The Best Vendors Don’t Sell Products, They Solve Problems

business lightbulb

Increasingly, organisations are choosing to outsource some functions or activities rather than develop the necessary capabilities in-house. This outsourcing might take a number of forms—at one end of the spectrum it might involve procuring an off-the-shelf cloud-based software package rather than attempting to build a similar solution from scratch. At the other end of the spectrum it might involve outsourcing a whole function or team to a managed service provider. On projects that implement this type of outsourcing, the artefacts that we’ll need to produce will vary, but it is common for a Request for Information (RFI) and Request for Proposal (RFP) to be issued. These documents help the client organisation to assess which vendors are interested and potentially suitable, whilst also providing the vendors with the opportunity to understand the client’s need so that they can put together a compelling and relevant proposal.


When writing an RFP, there are many considerations that need to be kept in mind. The document needs to outline the high-level solution requirements in a way that is succinct and digestible yet sufficiently detailed so that a vendor can provide a meaningful response. The client organisation will be interested in knowing to what extent their requirements can be met, and will be particularly interested in any areas where vendors may be lacking. For this reason, quite naturally and understandably, many RFP documents focus heavily on requirements.

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News: BA Camp 2015, Vienna – Discount available

Adrian speaking at BA Camp 2014
Adrian speaking at BA Camp, 2014

As regular readers of my blog will know, I’m a real fan of Business Analysis conferences.  I’ve always found that a good conference provides a melting-pot of ideas, and an opportunity for practitioners to get together and discuss developments in the BA profession.


In a break from my normal blog style, I wanted to let you know about an upcoming Business Analysis conference in Vienna, Austria that you might be interested in attending.    In 2014, I was fortunate enough to have been invited to deliver the opening Keynote at BA Camp Vienna.  I really enjoyed the conference last year — it attracted a range of BAs from a range of industries, and the conference had a useful mixture of conference sessions as well as less formal ‘barcamp’ style sessions.   I’m pleased to say that the conference is running again on 8-9 May 2015.   


The line up this year looks excellent too, with keynotes from Lyn Girvan and Yaaqub “Yamo” Mohamed.  Sadly, I am unable to make it as it clashes with a prior commitment, but if you are able to make it I would highly recommend it–and if you do attend, be sure to take a couple of extra days to explore Vienna.  It really is a beautiful city.


I’m pleased to say the organisers of BA Camp have extended a 15% discount to readers of this blog, and I was keen to pass this on to you.  So if you would like to attend but haven’t yet registered, simply register at using the code THANKS-ADRIAN-AND-FRIENDS


The number of discounted tickets is strictly limited, and available on a “first come, first served’ basis, so be sure to register soon!


Finally — thanks so much for being a subscriber or reader of my blog.  I am so pleased that you find my articles useful or interesting, even if they are occasionally random.  If you have any suggestions of topics you’d like to see covered, please don’t hesitate to contact me.


All the best,

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Turbulence and Data

airplane seatbeltI want to let you in on a secret. One that I haven’t (up until now) told many people. Although I travel a lot with my work, I have never liked flying. Until a few years ago, I had an irrational fear of flying—to the point where I had a rather embarrassing ‘panic attack’ at an airport around 12 years ago—it really was quite spectacular for any onlookers! Although I’m now less scared of flying, I still absolutely hate turbulence.  (And, incidentally, isn’t it ironic that the turbulence always seems to kick-in when the coffee is being served?)


I was travelling on a long-haul flight very recently, and was passing the time by doing what I like to call the ‘economy shuffle’.  Perhaps you’ve done it yourself—it’s where you try to balance a laptop on the tray table, whilst sipping a coffee and eating a bagel—all without spilling anything, without nudging another passenger and trying to maintain some level of professional dignity in the process.  It should be an Olympic sport—and it’s one that I would fail at spectacularly!


