Most of us have encountered many situations where we need to make a decision: do we want to put in just a little bit more effort or should we just let it go. There is the project proposal that we have been working on for days. Should we do another spell-check, should we have somebody else take another look at it? And there is one of our customers. Should we invite him for a quick cup of coffee despite our busy schedule? There are many situations. Unfortunately, we are often tempted to take the easy route.
A small investment
In many cases, we should make that little bit of extra investment. The potential pay-back is just too big. And it’s usually a relatively tiny investment of our time and effort. I was reminded of that the other day while I was out biking. My house is at 550m altitude (1804 ft). Within a mile there are a bunch of sunflower fields. They are all in full bloom right now. It is gorgeous. There is a town on my cycling route that is just ten miles away. It’s located at 590m (1935ft) altitude. The fields were completely green this past Sunday. Not a single yellow sunflower bloom. A minor difference in temperatures due to the proximity to the Alps and the altitude. (This town actually has more snow in winter than we do).
Not going the extra mile has inherent risks. I flew back from a conference a few weeks ago and wasn’t feeling well. The staff on the flight seemed to be a bit off as well. Dealing with an arrogant and unfriendly staff was the last thing that I needed. Was it really that difficult for them to bring me a second cup of coffee? Was it that hard to greet me with a smile? Was it that difficult to apologize for the water they spilled on me? I doubt it. What could have been a nice experience (I was upgraded) turned out to be a real mood spoiler. I have booked several upcoming trips on other airlines since that experience.
Make the effort
Going the extra mile does pay off in many cases. The required effort is usually small. Why don’t we do it more often then?
Many business analytics programs follow a classic approach – they start with process automation. It is the low hanging fruit. Executives and project managers like process automation as it is usually easy to measure and identify the benefits (e.g.: cycle time reduced by 2 days, aggregation is 60% faster). However, that raises a question: What happens with the ‘free time’. Can automation lead to higher effectiveness as well? Let me tell you a personal story….
Stuck in the process
My wife and I hate mowing the lawn. Our garden is not all that big but it still takes us around 1.5hrs per week to get the task done. Setting up the equipment, getting the stuff cleaned and put away consumes the majority of the time. We do not enjoy any of the involved tasks. It’s just a waste of time without any added personal benefits. It’s really just basic garden maintenance without any kind of physical improvements over time.
Last year was really busy for us as a family and we often neglected the lawn for obvious reasons. As a result, our garden looked like a football field at the end of a season. It was not pretty. We ended up not enjoying ourselves in the garden.
A few weeks ago, we made the decision to invest in a new tool – a robot for mowing the lawn. It is a tiny and friendly 10lbs car that whizzes around your garden while mowing the lawn. It works extremely well and it is fun to watch. Setting it up every other day takes about 2 minutes. It doesn’t need any major cleaning and there are no wires. Pretty cool stuff. This saves us a few hours every week.
Process automation in action
And what are we doing with the time savings? Well, here is the honest answer: we spend more time working in the garden than ever before. However, it is time well spent and we have more fun doing it. Why? Very simple: the garden always looks nice and fresh. That in turn has inspired us to do more. We now frequently dedicate time on improvements and enhancements that benefit our family. The efficiency gains have effectively been translated into effectiveness gains. And this is a self-perpetuating process. It is contagious.
Business analytics and process automation
Process automation with business analytics often allows us to dispense with mundane and boring tasks. Think about spreadsheet maintenance. Think about copying and pasting data from one system into another spreadsheet. Think about fixing formulas that don’t work. That type of work typically zaps energy. Process automation allows us to get rid of the boring work that does not add value to us personally and to our company. Getting rid of the mundane work allows you to focus on the important things. And that’s where the true benefits are.
Once we gain time, we often identify improvements. Our energy and motivation increases as well. Trying to improve things without process automation is tough.
Take a look at your business analytics projects. Are there opportunities where you can leverage the power of process automation?
Did you watch the Champions League finale this weekend? Chelsea beat FC Bayern Munich in the penalty shoot-out. It was an interesting and intense match. Bayern Munich was the better team for the majority of the match. After 82 minutes they had managed to get over 16 corners while Chelsea had a whopping zero. But there was a big difference between Bayern and Chelsea: The team from Munich seemed to be timid and unsure of themselves. Chelsea on the other hand seemed to have that little spark of calm confidence. I had the impression that they were lurking like a predator. In sports and in business that tiny extra bit of energy and confidence can make or break things. I do believe there is a bit of a management lesson here.
