I’m very pleased to say that my recent presentation at the Building Business Capability Conference entitled Strategy: The Crucial Enabler was recorded. You can view the presentation below, complete with slides and audio — in total it’s around 55 minutes long. Here is a brief description of the session: The words “strategy” and “strategic” are frequently…
A few weeks ago, on a cold Tuesday morning, I made my way reluctantly out of the office and towards my dentist’s surgery. I reluctantly walked up to the dentist’s door, subconsciously slowing down my steps as I approached – my fear was trying to force me to delay entering the building! I have a great dentist—she is patient and friendly—but nevertheless, I would be lying if I said I was looking forward to visiting. Particularly as this was the second of three planned appointments to have dreaded root canal therapy. It was my first ever root canal, and I had heard many horror stories from friends and family. As much as my dentist had told me it would be fine, the fear still set in.
Within 20 minutes I was settled in and lying in the dentist’s chair. She had put me at ease and was going about her work. As it turned out, my fear was unfounded, I felt no pain whatsoever. Discomfort, yes—but nothing like I had feared. She was giving me regular updates about what she was doing, and how the procedure was going. I was actually feeling quite relaxed. At several points she took X-rays to see how the procedure was progressing.
As time progressed, it turned out that the procedure was more complex than she had expected, and she was struggling to fill to the very end of one of the affected roots. She had taken a couple of X-rays but was concerned that she couldn’t verify whether the filling reached the end. After looking quizzically at the X-ray on her screen, she turned to me and said:
“Adrian, I know I’ve taken a few X-rays already—I need to see from a different angle—is it OK if I take another X-ray? This will, of course, expose you to another small dose of radiation.”
I paused—I know nothing about the cumulative effect of X-ray radiation. I have no idea how many are safe—in fact I wasn’t even sure how many had been taken previously. I felt unsure how to respond—and a little confused. My gut feeling was that there was little risk, so I composed myself and replied (as best I could, given my mouth was full of wadding):
“I’m happy to go with whatever would be your professional recommendation.”
She nodded, took the X-ray. I am pleased to say that she completed the treatment successfully.
On the way back to the office, this situation was buzzing around my head. It struck me that the dentist had asked me to make a crucial decision, but hadn’t given me a specific recommendation or a context in which to make my decision. In a dentist’s chair this is completely understandable as ‘the heat was’ on and she needed an immediate decision in seconds—and in no way do I want to criticise my dentist. Yet, in business, we work with our stakeholders and clients to make high stakes decisions all the time. Are we giving our stakeholders all the information they need? Are we packaging the information up to a digestible format, and providing an actionable recommendation?
The importance of a decision package
Say the world “sales” to many people and you’ll get a negative response. Perhaps they’ll remember a time that a desperate salesperson tried to “hard sell” them an expensive extended warranty that they didn’t want or need, or perhaps they’ll remember a time when an unethical sales executive sold them a car that turned out to be completely impractical, unreliable and not fit for their needs. In fact, for many people the whole idea of “sales” and “selling” is uncomfortable. It conjures up negative images of unethical and unfair behaviour.
Yet selling is a crucial part of what organisations do, particularly those organisations that sell ‘big ticket’ items or complex services. The reality of sales can be very different from the cliché—it really doesn’t have to be murky and unethical. Good sales involves understanding the customer’s needs, finding a solution that meets their real needs and ensuring that solution is deployed successfully within any relevant constraints. It involves building relationships , providing advice and advocating what is best for the customer whilst keeping the organisation’s needs firmly in mind too. Clearly this is quite a broad definition!
But do you have to have the title of sales executive or salesperson to work in Sales? I would argue not—in fact, there is an element of sales in just about everyone’s role. Whatever your role—whether you’re an internal business analyst or whether you work for a solution provider or managed service provider (MSP), it is likely that an element of your role involves “selling”. Just about every role involves building relationships, understanding stakeholder/customer needs, and so forth. If we are not selling products or services we are probably selling ideas. Imagine the project sponsor that has to ‘sell’ the idea of their project to the board. Or the business analyst that ‘sells’ the benefits of an idea or option to their business stakeholders. Or even the consultant within an external managed service provider that convinces their client to change tact and invest in a solution that is a better fit than the one the client had in mind. All of these are variants of selling and sales. But I suspect many of us haven’t thought of it this way before!
