A Business Technology Place

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!

That defining moment

Crossroads of the career journey

It can be an event, a project, or an assignment. It’s that situation that leads to the point in time when we make a decision between two divergent paths. For me, it was a failed assignment as a software product manager. My job was to create a B2C internet site that integrated with a Siebel ERP. But the combination of business rules, technology capabilities of the web platform, and intricacies of an ERP integration were above my skillset at the time. I wasn’t mature enough to recognize it, and when management pointed it out to me I became defensive. The project stalled and was scrapped.2choices

The unseen path

So my defining moment was a career failure. I was subsequently “reassigned”. The path was as much chosen for me as anything I did. I suppose I could have quit or asked for a different new assignment. But the idea of a change of scenery had an appeal. It was a new business unit with different technologies . A complete start-over.

I don’t know if the intent of management to locate me far away from central IT or if it was to give me a chance to work with a business unit that needed some IT assistance. It could have been either. I had been very successful in all my previous assignments. But a failure on a high profile project can be a “career limiting move”. Whatever the case, I went from a situation where I was trying to survive, to one where I could thrive.

Career booster shot

In my new assignment I reached out and aligned myself directly with business unit owners. The business unit wasn’t part of the core revenue making unit for the company and didn’t have much oversight from the central IT group. This alignment shaped my business preferences and thinking even to present time. It was decentralized. I had direct access to a developer and didn’t work through a central PMO or project board.

I’m not saying it was the wild west. There were rules. I had accountability. It’s just that most of it came directly from the business unit owners; my primary customers. Thinking back on it now, it was like an early model of agile development. I had lighter documentation. I had contact with the customer, the developer, and the tester. We programmed quickly and at regular cadences. We solved problems. We got stuff done.

Communication, relationships, and people

I developed new communication skills. I learned that the technology is not what matters to the business. What matters is solving a business problem with the technology. I learned that it’s the job of a technology professional to immerse in the business and understand it. I learned that it’s the people relationships that open doors to working collaboratively to find solutions.

The failure and subsequent change of scenery started molding me. It’s the reason I list career failures on my resume. They made me stronger. They helped me learn.

So for me, that defining career moment was humbling, disciplining, and guiding. It was worth it. I haven’t looked back.

Crossing departmental boundaries with your eCommerce team

This is my 300th blog post!

So much is written about the strained relationship between IT and other business departments such as Marketing or Sales. Both departments want to achieve the same goal of creating a service for the customer.  Both departments want to be predictable in their service delivery. But they define predictability differently which is the basis for friction and a strained relationship.

For an eCommerce team the boundaries between departments are often strained because of estimated work effort, estimated costs, volume of work produced, and the velocity of work produced. Unfortunately all of these take the focus of the relationship away from the true goal to produce working software that provides a valuable solution to the customer (one in which the company should make money).boundarycrossing

Here are a few techniques that I have found to be valuable when approaching relationships with other departments in the business. Remember to always turn the conversation back to the ultimate goal.

Deliver smaller work units according to a regular cadence.
Build confidence by showing incremental progress towards solution delivery. The big bang approach to software delivery keeps the internal customers in the dark about how the final solution is progressing and creates a longer period of time before the customer can begin to use any of the solution.

I hear IT people say that it is tough to get business people involved in the process defining requirements. So I advise breaking the work into smaller units of work or a subset of the larger group of features. Show progress towards the goal and transform the discussion with the business owner to one of results rather than waiting. Business stakeholders are more open to conversations and supportive when they see progress along the way.

IT won’t be able to solve all the incoming requests.
Somewhere along the course of time the business units developed an expectation that anything they request will be completed and IT, or a smaller group like eCommerc, automatically assumes they must complete every request. But let’s face it, there are always more requests and ideas than the eCommerce team can implement. This is what leads to product roadmaps and backlogs.

Many people view IT as a large cost center to the business. Technology capital and labor is expensive. So shouldn’t the business want make sure that the team is working on items that will provide a return?  Let’s be real. Sales and Marketing are not able to solve all requests they get either, and many cases work with customers for work-arounds and alternative solutions.

Get agreement to this concept from department heads so that expectations are clear. Then get the department heads to be involved in the process of what work has the best forecast to move everyone towards the goal of returning investment back to the business. Mutual involvement, risk taking, and reward sharing is key.

When possible visit them in-person.
Strong Relationships are built in-person. When I want to discuss the priorities, schedule, or work-in-progress of the team I try to pay the business contact a personal visit. Yes, that means getting up and walking away from desk. It means not trying to live my business life completely in email. My experience is that the spoken word helps to achieve cohesion and unity with the business contact. It creates more of a bond and a feeling that you are solving the puzzle together.

Conflicts can be unlocked by finding your common goal.
Conflicts and differences of opinion are inevitable. There are many ways to solve conflicts but to create a good cross collaborative approach we need to focus on the common goal. For eCommerce teams and business owners that is to produce working software that provides a return on the investment (make money!).

I like the evaporating cloud technique for solving conflict. Answer these questions:

1. What do I want? What do they want? (precisely verbalize the conflict)
2. What need do I have that causes me to insist on that want? What need do they have that causes them to insist on their want?
3. What is the common objective?

Example:
The Conflict

  • Business – Get valid estimates upfront
  • eCommerce Team – Give valid estimates after all requirements are given

The need

  • Business – Give the customer feedback when the request can be completed and for what cost
  • eCommerce Team – Provide the best quality by knowing all of the requirements upfront

The common goal

  • Produce working software that provides a solution to the customer and return to the business.

