A Business Technology Place

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!

Solve it!

I carry a paper notebook with me through the work week to records notes, thoughts, and action items. I prefer not to take my laptops into meetings because it helps me stay focused on participating injustsolveit the meeting. The content of a meeting, or other interaction, is often the source of ideas or even blog posts! Typically I transform my notes into an electronic system or put them in a to-do list. As I was reviewing my notes from this past week I found this thought:

“We want a formula to solve our problems.”

___________________

What would our business be like if every problem had a formula to follow for a guaranteed answer of success? That would be great. Sign me-up. Books are released every week with answers to common or recurring questions and problems. They give us checklists, rules, and procedures to find success. The ideas, the process, and the results make us feel good inside. It’s a prescription for success. Let’s get started!

But problems in life and the business are rarely that easy. A formula will give an answer and quite possibly a very good answer. But then I think if all the problems had a formula to follow to solve it, and everyone could do it, then there wouldn’t be winners and losers. Everyone should solve the problem every time. But you and I know that’s not reality.

The next thought in my notebook reads:

“Formulas and methodologies position teams for success but don’t ensure it.”

___________________

I enjoy the experience of a good game of baseball. Recently I read the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis. The book discusses the journey of Billy Beane as a professional baseball general manager who sought a formula to predict the baseball players most likely to succeed at their sport. With the help of some smart data analysts Bean did come up with a formula and it was used as the basis to build some successful baseball teams.  

But even with that formula there was more required. Even with the latest and greatest software development methodology more is required. Even with the dieting rules defined in that book more is required.

What the formulas don’t provide is the ability for someone to read current conditions before making decisions about the inputs and timing. In a business environment I’m thinking about conditions such as when people will be available for a project, when cash is available to fund an investment, or the opportunity cost for two competing projects.

I want to formula to neatly solve all the problems. But I can’t miss the requirement to read the context of the situation to augment the benefits of following the formula. I feel the skill to read the context of a situation and then execute the play is often times what separates a successful outcome from one that doesn’t meet the goals. Easy to say. Not easy to execute. There’s no formula for that.

Onward and upward!