As business analysts and practitioners of strategic change, we probably all find ourselves ‘parachuted’ into new organisational situations from time to time. Whether we are working with a new client, business unit, team or department, there is a need to get up to speed with the domain and the culture quickly. In these situations it’s important to learn as much as we can about the organisational situation—whether that’s through document analysis, ad-hoc conversations or other more formal analysis techniques. Yet understanding organisational culture can be much harder, but it is crucial that we try to do so.
A thorough understanding of culture can only really be achieved through spending time in the organisational environment, but there are sometimes signs that can be useful indicators of cultural norms. It is almost like our stakeholders leave a trail of clues for us to follow. And that might even start by looking at the office plants…
Now, more than ever, the business world seems like a hectic, fast-moving and sometimes volatile place. Businesses operate within fast-moving environments and the rate of change can be phenomenally high. Data flows around organisations, and in many organisations decision makers can see more and more data about their business and its environment than ever before. Emerging technology means that previously unimaginable things become plausible, and societal changes and trends mean that customers expect better and better service.
It is an exciting time to be alive, and as business analysts we are front and centre of this ever-changing world. I suspect many people reading this article will be working on some type of initiative that is responding to (or pre-empting) an external change—perhaps a competitive force, a regulatory edict, or a change in customer need.
Yet with such a fast-moving environment, we risk being a generation of knee-jerk decision makers. With so much information and data zooming around an organisation, it is easy to perceive a trend—to see urgency—when we are actually looking at a “blip” or outlier. Or if a trend is emerging, it is easy to make a tacit assumption as to the causation. You can imagine a Sales Manager demanding to know why sales from the website are down 30% in the last few weeks, asking for an urgent analysis of the technology (as she fears the server must have been down). This might lead to a whole “infrastructure refresh” programme and significant levels of investment. But perhaps the real reason (and the bigger problem) is a new competitor has emerged, or an existing competitor ran a temporary promotion. Jumping straight to solution—without appropriately and holistically thinking through the problem—can be a recipe for wasted effort.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I travel a lot with my work. Travel inevitably involves living out of a suitcase, and staying in hotels a lot. Or rather, returning to a hotel after a long day at a client site ready to fall in to bed to recharge for the next day.
Now, the curious thing about hotels is how many seem to have been designed based on what the hotel industry thinks travellers want, as opposed to what they actually want. Plenty of very logical and plausible sounding ideas have been implemented presumably in order to enhance the customer experience. In recent years, it’s all about the scatter cushions; I lose count of the time I’ve checked in to find the bed adorned with a range of pillows and approximately 27 scatter cushions that have been thrown on the bed like confetti.
Read the results of just about any large organisation’s ‘employee engagement survey’, and you’re likely to find communication is amongst the top issues marked as needing attention. With the (often unnecessary) hierarchies, functions and silos that some organisations create, this is hardly surprising. I suspect many of us have worked in organisations that encourage over-communication (“better send this to ‘all staff’ to cover our backs!”) or under-communicate (“Stick it on the intranet, 12 links deep. It’s their responsibility to find it!”). This says a lot about an organisation’s communication culture.
The culture and norms of communication that an organisation cultivates can affect the success of projects too. Foist a new process or system on an unsuspecting “user” and they are likely to react with shock and rebellion. And who wouldn’t—as human beings don’t we all have a need to feel engaged, considered and consulted? Underpinning this is the need to engage and communicate at the most optimum times—avoiding the over/under-communication trap.
Delivering large-scale change in organisations is tricky. When the chips are down and tensions are high, there can be pressure to put in long hours to get the project “over the line”. I’m sure most people reading this will have put in the occasional very late night or early morning at work. Arguably, there is nothing wrong with long hours in the short term, that is the reality of complex projects, yet left unchecked in the long term a worrying pattern could emerge.
I was going through a box of old stuff a few weeks ago and I came across an old end of year appraisal document from a long, long time ago. I remember the time vividly—I was travelling a lot around Europe as part of a project team, and long hours became the norm. There were tight deadlines—seemingly impossible deadlines at times—but I did what I could to ensure they were met. I still vividly remember working in my hotel room late one evening, being so engrossed in my work I forgot to eat (and by the time I realised it was midnight so the hotel’s restaurant had closed). I spent weeks in vibrant European cities and saw nothing other than hotels, conference rooms and airports.