Beat me up
I strongly believe that Bayern’s loss was the result of too much pressure and lack of confidence in some of the key players. Some of them looked scared and unsure – even during the first 80 minutes when they were by far the stronger team. Over the past few years, the majority of the players had to suffer through two very difficult coaches. It was reported, the infamous coach Louis van Gaal was mentally abusing players he did not like. Star striker Mario Gomez, for example, hardly ever played under him and the coach wanted to get rid of him. In the weeks leading up to the finale, some players told stories about their terrible 1.5 years under that coach. A clear sign that they were still recovering. Add to that a tremendous amount of pressure from the press, fans and officials. And this has been going on for almost three years. I would argue that this is hardly the environment to deliver a peak performance.
Early in my career, I had the ‘pleasure’ to work on a team that was run by a harsh and egocentric guy. Our team was often criticized and we were subjected to long late meetings to ‘ make up for our inefficiencies’. After a few weeks the entire team lost energy. It felt like we couldn’t win. Nobody was good enough. The project manager piled on additional pressure by openly attacking several team members. Guess what happened – the project was an utter disaster. The client quickly caught on to the fact that the team’s culture was ill. Several people quit, the manager was replaced and the project was cancelled. All that despite a team of highly motivated and smart people.
In my job, I have the opportunity to meet with many different companies. Unfortunately, over the past few years I have experienced a dangerous trend: too many organizations believe that putting constant pressure on their employees is going to deliver quick and easy results. Too many organizations neglect the fact that people are resources. Just like in sports, peak performance requires a delicate balance between nurturing and pressure. Verbal or mental abuse especially create long-lasting damage.
Confident employees will always go the extra mile. Burned out zombies will hardly be able to WOW customers. Confidence breads confidence. It is contagious. Look at sports again – a winning team usually continues winning for a long period of time. Bayern did not have that spark on Saturday. They played an awesome match. But it was simply not enough.
Last week, I came across an excellent post by the Truly Deeply blog. It was titled ‘Brands need to Innovate or they will fade‘. The author of the blog argues that brands are under pressure to innovate their products and services. But innovating becomes harder and harder as the “future is less and less an extrapolation of the past“. While this is nothing new and surprising, the post provides an idea of how companies can stay innovative. The writer describes a technique that business analytics professionals need to be familiar with: prototyping.
Prototyping boosts thinking
The author(s) of the Truly Deeply blog describe how the famous design firm IDEO leverages prototyping to rapidly innovate. Rather than sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and waiting for inspiration, IDEO typically get immersed in a new topic that they are working on. Not only that: they jump right in the water and start prototyping new ideas very early during any given project.
“They refer to it as ‘building to think’ instead of thinking about what to build.”, The Truly Deeply Blog
But why does prototyping work for them? It kick-starts the learning process (see quote above). Prototyping allows them to play with their ideas and to expand their thinking. Let’s keep in mind: theories on a piece of paper rarely inspire. And once you have a prototype, you can start making sound decisions that are based on direct and hard evidence. This in turn can help you with obtaining commitment. This is especially important when people are risk-averse or lack understanding.
“The power of prototyping or pilot testing is you fast track moving to evidence based decision making.”, The Truly Deeply Blog
Prototyping and Business Analytics
I couldn’t agree more with the Truly Deeply blog. Prototyping is an extremely valuable technique. Every business analytics professional should add it to the toolbox. Traditional IT project management taught us that we had to write lengthy requirements and design documents. But the problem with that approach is that business and IT have a very hard time figuring out and agreeing on what is really required. I wrote about those problems a while ago. Prototyping on the other hand allows the analytics professional to rapidly understand the true requirements. At the same time, the business person can quickly identify how the new solution can add value.
Prototyping in Action
Prototyping doesn’t have to be difficult and time-consuming. The new Cognos Insight solution, for example, allows business users to do prototyping by themselves. With Cognos Insight you can not only explore data but also develop small models on the fly. Take a look at the picture below. I started with an empty workspace and developed a prototype for an initiative-based view of my budget. This took a few clicks and some minimal typing. All that in under 2 minutes. And now I can go ahead and play with prototype and test drive it. Contrast that to a dry requirements or design document.
