A Business Technology Place

The reality of now

Yes, but what about the reality of now?

I played that card recently in a conversation with a colleague while we were discussing his vision and objectives for a more efficient work flow. I hated to do it. But it’s something that can’t be ignored to sustain a healthy business. Business does need a vision. Business does need to look for continuous improvements. But business also needs to take care of the here-and-now. The customers see and feel the here-and-now. Customers make decisions about who they’ll partner with here-and-now. That’s the cash that funds the vision and future.

Steven Brown writes about focusing on problems over objectives in his book 13 Fatal Errors that Managers Make.  His point is that we can get pulled into spending most of our time on problems that influence a small amount of our overall productivity as a business.

Brown offers an illustration to show how successful managers use the environment and business conditions to work through problems while focusing on larger objectives. If someone finds themselves thrown off a boat that is some Swimming to Shoredistance from the shoreline then they will not succeed if they fight the water by thrashing or trying to swim too fast. In this manner they’ll surely lose all their energy and drown. They are fighting against their current environment and conditions. To successfully get to shore, the person will first float or tread water. This person is using the environment to sustain themselves while they determine a proper shoreline destination to swim to. At that point, they will move with measured pace towards the shoreline goal. In this, the successful swimmer uses the environment and conditions to achieve success. They work with their environment and not against it.

Can we use a problem filled environment to sustain our efforts?

I asked myself this question and thought through my experiences for a few examples. The answer is definitely yes:

Case #1

Problem: During a production system outage customers are unable to use systems to communicate and transact business.

Use the environment: Communicate clearly and frequently with customers about the situation rather than making excuses and placing blame. I have found that in times of service outages that customers appreciate knowing what has happened, when it started, the expected time to fix and what is happening to resolve it. No one is happy about a system outage, but customers tend to have a reasonable response if they are informed.

Overall Goal: Provide uninterrupted service to customers for system availability.

This is often expressed in terms of a service level agreement (SLA) or system uptime goal as a percentage of time. Get to the goal by focusing on what can be done and how the team is progressing to fix the situation rather than focusing on all the reasons for failure. There will be a time to examine the failures after service is restored.

Case #2

Problem: The programming and business teams are missing project delivery dates because they are stuck with a high number of “bugs” discovered during testing.

Use the environment: I have found that it is best to use the scope of the project as the decision matrix to determine how to treat software bugs. Use the original scope to communicate clearly with the business owner and classify bugs as “must haves” or “can be deferred”. Use the value of the current scope as an influencing factor to deliver a solution sooner to the business.

Overall Goal: Deliver the defined scope of the project to the business/customers to provide the stated value of the goal. This is often expressed in financial terms, efficiency gains, or additional features. Get to the goal by focusing on the scope to attain it and moving other benefits to future iterations of the project.

Is this the reality of now?

So what about the reality of now? It’s important. We can’t just completely punt and fight it. We have to use it, to help move towards our goals. When I first gave the answer to my colleague a few weeks ago I didn’t think about it in these terms. But the reality of now requires using the good, the bad, and the ugly of our current environment to get to our intended target. Think about that.

Onward and upward!


Photo credit: Instabeat.me

The distraction inside the annual performance review

Tis the season to be writing.

Annual performance reviews are upon us. It’s a topic that most employees I know loathe. They might even rank it up there with public speaking for most feared and disliked events in life. So last year I tried to give some practical advice on getting value from the annual review process. Most employees only have to write their own self-review whereas managers write multiple. But even so, many of the employees choose not to document information in a self-review. They supply the minimum amount of information necessary to check-off their requirement and wait for their manager’s assessment.

I told a group of co-workers this year that your self-review is a chance to be who you want to be. It was a fun play on words. I wasn’t saying to make up accomplishments, but rather that this was their opportunity to self-assess for their own personal growth as well as to highlight accomplishments that they felt were most significant. Paint your portrait.

Managers, are not immune to disliking the process either. Throughout my professional career, I’ve listened to managers complain about various elements of the process. The results are often reviews without much content or waiting until the last minute and rushing through the form. Unfortunately the employee is the one penalized if this happens because they deserve to have an honest assessment of their performance.

I’m certainly not perfect when it comes to performance reviews. I do value the intention of the process.  I do spend quite a bit of time working on them. But I also have weekly one-on-one meetings with my reporting staff. So communication is constant throughout the year. There is one thing that bugs me though…..

The distraction.

The ratings are a distraction to the review process. I know they are necessary and well intended because they provide a measurable result of achievement. But they typically take away from the meat of the review which is the qualitative feedback on an employee’s performance during the year.Performance-Review-Questions

Through the years I’ve see multiple types of rating scales from the HR form. The consistent thing is that employee expectations and the definition of the HR scale don’t agree which is what creates the distraction. Employees think of the scale as if they were in school. The highest rating is equivalent to an A. The rating associated with “you did your job as expected” is thought of as a C.  The creators of the scale and HR have the mindset that if you tell an employee they have done their job fully that it’s a good thing. So most employees should have this rating. The psychology of “meets expectations” vs “exceeds expectations” could be it’s own blog topic.  But it’s not the upper end of the scale I want to explore.

What about “partially meets expectations”?

When the rating is for an objective that is associated to a project that didn’t complete or a metric that was was not achieved, is it OK to give a rating of “partially meets expectations”? Or would that offend the employee and send a message that they don’t work hard enough? For much of my career, I would list all the reasons why the project wasn’t completed. On some occasions, I would even ask that a goal be removed if the business made intentional decisions during the course of the year to allocate labor to other projects.  I think these are good steps as a way to document and discuss.

In more recent years, I’ve been prone to rate myself as “partially meets expectations” when I don’t deliver goals that were written and agreed to. I’ve reached a point in my career where I’m comfortable raising my hand and saying that I didn’t accomplish the goal that we set to out to complete at the beginning of the year. But not everyone can do that. Not everyone is happy with a rating like that either. People react negatively to such a rating. They attribute it to failure and that they didn’t care.

But goals should be challenging to meet right?

If we achieve or exceed all our goals each year then have we set the measuring bar too low? If we don’t fail on some projects then are we learning as much as we should? Do we learn more from failures than success?

In my mind, having a couple of “partially meets” ratings is not necessarily a negative thing. It signifies we created a stretch goal. It signifies we may have failed and learned. It signifies we may have made decisions to allocate our time different than what we originally expected to do. Or it could be as simple as we bit off more than we could chew. Whatever the case, let’s have the emotional maturity to admit it and discuss it. Then it’s time to learn, re-rack, and start again in the new year.

What are you known for?

What’s your vision for IT?

I was asked to answer that question in a group meeting.  I didn’t think for long about it because I knew the answer.

“My vision is for IT to be known for service and solutions over processes.”

In my 20+ years as an IT professional I have learned that IT is obsessed with processes.  ITIL, Agile, and ISO 27001 are some of the process visionstandards that come to mind. They all have good intention and reason for being.  That is, they exist to make IT services predictable, repeatable, and delivered at the highest quality standard.  Yes! We certainly need more of that.

Then the disconnect happens.

IT gets disconnected from customers when the process becomes the goal.  This shows itself in many forms. Works comes to a halt because a form wasn’t filled-out. The helpdesk won’t help a customer because they don’t use an approved browser.  A software update doesn’t get applied because it didn’t make the cut-off for inclusion in the change control committee.  These types of examples start to happen when IT employees are more concerned with checking a box or filling in a template than they are in understanding the business problem that needs a solution.

This isn’t a good position to be in because the process starts to overshadow the service and solution that IT is providing.  The customer is concerned with finding a solution and receiving service. Do customers love Chick-fil-A, Disney, and Apple because of their processes? Certainly not. The average customer isn’t even aware of the internal processes of these popular brands. What the average customer does see are organizations that provide a set of services in such a way that the service and solution put the customer in the foreground.

Back to my vision.

So my vision is for IT to come to the table as a solution provider, not a process enforcer. I’m not critical of the process, because the process exists with a good purpose. What I am critical of is when the process is used as an excuse to stop focusing on solutions. I am critical when the following the process is becomes bigger than the customer. The ultimate solution is not what IT thinks is best, but what solves a problem or need for the customer.

