Communication – a lesson I learned in Starbucks of all places

Sitting I Starbucks a Saturday or so ago having a quiet coffee and reading the paper. It was the last place I was expecting to learn this lesson. A group of 6 young kids (ages ranging from about 4 to 6) and their mothers came in to the store, pushing and shoving and generally having fun as kids do. The striking thing about this group though is that every single person had a hearing impairment including the adults.

The thing that struck me was that if they wanted to “talk” to someone they had to establish eye contact. Because of this everyone paid attention to each other and the conversations were clear and concise. There were no misunderstandings in regard to what was expected, what each of them wanted or indeed how they felt.

In this day and age where communication is becoming more and more remote with less and less face to face interaction it made me sit up and take notice. I’ve lost count of the times over the last 6 months where email or IM communications have spiralled out of control over a subject or situation that could have, should have and ultimately were resolved by having a 5 minute face to face conversation.

There is a clarity of purpose and intent that can be conveyed in a look or the tone of the voice that is absent in written material. Without this the effort needed to gain the same clarity goes up exponentially with the complexity of the subject.

So next time you find yourself on your third email explanation of something “simple” maybe it’s time to pick up the phone, or better yet get up and go talk to them?

Big Data & Data Visualisation

When talking to people about data related projects I have started noticing that it doesn’t take long to get on to the topic of Big Data. It’s a subject that is getting a lot of press at the moment so that’s not too surprising.

The thing that I am finding surprising is that few of those I have been talking to make the connection between Big Data and Data Visualisation. To them the talk is all about the “Three V’s” (Velocity, Variety and Volume) that define big data. My question, once we have covered the ground of how do we cater for and handle the three V’s, is what about the fourth V, Visualisation?

From where I stand it’s all well and good being able to stuff data into a cleverly designed warehouse at an ever increasing rate. But what is the point in that if all you do is pull it out in static, flat one dimensional reports? To make the data really useful and come alive you really need to make it tell a story in a dynamic and visually appealing way. The message you are trying to convey should jump off the screen at the user and at the same time lead them to zero in on the the good AND the bad news.

These days there are an increasing number of tools that allow you to this with varying degrees of flexibility, complexity, functionality and naturally cost. All you have to do is think about how to make it easy for people to get at the information they need through the overwhelming volumes of data (to them) that is available.

The Trouble with Metrics

Over the years I have worked on a number of back office system projects. Typically they projects are aimed at delivering either cost savings or performance improvements (or optimistically both). Naturally management are eager to monitor and calculate how much of each is achieved. To that end they look to set up a number of measurements that will show the level of uptake, throughput, cost per unit etc.

When the system is designed to make it easier for someone to do their job you would expect that their productivity would increase… Makes sense right? But it’s not alway the case. For example implementing a system that makes it easier for a sales rep to capture the client details, record conversations and track follow up actions will only increase the productivity of the rep if their job doesn’t require them to meet the client face to face. It would be pointless therefore trying to measure the benefit of the new system and the performance of the rep on the basis of the number of phone calls the rep makes each day. If you do then the result of that will be to encourage sales reps to sit at a desk and make phone calls. Not a good result when what you really want from them is to be generating new sales and building relationships with clients so that they become repeat customers.

Therein likes the problem with metrics… Get them right and they will be able to tell you a story of how your business is performing, identify areas for improvement and highlight those activities that are contributing to good performance. Get them wrong and they have the unintended consequence of influencing peoples behaviour toward irrelevant tasks that should not be their focus.

A classic example of this is the UK government target that no patient should wait more than 2 days to see a doctor. The result… When you ring up to make an appointment many doctors won’t allow you to make an appointment that is more than 2 days in the future as it will distort their statistics. Additionally if there are no appointments available you have to ring back the next day in order to make an appointment for 2 days in the future (rinse and repeat until you get in early enough to beat the rush). They do this as the government is not interested in how many people are unable to make an appointment on their first, second, third (or more) attempt. But I’m almost certain this was not the behaviour that the government was trying to encourage. It’s just the unintended consequence of a poorly thought out and defined metric.

So when determining what metrics should be used to measure performance, you must determine (either for yourself or your client/customer):

  1. is the metric relevant (to the job and/or system)
  2. what behaviour is use of the metric likely to encourage (and is that what you want to happen)
  3. is the information the metric conveys actionable
  4. what are you going to do with the information

If the answer to any of the above is negative then it’s probably not the right metric to be using. On the bright side though, being able to identify this will make you look good and help avoid some of the post implementation pitfalls that beset many projects.