Prototyping creates value
Make sure to add prototyping to your toolbox. It is tremendously helpful and valuable. I argue that proper prototyping significantly increases your success rate. Cognos Insight especially allows you do develop neat prototypes for dashboards, reports, plans, budgets and forecasts. But keep in mind: prototyping should never violate good solid project management processes. You can read more about that in a prior post.
How can you leverage prototyping to advance your thinking or that of your users? What are your experiences with prototyping?
“Only big dreams have the power to move men’s souls.” Marcus Aurelius
Back in December I was diagnosed with cartilage damage in my knee. This is a nasty injury that often results in people not being able to walk without pain let alone do any kind of weight-bearing sport like skiing or running. As a devoted runner and skier, this was really bad news. But luckily, I found an excellent physio therapist who gave me hope. His advice along with my experience as a project manager has gotten me on a path towards recovery. This journey is reminding me of a few project management principles.
Professionalism is on of those things that is hard to explain. We admire people that are really professional. And many folks would probably think of themselves as being highly professional. Yet, many people are frustrated when it comes to their careers. They are either not getting promoted or they feel that their accomplishments are not being honored by their colleagues. Instead of complaining, I suggest that we all look in the mirror and ask ourselves an important question: Are we really demonstrating true professionalism?
THE RISING STAR
The other day I saw an interview with one of the rising soccer stars in Germany. This 21 year-old ‘kid’ was asked about his plans for 2012. Let me tell you, I was blown away by his response. First, he presented his progress in 2011. He was very specific. Then he proceeded to discuss some of the gaps he was looking to fill. And he finished by providing a quick overview of his planned activities for closing his perceived gaps. That raised a question: How many of us would be prepared to do the same?
5 THING TO LEARN
To compete at the highest levels in sports, you really need to demonstrate professionalism. Talent alone is not enough. It will get you to the 96% level but not any further. To be successful, athletes make huge sacrifices and investments. Having had the opportunity to work with a few professional cycling & running coaches in the past, I pulled together a short list of things professional athletes do. Take a look and ask yourself how you rate in each one of these items:
Continuous improvement: Athletes cannot afford to stagnate or to stand still. The competition is intense. They are extremely focused on continuously improving their skills. Day after day, week after week. These guys set themselves challenging & objective goals and they go after them with a club. Ask yourself: Are you really working on improving your skills, or are you just getting work done. It is worth taking a moment and reflecting on where and how we have improved. How can we make sure that we stay competitive? Set some ambitious developmental goals and work on those every day.
Discipline & Sacrifice: Athletes are extremely disciplined. They focus on their goals like there is no tomorrow. Training at a high level can be extremely painful sometimes. If achieving the individual training goals requires riding a bike in freezing rain for six hours, they will do it. There is no partying on the day before an important competition. Ask yourself: Am I really disciplined at work or do I choose the ‘let’s wing it approach’? Am I prepared to do whatever it takes to reach my personal goals and the goals of my company? Review some situations where a more disciplined approach could have improved your performance. Work on your discipline.
Coaching: Professional athletes work with coaches. Coaches help us identify strengths and weaknesses. They help us develop improvement plans. And they provide feedback which we can use to increase our performance. Ask yourself: Have you actively solicited feedback from your manager, spouse, friends? Who could act as your coach? At a minimum, plan to take some time to review your performance once in a while.
Innovation: Athletes typically have the latest and greatest material. Whether it is a super-light carbon bike or a stiff ski, athletes know how to use innovation to their advantage. They probe, they test and they demand the best. And it is not just about materials. There are also training methods. Lance Armstrong always pulled together a team of experts from different disciplines to craft new training methods. They pushed the envelope. Ask yourself: Are you trying to push the envelope or are you set in your ways? Are you actively trying to educate yourself in the latest and greatest materials for your job? Develop a healthy level of curiosity. Take some risks. Try something new. Adopt new technology. And keep an open mind.
