great experience and it gave me a story that I could never have dreamed up.

From a Little League field to the executive suite

Funny thing is, this story applies to many corporations. Like my coach, some may think that learning by watching and thinking isn't fair. And like Little League coaches and players in general, relatively few companies take advantage of competitive intelligence, let alone of Workforce Competitive Intelligence™. Our mission at RivalScape is to change that.

Another essential point: Corporate intelligence can all be done morally, legally and ethically. If you question that statement, hold an image firmly in your mind of an 11-year-old boy sitting in the Little League stands watching, thinking, learning, and then applying his knowledge. Did I do anything unethical?

My plan as a Little League pitcher was to win the game, and that base runner from the other team who had the steal signal on was trying to turn my plan upside down. Because I had done my competitive homework, fair and square, I was able to thwart him.

It doesn't take a huge competitive advantage to win, just a decisive one. Most of the other pitchers in the league would have been caught by surprise, and the stealing attempt most likely would have been successful. Instead of one out and nobody on, like I achieved from using my actionable intelligence, they would have had a runner in scoring position with no outs. Not good if your goal is to win a tough game.

I'm guessing that your business plan calls for winning some pretty competitive games too. And I'll bet you don't like surprises any more than I do.

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