Project (Outputs) v Programme Management (Outcomes)

Having a discussion a week or two back with the head of a PMO and the idea of whether I would like to take on a large project with great travel perks (e.g 2-3 trips to Australia next year). After some serious thought I had to turn it down. Why? I suddenly realised that I am no longer a Project Manager. Sure I still know how to manage projects and don’t think those skills ever go away. Actually I still use most of them daily. The difference is in my focus. It has been a gradual shift over a couple of years from output to outcome, from project to programme manager.

What do i mean by that? Well, as a project manager your focus is on the outputs of the project, the requirements, the designs and the end product being delivered to the client. This doesn’t change no matter what industry you work in. As a programme manager you don’t focus on those things. I’m not saying they aren’t important, they are. It’s just that its not the right focus for a programme manager.

A programme manager has to focus on the value that is being delivered to the client often through multiple interrelated (sometimes very loosely) projects. A project manager does not normally have the time to dedicate to the co-ordination of these projects and nor should they as it only distracts them from their job at hand.

A programme manager should also act as the first point of escalation for those things that can’t be resolved within the project, e.g. Resource contention between projects is quite frequently a blocker for a project that needs outside intervention to clear. If its between two projects in the same programme the programme manager can make the call. If the other project is outside of the programme then the programme manager can negotiate with the business to have the priority set and the impact (on time & cost) accepted or to argue the need for additional resource. This frees up the project manager to concentrate on delivering.

A programme manager will employ most of the skills used in project management, negotiation, planning, diplomacy and creativity (it’s not all about MS Project!) so a good grounding in project management is beneficial. However, as I said above a, programme is all about the value to the business and as such is not bound to a methodology. Indeed various methodologies can be employed within a single programme. It’s a case of what ever fits the project best, the only concern for the programme manager should be that the end product delivers the expected value to the business. The rest is down to the project manager.

The Innovation Engine

Innovation used to be the preserve of the small agile company that is able to develop a new technology or product, bring it to market quickly, disrupt the status quo and in doing so make a huge impact. Now that is becoming less and less the case as large companies are looking for ways to foster innovation within.

These days when you ask someone to name an innovative company Apple would be the first to spring to mind for most. While, without doubt, they make products that people want to use, most are re-interpretations of products that already exist; mobile/smart phones, laptops, desktop computers, MP3 players to name a few. The one true exception to this is the iPad. In it they created a device that created an entirely new class of device. Previous tablets were simply touch enabled laptops that were hamstrung by being dual purpose machines with a short battery life. Weighing in at about 3kg (more if you add the power supply and an extra battery) meant they were anything but easy to lug around.

The iPad aside Apple’s real innovation has been their principle of keeping designs simple while also being at the cutting edge of hardware. Simple in form, simple in function, simple to use. Before I go any further I should point out that simple should not be confused with basic or limited. There are definite limitations in products like the iPad and iPhone; the lack of an onboard expansion port or USB connector are the examples most often cited. But this is all in keeping with the above principle.

Apple is not the only large company that is looking to innovate, both Google and Microsoft are doing so as are the likes of Boeing and Airbus with their greener planes,

So how are these companies achieving this? In part by acquiring the innovators and absorbing their technology and in part by leveraging their scale and reach to develop new ways of working and engaging with their customers. This HBR ARTICLE shows how one company has just that to take a decisive advantage in the Indian market.

So the challenge for the rest of us is to see where similar opportunities lie within our organisations to do something different with the core competencies of the company and as a result give the customer something that is new and exciting. It could be as simple (conceptually at least) as creating a portal whereby they can access a data subscription in a self serve manner rather than you shipping the data to them.

The lesson to learn from this is that spirit of innovation does not need to be lost as a company grows. This article looks at how a company can maintain that spirit while it grows and also how one that may have lost its way can find the path again.

I believe that no matter what, the key to innovation is to be found in how a company values its employees. One that has them at the core of what it does is much better placed to have them act as the innovative engine room that will drive the company on to success after success.

BYOD – Just the tablet/smartphone or should it be something more

With all the talk and hype around BYOD(Bring Your Own Device) the focus is squarely on the hardware and primarily tablet and smart phones. But what about other devices, a mouse, keyboard, a laptop or indeed the software that you need or use to make yourself more productive? Is it the responsibility of your employer to provide it? Or do you like to use your own?

Personally I like my employer to provide the basics, a desk, chair, phone and laptop (if they have a locked down environment) with the essential productivity tools of the PM trade (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Project) and Email. Beyond that all I ask is that they allow or facilitate the installation of other tools that I have a valid licence for or an open source equivalent.