It is possible for processes to peacefully coexist in high service environment. Have you ever noticed how fast the Chick-fil-A drive through line is? But to get there requires a change in mindset.  It’s a mindset that starts with wanting to make the customer successful.  It’s a mindset that finds joy in solving problems.  It’s a mindset that finds compromise as an acceptable alternative. I believe that when the service and the solution are the forefront, the process takes care of itself.

That’s my vision. What’s yours? What do you want to be known for?

The brevity of celebrations

We celebrated my daughter’s high school graduation this week. After weeks of preparation for the party we hosted, attending a few others parties, and the graduation ceremony, I reached a point of exhaustion. I proclaimed that I officially had ‘graduation fatigue’.

As I Reflected on the entire set of events, I was drawn to the abruptness of the closure of a life moment and the movement towards a new life chapter. Graduation celebrations are the culmination of years of study and experiences. We celebrate the achievements in a few hours and then it’s over. Reflection on the past and any self introspection we do is quickly replaced with planning for new life events.

Then I realized that business and software projects are the same way. We celebrate milestones and project completions and then return to work quickly to think about and plan the next big goal. Projects can be both long in duration and/or complex in solutioning and delivery. In contrast, the celebrations, while important, are usually quick and to the point.

There’s no time to stop and the journey of life and business don’t stop when the final class or most recent project ends. Life and business move on to the next chapter, the next step, the next phase. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.” It’s a reflective thought talking about successive steps in a journey. Life, after all, is a journey. We don’t truly stop moving. But we can pause to celebrate. Let’s do celebrate. It makes the journey worthy of the steps.

The thought for a rover employee

The Big Picture
One of the main functions of a technology officer is to align the organization to grow revenue while at the same time reducing expenses and providing customer service. Thinking about the big picture of profitability and operating efficiencies is like looking at a pile of legos and having the vision to know what an organization can build with them. A popular business idea is to “build with the end in mind.” That’s the big picture. It is more of a journey than a destination. .

Painting the Big Picture
But what about the day-to-day activities in a technology environment? How do organizations do the work to paint the big picture one stroke at a time? I don’t believe in a one set answer or script for operational activities. I do believe that as with the marketing, technology processes and steps have an element of try, measure, and adjust in them. In practice, we want to align the activities with the greater goals of revenue growth and cost efficiencies.

Helping the people behind the technology
This past week I met with team members in my company to understand how work flows into, through, and out of their departments. As each team member shared the work flow with me they pointed out areas where technology solutions could help to make their jobs more efficient. I couldn’t help but see that it is on the front line where small changes can help make big differences in customer service and work throughput. Good customer service ultimately yields repeat customers which then yields the bigger goal of increased revenue. Increasing work throughput creates efficiencies which helps the bigger goal to reduce costs.

The challenge is that the bigger projects and tasks often compete and win the time-share with technology team members. So how do we align and justify shared technology resources with smaller process oriented projects? How do we align shared technology resources with other employees in the organization that are on the front line with customers or that need help making their work areas more efficient?

What about a rover employee?Rover
In my professional experience I have seen some organizations solve this through time allocation. For example try to align technology team members with 70% of their time on projects, 20% on smaller tasks, and 10% administrative activities. In theory this type of resource allocation helps to keep some areas from starving while at the same time spending the greatest effort on the most impactful activities. What usually happens is the larger projects become resource hogs and almost 100% of the team’s time.

In softball with 10 players, the defense will use the 10th fielder as a rover. The rover positions themselves in a different location of the field depending on the batter. So they become a flexible player that helps the defense by working in multiple areas.

What would happen if organizations could create a rover employee with the job assignment to meet with inter-company departments to help identify, solve, or champion projects that create automated workflows? Could a position like this pay for itself by creating enough efficiencies that it drives more cost out of the organization than it costs to fund the position? Could the position identify many activities that could be solved without custom programming or large projects?

What would happen if an employee could spend two weeks in each department learning their processes and then working with them to automate those processes. How knowledgeable of the business would this employee be at the end of moving through each department and what type of leadership would this employee now be able to offer?

Could it work? Would it work?