As I bit down into my breakfast bagel, I noticed a gentle beep of the fasten-seatbelt-sign coming on. The Captain came over the speakers:


“Just a quick update on our flight today. We’re making great progress, with a strong tailwind—however, we’re scheduled to hit some bumpy air very soon.  We’re expecting it’ll be pretty rough, and we’re hitting it right where we expected to, so you’ll notice we’ve illuminated the ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign. We should be through it within 30 to 45 minutes, but we’ll keep you posted. Please return to your seats, and fasten your seatbelts with your tray tables folded and the armrests down.”


As ever in these situations, the Captain sounded calm—and the Cabin Crew went about their business checking that everything was in order. I shuffled my laptop back into my hand luggage, chugged down the remnants of my coffee and tried to relax. And boy was it a choppy flight — probably amongst the worst turbulence I’ve ever encountered — but I took some comfort in knowing it would only last for 45 minutes.


The plane landed safely a few hours later, and in the airport it dawned on me that I wasn’t scared, worried or panicked during the turbulence at all, which was great. I started to pull this idea apart and analyse it (well, I am a business analyst after all…). Why didn’t the turbulence bother me on this flight? Was it the whisky I’d had at the airport to calm my nerves? Whilst that might have been a contributing factor, on reflection I concluded that it all seemed more bearable because the Captain had warned us in advance and had given us the likely duration of the discomfort. I also presume he’d steered a course to minimise the turbulence, within the constraints of his flight path. The Captain had read the external environment well from his instruments, prepared his stakeholders (including passengers), and we’d all had a much better ride as a result.


As I wandered around the destination airport in a tired and jet-lagged state, it struck me how this pattern applies to business too. A crisis can be averted if it is predicted and carefully communicated and the right corrective manoeuvres are adopted. This relies on regular monitoring of the external business environment. Strategic environment analysis is a critical part of business analysis and should be considered an activity that is ‘business as usual’. External techniques like PESTLE or Porter’s 5-forces can be useful techniques. As businesses get more and more sophisticated and collect and collate more data and information, asking the question “How can we generate potential insight and testable hypotheses from our organisational data” becomes extremely important.  Let’s face it, lack of data is rarely the problem, lack of analysis and actionable insight can be.


What this means for business and business analysis

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Outsourcing: The Thorny Issue of Relationship Management

Canyon with a bridgeOutsourcing is common in today’s business environment. At its best, outsourcing enables companies to leverage the expertise and scale of external service providers as opposed to maintaining the resource in house. It can reduce costs and increase performance. After all, if you want to send a parcel across the country, you wouldn’t buy a van and drive the parcel there yourself—you would ‘outsource’ this activity to a courier. There are a wide range of Managed Service Providers out there that can provide a range of useful services that scale to meet demand – from Customer Call Handling to HR to IT, and everything in between. For companies, deciding which activities to outsource—and which to retain in house—is a strategic decision that requires a great deal of thought. Choosing a partner to work with and negotiating an appropriate service agreement requires analysis and focus.


There is often a significant focus on building relationships in both the Service Provider and the Client in the early days, not least as both parties will be keen to ensure that the right types of services can be offered and the right types of contractual and commercial assurances are in place. There will be a period of transition, and there are likely to be some teething problems, but over time things should (hopefully) stabilise.


Yet, after stabilisation, a worrying pattern can appear if the focus on building and maintaining relationships fizzles out. Without adequate focus, a culture of “us and them” can appear, and rather than acting like partners working together to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes, a brick wall is built between the two organisations. We’ve probably all seen this happen – the outsourced provider feels aggrieved because they feel they are being asked to do significantly more than they signed up for, at no additional cost. The client feels aggrieved because they feel that they aren’t getting the service they need in a fast moving business environment. There is a clash in expectations. Soon resentment builds up, with each party becoming more and more insular – with requests being “thrown over” the brick-wall via formal documents and change requests (with little chance for informal conversation and engagement). Eventually, dissatisfaction may reach the point where one party feels the need to start managing the relationship by the strict terms of the contract. By this point, all goodwill has probably evaporated, with both parties contemplating divorce…


Keeping the relationship fresh and aiming for mutual value

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Organisational Agility

Man looking at conflicting arrows on chalk boardRead any book, article or blog about implementing change in organisations, and you’re sure to come across the term agile. Particularly in the software development world, rightly or wrongly, agile and evolutionary techniques are seen as the antidote to some of the often cited problems with more linear waterfall techniques. A well-executed agile project provides the opportunity to deliver business value sooner, by focussing on the most critical set of features and functions first, then adding to them incrementally. An experienced agile team often works like a well-oiled machine, gaining momentum and getting into the rhythm of delivery.


