Adrian Reed's blog

Articles, thoughts & blogs from a UK based Business Analyst

Adrian Reed's blog - Articles, thoughts & blogs from a UK based Business Analyst

Discussing Data Can Be Scary. Ignoring It Is terrifying.

Frustrated man frowningDelivering organisational change can be a tricky business.  In order to adapt and grow, a company may need to tweak or change its organisational structure, processes and systems – and often, Information Technology (IT) is an important enabler for change.  Of course, IT will only represent part of a change, but it can be an important catalyst and if implemented well, it could even enhance or create a competitive advantage.

 

In the rush to implement new IT or different IT, there is often a focus on the required functionality.    People focus on what they want the system to do and the exciting new features that they’ll be able to use.  In the excitement of building or buying a new system, data sometimes becomes the proverbial elephant in the room.  Everyone knows that it’s important, yet somehow it gets pushed from the agenda.  With the focus firmly on the visible functionality, there may be less appetite to discuss data.

 

Whilst this rush for quick implementation of functionality is understandable, when this pattern occurs, it’s really important to ask the question: Who is considering the data?  There is a real danger if the answer is “nobody”.

 

Data dangers

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An Unorthodox Catalyst for Innovation: Data

LightbulbNew ideas often arrive at the most inconvenient of times.  As I sit here writing this blog, I’m reminded of the seemingly hundreds of blog ideas that have occurred to me over the past year whilst I’ve been driving my car.  I don’t keep a notepad in the car (as I try to avoid being distracted as I drive), but I always make a mental note to write the idea down when I reach my destination.  Sadly more often than not, I have forgotten it by the time that I arrive.  I am also renowned for waking up in the early hours of the morning, having a fantastic innovative new business idea, but falling back to sleep and forgetting it by morning.  Perhaps you find similar things happen to you too…

 

It seems that ideas and innovation are often triggered by the most surprising of stimuli.  A left-field idea can be triggered by a seemingly unrelated insight.  It’s tempting to think that we are at nature’s mercy, and innovative ideas can only be created by a serendipitous coincidence.  Yet there is much we can do to stimulate innovation – and much has been written discussing the virtues of creative thinking, brainstorming and many other ways of cultivating innovation.

 

Yet, it strikes me, that when we are looking for innovative new ideas we often overlook a real asset that our organisation holds: Data.

 

Before I continue, I should be very clear – I’m absolutely not trying to suggest we should force innovation nor am I underplaying the importance of those happy innovative coincidences that do occur.  However, when organisations need to innovate – and in many industries innovation becomes a pre-requisite for survival – data can be a rich source of inspiration and insight.  We can draw on our data for potential scenarios and ideas for the future.

 

Data as an innovative catalyst

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A Key to Good Customer Experience: Consistency

Inconsistent SignIn a competitive environment, ensuring that our organisations offer good customer service can help create a real competitive advantage.  Understandably, organisations of all sizes—from midsized to multinational—have spent time re-designing their processes and considering the journey that their customers go through when interacting with the company.  Providing a slick, informative and helpful service that meets the needs of our customers will make it more likely that they come back to us.   Customer experience can be examined from many different angles; this article considers the consistency of experience.

 

Offering an experience that is both good and consistent is crucial.  It is extremely frustrating, as a customer, when a company offers an excellent experience one day but a mediocre one the next.   When we provide a great customer experience, it raises the bar; quite rightly, our customers will expect a similar experience the next time.  If we fall short of this in the future, we cause disappointment and frustration. Imagine the following hypothetical example:

 

A supermarket offers a home delivery service.  Week after week, the service works well, with items being delivered on time and as expected.  The driver is always courteous, and helps the customer carry the bags into the kitchen. 

One week, the driver is rushed and unable to help the customer carry their bags into the house (“We don’t actually have to do that…”).  The customer realises, in the rush, that a bag has been missed.  The customer rings the call centre, and after a protracted discussion, the call centre agent issues a refund… but this leaves the customer in a situation where they have to go and visit a supermarket to obtain the missing items, even though they had opted for home delivery.

This inconsistency in experience, if it persists (even occasionally), may convince the customer to change to a different supplier.

 

What this means for business and business analysis

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Innovation works better when you inject the voice of the customer

Woman with megaphone shouting to a globeAs organisations adapt and innovate, they inevitably alter their products, processes and systems. Whether mid-sized or multinational, companies quite understandably focus on ensuring the effectiveness and efficiency of their operations. They launch new products, re-engineer their processes and refresh their infrastructure.  They strive for growth and continued success and are forever on the lookout for the next ‘big idea’.

