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Going Back to the Essence: Look Out For The “Hold Music” In Your Organisation

“Your call is important to us…” (Image Credit: © djmilic — yayimages.com #45136074)

If you’ve ever been on hold when trying to contact a company by phone, you’ve probably experienced the irritation of hold music.  Typically, this is an irritating experience for two reasons:

  1. The sound quality is awful. This is particularly true if you’re calling via a mobile/cell phone. I gather that phone calls via the GSM network are optimised for voice; they literally cut out non-voice frequencies to save bandwidth, meaning music sounds compressed and garbled.
  2. The music is interrupted every 30 seconds with a recorded voice explaining how important your call is and how ‘we’re experiencing unexpectedly high call volumes right now…’.

I can’t imagine anyone particularly liking hold music, which begs the question why does it exist in the first place, particularly when the phone system compresses and garbles it? Surely it just irritates customers which is bad for everyone?

My best guess is that companies use hold music because it’s the ‘done thing’. It’s a well-established convention and telephony systems provide the functionality out of the box. To use a tried and tested cliche “it’s the way we’ve always done things around here”.  Crucially, when implementing or changing a telephony system this leads to questions like “what hold music shall we use…?” rather than “should we use hold music at all…?” or “should we create a service where people don’t have to hold at all?”.

Question Everything: Don’t Use It Just Because It’s There

Learn To Love Workarounds: They Signpost Opportunity

I suspect that many people reading this article will have been involved with the definition of business processes. Business processes, when well-defined can help to ensure a standard approach is adopted, as well as ensuring that work and customer queries are dealt with in a consistent manner.  They can also help remove the cognitive burden of those conducting the work. A good process will ensure that all of the predictable, high frequency, repeatable decisions are made in advance so that less ad-hoc decision-making is needed “on the fly”.  Of course, there are some contexts where this is less appropriate, and there must always be room for variation, but there are many contexts where at least some standardisation is desirable.

Yet, there is an old saying that “no process model survives contact with the real world”. I’m sure we’ve all seen situations where there is a beautifully created, detailed set of process models… but everyone involved knows that the work isn’t really conducted that way.  This is one of the many reasons that techniques such as observation are so key alongside interviews and workshops. Observation helps us begin to see what really goes on (or at least gets us closer to it).

One of the practical challenges can be that there is a disconnect between those that define processes, and those that actually do the work.  I remember once arriving at a client-site, hearing some of the warehouse staff outside describing decisions that had been made by “the office people”; the implication being those decisions had been made by somebody who had no idea how the work actually works…

Process Disconnects

I saw an interesting example of this type of pattern recently. As many rail-users in the UK will know, there is a free newspaper called “The Metro” which is ubiquitous at railway stations in parts of the UK. Take a look at the picture below.

Swan-Feeding and Organisational Status Junkies

Around thirty swans swimming in a pond. It is a sunny day, there are trees in the background. There is a concrete edge to the pond, it is clearly constructed (rather than being a natural lake). In the distance there is grass. The sky is blue.

At a park near where I live there’s a large pond which is inhabited by many swans.  The swan population varies depending on the time of year, but at the moment there’s somewhere between 40-80 there, including some juvenile (grey) swans.  If you’ve never sat and watched a community of swans, I’d highly recommend taking some time to do it.

One thing that I find particularly interesting is when somebody comes to feed the swans.  Generally, the swans will be unevenly distributed across the pond, and some will be on the land.  There’s plenty of weed in the pond for them to eat, and on the land there’s plenty of grass.  So each swan has to make a decision: go for the easy food, or not.

I’ve no idea the extent to which swans actually have decision making abilities (I’d suspect they have very little in the way of logical cognition) but it’s noticeable that those that are in easy swimming distance will float up to the person with the food, others won’t.  

Watching the feeding frenzy is fascinating.  The swans crowd in, and each swan (presumably) wants as much food as possible.  Observe this for long enough, and in my experience you’ll see that different swans appear to act differently:

  • Early opportunists: Some swans act quickly and try to get as close to the food, attract the attention of the person feeding them (a gentle peck on the leg has even been known).
  • Collaborators: You sometimes see a fluffed up ‘alpha’ swan patrol the perimeter, chasing others away other birds (presumably ensuring that its juvenile swans/cygnets get sufficient food). 
  • Status junkies:  Bizarrely, some tussle to the front and pick fights and peck the necks of others, chasing them far away in the process.  In doing so, they miss out on the opportunity of food altogether as by the time they get back they are at the back of the tussle. It’s literally lose/lose:  I can only assume that they get some kind of ‘swan status’ from doing this.  

