It seems screamingly obvious, doesn't it? Intensely monitor your competitors to determine what can be learned -- and then, if it makes sense -- appropriate from them. For the most part it's wise and perfectly legal larceny.

So why, in my experience, doesn't it happen nearly enough? The answer is that we often spend a lot of time studying our competitors for weaknesses, but we seldom try to incorporate their strengths -- their wisdom and experience -- because we think they're stupid.

It's true. We are often victims of our culture of vilification and crude mockery. It's a rare moment when we celebrate our competitors for their boldness of vision, their ability to execute and implement, their organizational prowess.

Sure, we look at "best practices," but usually they are outside our industry or category. It's safe to praise those we're not locked in mortal combat with. So even though there's a cautionary adage that reminds us to "never underestimate your enemy," I am afraid that is exactly what I do.

To add another layer to this, I believe this sin is most often a problem in entrepreneurial businesses. That's because we take our companies so personally, and it's difficult to learn from someone we dislike, worry about, or even fear.

So what's the solution? Step back and assess your competitors through this clarifying lens. I promise it will help focus your efforts in a meaningful and productive fashion, and also provide some valuable corporate introspection as well.

First, take a look back on 2004. What are the five smartest things your three largest competitors did? And don't just ask yourself, ask your senior management team, too.

Send an email as soon as you finish reading this. Ask them to make a complete, full MRI scan of your competitors' efforts: marketing, sales, R&D, the works.

Then examine the results. Were those things you considered and rejected? Were they initiatives you hadn't thought of? What impact did they have on your business and what learning can you derive for next year based on them? What is it about your competitors that created conditions for these business wins?

Which leads us to the next step on the ladder of self-examination: What is it about your competitors' organizations that enable them to have any advantage over you in the marketplace? (Be honest: It's a rare and unusual business that has competitors who aren't successful in at least one or two dimensions.)

For example, take the HR side. Do they have better people? Are their compensation policies more lucrative? Is it a better environment for people to work? Are they faster at bringing new products to market? Go through the same exercise about other key functional areas, and then identify the ones that have the highest levels of saliency -- and put together a plan to improve your competitive abilities.

Another way to learn about your competition is from a bit of role playing. Put yourself in the shoes of your largest nemesis. What does he (or she) think of you? What is their CIA profile of your personality and behavior? Can you identify patterns in his strategy based upon his expectation of what your next move is?

In much of the consulting work I've done, I've noted the predictable nature of corporate leadership. CEOs like to repeat what works and are usually afraid to try something that has failed -- even if it failed for reasons that are no longer valid, or are correctable.

This is no surprise to canny competitors. So next year, surprise yourself -- and them. Employ some of the strategies of the battlefield and the chessboard, rather than last year's conference report.

Take some time away from studying the lessons of the business books and the legendary brand name leaders they celebrate. And spend some time studying the guy who wants to eat your lunch. You might learn something.


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