On reflection, this was a formative time in my career. I learned a lot and I had a very supportive line manager. Yet, with the power of hindsight I wonder whether I had fallen into the trap of trying to solve underlying project and planning issues by just “working harder” and “working longer”. And a strange and potentially destructive pattern emerged: the more I worked, the more some members of the project team expected of me…
As anyone who has ever been involved in estimating a large, unique and complex piece of work will attest to, estimation can be difficult. So often, change initiatives are delivered in a volatile and uncertain environment. With shifting sands, estimates have a high element of uncertainty. We shouldn’t be surprised at this—even seemingly simple and repeatable activities involve uncertainty. Imagine driving to the airport: If your drive to the airport normally takes 2 hours, how long do you allow when you’re driving your family there for a vacation? Well, if it involves a trip on a busy and congested highway where there are often accidents you might take a view that it’ll take between 1.5 – 3 hours, and you’ll likely plan on this basis, or at least take this into account. If there is uncertainty in something as seemingly mundane as a car journey, is it any wonder that estimating effort on a complex project is difficult?
Yet the real danger is not in the uncertainty itself—that is a given—it is that this uncertainty becomes hidden or opaque, and projects proceed based on an estimate that has been arbitrarily plucked from the air. The uncertainty goes unacknowledged and so often projects act as if it isn’t there at all. A difference of expectations emerges:
Person A: “What is your ballpark estimate for this”
Person B: “Well… you’re putting me on the spot here…. but around 100 days… probably”
What happens next? So often 100 days becomes the figure, it is seen as a commitment. It is treated like a contract that is set in stone, and if it isn’t met then often the “blame game” starts. “People will just have to work harder. It is their estimate” an aggressive manager might say.
Show Your Working
Perhaps in some cases these types of conflict emerge due to a difference in expectation over what is being estimated, and the level of uncertainty attached to that estimate. Reflecting on the example above, Person B may be talking about effort rather than duration… they may also be basing this estimate on previous project experiences and there may be some unstated assumptions. They may, in their mind really be thinking “It’s around 100 days, perhaps with a range of -25%/+200%, as we don’t know enough yet”. Because this isn’t stated, the level of uncertainty stays hidden, and too often “100 days” is taken as an undisputed objective truth, even though that was never the intent.
A great question to ask when presented with an estimate is:
“Can you tell me how you arrived at that estimate?”
Time really does fly! I can’t quite believe it’s just over two weeks until the start of the Business Analysis Conference Europe 2017 (#BA2017) in London. As I plan the final practice runs of my presentation which is entitled “Systems Thinking: A Crucial BA Skill in an Uncertain World , I can’t help but get a little excited about the event – it’s always a real highlight of the BA calendar. Every year the conference attracts such a wide variety of delegates and speakers, it’s such a great place to meet people and hear new ideas.
The conference gets bigger every year and, I’m pleased to say that there are still tickets available — so if you’ve been thinking about attending, it’s not too late! You can find out more details about the conference by clicking the link below. And remember, IIBA UK members are entitled to a 15% discount.
I highly recommend attending the conference, if you can. There are fantastic presentations from real-world practitioners, and there’s also the opportunity to relax and chat over a beer (or two) after the conference has closed. If you haven’t been before, I’d highly recommend taking a look.
If you’re attending, drop me a mail or tweet and we can catch up.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I am somewhat of a self-confessed “BA Geek”. I can’t help but see processes, systems, data, interconnections and opportunities for analysis everywhere I go. I find it fascinating how different industries approach things so differently, and I can’t help but peek ‘behind the curtain’ and try and work out how different businesses operate.
I was recently travelling with work and was eating in a quiet (but very nice, if slightly pricey) restaurant. I went to pay, and found that unfortunately they weren’t able to accept credit cards—so I paid in cash. The meal and a couple of drinks came to about 30 Euros, I didn’t have change so I put down a 50 Euro note. The waitress soon brought back my change, which was placed on a small silver plate with a receipt.
