A Business Technology Place

Is the rabbit big enough to chase?

Stay the course.

Six weeks into the New Year is when many people lose their motivation to follow their New Year resolutions. It’s difficult to have the discipline required to change behavior.  It’s also around this time when we are tempted in our businesses to shelve the new annual plan. It’s not intentional. We get busy with the day-to-day steps to run the business and solve immediate problems. Years ago I decided I couldn’t let this happen. I make the IT annual plan in a portable format. After reflecting on using this approach the last few years, I’m thinking about how to introduce technical margin in the plan next year.

Rabbits, squirrels, and other tempting things.

Throughout the course of a year distractions tempt us to wander from our plan. Some of the new things we see are good and worth making adjustments to achieve. But most distractions are industry fads, marketing mind tricks, or situations of minor inconveniences we make into urgent matters. I call them office squirrels or rabbits.

Every week my voicemail and email have unsolicited messages about products and services to make my life easier. Every week someone suggests a new project to solve an opportunity they see in their work area. Every week unplanned requests enter the organization from a variety of sources including customers, auditors, and executives.

“Is the rabbit big enough to chase?”

The question is so easy to ask but difficult to answer. The rabbit begs us to chase it. It lures us with the temptations of rewards and the fear of not catching it. The annual plan consists of activities to support long range goals, the organizational mission, and the core values. The rabbits may support organizational improvements too. But something I’ve learned is to accomplish the plan of great things we often have to learn to say no to some good things.

“Is the rabbit big enough to chase?”

The rabbit hole.

I’m not advocating sticking to the approved plan without the ability to make tactical course corrections or even the ability to alter goals. Executing and closing projects on the plan is hard enough without the distractions of office rabbits. We make calculated decisions through the course of the year. Changing course on a whim, or because an influential requestor swayed opinions, is expensive to the productivity of the organization. Changing course quickly promotes short-term thinking and often results in mistakes. How many times has a ‘must-have’ project for a customer never used or cancelled halfway through implementation? That’s when the rabbit disappears down the hole and we look up to discover we’ve wandered from the path and deeper into uncharted woods.

I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down.

I’m passionate about following the plan, or going on the hunt every week. But I make mistakes and follow rabbits that run down holes. So I’m trying to grow wiser through experience. I want to make decisions with the long term success of the organization in mind, keep the annual plan readily available to maintain focus and alignment, and make decisions through consensus to support the mission and core values.  

In the book of Nehemiah in the Bible, Nehemiah was tempted by adversaries to stop rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. He stuck to his plan saying “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop, while I leave it and go down to you?” He was intentional and focused on his plan. He considered the cost of leaving the work for what his adversaries promised. By doing so, he avoided the rabbit and completed his goal. I like it. Let’s stay focused.

Onward and upward!

Photo Source: Ballad of the Lost Hare – Public domain book.

Corralling your task list and action items

The Chaotic Symphony.

Throughout the course of a typical week in the office I attract action items and tasks like mosquitos on a summer night. They appear from every direction and often without notice as part of what I call organizational entropy. Most professional workers today have this dilemma because there are so many sources tasks can originate:

  • Meeting minutes (usually in a word file or email)
  • Meeting minutes (verbally given because no one wrote the minutes)
  • Emails
  • Ticketing system / Service desk
  • Project plans (Excel, MS Project, Software Development System)
  • Personal notebooks
  • Hallway conversations
  • CRM
  • Customer requests for information

It’s easy to get to a state where the loudest voices get my attention during the week and I lose all sense of priority. Having tasks in multiple places makes it easy to lose them and really difficult to see what is most important. Help!

Make a Corral.

I’ve tried different systems over the years to corral tasks into a reduced number of areas. I try to group personal tasks outside of ticketing systems and email together into one tool. Getting down to one tool is part of a simplification plan that makes managing action items achievable. A single location allows me to group, sort, and prioritize the list.

I’ve tried a number of electronic solutions over the years and at times I just use pen and paper. There is a no perfect tool or system. What we choose to use is a personal preference based on how we think, how we mentally organize data, and what we can make part of our routine.

Personally, I prefer a tool that puts a task into the context of the larger body of work. I like a task list that is easily searchable. I like a tool that allows me to add notes and related documents to the task.

Some action items, like service tickets, are assigned in group workflow tools. These tasks require interaction with the customer/requestor or project manager. Using group workflow tools provides communication back to the requestor and keeps a record of the interaction.

Two important attributes for tasks.

To create an effective system for tracking my tasks and action items I try to focus on two key attributes. If you are evaluating methods or tools then consider these:

  1. Communication – Keeping the requestor current with clear communication is the best way to reduce the number of status report inquiries.
  2. Visibility – It hurts when I forget about a task. That’s like letting someone down because I forgot about something that is important to them. I need to pick a tool that I will both use and will see through the course of a day.