 

Yet, an unpleasant reality can haunt the unprepared.  Often these innovative projects and initiatives end up placing too much focus internally.  They are driven by ideas that are formed in board meetings, in departmental problem solving sessions and during internal workshops.  We run innovative brainstorming sessions and come up with ideas that everyone agrees are just fantastic.  Inadvertently, and with the best of intentions, we risk ignoring the customer.  We assume that we are going to deliver something they will value — yet how much true customer input or insight have we sought?  Often the answer is “little” or “none”.

 

Take the following hypothetical examples:

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Avoid knee-jerk decision making

Business person standing in front of black-board with arrows pointing in conflicting directionsI suspect everyone reading this blog has, at least once, been guilty of making a knee-jerk decision – I know I certainly have.  You know the type of situation:  you’re presented with a couple of facts that look ‘urgent’, so you make a quick decision without seeking further information, context or data. Soon after, you find the facts were very unrepresentative of the real holistic situation, and the decision you’ve made suddenly looks like it might not lead to the outcome you were hoping for.  In fact, it may be a complete overreaction and in retrospect might seem like a bad decision…

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Do You Know Where The Problem Is?

Cars parkedIf you’re ever in the UK city of Portsmouth and you want to hear an impassioned debate, ask some local residents about car parking.  You’ll be sure to stir up a variety of opinions and ideas.  After you ask the question though, I’d recommend standing back… it’s a very divisive topic!

 

It may help if I explain the context.  Portsmouth is a crowded island city.  It’s heavily populated and surrounded by the sea, only connected to the mainland by road bridges.  This creates an interesting dilemma — the capacity to build anything on the island is limited.  There is only so much land, and short of building underground or on the sea, that capacity is finite.  This creates a real problem when it comes to parking.  The vast majority of houses on the island were built in the 1800s and early 1900s – long before anyone needed to think about driveways or garages.  So parking space is at a real premium, with most residents needing to park their cars on the street.

 

The trouble is that demand outstrips capacity.  There are many more people who want to park on the streets than there are available parking spaces.  This has led to the local council trying various tactics to control parking – from creating (and then suspending) residents-only parking schemes right through to creating a ‘park and ride’ scheme.

 

Time and experience has shown that there is no silver bullet to Portsmouth’s parking problem.  Every intervention that the council makes will inevitably have some affect and some impact – but the impacts that are positive for some stakeholder groups are negative for others.  Often, a problem that is solved in one area creates a brand new problem elsewhere.  This leads to the council being in a perpetual state of confused oscillation: Creating new parking zones, then suspending them, in a desperate attempt to find something that works.

 

The city is a system: The solution isn’t always near the problem. 

In reality, parking problems might be solved with seemingly unrelated solutions.  The city of Portsmouth is a complex system with interwoven dependencies that are difficult for the eye to see.  To solve a parking problem, you have to analyse and crunch the data of the entire holistic system. This requires collaboration and analysis across departments, organisations and areas.  Take the following examples:

 

  • Portsmouth has a large university and a transient student population, who often share houses. This means a house may have 4 or 5 cars, and those cars might only be used occasionally.  So perhaps offering a car-sharing scheme for students, which saves them money whilst still enabling them to use a car might help.
  • There is a trend towards converting older properties into apartments; each apartment owner will probably own a car. So perhaps the town planning regulations should change to control this or at least ensure adequate parking is built on redevelopments (or that the developments are in areas that are sufficiently close to public transport)
  • There are areas of Portsmouth that it is difficult to get to on public transport. By understanding and improving this, the need to own a car may be reduced.
  • Since on-street parking is free, there isn’t a disincentive to park. So perhaps there is an argument for some kind of affordable parking for a guaranteed space

 

The examples above just skim the surface – but the key point is that in order to solve a parking problem, it would be necessary to think in a much broader way.  It would be necessary to examine wider data sets too.  A solution may involve not just the parking department, but also the town planners and maybe even the local university.  It’s important to understand what is driving demand and the complex network of interrelated factors that are causing the problem.  A combination of seemingly unrelated interventions may create a far better outcome than an “obvious” knee-jerk reaction.

 

What this means for business and business analysis 

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Do You Know How Many Customers You’re Throwing Away?

People waiting in an airportI was recently travelling home after a business trip and I checked in to a very small regional airport.  It was around 6:30 p.m. and I had over an hour to kill so I visited the airport’s only café to buy some food.  The café appeared to be part of a regional mid-sized chain, and they had a standard range of food, so I knew exactly what I could expect.  I looked through the menu, made my choice, and went to the counter to order.

