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.

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!

IT Annual Planning

These customers want the basics.

Wired Magazine published an entertaining read about the preferences of public transit riders.  The results showed that it wasn’t the technology services like WiFi and charging stations that topped the list of what riders wanted; it was the basics like reliability and predictability of the service. We so often hear the phrase “get back to basics” and this study supports that thought. But the nature of progress and business has a gravitational pull to do more than the basics. We want to add more features and more services. We want to be the most competitive solution provider with more to offer. We provide more service to justify higher pricing. I feel this pull for bigger, better, faster as both a consumer and business professional offering a service.

But really.  

Is all this really important to customers?

Back to basics for business planning.

Last year I started using the A3 problem solving approach for annual planning. The output of the A3 process is a single sheet of paper. That’s important to me because it forces my team and I to narrow down our communication to what’s truly important and necessary to communicate with our audience. The Information Technology group is not immune to making problem solutions more complex than they need to be. An approach like the A3 technique creates a framework to get us to think about the basics of problem solving and communicating in a succinct manner that adds value.

Here is the template I have used thus far. The process involves documenting prior year results (current state), current year goals, rationale for the goals, action plans to achieve the goals, and follow-up items. I put the initial plan in an A3 format for discussion with managers and business department heads (suitable to print). Then I translate the plan to a single power point slide for when presentation and projection to a larger audience (suitable to project).

IT Annual Plan A3 IT Annual Plan

 

Follow it!

I keep a printed copy of the annual plan on my desk and reference it each week. I use it in discussions with my management team and as part of the performance management process with employees. Monthly I will make updates to the plan with progress on the activities timeline or updates to unanswered questions.

Continuous Improvement in business planning.

In addition to the annual plan, I’m also starting to think about converting the long range plan to an A3 process as well as my monthly status report. I don’t claim to have achieved an optimal approach to this process. But what is happening is that I’m thinking through the basics of the lean problem solving techniques and how to communicate them with my audience. That’s the beauty of the A3 approach for planning. It creates a conversation with the audience. More than just sending a large report loaded with information that people probably won’t read, this approach gets the conversation to something manageable.

 

Onward and Upward!