I once forced four companies to stop trading on the TSX because of what I didn’t hear.
It was 1998, and New Brunswick’s provincial telephone company was riding high.
NBTel had a chokehold on New Brunswick’s telecom market and one of the strongest brand reputations in the region, thanks to a decade-long run of innovation.
It was the first in Canada to offer voice mail, the screen phone, caller ID and high-speed Internet on home computers.
New Brunswick’s phone company was on top of the world and happy to brag about it, not least of which because it was one of a handful of publicly traded Atlantic Canadian companies.
That meant I had a steady stream of information to write about, from quarterly financial results, media releases, sneak peeks at new technologies, profiles of senior executives, and interviews with Toronto-based investment analysts who were happy to opine about whether to buy, sell or hold NBTel.
Compared to the legacy family-owned companies that rarely said anything, NBTel was a chatterbox.
Until it wasn’t.
Admittedly I didn’t notice at first that the steady stream of information had slowed. It was a source who first pointed it out to me.
My source had enjoyed a long career in Canadian corporate boardrooms and told me he heard rumours about something happening with NBTel.
He didn’t know what, and he didn’t know when.
“You should look into it,” he said.
“How?” I asked.
“Go look for what they no longer talk about.”
It was the best tip I’ve ever received: listen and watch for what’s missing.
Over the past three decades, I’ve broken my share of national scoops, but only one came via a secret document drop.
The rest all came from listening and watching for what wasn’t there.
Learning to notice what was said and unsaid in my conversations about and with NBTel led me to one of my biggest news scoops: NBTel was in merger talks with the other three Atlantic Canadian telecos.
My discovery forced NBTel and the other three companies to immediately stop trading on the TSX and issue a late afternoon press release minutes before the markets closed and months before they were ready.
These days I’ve adapted my investigative journalism techniques to help clients figure out where their world is going by analyzing the same four essential resources I monitored while trying to figure out what was happening at NBTel: money, people, information and ideas.
- Money – It’s our primary tool of exchange, and we have imbued it with a great deal of value. It is directly connected to power, so tracking it and knowing where it pools and where it flows will enable you to understand how financial power moves through your network. This includes creating and distributing monetary wealth via private investment, employment, sales, emergency funds, philanthropy, traditional and new business models, start-ups, scale-ups and public finances. An increase or decrease in the flow of capital often indicates that change is on its way.
- People – While our problems may be systemic, the power to maintain the status quo or to change it flows through people, which means you need to think strategically about the company those who seek to shift power keep. Often power players limit the size and diversity of their circles of influence. To break through, you need to do the opposite by identifying individuals and groups who bring a diverse combination of specialized expertise and experience to broaden your understanding of the problem.
- Information – If the 20th century told us to follow the money, we need to follow the information in the digital age. This includes all forms of information and their distribution channels, such as digital media, news media, social media, community spaces both online and in the real world, K to 12 education, post-secondary education, professional development, popular entertainment, the arts, and lifelong learning. In addition, you need to recognize that information is exchanged via every touchpoint, whether with or around you. Tracking information will help you monitor and analyze incomplete, contradictory and weaponized information, shifting values, and changes in access to information. This will enable you to monitor the temperature and volatility of conversations to adapt your thinking, language, activities, and workplan based on what you are hearing – or not hearing.
- Ideas – This is where new opportunities or threats first appear. This is the realm of theoretical and applied research, commercialization, innovation and entrepreneurship. It’s the regenerative part of your network and your system. Will these new ideas and innovations help or hinder, harm or heal your work and the work of others? Understanding where and how new ideas take shape will help you focus on where the world is going.
Money, people, information and ideas: these are the resources that drive power shifts when we learn to listen and watch for what is and isn’t there.