Organisational Swan-Feeding: Get Beyond The Squabbling

Communication Isn’t Free: The Burden Has Shifted

One of the first jobs I had was at a small insurance brokerage firm.  As archaic as it sounds, back in those days, memos were physically printed and sent between offices in the mail (in fact, there may have even been the occasional handwritten memo sent). We didn’t have email, so if something was urgent, the only real options were to pick up the phone or send a fax. Every day, the post arrived in a big batch, and at the end of the day outgoing correspondence was collated and sent out in a big batch.  If you wanted to keep a copy of something that you’d received you had to, well, make a copy of it and decide where and how to file it. 

Communication: A drawing with people standing together talking. There are icons flowing between them (lightbulb, question mark,  magnifying glass etc) symbolising communication
Image credit: © melita — stock.adobe.com #300197089

In that type of environment the cost of communication was very transparent. Every single inter-office memo sent increased the company’s postage cost, required additional paper etc. If you were replying to a memo sent to multiple recipients, you’d think long and hard about who needed to receive the reply.  Absolutely nobody wants to spend any longer at the photocopier than they need to (and let’s face it, photocopying anything back then was potluck, with seemingly a one in ten chance the machine would jam or destroy your carefully printed original document in the sheet feeder). Because there was an inherent cost (and inconvenience) in communicating between offices, this type of communication tended to be considered, concise and some might say overly formal.

Fast forward to today and the economics of communication have changed drastically. I can send messages to friends all over the world by WhatsApp instantly at no additional cost beyond my usual internet connection fee. It’s possible to hit ‘reply’ to an email, and it’s no more expensive to send a reply to one or one hundred people (both are free).  The frequency and velocity of communication has increased.  We’re all dealing with more and more correspondence every day.  There’s email, Slack, Teams, WhatsApp, SMS, Telegram, Facebook, Twitter and the hundred other ‘apps’ that have probably launched in the time it took me to write this blog… And this is a positive thing, it breaks down boundaries and enables people to easily collaborate.  Nobody would want to go back to the inefficiencies of relying on post and fax.

However free messaging isn’t really free—done badly, it shifts the cost from the sender to the recipient.  Let me explain what I mean…

Reply All: The Bane Of The Corporate World

Questioning The Unquestionable

The music video was set on a desert island (Image credit:  ©12ee12 — stock.adobe.com #105027014)

One thing you probably don’t know about me is that I was a backing dancer in the video for the  2001 hit ‘Survivor’ by Destiny’s Child.  One of the reasons that you probably aren’t aware of this is that it isn’t something that I talk about much as 2001 seems a lifetime ago and I’ve made a major career shift since then. However the second (and most important reason) that you probably don’t know this about me is that it absolutely isn’t true.  Literally none of it.

That’s right, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I didn’t make the career change from backing dancer to business analyst (if only).  Yet, there was probably part of you that read that opening line and thought ‘wow, backing dancer, I wasn’t expecting that, how interesting!’. After all, it is a bizarrely specific claim isn’t it? And you’d be forgiven for thinking “what possible motive would Adrian have to try to convince me that he was in a music video if this isn’t true?”.

This is actually one of my go-to ‘bluffs’ for those unimaginitive ice-breakers where you have to list two truths and one lie. I’ve even created an entire backstory for it (and again, I cannot stress this enough: this is not true and it is a complete bluff):

Digital Transformation: The Emperor Is Naked!

Image Credit: © everettovrk — stock.adobe.com #104450030

A term that seems to have taken increased prominence over the last decade or so is digital transformation.  It has become such a frequently used part of the organisational lexicon that it is rarely questioned.  It’s a term that is accepted, it sounds like something that is self-explanatory and somehow obvious.  I mean who doesn’t want a digital transformation?  In the next breath there will be the inevitable cliches of Blockbuster, Netflix, Uber and others (cliches, by the way, that I am just as guilty as anyone as using…).

Within the business analysis community I hear a lot of discussions about how to work within a digital transformation programme, whether the tools and techniques are different to “other” types of initiative. I occasionally hear debates about whether there should be a “Digital BA” role. These are sensible questions for us to ask ourselves—but shouldn’t we start by asking what does digital transformation actually mean anyway?

Far be it from me to reinvent the wheel.  A bit of research will uncover scores of books and papers about this topic, here are two definitions that I find particularly interesting.  

Digital transformation:

Legislative Agility, E-Scooters and Organisational Change

In recent years, it seems that many organisations have become blindsided into maximising the speed of technological change.  Being able to get technological innovations to the consumer quickly is of crucial importance, but in some cases it appears that technology is moving much faster than the rest of the organisation.  Put differently, whereas once technology was seen as ‘the bottleneck’, this really doesn’t have to be the case today, and other parts of the wider organisational architecture and business context appear to be the things that are slower to adapt.