 

I gave my order to the cashier who looked a little embarrassed and immediately apologised:

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5 traps that will make “out-of-the-box thinking” fall flat

Cartoon showing a manager encouraging the team to think out of the box, but deliver inside the box

We’ve all been there. A senior leader in an organisation gives a pep-talk about how she or he wants more innovative thinking in the organisation. We need to be brave, bold and ‘think outside of the box’. We need to brainstorm, ignore constraints, and come up with radical new ideas to solve problems and better serve the customer.

 

Out-of-the-box brainstorming can be a great way to encourage innovative and divergent thinking. It can be a great way to come up with completely new ideas in a supportive environment, and a great way to challenge our existing assumptions.

 

Yet I guess everyone reading this will have seen at least one situation where an organisation encouraged out-of-the-box thinking, but then delivered something very much inside the box.

 

Sadly, over time this can lead to real cynicism. You can almost hear that deep, cynical sigh from a co-worker that we’ve got to attend yet another “fluffy out-of-the-box brainstorming” session. It is sad that this happens, and it really doesn’t have to be like this.

 

So — why might efforts to encourage “out-of-the-box thinking” fail? Here are some situations I have observed with some potential ways of avoiding them. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I’d love to hear your examples too:

 

Trap 1: We’re not really brainstorming, we’re divining

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Avoid Organisational Information Hoarding

A stack of foldersIn small enterprises, job roles can be very blurry. Since there are few people working for the company, the boundary of each job role tends to flex in order to meet demand.  Over time, and as organisations grow, it is likely that this will change and each individual’s role will become more tightly defined.  How tightly defined each role becomes depends on a number of factors including structure, culture and leadership style. However, in midsize and larger companies it’s likely that there will be less flex in each role, with each individual having a clearly defined role.

 

Clearer role boundaries certainly have significant advantages, yet over time a hidden problem can emerge.  Sometimes individuals in organisations start to ‘hoard’ information, knowledge and data that is relevant for their specific role.  Perhaps they are the only person in the organisation who has access to the data that is needed to create a particular sales report.  Or perhaps they are the only worker who knows how to operate a certain system or process.  There are various reasons why an individual might hoard information in this way – for some it might be completely unintentional.  In some cases it might be down to circumstance, with not enough staff available to support them.  However, in other cases an individual might subscribe to the view that ‘knowledge is power’, and therefore continue to intentionally find ways of absorbing more and more data, information and knowledge.

 

When silos of this type emerge, for whatever reason, there are real organisational risks attached.  However efficient and effective a particular individual within an organisation is, it is incredibly problematic when they are the only person able to execute a particular process or tap into a particular data source.  This creates a key-person dependency and a potential bottleneck. If that person goes on an extended vacation, for example, the organisation may suffer as a result.

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Interview: Change Alchemy, Changing Mindsets & Organisational Diseases with with John Hackett

John Hackett of Franklin-Hackett (Organisational Change Alchemists)In today’s blog post, we break from our usual format to bring you an interview with John Hackett of Franklin-Hackett. I first met John at a business analysis conference a year or so ago, and I’ve really enjoyed hearing about his innovative approaches and reading his blog.  I recently caught up with John for a ‘virtual’ chat, and John shared some really interesting insight:


 

So, John, you engage in a rather intriguing discipline that you describe as “Organisational Change Alchemy”.   Can you tell us a bit more about what this involves?

 

Well firstly, thanks for inviting me to contribute to your fantastic blog, Adrian!

 

Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to talk about how change in organisations has been carried out historically.

 

Organisations tend to think of change in a very structured way, which means they usually try to implement it in the form of a time-limited, specific and managed approach. Hence why we have “change projects”. It’s an attempt to implement change in a controlled way.

 

This situation exists because the dominant mindset within organisations states that change is a short term phenomenon that has to be planned and structured in order to avoid disruption and reduce “risk”. It treats change as something that comes in, does stuff and then goes away again.

 

So traditional change methodologies accommodate this mindset by being heavily structured and focusing purely on specific areas such as business processes or purely on IT.

 

The problem is that in reality, change is actually a constant and emergent phenomenon. It is also complex, in that there are multiple elements that work together to create a situation, all of which have to be considered when implementing change. The structured approach of traditional change interventions is at odds with the emergent nature of change. The tendency towards a narrow focus when implementing change means that many traditional change interventions fail to address all elements and result in poorly embedded outcomes.

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