Clearly, both types of methodology have pros and cons, and discussing these in detail is beyond the scope of this blog article—but sufficient to say that as practitioners we add value by ensuring the right approach is taken in any given scenario.


Yet a challenge we face is what I like to call the ‘buzzwordification’ of agile. The term has become diluted, and worse still, it has significantly different meanings to different people. Our stakeholders may mistake agile (as a project or software delivery lifecycle) with organisational agility. This can lead to some unexpected outcomes, none of which are the fault of the agile team itself.

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How Much Data Is “Too Much”?

thinking gearsIt is often said that it’s important to have access to full and relevant data and information about each option before making a decision or commitment. It has been argued that a ‘rational actor,’ given enough information about each option, will be able to compare and contrast the choices objectively and form a robust conclusion. This argument is extended to say that where information asymmetry exists (for example where the seller knows more than the buyer) then problems are likely to occur. In principle, this is difficult to disagree with – after all, if you’re about to buy a house and the seller ‘forgets’ to tell you that the neighbours like to hold late night parties every night, then you’d probably start to feel the effects of that information asymmetry very quickly after moving in!


Understandably, when it comes to decision making, there is a tendency to try to maximise the amount of information and data about each option for the very reasons mentioned above. If you’re considering booking a hotel, you might use a website to compare the prices of hundreds of hotels in the area. You might look at the ratings of a few potential hotels on several different sites. You might then consider how close the hotel is to the city centre, whether it has a gym, or whether it provides free breakfast. Yet, as anyone who has booked a hotel in a city they aren’t familiar with knows, it is very easy to swamp yourself with data. It is easy to become overwhelmed, so much so that it becomes tempting to defer the decision completely.


Imagine you’re looking to book a hotel in London. Depending on the area you’re looking in, you have hundreds—or thousands—of hotels to choose from. The prices vary from mid-range to luxury – and there’s a fine balance between price and location (a hotel might look like a bargain until you realise it’s a 60 minute commute from the city centre!). Then there’s the reviews – seeing impartial reviews of a hotel is useful, but how do you interpret a situation where some reviews are extremely positive,  but an equal number say it’s horrible, unclean and unfriendly? The temptation, in situations like this is to get more information. Perhaps you look at other review sites, or consider a different hotel. And so the cycle continues. Before you know it, you’ve spent three hours searching travel sites and you’re still no closer to making a decision…


Having extensive data, it would seem isn’t always such a good thing. Or, more accurately, having disparate pieces of data that can’t readily be analysed, correlated or compared can cause decision paralysis.  


What this means for business and business analysis

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Always check your blind spot…

Car mirrorEven though it was a long time ago, I can still vividly remember passing my driving test and earning my licence.  I can recall driving back to the test centre, parking up, and receiving the good news.  I can still remember the examiner’s name, the fact that it was a sunny day, and I can even remember which parking bay I pulled into.  It was a significant day for me– especially since I didn’t pass the first (or even second) time, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I had what seemed like hundreds of hours of tuition before I finally passed.


Although my memory of each individual driving lesson has faded, I can still vividly remember my driving instructor drumming into me the importance of checking your blind spot before making a manoeuvre.   A quick glance out of the side window, followed by a glance over your shoulder helps avoid accidents.   Every driver and every car has ‘blind spots’ and if you rely on looking in mirrors and the windscreen alone, you might end up ruining the paint job on your car, or worse….


This idea of ‘blind spots’ can be applied to other areas of life too.  Incidentally, I’m told that fashion is one of my personal ‘blind spots’ – apparently the Hawaiian shirts that I wear on the weekend are so last millennium (who would have known?!)  More importantly, these blind spots can cause real problems in projects and in purchasing decisions.