Rest Periods: Athletes know that they can’t run one marathon after another. Our capacity is limited, unfortunately. Rest periods allow our bodies to replenish resources and to heal. Athletes therefore schedule frequent rest. During these times, they let go (think: less discipline), they relax and they step back from their demanding jobs. Soccer players stop chasing a ball, cyclists put their bike in the garage, etc.. Many people are afraid that rest will set them back. But as a matter of fact, we typically return in much better form. So, take a good look at your schedule. Are you engaged in a never-ending race? Schedule active rest periods (vacation, etc..) and don’t feel guilty about it. Plan on doing something completely different and leave your Blackberry at home.
Implementing a few of these things can make a huge difference. If you want to learn more about professionalism, I highly recommend David Maister’s classic book True Professionalism. This makes for great reading over the holidays!
Last year, severe knee pain caused me to completely stop running for two months. The physical therapist I started working with quickly came to a conclusion about my problems. It took him two minutes. Over the course of six sessions he developed an intricate training program that consisted of various stretches and exercises. It looked awesome but it was complex. We never had the opportunity to completely work through it together as it took so much time. Guess what happened. It frustrated me and I gave up after a week. It took too much effort and I did not know whether my movements were correct. Plus, I travel a lot and setting up in a hotel room late at night is not practical. Luckily, the pain gradually disappeared for a while.
Four weeks ago, the pain reappeared and I cannot go running again. I decided to see another physical therapist. The first session was yesterday and I am optimistic about the recovery. Why? He did a thorough exam and really listened to me to understand the core problems. He then decided to focus on four simple exercises to get me started. That’s all I have to do for the first three weeks. Four exercises, three times per day, six days per week. We had ample time to practice. And it paid off: I am already comfortable with the routine. The simplicity of the program makes it feel very do-able. And I bet that I will be ready for the harder stuff in 1-2 weeks from now.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication
SIMPLICITY AROUND US
There are two lesson.
Keep it simple
Speed without purpose and unnecessary complexity might initially look impressive. But long-term success is doubtful.
Let’s take time to listen to our business partners. Let’s break complex projects into a few simple initiatives. Keep applications simpler. Cut out unnecessary buttons, tables, logos, process steps.
It will pay off. I am sure about that.
Less, but better — because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.
“Projects could be so much fun if it wasn’t for the users.” Well, I have often heard this from different project teams. And there is some truth to this: Too many projects fail to ‘wow’ an organization because the business is disappointed about the final results. Based on my personal experience, I believe that the traditional implementation approaches are partially responsible for that.
“Make sure the teams get to know each other! It’s a lot easier to collaborate once you have had a drink together.” That was the ubiquitous advice from my former boss. We were discussing some communication problems related to a large international project. Some team members on a global project were running into some issues. Most people had never met each other. Communication suffered and it was starting to show in the results. Not a big surprise: Effective communication is vital for success and it is therefore always listed as a critical success factor. Interacting and working with people we do not know is especially difficult.
WHO ARE YOU?
Many projects bring people from different places or organizations together. And it is a challenge for project managers and sponsors to build teams around people that have just met. To start this process many people either resort to elaborate introduction rounds or sometimes even games. (I remember once putting my right hand on the shoulder of a colleague while looking him in his eyes for three straight minutes….it was an interesting experience and that’s about it) But a lot of these efforts fall short in expectations: we do not get to know the other person and we are utterly bored.
A SIMPLY SIMPLE BUT AWESOME IDEA
The other day, I attended one of those infamous project kick offs at the global headquarters of a successful German company. We were about 15 people from different parts of the world. To be honest, I was dreading the common introduction round (“Hello my name is Tom and I work out of the ABC office.”). But to my surprise, the project manager dimmed the lights and launched a series of short videos. Believe it or not, each and every one of the attendees had recorded a simple video about themselves, their offices and their colleagues. Within a few minutes we were taken on an interesting and fun journey through their Hong Kong, Sydney, Munich and Beijing offices. We got to learn about their teams, we saw their offices, we learned a few things about their lives. Most importantly, all of the videos revealed something about the personalities behind the people. And it worked: the atmosphere in the room was great and energized. And the videos stuck: Just this morning, I found myself thinking about some of them. I will never forget these great people and it almost feels like I have known them for a while.
TAKE OUT YOUR CAMERA
How do you like that idea? I will definitely try this next time I kick-off a project with different new faces. Remember: It doesn’t have to be fancy. Any camera or smartphone will do to record something decent. Show your new team mates your offices, tell them about your self. All this requires very little effort. Keep it short and sweet. Have fun with it! Get to know your team from a new and fresh angle. It’s these fun moments that can really help build teams. So, take out your camera now!