Now, what I found interesting was:
1. Rather than giving change as a 20 Euro note, she gave me one 10 Euro, one 5 Euro and some change
2. Right next to the change was a card reminding me that tips are discretionary, but appreciated for good service (with a smiley face drawn on it to grab my attention)
It struck me that this seemingly random split of change was probably really quite a subtle and clever way of maximising tips. By breaking up my change, the waitress had ensured that I had a range of coins/notes to give whatever tip I felt appropriate, along with a reminder that a tip would be appreciated. This might be considered a gentle ‘nudge’. There was no compulsion to tip, and no pressure at all, but the waitress made it as easy as possible for me to do so if I wanted to. I smiled, put down a tip, and left. I was mulling this over on the way back to my hotel.
Equipping Our Stakeholders: Do We Remove Barriers?
Ultimately, what that waitress had done is made a request and made it as easy as possible for me to fulfil that request.
A week or so ago, I found myself suffering from a severe head-cold and fever, which left me feeling exhausted. I was so exhausted I wasn’t able to function normally for a few days—at its worst, I was unable to get out of bed. I spent a day drifting in and out of sleep, oscillating between sweating with a fever and feeling cold and shivering. I suspect everyone reading this will have experienced a similar illness during their lifetime—and thank goodness these things are temporary! I am pleased to say that rest, rehydration and paracetamol worked and I am now feeling so much better.
Yet I was left reflecting on how, as individuals, we treat problems and ailments quite differently to the way that organisations do. If we wake up one morning and a minor symptom has emerged, perhaps a sore-throat or headache, as individuals our first response is probably quite understated. In fact, there may be times when we deliberately do absolutely nothing. We may suspect that our symptoms are a normal fluctuation in health, and nothing to worry about—we monitor the situation, and, if the sore throat goes away in a couple of days that is just fine. If new symptoms appear, or things do not improve, then of course we’d seek professional medical help.
The Allure of the Knee-Jerk
Yet, in organisational situations, it seems that there is an all too often knee-jerk reactions to issues that occur. This almost seems to be a form of organisational hypochondria where deliberate inaction is seen as some form of weakness in leadership, and we just have to ‘be seen to be doing something’ constantly.
You can imagine a manager saying:
“Our web sales dropped? Quick, launch a project to initiate targeted discounting! Plus I’ve heard about this new CRM system… let’s buy it!”
Yet how sure are we that we know the reason for the sales dropping? And are we really confident that a new ‘targeted discounting’ scheme will actually work any better? Couldn’t it be something in the business environment that is completely outside of our control? And if so, wouldn’t we be better off finding that first? Underlying this issue is a desire for stability and predictability, which although understandable, is unlikely to prove feasible in many of the types of complex environment that today’s businesses operate within.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to a really interesting audiobook. Entitled ‘Shoe Dog’, it is the autobiography of Nike’s founder Phil Knight. It’s an interesting story on so many levels, and I was really interested to hear how Nike (or Blue Ribbon as it was then) was reportedly one of the first US shoe companies to partner with a Japanese manufacturer.
This was five or six decades ago, long before e-mail, satellite communication links and it was even before fax machines were commonplace. When working internationally everything took longer—the author describes sending important messages by airmail, or if it was really urgent by telex. Conversations could take weeks, or even months, and sometimes there was no option but to get on a plane to resolve an issue. Looking back, this seems like a completely different world. It is easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that the world ran on intra-office (typed) memos, with a typing pool that banged out communications as fast as it could.
This is a massive juxtaposition with the world we live in now. We have moved to quite a different extreme where communication is easy. Communication is ubiquitous. You can’t blink without finding there are 25 new e-mail messages, 7 new WhatsApp messages, 12 Facebook updates and a whole plethora of LinkedIN connection requests. And this connected world provides us with so many opportunities; you wouldn’t be reading this blog if the technology didn’t exist.
Yet, it has a darker side too. Over-communication can become a habit—instant messengers set the expectation of an ‘instant’ response. With easy, cheap communication we are bombarded with interruptions 24 hours a day, and as much as we can switch them off, it is a difficult discipline to do so. But if we spend so much time communicating, so much time fielding and fire-fighting our multiple inboxes, what do we lose? And in particular, what does this mean for the quality of decisions that are made in organisations?