Monday, April 19, 2010

Lessons in business analysis from MS Courier

I'm just as excited as the next IT gadget geek to see what Microsoft releases with its upcoming dual screen Courier Digital Journal. But rather than speculate on what features it may or may not have, I want to pause to observe something about the preliminary videos we're seeing pop up--particularly the ones found on engadget.

Watch the videos, and even without sound you get it. You know what this device should do. You have a good idea of who it's for. How many pages of written requirements would it take to convey all the information you just received from this short video?

Watch Joe Levine's TED talk on a proposed mission to Mars and you come to the same conclusion: in a few minutes of video you find yourself saying that's possible. You are previewing the future. It's a simulation, but somehow tangible at the same time. How many words would it take to convey the same information? And how long would that take to digest?

I've spent a lot of years writing requirements documents for software and technology projects. They still have their place. But what is the single most important skill for business analysts of today and tomorrow? Film making.

Lessons from West Coast Customs (Part One)

I don't get to watch much TV, but when I do, I enjoy the show West Coast Customs. I love watching craftsman of any kind bring their considerable skill and creativity to a new project that has its own unique requirements and constraints. There is so much to learn about project management from this show.

The point I'd like to make today is how important one word can be: what they call their final deadline.

But for those who are not familiar with the program, essentially people bring their (often very expensive) vehicles to West Coast Customs to have them customized in some way--they are definitely one-of-a-kind when they drive away. The customer drops it off, West Coast works on them, the customer comes back to see how it looks and to pick it up. The show documents the steps, the challenges, and the process to get from drop-off to pick-up.

Everyone in the shop calls the final deadline for the project "The Reveal" knowing the customer will be at the shop on a given day to see and pick up her/his car--and they will want something truly amazing.

I like to encourage my clients to use a lot of outside vendors in the projects I manage for them. When I'm setting up the ground rules for a new vendor relationship I like to schedule a weekly status update call where we get on GoToMeeting or a similar product and talk about what was accomplished last week and what we'd like to get done the coming week. We talk about priorities, who is responsible for what, any internal pressures we need to consider, etc. Most importantly, we ask the vendor to be prepared with an on-screen demo of what they accomplished last week.

This helps keep the vendor focused and on track in several ways. It also helps them remember we're business users and often only see tangible business value through interacting with an interface--coming back with a demo of a bunch of database tables or infrastructure they built without tying it to some button we can push to make something happen makes for an awkward phone call that usually doesn't happen again.

I think I'm going to start calling the weekly calls "Reveals" instead of status updates.

(Note: I will now also require all current and future vendors to read this blog post [and watch one episode of the show?] before we begin working together.)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

From Backlog to WIP Part One

So let's assume you've been following my recent blog posts and have put in place a "Three Column Planning" or "TCP" system as I've outlined. You've got a growing list of things you could work on (your "Backlog" or "Project Pool"), a nice tidy list of what you're actively working on (your "Work in Process" or "WIP"), and you're starting to see a steady stream of items hit the "Done" column. Today I'd like to touch upon when you should move something from your Backlog or Pool into your "WIP".

The first thing to keep in mind is that this is a business decision. In my prior blogs I've talked about "drive-bys" where the VP of a given division pops his head into your office on his way to a meeting and drops an IT project on your desk in a high-level 20-30 second description. If you've implemented the TCP system appropriately, these encounters are very different now and the VP's dropping by are very clear all they are doing is giving you a head's up and not putting something directly into your WIP.

So the first step is to give your internal clients a good sense of your capacity and how much of it is dedicated to "keeping the lights on" and how much can be deployed to new projects--your reserve capacity. In most cases, it becomes clear you and your team can't do everything anyone in the organization can think up right now. Some things will need to wait. Others might not happen at all. Priorities need to emerge.

Too often this process is delegated to the IT Director or CIO/CTO along with project execution. When business unit managers/VP's/members of the Executive Team can come up with an idea and dump it on IT without having to think through and articulate the business value this new IT widget will provide, the opportunity cost of doing this instead of some other Executive's pet project, the budget and other resource implications, etc. it just means someone else has to because you can't do everything. Usually this means the IT Director spends time trying to read minds and keep everyone happy. I suggest that's too much to ask of an IT Director or CTO. I suggest these are questions that need vetting by the Leadership Team. Peers need to work together to share a finite amount of IT resources and to prioritize according to what's best for the enterprise--not necessarily for their division.

In an upcoming blog post I'll describe the process I've implemented with my clients that seems to work well. As a preview, it involves getting all stakeholders around a table or some online collaborative workspace to weigh proposals next to one another. For today, I just want to make the point that the IT Director or CIO/CTO should certainly have a seat at the table, but they shouldn't be driving the boat on this yet. That comes after the next step when the business is clear on what IT initiative we should be working on right now.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Just Add Water

So I'm in the grocery store looking for some household cleaner and come across Arm & Hammer's Essentials. At first glance it looks like they are selling an empty bottle.

