A Business Technology Place

Cast the bully out

We have a love-hate relationship with steering committees.

Do committees provide value that pays for the amount of overhead they create in workflows? If you are a committee member with voting privileges then the tendency is to support and agree with the both the decisions and procedural steps the committee follows. If you are a project requestor then your attitude about a steering committee is influenced by the amount of steps involved to get decisions as well as the amount of time it takes to reach a decision.

I have experience as both a committee member and a work requestor. I’ve observed both the value of a committee and the hindrance a committee can insert into workflow. A steering committee creates value when it buffers the amount of work that is given to a technology team to implement. The result of buffering work is protecting the downstream resources from becoming overburdened with too many concurrent tasks. Buffering work also prioritizes the backlog and technology team members want to work on what the business leaders designate as top priorities.

There is usually a bully, or two, that receives all of the attention of the committee.

But you’ve undoubtedly observed a myopic committee as well. There are usually one or two platforms/customers that usually receive top priority or seem get automatic approval. There is usually a direct correlation to the amount of revenue generated by the platform or customer and the committee decision.

Conflict arises when these projects take all available resources such that other projects or customers begin to starve for attention. A significant challenge exists for the employees who represent the smaller platforms and customers to be able to get work done. That’s not a good situation for the anyone. But the committee members feel justified because they have allocated resources to the work that tied to the most revenue.

Cast the bully out.

One way to remove the platform/customer that usually plays trump in the committee is to organize that work team around a hybrid technology model. In the hybrid model the business owner (product manager/customer manager) has day-to-day direction on setting priorities for the technology team. A centralized project management office can track the work backlog and work-in-progress (WIP). The business owner then reviews the WIP at the steering committee meeting to bring visibility and accountability to the direction and decisions of their group. So while the steering committee is not prioritizing work for the decentralized group, they do have visibility and the ability to influence work if needed.

This approach doesn’t work for all platforms and customers because that would mean that there are enough resources to have a dedicated technology team for each platform/customer. It does align the platform/customer work with the business line to promote a more agile approach to work. The business owners that used shared resources no longer get trumped by the bully projects. The bully projects are able to move more quickly because they don’t have the overhead of committee processing. It’s a win-win-win.

Steering Committee Bully

Choosing what not to do

Starting a new year is the most popular time to create and install plans. This is true within our personal lives and within our businesses. In business, we spend hours creating plans for how to meet financial and operational goals for the year. Then we spend more time rolling out these plans to employees so that everyone is aligned and can work together towards the stated goals. It’s business version of the new year resolutions list.

But then unplanned things happen
As well intentioned plans go, there is always the unexpected to disrupt them. Customers leave, new customers start, the government imposes new laws/regulations, certification requirements change, equipment fails, customers request new services etc. These are the operational needs of the business and can make employees choose between operations and the business plan. The “to-do” list becomes so big that employees must make choices about what to do and what not to do.

Choosing what not to do is easy to say but hard to do
I’ve heard managers say before that we just need to be smart about what tasks we choose to work. We can’t do them all, so we have to work smarter. The idea is that we leave unimportant tasks left undone. This makes sense to a point, yet nobody likes to say “no” to a customer. So we often find ourselves in a game of servicing the request of the biggest customer or the one who threatens to leave. Employees have to make real decisions about how to divide their time between the operational aspects of the business and the plan of new work.

A sensible plan
In the annual plan, we must recognize that a percentage of the time that employees spend on the job is for operational activities. That means servicing customers, keeping equipment up-to-date, and responding to the unplanned events. Then make sure the portfolio/program managers don’t schedule the employees at 100% capacity to do new work. This doesn’t completely remove the need to make choices about what we do and don’t do. But it gives employees some flexibility to make choices about unplanned matters.

Choose not to fill all your time with planned activities
Leave time for the unexpected. Leave time for creativity. Leave time for learning. If our people are our most important asset then we must let our people do their jobs to run our business. That means servicing customers and choosing what’s right. There will still be times when we choose not do to a task. But we’ll be choosing to do this as a matter of a thoughtful decision rather than a time constraint imposed by over scheduling.