Let’s face it. Way too many projects fail. And they often fail because of low user adoption. Users hate the new processes, they dislike the new report style, they are not sure how to best use the new planning software. Project managers claim that the users are not open to change. Sounds familiar? But when we look at it carefully, a lot of the issues boil down to how we gather user requirements.
THE PROBLEM WITH REQUIREMENTS GATHERING
In my very first job, a senior colleague invited me to join a critical requirements gathering session for an SAP implementation. He had prepared an intricate questionnaire (By the way, he called this process a ‘JAD session’ as in Joint Application Development). We met with the users and he rattled off a ton of detailed questions. I was impressed. The users weren’t. They struggled with a lot of the questions and my colleague left frustrated. His message to me was: “Users never know what they want. This is the most frustrating aspect of our business.” To make a long story short, the users ended up not liking what they received. When my team mate pointed at the signed off requirements document an angry user replied: “Sure, I signed off on this document but this is not what I had expected.” This type of situation happens everywhere. But what is causing this problem?
HORROR IN THE KITCHEN
A few years ago, we moved from San Francisco to Europe. We ended up renting a house that did not have a kitchen. No big deal, I thought, and went to the first kitchen store I could find. The friendly sales person started rattling off a ton questions: What type of stove do you want? Have you thought about the size of your fridge? How many liters of storage space do you need? It went on and on. I had no answers for this person. Strange. I love to cook, I spend a lot of time in my kitchen. Yet, I was not able to provide satisfactory answers. And the sales person got frustrated with me. He suggested we take a break and reconvene after I had done some soul-searching. Sounds familiar? Any similarities to the standard requirements gathering process? Well, I aborted the process at that point and found another store that clearly knew how to help me.
A FEW IDEAS
Here are three ideas for making that requirements gathering session easier and to help drive user satisfaction:
Business problems come first: The traditional requirements gathering process focuses on features and functions (which fields do you need in the report, how do you calculate this metric). There is a place for that, but let’s start focusing on what the users are actually trying to accomplish. Ask questions like: “What do you use this report for? What problems are you trying to solve with this? Has this been useful in the past?” We are in the business of solving business problems after all. So let’s focus on that. By asking those type of questions first we are able to make new connections and we are able to guide the discussion proactively. I went to another kitchen store and found a great sales person. He asked me a ton of questions around our family life-style, looked at pictures from the prior kitchen, etc.. He got the big picture. Also, I felt at ease. This person clearly showed an interest in helping me.
Stop asking users for what they want and start showing them how the world could be: We don’t know what we don’t know. It’s that simple. Look at a user who has been using a certain set of paper-based two-dimensional reports: that person would not know how to articulate the requirements for a multi-dimensional online version (What is a dimension?). Instead, build a little prototype and show them how the world could be. Make it easy for people. The person at the new kitchen store did just that. After asking the high-level questions, he used a few models to explain to me what type of decisions I would have to make. He basically educated me. And that did wonders. All the feature and function questions from the other store suddenly made a lot more sense.
Create and share: Don’t just stop there. Take the initial requirements, apply your knowledge and think ahead. Take the input from the general business problem discussion and create a prototype that includes useful things the user might not have articulated. You are the expert and you need to inject your expertise. Apple does that extremely well. Steve Jobs once said: “Let’s go invent tomorrow instead of wondering about what happened yesterday.” And this could be a highly rewarding exercise, because we get to apply our deep knowledge. Also, make sure to show the advanced prototype for early feedback. It is easier to visualize what could be when I actually see it. The guy at the second kitchen store did that. We configured a basic setup and he then applied his deep knowledge to surprise me with a really cool proposal.
THE NEXT PROJECT
Next time you head out to meet with users, try to remember some of these things. It can make a huge difference. I can tell you that my family is pretty happy with our kitchen. The combination of understanding how the world could be coupled with the deep knowledge and creativity from my coach (the sales guy), we ended up with a rather cool setup that continues to delight us. Why shouldn’t we be able to do this in business as well?
“When you fulfill dreams, success is inevitable.”,Carmine Gallo, The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs