In today’s blog post, we break from our usual format to bring you an interview with Dr Liz Calder of Blue Raccoon . I saw Liz’s presentation discussing cognitive biases at the BA Conference Europe 2017, and was keen to find out more (particularly as Liz had developed an entire course on the subject)! Liz has such a wide range of experience, in organisations large and small, and she brings insights from psychology and behavioural economics into her work.
I recently caught up with Liz for a ‘virtual’ chat, and she shared some really interesting insight:
1. You’ve spoken at a number of conferences about cognitive biases. What exactly is a cognitive bias?
A Cognitive Bias is an intrinsic error in the way people think. Every day we make hundreds of decisions, some big and some small. There isn’t enough time in the day to weigh up all the facts for every decision we make so the brain uses mental shortcuts for speed. These shortcuts are a mixture of inherent behaviour and previous experience and, in order to be quick, the brain simplifies issues and throws out a lot of the information available to it. Because of this simplification the outcome is not always the one you get if you take the time to logically analyse a situation. Because they happen so quickly we aren’t even aware these shortcuts are happening; we just decide on something and move on.
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 an e-mail or tweet and we can catch up.
See you there?
PS — if you can’t make it to London, I’m equally excited to say that I’ll also be presenting at the BA Summit Southern Africa, in Johannesburg in October and also the Building Business Capability conference in San Antonio, Texas, USA in November. My sessions are entitled “Leading from the Middle: Influencing & Delivery in Tricky Projects” and “Problem Analysis for Innovation: Your Practical Toolbox!”. Then, in May 2019, I’ll be speaking at European BA Day.
All of these conferences provide an excellent opportunity to network and meet other BAs.
One thing I find particularly curious is the assertion that some jobs are somehow inherently “creative” and others are not. We hear people talk of the “creative industries”, and this conjures up an image of well-paid executives in huge and sparsely furnished Madison Avenue corner offices discussing what the next big ad campaign will be, yelling to their assistant through the office door. Other roles are labelled as “technical”, which conjures up an image of hard working professionals in cubicles, heads-down and headphones on, diligently analysing complex information. I am sure the reality is different, but these are the images that spring to my mind!
This distinction “technical” vs “creative ” is sometimes discussed as if the two were mutually exclusive. This begs the question “Is there really such a thing as a non-creative role?”. Surely just about every role has the capacity to be creative… if we want it to be? Isn’t the “technical” vs “creative” distinction a false dichotomy?
The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) is an automated light railway system that helps people transit around the bustling metropolis of London. Unlike the underground “tube” and the main rail network, the DLR is driverless. The trains shuttle about their duty, computer controlled and remotely monitored.
The fact that they are automated and driverless means that you can sit right at the front—and more than once I’ve seen a kid at the front pretending she or he is the driver. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some adults doing the same! Of course, the reality is that however much they pretend to control the train, however much they pretend to pull levers and look at dials, nothing they can do will affect the journey. The only way they could immediately affect the journey is to pull the emergency stop handle (which would be a very bad idea on a busy commuter train!).
As I watched someone playfully “pretending” to drive the DLR, it struck me that far too many projects (and organisations) are run this way. There is someone in charge—perhaps because they have been given the role, or perhaps by virtue of their level of seniority—and they spend time looking at reports, enquiring as to why things are “red” and “amber” and seeking to steer the project (or organisation) in a particular direction. The challenge is that organisations are not always “wired” to ensure that the “drivers” get the feedback that they need, when they need it—meaning they can’t make the corrective action that they need to make. They only see things when it is too late, their options are limited and so often they have to take drastic and sudden action. The only control open to them at this point is to pull the emergency brake.
One of the challenges we face when looking to build organisations that can remain viable in an ever-changing environment is the need for organisations to ‘appreciate’ (look for) and respond to feedback. The term ‘feedback’ is broad, and in practice it can take a whole variety of forms. We might immediately think of compliments or complaints as sources of feedback, and whilst this is true, there are many other sources beside. Some might be quantitative feedback signals and trends (“Product X has experienced a sustained drop in demand”) others might be qualitative (“Look at all these suggestions from customers that are in our mailbox!”). The challenge for organisations is knowing which areas to focus on—which elements of feedback to action, and which to disregard. A bigger challenge is to come up with a hypothesis as to why the trend has occurred and what needs to be done. Traversing this tricky road requires ongoing strategic business analysis, establishing what is happening in the external environment, and aligning potential opportunities against existing strategy (or in some cases considering a change of direction).
Partial Feedback: A Restaurant in Toronto
When it comes to analysing feedback—whether qualitative or quantitative—one particular challenge that should be kept in mind is the fact that partial feedback can be very misleading and can lead to costly mistakes. I was reminded of this recently when eating in a restaurant in Toronto, Canada (a very vibrant city that I hope to visit again soon!). One thing that varies a lot by culture and nation is the approach to tipping in restaurants. In the UK, tipping is normally considered optional, with 10% being usual for satisfactory service. I gather in the USA it is much higher, and in Canada I am told 15% – 20% is customary (although different people appear to have different views!).
As many of you know, I enthusiastically believe in the value that good quality Business Analysis can bring, and I love speaking, writing and presenting on this and many other topics! In a break from my normal ‘blog’ style, I have a very quick update for you.
Attending the conference is always one of the highlights of my year, as it provides a real melting pot of ideas. It’s a great place to meet other BAs and exchange knowledge. 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.
The conference is being held in London, from 24 – 26 September. You can find full details of the conference here:
PS — if you can’t make it to London, I’m equally excited to say that I’ll also be presenting at the Building Business Capability conference in San Antonio, Texas, USA in November, where I’ll present the following sessions:
Even the most customer-focussed organisation is likely to get the occasional complaint. Even the best managed organisations occasionally make mistakes, and those firms that serve a high volume of customers typically have a full-time team that deals with issues that have escalated into a formal complaint.
Customer complaints can be a source of significant insight. In some cases, complaints point towards inefficiencies that have emerged in existing business processes. Perhaps a handover between departments is not working well as there is ambiguity over the roles of each team. Identifying this is valuable—it isn’t a one-off incident, and it is likely that many customers will receive poor service until it is resolved. It might also identify issues where training is required—perhaps a member of staff in a call centre did not record a vital piece of information that a customer gave them. This might be because the member of staff genuinely didn’t know the significance—and if they don’t receive this constructive feedback (and the relevant training) they will likely make the same mistake time and time again, leading to even more displeased customers.
Analysis of complaints can also help determine where customer expectations have changed (or are changing). In the past, it might have been considered perfectly acceptable for a courier firm to offer a delivery window of ‘8am to 6pm’. Yet if its competitors now offer 1 hour slots, this will change the tacit expectation in the market. This will filter through into the complaints that are received. Of course, the firm ought to have been looking at the external competitive environment anyway, but complaints sometimes highlight things that are outside of the radar.
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…