When modelling processes and customer journeys, there is a tendency for organisations to focus on the ‘80/20’ rule and spend most of their time designing and refining the most commonly trodden routes through the process—sometimes known as the ‘happy path’. This ‘happy path’ typically assumes that the customer does everything at least broadly correctly, has the right information to hand and so forth—and focussing on the happy path enables us to ensure that the process is effective and efficient for a majority of cases.
Yet in our attempts to improve the ‘happy path’, we must not forget the alternative flows and exceptions that may occur. The business must make a decision about the types of demand that it wishes (or is compelled) to deal with, and it is crucial that the process is built to handle that level of variety. Just because something occurs infrequently doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. In fact, some very ‘infrequent’ events might represent real ‘moments of truth’ where we have the opportunity to impress or frustrate the customer.
In business, we often point at examples of “problems” and “problematic situations” as if they should be universally known and agreed upon. Certainly, if revenue is dropping, customers are leaving and there’s not enough money to pay staff wages then it’s likely that there would be fairly unanimous agreement that something has to be done and there are clearly a whole set of “problems”! Yet, most of the day to day situations we find ourselves in are far more subtle and nuanced, and defining and pinpointing issues can be much more challenging . Different stakeholders may interpret a situation very differently, viewing particular aspects of that situation more or less significantly than we do.
Two examples really brought this idea to life for me, and being from the UK, these are of course weather related (if you’ve never been to the UK, talking about weather is like a national sport!). During September last year, I attended the fantastic BA Summit Southern Africa in Cape Town. While I was there I was able to see some of the sights, and catch up with my friends and contacts at IIBA SA. Being a British person, I would start just about every conversation with small talk about the weather. I’d drone on and on (boring even myself) about how we have so much rain, and how it’s great to be somewhere so sunny…
I was floored when a friend of mine said (with complete respect and rapport) “If only we could find a way of swapping your rain for our sun”. They explained that Cape Town is suffering a severe water shortage, with a lack of rain in the winter, and a real chance that the reservoirs will simply run dry. Water rationing is now in place, with calculations being regularly updated over when “day zero” will be reached—the day that domestic taps are shut off. Wow. Clearly, and quite understandably, my friends in Cape Town have a very different perspective on rain, and I felt pretty insensitive when I realised what I’d said! That single experience led me to limit my water usage as much as I could. It also made me think differently about the amount of rain that we get in the UK.
Those of you that follow this blog will probably know I am somewhat of a self-confessed ‘BA Geek’. When I am not blogging, I am trying to find other ways to raise awareness of our profession, and to encourage organisations to make use of BA tools and techniques. I still find it genuinely odd that in some organisations, business analysis is not given the recognition that it deserves. It feels like as a discipline we are (metaphorically) in our awkward teenage years. We know that we have a huge amount to contribute, sometimes our ideas are new and challenge the norm, but we often feel misunderstood (and, if we’re completely honest, perhaps we don’t always communicate our worth in the most effective way). Perhaps it’s not a very elegant analogy, but I’m sure you get the point!
One particular interest of mine is studying project failures. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years delving into the detail of why governmental projects fail. “Why focus on the public sector?” I hear you ask! The main, practical, reason is that when a public sector project fails it tends to happen very publically—the information is made available for scrutiny. I am certain there are just as many project failures in the private sector—certainly I’ve worked on a few ‘stinky’ private sector projects over the years—but getting at the data is much, much harder. The irony is that there are excellent BAs in the public sector—some of them are my contacts and friends. Yet the failure reports and research suggest (to me at least) that BAs aren’t always engaged at the right time and in some cases might not be given the voice that they desire.
This led me and some of my fellow IIBA-UK volunteers to submit evidence to a Public Administration Select Committee inquiry back in 2014, an initiative I was particularly proud of as we managed to get cross-organisational agreement from IIBA UK, BCS and the BA Manager Forum. I have been part of committees that have made other representations to government too, hoping that a regular ‘drip feed’ of information will help raise awareness.