Then challenge the assumptions in the middle and find ways invalidate the assumptions which will produce ways to break the conflict.  From my example, does the customer expect that the full project will be delivered in one piece? Can the customer take delivery in multiple pieces? For the eCommerce team does the customer know fully what they want and can they articulate it upfront?

At some point in the process an assumption may be proved false which will provide a way to unlock the conflict.

Three things I learned at Harland Clarke

I recently resigned my position at Harland Clarke and I am preparing to transition into a new role at Curtis 1000. I worked 15 years to the day at Harland and it was time well spent considering my professional development and growth during the time. As I reflected on the experience, I thought of the people and events that helped me to grow along the way. I compiled a memory book to share with fellow employees that showed a timeline of some of the team accomplishments and the people that worked to make it happen. My reflection revealed that the important stuff is always about people, relationships, and helping others to solve problems.

On a more personal level I want to document some of the business lessons that I learned while at Harland. There were many, but I think these three are very important because they are things that go beyond the boundaries of Harland Clarke. You may think these are obvious learnings or that they are common sense. But sometimes we have to live through experiences to come to the realization of just how important certain principles are to how people relate to each other. So I have a better appreciation for my learnings through experience.

1. It’s not about me.
My first week on the job with Harland I received my first set of goals and objectives from my boss. As with any new employee, I was eager to please and wanted to start the new position with some immediate successes. So I promptly set out to gather information and mobilize people. I sent an email to team members telling them what I needed and what I was expected to do.

There were two problems with this approach. First I used the pronoun ‘I’ all over the email. It was for my goals, my objectives, me, me , me. Second, I didn’t look at the greater context of the goals to see why they were important to the company and why they were important to the customers. I was only concerned about myself.

Someone on my team was kind enough to explain all this to me because I didn’t understand some of the resistance of other team members to help me. This changed my outlook and helped me to start looking for at bigger picture. It helped me to discover that’s it’s not about me.

2. The most successful leaders make a point to be visible.
When I think back to times when groups would rally around leaders, I think of former Harland CEO Tim Tuff who would sit with workers in the lunchroom and would visit workers at their desks. He didn’t have to do this, in fact I later learned he was more of an introvert by nature. But he did it to earn the respect of employees so that he could mobilize their work efforts towards the company goals. The employees liked Tim, because he was social, straight-forward, genuine, and visible. I’ve heard it said that companies that romance their employees often perform better because their employees will in turn romance their customers. Harland thrived during Tim’s years of leadership because he had strong business objectives and was able to rally employees to the cause.

Another leader that made an impact to the organization was Nicki Simmonds, a director in the Marketing organization for design, artistic work, and print production. It was not uncommon to see Nicki on the floor talking to designers and artists to provide assistance with job request. She wasn’t micro-managing, she was creating an environment where employees loved to contribute. One of Nicki’s team members once told me that she didn’t mind her long commute to work because she enjoyed the people at work and the environment. When employees like their team and the environment they live in, they will contribute and support the company. Successful leaders understand this.

3. Make your customer successful to make yourself successful.
There is a focus within the sales organization at Harland to provide solutions that help the client to solve their problem first. It’s the classic principle that is framed by the question “what problem are we trying to solve?” An example in the Harland environment for the checks programs was to lower the cost of program expenses and create more program profit for financial institutions. Helping the client with their objectives helps the business to create contracts and resign client contracts.

This idea is easy to understand, but not always easy to implement. In our own lives and during the course of business it is tempting to think of ourselves first. We don’t want to make unwise business decisions and operate at a level that is not profitable for our own company. But we should always work to solve problems for the client and understand their needs first. This is what makes partner organizations valuable and it’s what keeps business relationships alive.

The views expressed in this article belong to Bob Williams and do not reflect the views of Harland Clarke.

2 examples of business learning maturation in our culture

Two events on my schedule this week revealed to me a maturation of business learning in our culture. It’s pretty exciting for me to see these transformations, and I know they’ll continue to evolve in the future.

The first event was high school orientation for my daughter. She’s a rising freshman and we were invited into the local high school for a brief overview of the curriculum. What surprised me the most was the abundance of business related electives that are now available to students. At our local school there is a full department named Business Education. Some of the course areas include engineering, marketing, video production, and computer science. I don’t know which of these might appeal to my daughter yet, but it’s really great to see the options available. Kids can really benefit from this because they can try things in college to see if they have a passion for it. For my age group, we didn’t really try things until college. It can be an expensive decision to experiment with classes in college not only due to the class fees, but also because of any rework associated with changing majors.

The second event is one that I’ll be attending tomorrow called ProductCamp Atlanta. The website provides a good description of this that I’ll quote here:

ProductCampAtlanta is a collaborative, user organized professional conference, focused on Product Management and Marketing topics. At ProductCampAtlanta everyone participates in some manner: presenting, leading a discussion, showcasing a best practice, or sharing their experiences. Others help with logistics, securing sponsorships, organizing sessions, or setting up/cleaning up.  This is a self organizing collaborative event that is designed be a fun, rewarding and a unique experience.

The product camp follows on recent business book themes about Tribes and Crowdsourcing.  It’s different than traditional conferences because it’s not about vendor booths or sales pitches. It is about collaborative learning and knowledge share. I’m looking forward to spending the day with others in my tribe and sharing some thoughts and insights in my writings on this blog.