A common project ‘blind spot’: Full Function Focus

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Your customers are telling you what they want. Are you listening?

Picture of an ear and a question mark. A month or so ago, I had a rather unexpected experience at a high-street electrical retailer.   Having decided that I wanted to buy a new laptop, I visited some stores to weigh up my options.  After all, there’s no substitute for seeing the build quality before making a purchase.   Since I spend a lot of time travelling, one of my key requirements is a quick start-up time – this makes it easy to quickly get the laptop up and running when travelling by train or in an airport.


So, with anticipation, I entered the store and headed for the computing section. After a few moments of browsing the laptops, I was greeted by a friendly but over-zealous sales person.


 “Hi there, can I help you?  Are you interested in buying a laptop today?”  the salesperson asked.


I explained my requirements, and explained how important a quick boot-up time was. Before I could even finish my sentence, the salesperson excitedly proclaimed:


“You’re in luck — we’ve got the exact model for you, and it’s on special offer today!”


Over the years I’ve grown rather cynical about “special offers”, so I didn’t have very high expectations, but I was really surprised.  The laptop on offer really did seem to be good value.   It didn’t seem to boot particularly quickly, but I could probably live with it.  After weighing up the options, I decided to buy it, and the salesperson excitedly scurried off into the stock room so that the sale could be finalised.

Two minutes later, they returned


“Oh, I forgot to mention, along with the laptop, we’d recommend that you buy an antivirus subscription.  There are so many viruses and malware infections out there! Do you want the one year plan….?”


I thanked the salesperson, but explained that actually, I already had a spare antivirus licence that I could use.  The salesperson went back to the stock room to collect my laptop.  Five minutes later, they returned, box in hand, ready to take me to the cash register.  Before we reached the register, there was a pause.


“Before you buy this laptop, I really must insist that you take the antivirus software, you’re in real danger if you don’t….”


I explained again that I already had a licence.   The salesperson continued stead-fast in their goal of selling it to me.


We carried on in a doom-loop of a repeating conversation until eventually I gave up.  I firmly but politely walked away, explaining that if they wouldn’t sell me the laptop without a subscription that I didn’t want, then I wouldn’t buy it at all.    The sales person apologised profusely, and followed me out of the shop desperately trying to ‘close the deal’.   They didn’t succeed.


The benefit of an external or objective analysis viewpoint

Continue reading Your customers are telling you what they want. Are you listening?

Project Reviews and the Insight of Lessons Learned

Person about to step on banana skinI’d bet that everyone reading this article will have taken part in some kind of “lessons learned” meeting or brainstorm at some time in their career.  These sessions are often part of a retrospective or post-project review, and are aimed at ensuring that organisations and project teams consider what went well – and also what went badly.  The idea is simple: these lessons and pointers can be taken into account in future projects, iterations or phases.  This should ensure that future activities run as smoothly as possible.


However, it doesn’t always seem to work this way.  I was speaking with a contact of mine just the other day, who observed that in some organisations, the “Lessons Learned” process should really be called “Lessons Documented”.  He implied (only half-jokingly) that in some companies, learning points get written down but then fester in a document that isn’t ever read again.  The document might be loaded into a repository somewhere, but even if somebody wanted to read it, after six months everyone has probably forgotten where it is stored and what it contains.  The whole process becomes about ticking boxes on a plan rather than driving genuine insight and change.


This observation really resonated with me, and I felt he’d hit the nail on the head. If we’re honest we’ve probably all seen this pattern occur.  When running projects, there is the opportunity to capture valuable insight and data – everything from data about the amount of effort spent right through to insight about the issues that occurred and the problems that could have been avoided.  The challenge is that by the time the project is finished, everyone is tired and ready to move onto the next big thing.  Sadly, this might mean that rich insight is lost.


An example: Estimation

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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

Continue reading Discussing Data Can Be Scary. Ignoring It Is terrifying.