Then I notice the tiny little extra bottle attached to the empty one that apparently contains the real cleaning agent. It dawns on me that all the other "full" bottles on the shelf are trying to sell me water. Hmmm.

I would imagine this product (although not a new idea, really) kind of upsets the apple cart in the cleaning solution industry. It changes the game and makes all the other guys look bad. I may be wrong, but I'd think selling water + special sauce is fairly profitable vs selling just your concentrate. But it was bound to happen. Better to be the first one in than play catch up on this.

So here's a company that deliberately put out a product that would cannibalize its profits. But it positions itself as the brand that's on the side of the consumer--not other cleaning solution suppliers--and that's significant. Customer trust and loyalty go way up. And there's now kind of a dark cloud floating over other "full bottle" brands that wasn't there a few moments before. But the point is that the consumer still ultimately gets a full bottle of cleaner--but cheaper.

It made me think about some advice I got early on as a new consultant: a good consultant comes in and solves a problem. A great consultant comes in, solves a problem, but does it in such a way that she/he teaches you how to solve part or all of that problem on your own in the future. There will probably always be some special sauce that you have as a consultant that your client will not--even if it's just the perspective you have that comes from dealing with multiple clients across many industries over several years or the skill or "touch" you've built up over time that can't be faked (watch a good drywall guy and you'll know what I mean).

So here's the takeaway:
  1. If you're a business using outside consultants, ask yourself if she/he is leaving behind some capability with your internal people. If not, find another consultant.
  2. If you're a consultant, ask yourself what is something that you do that you charge for that you could transmit to your client over time and start letting them add their own water.
Imagine a plumber or an electrician that comes to your house to fix a problem, but rather than just diving in and taking care of the issue while you're off checking email or something, they offer to show you how to fix it so you can save a $100 trip charge if that problem ever comes up again. In my book, just the offer would be enough for me to designate that person my plumber or electrician for life.

Jason Fried from 37signals has been talking about similar ideas for a while now. I'd encourage you to watch or listen to as much of his content as you can. And just boil your service offering down to its essentials.

Friday, April 09, 2010

We're All in the "Done" Business

In prior posts I've talked about the idea I got from Allistair Cockburn which I now call Three Column Planning. I proposed that the "Done" column is the one that really matters. I've received some push back on this notion from some--citing having multiple irons in the fire shows how busy we are and that we're productive.

Suppose you were the new sales manager for a paper company in say...Scranton, PA. You could send your sales team to every parking lot of every grocery store in town making sure a flyer about your paper made it on every windshield. Heck, by doing this you've even given all those prospects a product sample, right? You could even coordinate an intranet-based staff calendar where you send your staff back at different times of day in order to try to maximize the number of people you're likely to reach. You could bring your staff members who have some desktop publishing experience together to create two or three versions of the flyer so you could do multivariate testing analysis on what works best. You could create a war room covered with printed Google maps showing aerial views of local strip malls and place neatly prepared color-coded push pins to show which sales associate is assigned to which area. And you could hold training sessions in the company parking lot on the proper way to lift wiper blades so as not to set off car alarms and at what angle you should place the paper to get maximum notice from the driver. All of this could keep you and your staff super busy. Just think of the meetings you could create around this.

As your turn comes in the Monday morning staff meeting you could pull up a PowerPoint showing both cumulatively and by week how many reams of paper you've been through (where the bars in the bar chart are actual stacks of paper [clever, I know!]), show pie charts of parking lot penetration, and even submit expense reports for all the shoe soles that now need repair.

But quite obviously, that's not what the CEO wants to hear. She wants to know if the sales team sold anything.

This goes back to the old adage of not confusing being busy with being productive. When you focus on the "Done" column you get focused. You notice what's working or not and modify your approach. You invite the other father who showed up at the cub scout meeting last week to play golf remembering he's at a decent-sized law firm in town (that goes through lots and lots of paper). You adapt. You evolve. Quickly.

When you focus on the "WIP" or "Work in Process" column, you wind up doing what Dewey Tobias used to call "majoring in minor things" and creating ribbons for who posted the most flyers this week. In sales, it's easy to see the scoreboard. But I submit we're all in the "Done" business--regardless of what we do. We're paid to get things to the finish line. And the smart one's watch carefully what got them there and make sure they start spending increasing amounts of time on those things; they let the other things fall by the wayside for those who see the world through the "WIP" lens to do.

This is one of the central themes of Brian Tracy's Eat That Frog and the popular Tim Ferriss book The 4-Hour Work week. It's what Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan talked about in Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. And it's the theme of the Covey seminar called Focus.

There are two mindsets. I'm convinced the "Done" paradigm is the perspective of true leaders. The "WIP" mindset makes for a great sitcom.