Close up of young man ready to discover the urban city at sunset with electric scooter or e-scooter
Image Credit: © InsideCreativeHouse — stock.adobe.com #334265158

One illustration of this phenomenon is the electric scooter.  Where I live, in Portsmouth (on the south coast of the UK), these things are ubiquitous.  You can’t walk more than a few hundred metres down a sidewalk without one whizzing past you.  The technology is very well-established now,  however the legislation, regulation and (arguably) enforcement are lagging behind.  You see, technically speaking, it is illegal to use privately owned electric scooters in public spaces.  Or, it is probably illegal, unless they fulfil the requirements of a motor vehicle (car/motorbike), have the necessary lights and mandatory safety equipment and are insured and the relevant vehicle excise duty (‘road tax’) has been paid.

This creates a bizarre situation where it is legal to sell an electric scooter, it just isn’t legal to use one, unless you are using it on private land.  To confuse things further, certain local councils (municipalities) have created bylaws allowing e-scooter rental schemes to be deemed legal.  Meaning you can ride a rental scooter on the road (but not the sidewalk), but you can’t ride a privately owned scooter on the road or the sidewalk.  Confused? I’m not surprised!

Why Don’t We Talk About ‘Legislative Agility’?

This illustrates a situation where the pace of change of the technology (the e-scooter), the processes to sell them and appetite for people to use them has far outpaced the speed of:

Disco Lights, Hybrid Facilitation & Early BA Engagement

Image Credit: © alexlmx — stock.adobe.com #162566687

In college, I bought a set of disco lights.  They were fairly basic by today’s standards, essentially consisting of a box with four coloured bulbs that would respond to the beat, flashing in a fixed pattern.  However, they helped to create a real party atmosphere. There’s something about colourful flashing lights that just invites people to dance.  Throw in cheap beer and Britpop and you’ve got a classic 1990s house party.

Although I bought the lights to use at my own house parties, I found that owning them had an unexpected (but positive) side effect.  It meant that I got invited to more parties too.  We could perhaps question the motivation of those inviting me (did they really value my presence, or was it just that they wanted to borrow the disco lights?), but back in those days I didn’t really care: a party was a party, and once you were in the door you could meet people, dance and have fun.  And generally when people realised the lights were yours, you’d get invited to another party….

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’d stumbled upon a really important lesson: Some things are seen as highly desirable, but expensive to obtain and are only used occasionally.  It makes no sense for everyone to invest in them, but those that do will be in constant demand from a string of different people.  In this example it was disco lights—at the time they seemed hugely expensive (I had to save up for them), were fairly scarce (there were only a few shops you could buy them from) and it just wouldn’t make sense for everyone to have their own set. 

Zooming out, we could say that this pattern holds true of many other things too, including skills and competencies.  Properly mastering a skill takes time, and nobody can be a master of everything. Skills that are essential or highly desirable can sometimes be a way of getting a ‘foot in the door’ with stakeholders that might not otherwise engage.  This becomes interesting for those of us that practice business analysis.  I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where stakeholders have involved us too late.  Perhaps having our own (metaphorical) ‘disco lights’ is the way to gain earlier engagement.  But what would those ‘disco lights’ be?

Sharpening Up Hybrid Facilitation

Facilitation is a core skill for business analysis.  It is hard to imagine how any BA could function without conducting different types of facilitation amongst a community of often conflicting stakeholders.  Facilitating in a virtual and hybrid environment is nothing new, I suspect many people reading this will have worked in dispersed teams for years, but the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 have changed the expectation of what ‘work’ will look like.

Mindful Stakeholder Engagement

This post is written by Kathy Berkidge of Mind at Work Consulting. I first met Kathy at a conference and I was absolutely blown away by her presentation, and I’m so pleased she agreed to write an article. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! — Adrian


Effective stakeholder engagement can mean the difference between successful project delivery and project failure. We BAs work closely with stakeholders to understand their needs and ensure they are translated into solution requirements. If we don’t engage with our stakeholders successfully, requirements may be missed or misinterpreted leading to products and services that fail to deliver the outcomes expected.

There are many barriers that may affect a stakeholder’s engagement, including:

  • Lack of vision or not understanding the project context
  • Resistance to share information
  • Failure to understand what’s in it for them
  • Misinterpretation of their needs
  • Lack of available time
  • Poor communication
  • Lack of trust
  • Previous history or negative perceptions from past experiences and projects
  • Fear of change

Also, stakeholders often have very different expectations on what is, or is not, going to change. Something that seems like an improvement to one group of stakeholders may be perceived as a retrograde step for others. For example, an energy company that wants householders to download an app to submit meter readings and receive bills – the householders just want to keep things the same as they are now – it’s much easier!