Who makes the mold?

In my undergraduate days at Georgia Tech there was a bumper sticker that said “Georgia Tech – We don’t fit the mold, we make it.” This slogan certainly has relevancy in the engineering discipline, but I think it also has application in the business world for process management.

Don't fit the mold, make it

Don't fit the mold, make it!

The question is whether or not we become products of the system in which we work or if we help to make the system in which we work. Stated another way, do you just follow the system, or do you help make the system?

I spent the first half of my professional career just following the system. By this I mean that I followed the process given to me without thinking about the why and how.  As I matured and assumed more leadership responsibilities, I began to think about organizational processes and efficiency.  I started asking questions like “what business need does this process solve?” and “are there more efficient ways to complete this process?”.  I started to try to make the mold of the system in which I worked.

Throughout this journey, I’ve had some successes and some failures at making the mold.   As important as the business results achieved, I’ve learned a few lessons that are worth sharing. If you are trying to shape, influence, design, or re-engineer systems at your work as part of process management, here are three principals to remember:

Don’t act alone

Cowboys and renegades rarely succeed in a business organization. You can’t go-it alone. Instead, focus on building consensus for your process management ideas within your immediate work group. From this, accomplish and measure successes with your new system to help build a case for your ideas based on merit. This will help you to promote the ideas to next level of the organization.

Don’t criticize the existing system

The existing system may not be broken or bad.  Even if it is broken, criticizing it doesn’t establish trust with the existing leadership. Avoid making your ideas and changes a political struggle by not creating a competition between the existing process and your ideas.  Remember, you are suggesting change or trying to create something new.   Human tendency is to resist change because it puts people out of their comfort zone. Remember also, that the existing process was put in place for a reason and members of the team that implemented it may still be employed.  Keep the discussion based on the merits of your recommendations. Use facts, not opinions.

Don’t shut out compromises and tweaks

One way to gain wider support within the organization is to be open to adjustments to your ideas.  This type of activity builds trust and consensus. Your idea will be stronger as well because it leverages more diversity of thought and it keeps everyone in the mindset of continuous improvement.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/knowprose/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Business decisions: customers, profits, and the golden rule

Building from your roots

I continually digest a steady diet of business related materials to see what others are doing that is successful and to generate ideas for my work routine both in business and hobbies. These business materials are in various formats, including books, blogs, published articles, and pod casts. Call me crazy, but I think about putting theory into practice at work to gain the benefits of the knowledge.  One area where I see a disconnect between popular business theory and popular business practice is the fundamental basis for making business decisions. In my experience, its becoming more common placed to see individuals making business decisions solely on the basis of money. It gets me thinking about life lessons you teach your kids, “there’s more to life than money”, and the relevance it has in the business world.

I often hear statements like:

“Will it make us a million?”

“How do I make practice ‘abc’ turn into profits?”

“What’s the contribution margin of that?”

Now, I’m not saying these aren’t legitimate business questions. From an operational perspective and in consideration of financial stakeholders they are very valid. The disconnect I see is that business leaders are not considering the mission and purpose of their business. At some point in the past each company started with an entrepreneur who had a passion to create some product or deliver some service. He or she knew that if they created that product/service and it was valuable to someone then they would buy it and become a customer. The entrepreneur did want and need the profits from their work to make a living. But profits were a by-product of creating a valuable product/service. My point is, a company needs to make money and profits to survive, but profits are not the purpose of the business. They can often lead to short sighted decisions at the expense of their most valuable asset; customers buying their product/service.

Which gets back to my observation. Why are so many business decisions made now without consideration of the customer, the product/service, the mission?

Do you agree that true profits come when you fulfill the original purpose of the company? Do companies profit more in the long term (life time value of a customer) by focusing more on the customer, product/service, and retention?

Outside of business everyone seems to respect the golden rule; treat others as you would like to be treated. Maybe that’s not in business theory or practical business use because it doesn’t optimize profits. But then again, maybe following the golden rule does optimize profits for the long term by retaining customers longer.

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