“But why bother with this?”, some of you may ask. Good question indeed! My driving motivations are:
Save Money:I believe that good quality business analysis in the public sector (as in any sectors) will save money. In fact, looking at some government failure reports it could save a lot of money. This is compelling in the private sector too… but the optimist in me likes to think that public sector savings could lead to more hospital beds, more public services, in a time when increasingly decision makers are having to “do more with less”. And creating better public services excites me a lot more than “creating shareholder value”.
Set a Standard:I truly believe that once a national government adopts a BA standard, the level of awareness will be raised by default. Things will be better for all Much as all major government projects must use a particular project management methodology, how awesome would it be if they had to adopt a flexible, tailored business analysis methodology (overseen by a skilled senior BA)? And it’s highly likely that the private sector would follow…
A Letter to an MP…
I was thinking about these goals as I sat in front of my PC screen in that quiet, reflective time between Christmas and New Year. In conducting some research, I discovered that my Member of Parliament (Stephen Morgan MP) is a member of the Public Accounts Committee. The very committee that is responsible (along with the National Audit Office) for providing scrutiny on government decisions and projects…
Process analysis and process modelling are two commonly used and interrelated business analysis techniques. There can be significant benefit in understanding how a particular business process works, improving it to ensure that it is aligned with the needs of the customer and other stakeholders, whilst ensuring that resources are being used efficiently and effectively. Good processes contribute towards a consistent customer experience—they ensure that the organisation can deliver a reliable and predictable service every time. An effective process will typically minimise the number of subjective decisions that need to be made ‘on the fly’ by staff, and ensures that staff are empowered with the tools that they need to do the job.
Yet, it doesn’t automatically follow that changing a process will improve it. I am sure we have all seen process improvement initiatives that didn’t achieve their desired outcomes. We may have even seen initiatives that made things worse! As businesses analysts, we have a significant part to play in helping to avoid these failures.
Understand Variety in Demand
There are many angles which should be considered when aiming to improve a process, but one that is often overlooked is variety of demand. A process, at its essence, will need to respond to a trigger (a business event), then perform a series of actions to create an outcome. One of strengths of formalising processes is the ability to standardise—yet this can (ironically) become an organisation’s Achilles’ heel. Standardisation that accommodates the types of customer demand that you want or need to serve is great; anything else risks being perceived as rigid and bureaucratic.
This probably sounds rather abstract, so let’s take an example. I recently received an e-mail from the company that supplies the electricity and gas to my house, asking me to take meter readings and input them online. Nothing unusual there, except when I input the electricity meter reading, it wouldn’t accept it. After a bit of digging I realised that the reading was exactly the same as the reading I input six months ago. The meter’s dials had not moved at all in that period. Some further investigation led me to conclude the meter is completely dead, and had been for some time.
I recently presented a webinar, hosted by IIBA®, focussing on the importance of systems thinking. The webinar is entitled Systems Thinking: A Crucial BA Skill in an Uncertain World and I’m pleased to say that the recording is available to watch below. The recording is around an hour long, so grab a coffee, sit back and enjoy. I hope that you find the webinar interesting!
It has often been said that we live in an increasingly volatile, complex and ambiguous world. The external business environment is complex and fast-moving, yet often our stakeholders are blindsided by ‘silver-bullet’ solutions that assume a neat linear relationship between cause and effect.
In reality, things are rarely neat and linear. More often we’ll find that situations are devilishly difficult, requiring us to understand and engage with a whole range of messy interconnected issues and perspectives.
In this practical presentation, Adrian Reed discusses the importance of systems thinking in business analysis. During the presentation you will hear:
What systems thinking ‘is’, why it matters, and the conditions in which it can be relevant in an analysis environment
A range of practical techniques from the world of systems thinking that have direct applicability in the BA world
How systems thinking and systems practice, when embraced by a range of complementary practitioners and stakeholders, can help an organisation ‘learn’
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…