Interview: Computer Games and Agile Leadership with Paul Ranson

Paul RansonIn today’s blog post, we break from our usual format to bring you an interview with Paul Ranson of Smash Thinking. I first met Paul at an innovative business conference a few years ago, and I’ve really enjoyed hearing about his innovative approaches to leadership and getting things done.  

Paul has been managing development and programming of graphically rich applications (mostly video games) since the 1980’s. He has been the go to resource for blue chip organizations across the planet making innovations for companies as diverse as Nissan, British Aerospace and Tesco.  He is a passionate reader of business books and has introduced new techniques such as Agile, Lean development or Visual Communication at the businesses he has worked at.

I recently caught up with Paul for a ‘virtual’ chat, and Paul shared some really interesting insight:


1. So your background was games design and development — that sounds exciting! What challenges did you face, and what techniques did you find to overcome them? Are these challenges specific to the video games industry?


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Understanding Your Customer’s Customer

Jigsaw puzzle with arrowsWhen implementing a change in an organisation—whether it’s a process change, an IT change or even an organisational change—it is good practice to map out the stakeholder landscape and understand who the key players are within the organisation. I’m certain everyone reading this article will have read many useful articles in the past about how to identify, categorise and manage stakeholders. This discipline encourages us to think about who is impacted by a particular change or initiative, and who has some kind of power or control over it.


When identifying stakeholders in this way, it will inevitably be important to identify the customer.  Clearly the end-user of the product or service being developed or changed is paramount. Yet who we class as the customer might not be clear-cut, and is likely to require additional thinking. In fact, there may be unforeseen pitfalls awaiting us if we don’t consider this thoroughly. Take the following example scenarios:

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The Danger of Unknown Unknowns When Procuring Solutions

Question Mark in front of faceWhen an organisation needs a specialist skill, product or service, it may be more effective to look outside of its organisational boundaries. Perhaps a company needs a special IT application, a training course, or perhaps it is looking to outsource an ancillary function. In these situations, it is common practice to “go out to tender” issuing a tender document such as an Invitation to Tender (ITT), Request for Information (RFI) or Request for Proposal (RFP). These documents typically provide an outline of the organisation’s requirements, a list of structured questions, and provide instructions on how the supplier should respond. Responses might be invited from vendors, Managed Service Providers (MSPs) or other types of specialist provider.


These tender processes enable an organisation to compare and contrast a short-list of suppliers, and enable them to assess which is most likely to suit their needs. Often a formal scoring process is used to weigh up the pros and cons of each supplier (for more information on a weighting and scoring approach you can download a white paper I wrote on the subject). The RFI/RFP will be followed by meetings and product demonstrations where the scoring can be tweaked and finalised. This is a very sensible approach, and helps to remove any unintentional biases that may emerge. It can be very easy to inadvertently favour the product that has the salesperson with whom you have warmed to the most, or with whom you’ve built best rapport — and a more formal process reduces the likelihood of this happening.


Whilst these formal processes are extremely useful, there is a common pitfall waiting. Fundamentally, this type of structured tender process assumes that the client knows enough about their requirements — and the likely solutions — to ask the right questions. In many cases, the client will be extremely well informed, particularly if the RFI and RFP have been prepared by a professional business analyst. To borrow an expression from Donald Rumsfeld, but what if there is an “unknown unknown”, a piece of information that the client needs, that they don’t yet know they need?


This probably sounds cryptic, so let me give you an example. A few years ago, I wanted to replace my car. I have never particularly enjoyed driving, and I’ve always driven boring (but economical) cars. I was looking on a used car website, and I found one that I wanted to look at. I started to formulate a list of questions I should ask and things I should look for when I took it for a test drive. I was discussing this list with a friend, who gave me a piece of advice:

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The unlikely link between Karaoke and Business Analysis

Karaoke microphone in spotlightSo, it’s confession time.  I’m embarrassed to admit that I love Karaoke.   I really enjoy the atmosphere in pubs and bars on karaoke night, and I really enjoy hearing the good (and bad) renditions of songs that people sing.   I don’t actually sing myself (with a few rare exceptions), but I try to get to a karaoke night once every few weeks and soak up the atmosphere.


A couple of weeks ago, I wandered into a karaoke night at my local pub and ordered a round of drinks for me and my friends.   As I was queuing at the bar, I noticed that the singer seemed really good—which seemed a sure sign that we were in for a good night!  Then, singer after singer came up and they were all really good.  This came as a surprise to me. Normally once the beers start flowing, there are some—well—less than good performances.  I was intrigued…


I got closer to the front and I watched the karaoke DJ closely.  As I got closer, I noticed the DJ was making subtle adjustments to his sound deck.  As a singer started, he added echo (reverb) to their voice.  He decreased the volume of the vocals and increased the backing track.   At certain points, from behind the scenes, he sang along into a second microphone, ‘filling out’ the singer’s voice.  In some cases, he turned down the singer’s vocals quite a bit and turned the backing track up a lot!  The karaoke DJ was doing everything he could to make each singer sound as good as possible—even if they had no natural singing ability—to avoid embarrassment and ensure everyone had a good time.  And he was doing this seamlessly, unnoticeably and in the background.


Sure, you could still tell the really talented singers from the less talented ones, but the DJ’s work ensured that nobody got embarrassed and everyone enjoyed themselves.


As I thought about this an ordered another round of drinks, it struck me that we fulfil a similar role as business analysts.   OK, we’re unlikely to DJ in a karaoke bar (unless we’re on a very specific type of project!) but we often work in the background, tirelessly to make sure that our stakeholders get the best outcome.  Not only this, if we do our job right, our stakeholders will probably be the people that (quite rightly) step into the limelight.  But for every person in the limelight, there are countless others supporting them in the wings.


Take the following examples:

Continue reading The unlikely link between Karaoke and Business Analysis

Pursuing Business Value

Business people chasing moneyIn many business contexts, the word ‘value’ is an important mantra. When running a business, it’s important that we create a product that the customer values. If we’re a publically listed company, we may need to ensure that the business creates sufficient shareholder value. If we’re running a business change project, it’s important that we consider the business and customer value that our implemented project will bring. The word value has become widely used – in fact it has become so widely used that there is a real danger that different stakeholders might have different interpretations over what ‘value’ really means. In reality, value isn’t always a straightforward metric to measure, and there are often several competing dynamics.


Let’s take an example: Imagine we’re running a project that will involve changes to our organisational processes and also the implementation of a new IT system. For the IT implementation, there may be several options—firstly there is the decision to build a solution in-house or buy a solution off-the-shelf. Then there is the decision over whether to host the solution on premise or in the cloud, whether to maintain the solution ourselves or outsource to a managed service provider (MSP) and so forth. We might even have the option of subscribing to a software-as-a-service or existing cloud based solution. Throw in a short list of three or four vendors into the mix and there are a baffling range of options.


Conventional business theory would encourage us to choose the option that creates most value for our business and customers. This is undoubtedly good advice, yet to adhere to it we need to analyse what value we are aiming to obtain. Saying “let’s go for the option that generates highest value” is easy. But how do we know what that means?


Value isn’t just about finances

Oscar Wilde famously wrote:


“[Nowadays people] know the price of everything and the value of nothing”

Continue reading Pursuing Business Value

Outsourcing Doesn’t Have to be a Dirty Word

Person giving presentation at flip chartSay the word “outsourcing” in many organisations, and you’ll be met with a frosty reception. People will recount tales of how huge chunks of their company were laid off or sold off, and will talk about how things have never quite been the same since. They’ll talk about how it used to be possible to respond to changing customer demands quickly and swiftly, but now implementing any change takes forever because there is a rigid and inflexible contract in place with an external partner… and they may well argue the case for bringing the outsourced capability back in house.


In fact, in some organisations the word “outsourcing” has become a dirty word. Saying it creates controversy, and can even create ill feeling. There is no doubt that some companies have entered into ineffective outsourcing arrangements—perhaps they have chosen the wrong partner, outsourced a capability that was better serviced in house, or perhaps the relationship went sour.  However, it’s important not to discount an entire solution approach, and in the ever-changing business environment that we live in, strategically outsourcing activities to carefully selected partners or Managed Service Providers (MSPs) can yield significant benefits. Whilst there are undoubtedly examples of outsourcing going wrong, where it is implemented well can be very beneficial indeed. It can help organisations to smooth demand, to expand into new areas quickly, and to secure expertise that they don’t want to (or can’t afford to) employ in house.


I’ll tell you what led me to write this article. Just the other day I realised that my car is overdue its annual service, and I was trying to figure out which garage to take it to. I was discussing this with a good friend of mine who knows a lot about cars, and he offered me some useful advice:


  “Adrian, your car getting old. It’s important that you service it but the service history won’t add to its resale value any more. Why don’t you do a basic service yourself?”

Continue reading Outsourcing Doesn’t Have to be a Dirty Word

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.

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

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,

Adrian's signature






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

Continue reading Outsourcing: The Thorny Issue of Relationship Management