You may think you know what your competitors are doing, but what do the implied meanings indicate about their competitive behavior? Here’s how a little mental jujitsu and criminal profiling can help you see the motivations behind their moves.

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My first martial-arts instructor was a short, fat accountant who could toss a charging 250-pound person across the room without breaking a sweat or a spreadsheet. Size didn’t matter to him. He knew that throwing a person is all about leverage. The harder you came at my instructor; the harder you’d hit the ground. I love that about martial arts.

If you want to toss a person charging you, you’ve got to look beyond the overt person-charging-you information. Subtle cues or inconsistencies, invisible to the untrained eye, tell you the deeper story of your opponent’s trajectory. The leverage you need to toss the person is in the deeper story.

The same deeper story applies to your opponents in the marketplace. Your competitors provide you with a constant stream of messages and information: advertisements, quarterly statements, analyst reports, and much more. You can learn a great deal about your competitors by looking beyond the overt meanings (charging) to implied meanings (subtle or unintended cues).

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Ben Gilad: Your new book, Left Brain, Right Stuff, places a sharp focus on a distinction be­tween events we can influence — directly or indirectly — and events we can’t. Analytics has a role in improving judgments in the latter case. Strategic decisions belong to the former – the leader has an ability to influence the outcomes. Analytics should not be confused, as it is in some large companies, with strategic vision. Is this a fair characterization of your thesis?

Phil Rosenzweig: My main thesis is that decision research has been immensely valuable in shedding light on the mechanics of human cognition, and has done so largely by conducting experiments that ex­amine choices among options we cannot alter, or judgments about things we cannot influence. The primary lesson has been for us to be aware of our propensity for common errors, and try to avoid them.

That’s fine for some kinds of decisions, but much of life is very different. Often we can alter the options we face and improve their terms. We can also influence outcomes, and for that high levels of confidence are useful. Many real-world decisions call for a combination of skills: on one hand a capacity of detached analysis, free of biases, which we associate with left-brain thinking, and on the other hand a willingness to push boundaries and act assertively, which I call the right stuff.

Strategic decisions, in particular, call for both. Deciding on a good strategy surely has to take into account many things we cannot influence, like currency movements, geopolitical trends, technological breakthroughs, and the actions of rivals. But setting a strategic vision and then carrying it out through the actions of others is not a purely analytical exercise. We also have to make it happen.

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When Ron Johnson was fired from JC Penney on April 8, 2013, its stock price was $15.87. It’s easy to see why he was fired: a year earlier the stock was worth twice as much.

JCP’s stock floundered to $13.93 the day after Mr. Johnson was fired. But relax, the price “recov­ered” within a couple of weeks. The stock was cured, doubtless by drinking plenty of fluids like Scotch and water, hold the water. Some­what-happy days are here again.

Except that now, as I write, JCP’s stock price is barely half of what it was under Mr. Johnson.

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Competing.com focuses on competing as a skill. Advantage in competing is the ultimate com­petitive advantage.

How do we know when someone is skillful at competing? Reflexively, unconsciously, and seem­ingly inevitably we turn to the person’s track record. A person with a string of competitive suc­cesses is more likely to be competitively skillful, we figure, than someone with a string of com­petitive failures.

The thing is, it’s hard to tell the difference between luck and skill. We all know luck plays a part. (Bad luck, anyway: we fail when we’re unlucky. Success always comes from skill, we assure our­selves.) That’s why we hesitate to call a person a genius after one good move or a dud after one bad move. But with a reasonably long track record it’s easy to fall into the track-record fallacy, the business equivalent of the prosecutor’s fallacy.

Stop! Do not let your brain recoil in fear of probabilities and actual logic! This is your chance to improve your skill at competing relative to the weaker souls who rely on lists of five magic se­crets of success.

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