The Art of a Difficult Conversation

Two children ignoring each otherImplementing any kind of meaningful change in an organisation is rarely easy. Even the most successful project is likely to hit a rough patch now and again where something unwelcome and unexpected happens. Good risk management can minimise the problems, but even with this in place there can be unanticipated situations that hit us from the left-field.


Colin Powell is quoted as saying “Bad news is not like wine. It does not improve with age”.  In situations where problems occur, it’s crucial that we assess the impact, understand the available options, engage and communicate with our key stakeholders, sponsor or client. This can often be a difficult conversation – but much better to have a difficult conversation early than an awkward conversation later! Bringing issues to the table early allows us to discuss a range of options that might not be available if we hold fire until the fire burns out of control. The longer we wait, the more time we burn – and the options we have start to evaporate.


However, when working as an internal business analyst, or even when working for a vendor or managed service provider (MSP) delivering a solution for a client, situations can be complicated. Some environments can be politically charged, and there might be the perception that speaking openly can be rather career limiting. When working with an external client there may be the added risk of losing an entire series of contracts—which would not land well!


Yet, in most circumstances it is best for us to heed Colin Powell’s advice. A diplomatic, open and honest conversation now, while the news is fresh, is better than an awkward and embarrassing conversation in six months’ time when the situation has festered.


So how can we ensure that these conversations are fruitful? The following tips can be useful:

Continue reading The Art of a Difficult Conversation

Avoiding the Blame Game

unhappy bag paper manIn a previous article, I wrote about how outsourcing and utilising the skills of specialist firms, vendors and managed service providers (MSPs) can be an excellent way of gaining access to additional capabilities and expertise. It avoids the need to develop all capabilities in-house, and can enable focus to be retained on those areas where true competitive advantage can be gained.


One common activity to outsource is the development, maintenance and configuration of software applications. This might involve buying a standard package “off the shelf” and gaining help to customise it, or in other cases it may necessitate the design and development of a completely bespoke system from the ground up. The effort required can range from a small enhancement requiring a few hours development and testing, right through to gargantuan projects requiring large multi-disciplined teams.


I’m sure everyone reading this blog will have had some involvement in a project of this nature—whether on the supplier or client side. Perhaps you’re a developer, a business analyst, or a subject matter expert that helped input to the project. And if you’ve been on a project of this type, I’d bet that at some point something didn’t go to plan. In fact, if you’ve worked on a large and high-profile project, there were probably times of stress when unexpected problems emerged from the shadows like sinister spectres from a Hollywood horror movie. Whether waterfall, agile, incremental or iterative—the one certainty with projects seems to be that something unexpected and unwelcome will happen. And whilst good risk management may help us mitigate the impact, we’re unlikely to eliminate it completely. That’s before we start to talk about the unknown unknowns.


It strikes me that there are two very different ways an organisation can respond:


Response A: Play the blame game: When trouble emerges, a deliciously tempting option is to immediately apportion blame. Typically, the client and vendor or MSP blame each other. Things soon get heated. You can imagine a client saying;


“Why are there so many delays in getting this simple feature implemented? The supplier is in breach of contract!”


The vendor may have a different view;


“There are good reasons for the delays. None of their stakeholders were available for interview, we never got any requirements from them, and they forgot to mention the 27 other legacy systems we’d need to interface with!”


In reality, both perspectives may be valid. Yet, apportioning blame just entrenches people in a lose/lose turf war where political games are played for pure political gain. People start spending more time sending e-mails and writing extensive documentation to “cover themselves,” rather than undertaking productive work. Documents become unnecessarily heavier, communication becomes unnecessarily formal and this clogs up the development process. The schedule slips further…


Very soon, relationships deteriorate further. Dialogue becomes confrontational, and everyone works long hours. After several weeks working 14 hour days, the key stakeholders burn out and quality suffers. Everyone resents the project, everyone is blaming everyone else. The project is just about pushed over the line—and when it is the vendor and client walk away from each other. Both are left with a sour taste in their mouths, and all their staff are in serious need of a vacation.


Response B: Acknowledge the root-cause, pivot to deliver: This is at the opposite of the spectrum. When trouble emerges, the client and vendor or MSP have an open and frank dialogue. Each works to understand each other’s point of view. Discussions about blame might need to be held—but these are deferred. What is important now is to understand the root cause, generate options, get things moving and prevent problems recurring.


These conversations aren’t easy or comfortable—but, when carried out ethically and with integrity they work. Conversations are held often, allowing potential problems to be discussed as soon as they are identified. Problems are kept in plain view for all to see—nobody tries to subvert the truth or paint a better picture of progress for political advantage. There is no hiding of bad news.


Collaborative task forces work to resolve issues. When an approach isn’t working, the team pivot rather than doggedly sticking to an ineffective path. This pivoting happens at multiple levels—from the everyday detail (“That two hour status meeting is pointless, couldn’t we find another way of staying in touch that doesn’t burn our diaries?”), right through to the fundamental (“Our business environment has changed and we need a significant change to scope, but we need to manage it within our existing budget. What can we achieve within that constraint?”)



The culture and leadership directly cultivate the environment in which this choice is made, but as practitioners of change, we all have the ability and responsibility to ‘nudge’ our projects one way or the other.


I know which environment I’d rather work in…


So, what’s it to be? Response A or Response B?



How do you help avoid the blame game? What are your experiences and tips? I’d love to hear from you. Please add a comment below.


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This post was brought to you by IBM for MSPs and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s PivotPoint. Dedicated to providing valuable insight from industry thought leaders, PivotPoint offers expertise to help you develop, differentiate and scale your business.

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Announcement: BA Conference Europe 2015 – See you there?

As many of you know, I’m 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.


I’m really excited to announce I’ll be speaking at the BA Conference Europe 2015. My presentation is entitled Strategy: The Elephant in the Room


The conference is always a highlight 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.


Adrian speaking


The conference is being held in London, from 21 – 23 September. You can find full details of the conference here:


And if you’re on Twitter, you can keep tabs on the preparations for the conference (and the conference itself) using the #BA2015 hasthag.


I hope to see you there…

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Adrian Reed

Principal Consultant

Blackmetric Business Solutions


PS — if you can’t make it to London, you can also catch me at BBC Conference in Las Vegas, USA on 2nd November, running a workshop entitled “Strategic Business Analysis: Identifying the Business Need Before the Project Starts” November and again on 5th November with a session entitled “Strategy: The Crucial Enabler”. You can also catch me at BA Camp 2016 in Vienna, Austria in May 2016.

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?


Continue reading Interview: Computer Games and Agile Leadership with Paul Ranson

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:

Continue reading Understanding Your Customer’s Customer

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:

Continue reading The Danger of Unknown Unknowns When Procuring Solutions

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