Making it routine.

Since I have tasks in both a personal to-do list and group workflow systems, I created an entry in my leader standard work definition so they receive recurring attention. Without some definition of routine our day is ruled by the loudest voices. That’s not productive.

Let’s do this.

Onward and upward!

Creating Technical Margin

While I was reviewing the IT annual plan this week I remembered some of the recurring challenges that exist with annual plans. One of the biggest challenges is determining how to service and solution work that is not originally on the plan. The usual work initiators that meet this criterion are new business won, compliance/regulatory requirements, and custom requests from existing clients. When this happens, managers and business leaders have to determine how to shift priorities and possibly even postpone goals on the annual plan until the next year. It happens every year.

Leaving contingency funds for the unexpected is a key concept in personal finance budgeting. A best practice with budgeting is to leave margin between your income and monthly obligations. This margin can be used for savings as well as unexpected expenses that occur during the month.

What if we created business plans that provided margin between the capacity of the organization and number of goals/objectives on the plan?  For IT, I would call this Technical Margin, but a more general term is Work Margin.

The tendency with annual plans is to fill them with objectives that are beyond the capacity of the organization. Our appetites are always bigger than what we can accomplish and we tend to underestimate the time projects will take. Even without new unplanned work we have challenges accomplishing everything on the plan. If our plan leaves margin then it allows us to adjust goals easier during the year when new work appears.

In 1992 Ward Cunningham first noted a comparison between software code and debt that became known as technical debt.  For IT leaders, creating technical margin is a perfect way to have some time to eliminate technical debt as well as service the unexpected.

The concept looks like this:

In a formula the amount of work margin is variable depending on the amount of planned work you choose to put in the annual plan. The decision is based on how much risk tolerance you have for unplanned work adjustments through the course of the year and how much room you want to leave for retiring technical debt.

Onward and upward!

How to use SharePoint to create audit trails

Show me the evidence.

I think auditors chuckle inside when they say “show me the evidence.” It’s part of their craft to seek and inspect. Over the past several years I’ve been giving documentation and evidence to auditors for various IT controls. With regard to policies, procedures, and standard practices auditors want to see more than a one-time pieces of evidence. They want to see proof that the behavior is happening on a regular basis. It’s the classic audit trail.

SharePoint – Love it. Hate it.

I’ve had my moments with SharePoint on a few items related to workflow. But one valuable attribute I’ve found with the tool is the ability to version documents and lists. This capability creates the perfect audit trail and evidence proof.

Example 1 – Annual Policy Updates

I keep version information in two places for policy documents. The first is in the document header. This shows the date of the policy, the last review date, and a version number. You can do this part without SharePoint.

 

 

The second place is in the version of the SharePoint document. First make sure that versioning is turned on for the document repository (one-time setup). Go to the library settings and select versioning settings. Then fill-in the specifics for how you want the versions to be incremented and how many versions to keep.

 

 

Each time I edit a document I use the check-out for editing feature. Then I apply my changes and when I check the document back-in SharePoint prompts for a summary of the updates. Each time this happens a new version of the document is created and logged.

 

To see the previous versions and comments select the version history from the document selection menu.

 

Example 2 – Production Change Updates

I use a SharePoint list to track requests and approvals for production change updates. As with documents, make sure the list has version control turned on by going to the list settings and enabling versioning.

 

The version history for a list shows the dates of the field updates and which specific fields were updated. It also keeps the name of the person who updated the fields (redacted in my example).

 

 

This is a simple way to keep history of policies, procedures, and updates. Having this available and ready to show an auditor makes the audit process a little easier.

Onward and upward!

 

Special Sauce

Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. I remember that McDonald’s commercial like it was yesterday. Now, decades later, I’m still fascinated with ‘special sauce’, just not the sauce on a Big Mac. The topic is universal. What makes companies and groups successful?special-sauce

This article from Harvard Business Review about corporate survival examines the increased failure rate of companies that start today versus those that started before 1980. Their research found that, “firms listed after 2000 spent more than twice as much as earlier firms (in percentage terms) on organizational capital and half as much on physical assets…..But that advantage is a double-edged sword, they add: The good news is the newer firms are more nimble. The bad news for these firms is that their days are numbered, unless they continually innovate.”

Innovation encompasses special sauce. Some companies find it by creating a new paradigm like Cirque de Soleil. They created a new mold for a circus by removing animals and focusing on adults with a more sophisticated form of entertainment. Chic-fil-a uses customer experience and community involvement for their special sauce to make a chicken sandwich more than just lunch. Innovation isn’t limited to technology. The special sauces from Cirque de Soleil and Chic-fil-a have staying power. While competitors can see it, they haven’t really been able to imitate it. I found the Big Mac special sauce recipe online.

Keep searching for your special sauce.

Onward and Upward!