What this means for business and business analysis: Customer and Benefit
Organisations that initiate projects generally do so to embed some kind of favourable change into their operation. The types of outcome and benefits desired will vary depending on the organisation’s situation and strategy, but might involve increasing revenue, reducing costs, achieving regulatory compliance, improving customer service or any other combination of goals. Let’s imagine that a financial services organisation decides to streamline its ‘customer sign-up/on-boarding’ process. Possible benefits might include providing enhanced customer service (leading to an increase in sales) and lower processing costs (leading to higher profits). There are likely to be many different ways of achieving these outcomes—and those options are likely to be examined in some form of business case. For small projects this might be a very lightweight document, with larger projects and programmes needing a more thorough and formal document. Either way, the relative pros/cons of various approaches will be considered—including the tangible and intangible costs/benefits, and also the risks.
The business case is often the gateway to getting a project off the ground. In many organisations it is like a key to the cheque-book—until the business case has been signed off work cannot start with any vigour. This leads to a useful focus on a business case early in the project lifecycle—which is a good thing of course—but once the cheques have been written, interest can start to evaporate very quickly. There is a danger that the business case will fester away, collecting dust in a document repository rather than being seen as a ‘living document’ that is central to the project and change initiative. This can lead to some very unfortunate outcomes.
A business case shouldn’t be “one and done”
Problem solving is a skill that is relevant for just about every role within an organisation. It doesn’t matter whether you spend most of your time working with colleagues internally, or whether you work for a managed services provider (MSP) that offers services externally, it is likely that dealing with problems takes up a significant part of your day. Whether you’re a CEO, receptionist, or contact centre worker, chances are that you are involved with solving a wide range of problems. These can range from small, well defined and well scoped problems (for example, a customer not receiving a parcel) right through to tricky, messy and ill-defined problems (for example, revenue dropping due to multiple unrelated yet volatile conditions in the business environment). Sometimes, our problem solving activities are so ingrained in our daily activities that we do them without thinking. Other times, for larger problems, we might use formal business analysis, creative thinking or problem management techniques. Entire methodologies and practices have emerged which help us liaise with relevant stakeholders and analyse different potential options for solving organisational problems.
One important element of problem solving that is rarely discussed is problem ownership. Even the smallest problem is likely to need coordinated action from a range of people within the organisation to resolve. The problem owner works with others to ensure this cohesive and coordinated response. Significant problems can occur when a problem isn’t ‘owned’.
Imagine the scene. It’s 5pm on a Friday. It’s mid-summer and the air is humming with heat – but you’re stuck in a hot, stuffy conference room with no air. You’ve been up since 5:45am, and are only surviving because you’ve downed 17 cups of coffee and 3 energy drinks throughout the day. It’s been a long day and you hope it’ll be over soon. You’re sitting in an uncomfortable chair watching a visitor give a presentation. You’re trying to stay focussed, but your attention is wandering… your eye is drawn out of the window to a colleague getting into their car and heading home for the weekend. “Lucky”, you think to yourself. You start to think about what you’re going to have for dinner. You start to think about the traffic on the drive home—“I wonder if those road-works have finished?” Your mind is wandering. You make a mental effort to focus.
Your attention is drawn back to the presentation—the presenter is speaking in a monotonic voice that can only be described as ‘dull’. They are uncovering bullet point after bullet point after bullet point—and really they are just reading their slides. They move to the next slide and an undecipherable and unreadable diagram is displayed. They look at the diagram, and turn back to the audience:
“I know you won’t be able to read this diagram as it’s too small—but let me talk it through it”
They proceed to do so. Your eyes drift in and out of focus—you are trying to stay awake. You notice a number in the corner of the slide “25 of 118”. It’s going to be a long evening…you take a final swig of coffee.
Recognise this situation?
I bet we’ve all been in that conference room. We’ve all experienced that mind-numbing and spirit crushing pattern of death by bullet point. I suspect that many people reading this will have experienced it many times. And, if we’re truly honest, probably most of us have been on both sides of the podium. We’ve probably all given presentations that have lost the audience’s attention as well as endured them…
Communication is crucial
I recently heard a really intriguing story about how a massively successful and well-known online retailer conducts its meetings. The CEO reportedly ensures that there is an empty chair at the conference table when key meetings are being held. This empty chair is an important symbol—it is used as a visual reminder of the firm’s customers. Although they are physically absent, the empty chair reminds the meeting attendees to think about customers’ views, needs, wants, fears and aspirations. This straightforward but powerful gesture ensures the voice of the customer is injected into decision making, and presumably acts as a reminder to go out and consult with customers when needed. It ensures the customer is at the heart of the discussion.
There is no doubt that understanding our customer (and our customer’s customer) can help create a competitive advantage. Yet in the rush to deliver projects, orders, changes or innovation it can be easy to forget our end-customers and end-users, or make sweeping assumptions about what they will find valuable. This leads us to dangerous ground: if we fail to really understand our customers, there is the danger that we’ll try to deliver exceptional service but will unwittingly fail. We’ll go “all out” trying to delight the customer, and will be confused when rather than thanking us, they complain.
This may sound counterintuitive, so let me give you an example:
I’m guessing that many readers of my blog spend their lives working on projects. Whether you’re a business analyst, project manager, or architect, chances are that you’re working on at least one project right now. And whatever type of project you’re working on, you almost certainly have to estimate work as well as comment on estimates that other people have produced. If you work in an internal business analysis/change team, your estimates are likely to be around effort and time. If you work for a managed service provider (MSP) or vendor, you may well be delivering estimates to clients that relate to cost as well as time. As hard as we try to highlight that we are providing an estimate (rather than a final concrete figure), the stakes can be extremely high. As soon as a number is agreed upon it tends to be seen as the definitive number. And if it changes, we’ll find ourselves in a very difficult situation!
Estimation often feels like a dark art. We often need to estimate very early on in a project, long before we have a full and thorough understanding of the scope. If we’re unlucky, we’ll find ourselves bartering with our stakeholders. I’m sure we’ve all seen or been involved in dialogue that goes something like this:
Estimator: “This is a pretty big task, it’ll take 4-7 weeks with the resources we have”
Manager: “Great, thanks, but we need it done in two weeks. You’ll find a way, I have every confidence!”
Estimator: [Walks away thinking “not again!”]
In fact, there are many good Dilbert cartoons around this dilemma.
Breaking the estimation doom-loop
The good news is that this cycle of estimation and disagreement can be avoided—although it takes a change in tact. Here are some tips:
As much as we’d all like to work in an organisation where resources are unlimited, time is unimportant, and our competitors move slowly (allowing us ample time to respond), the reality is often vastly different. In many industries, new technologies are allowing nimble start-ups to enter the market with different and sometimes disruptive business models. New channels mean that our competitors can reach clients in new ways—and our clients can interact with each other faster and with more transparency than ever before. Markets move and develop with increasing momentum. Just ten years ago, letting a smartphone ‘suggest’ a local hotel and taxi firm would have seemed insane. Today, it’s possible to book an entire journey with a smartphone, figure out which of your connections are nearby, book dinner and see what’s on at the local cinema all before you’ve boarded your flight…
In this constantly changing environment, utilising external environmental analysis techniques like PESTLE or STEEPLE becomes crucially important. Smart organisations will continue to regularly adapt, experiment and implement change with increasing speed. These changes can be small (perhaps a new incremental change to an existing website) or massive (cannibalising an existing product in favour of launching something completely new). These changes can affect any part of the business eco-system—the IT systems, processes, organisational structure, facilities, plant/machinery, products or proposition and so on. And increasingly this will involve liaising with skilled partners—internal or external—to help build, customise or buy elements of the final solution. It may involve procuring IT from selected vendors or services from managed service providers (MSPs), as well as engaging a wide range of internal stakeholders. It may even involve outsourcing or insourcing a capability.
In this race to get change implemented, so often, constraints get forgotten about. Or rather, with the fire behind us and with a strong sense of urgency, it is easy to delay a discussion about what will constrain us. Yet as alluded to in my opening paragraph, it is highly likely that we don’t work in an organisation where time, budget and resources are unlimited.
Leaving our constraints un-discussed and un-stated is akin to locking them in a dark, dank cupboard and just hoping they won’t affect us. We become like ostriches, with our heads firmly in the sand. Even worse, different stakeholders have different views over which constraint should be compromised. It is worth considering the traditional triple constraint of project management here. The Sponsor may hold budget as the most important unbendable constraint. The customer service team may feel that quality can’t be compromised on, with the marketing team advocating time as the most crucial factor. This is before we even discuss the rocky issue of scope as well as any other business or technical constraints.
Bringing constraints out into the daylight
Time really does fly! I can’t quite believe it’s just two weeks until the start of the Business Analysis Conference Europe 2015 (#BA2015). As I plan a final few practice runs of my presentation, I can’t help but get a little excited about the event – it’s always a real highlight of the BA calendar. Every year the…