During the presidential campaign, many have wondered when Donald Trump would provide more detail of his plans, particularly in foreign policy. An interview with the New York Times has shown some detail, but there were still major considerations he wouldn't touch on.

A key word in the interview transcript was "unpredictability."

You know, if I win, I don't want to be in a position where I've said I would or I wouldn't. I don't want them to know what I'm thinking. The problem we have is that, maybe because it's a democracy and maybe because we have to be so open - maybe because you have to say what you have to say in order to get elected - who knows? But I wouldn't want to say. I wouldn't want them to know what my real thinking is.

Unpredictability as a tactic

As the Times noted, Trump "approached almost every current international conflict through the prism of a negotiation, even when he was imprecise about the strategic goals he sought." Not a surprise, as he comes from the business world where conflicts are, at worst, settled through lawsuits, and even those commonly face resolution through negotiated settlements.

Keeping your cards close is an old tactic in negotiation. If you don't telegraph the bounds of what you need versus want, there's a chance that you'll get more than you might have initially expected. While this can be at times useful, many people overplay the tactic because they assume it delivers more value than it might.

More can be found than you think

Competitive intelligence is the practice of learning the nature of a competitor's strategy, immediate plans, and tactics. This isn't industrial espionage. Rather, smart competitive intelligence is an exercise is research, analysis, and deduction.

There are many sources for potential information on a company and what it is doing. Here are just a few places you can gain insight:

  • public filings, including federal, state, and local agencies
  • court records
  • conference presentations
  • marketing and business development presentations
  • interviews with the press
  • investor materials
  • information given to market analysts
  • job listings
  • partnership and new customer announcements

A company can't help but leave traces of where it hopes to go. It is possible to keep some things under wraps with enough discipline. The late Andy Grove of Intel and Apple's Steve Jobs were about as secretive as you could get, and even then there would often be clues to people looking closely.

Knowing about competitive intelligence practices offer two advantages. One is that if a competitor tries to pull a Trump by being unpredictable, you can likely get a much better sense of what it is doing. The other advantage is that you know where to tighten up your own information to minimize the clues left for others.

Unpredictability can be self-defeating

Aside from the danger of relying on a tactic that is often only partly successful -- and sometimes not even that -- is that you can undermine yourself. I recently spoke with an expert in business startups about the initial idea stage of beginning a venture.

He thought many entrepreneurs are so worried about someone stealing their idea that they walk around, not wanting to breathe a word to anyone, when in reality other entrepreneurs have their own ideas and aren't interested. And if you don't get a sense of whether people might take to your product or service, you aren't doing the groundwork necessary to build a solid business.

Even in negotiation, complete secrecy can be a mistake. If you want something specific from another party, never mentioning it means the other side might not know to offer it.

None of this is to dismiss unpredictability. If you can keep others from knowing what you plan, it can be a competitive advantage. But to put utter faith in secrecy is to misjudge how difficult keeping information private can be and to assume that being open is rarely a good idea, when sometimes it is the only way to go forward.

Published on: Mar 29, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.