This comes from a lesson learned way back when I was a junior code monkey (thats a programmer for those of you that aren’t from an IT background). I worked with a contractor who seemed to be able to do things in hours that would take the rest of us days or even weeks. I cornered him at a post release celebration one night and asked him how he did it. His tip… If you know of something out there that will make you more productive use it. it doesn’t matter if its a better mouse, keyboard or a piece of utility software. Even if you have to pay for it yourself it’s worth it in the long run. Think of them like a builder thinks of his tools. A good tradesman will use the best tools he can afford as that allows him to work quickly and efficiently, maximising the amount of work he can do and therefore money he can earn. Would you want a builder to use the cheapest tools he can find? Or would you prefer that he use precision tools that are robust and reliable? Having a retired builder for a father I knew he was right.

Since then I have built up a software library that I look to leverage to what ever extent my employer/ client will permit. Some have an aversion to the use of 3rd party tools in their development or to installing open source software within their environment. But thanks to the BYOD phenomena, these days more and more are opening up to the idea and realising that productivity is what’s matters most.

These days my productivity kit bag includes an iPad, mouse, phone, various portable storage devices and cloud based services such as Office 365 and GoTo Meeting. This kit is evolving and as I find new, better and (sometimes) cheaper ways to do things I will replace the older less productive tools. This may be a mindset difference between the contractor and the permanent employee but I truly believe that I have a responsibility to my employer to be as productive as possible.

So far this is a philosophy that has has served me well with every contract being extended past the initial engagement.

The Collaborative Leader

In the digital age of instant communication it is becoming more and more critical to get connected and stay connected. This applies not only in the technology sense but also professionally. For today’s leader (regardless of level) this is a bit of a no-brainer. However, what is not usually thought of is how to leverage this connectivity in day to day activity. According to a new HBR white paper a collaborative leader does four things well in a hyper connected business:

  1. make global connections that help them spot opportunities
  2. engage diverse talent from everywhere to produce results
  3. collaborate at the top to model expectations
  4. show a strong hand to speed decisions and ensure agility

For the modern leader to be successful they have to broaden their networks beyond the boundaries of their organisation and industry to engage with those from as many backgrounds as possible. Better yet they should look at bringing people into their organisation from other industries as the diversity of experience will promote discussion and innovation.

Sounds like commons sense to me… But then again there’s nothing common about it. Human nature means that we tend to gravitate toward and collaborate with those around us who are of a similar disposition, background and experience. While this makes life comfortable for us it does have a tendency to stifle innovation.

I think the key thing to remember is that consensus and collaboration are not the same thing. Collaboration is a way of a bringing diverse group together with the aim of developing and exploring new ideas and identifying those that are feasible. The ultimate decision on what to implement is left with the leader. The result can be an environment where innovation thrives and progress is rapid.

Seeking Consensus would mean bring together a group of stakeholders all with a different vested interest and attempting to get them to look at new ways of doing things and then to agree on which of those ideas should be pursued. Here the leader has little power or authority in the decision making process and has to use influence and compromise to get a decision.

Control the Conversation – really?!

A colleague I met recently at a conference has an interesting take on how to get what you need out of a conversation while acknowledging that you can’t actually control the conversation. Why can’t you control a conversation? Well it comes down to the obvious really… For it to be a conversation it has to be a two way dialogue otherwise it’s just a set of instructions being delivered to the other person. Engagement is crucial.

But to get what you need you can start with 5 simple steps:

  1. Determine what success looks like.
  2. Think how you might get there and who can help.
  3. Create an environment that will enable and accelerate the process.
  4. Decide how to behave.
  5. Take a deep breath and say, “Hello”.

Be sure to include a healthy dose of respect for the other opinions that come through in the conversation as you might really learn something out of them.

You can find the full post here

A new player bringing Hadoop and Big Data to the massess

The Microsoft SQL Server team is not the only group looking to ​bring Big Data to the masses. Datameer has a desk top version of its eponymously titled 2.0 release that is shipping for $299 and a workgroup server for $2999. Unlike the MS solution this one doesn’t use Hive as the connector to the Hadoop MapReduce interface.

This now looks like Hadoop can scale in any direction. For more details check out the Big Data blog on ZDNet:;content

The ten signs of a deteriorating vendor relationship – part 5

This is the final installment of the series around vendor relationships and the signs to look out for if you think things are not going well. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and even found some of it useful.

9. You can’t ask the vendor a question without them responding with a legal argument.

This is a sure sign that things are not going well with the vendor. If the standard response to a query, even a simple one, is a reference to contractual terms and conditions or agreed items for delivery then you have a real issue on your hands. Probably best to get out before your respective legal teams have to get involved. Alternatively engage your legal department and get them involved sooner rather than later.


10. It costs more to develop offshore than in house.

It pays to understand how many resources you would need to do the work in house and how long it would take. You can then compare this against any cost quoted by the vendor. In most cases the actual cost of outsourcing to an offshore vendor will work out to be around 90 per cent of that internal cost. If your vendor is well over this figure either you have under estimated the complexity of the project or they simply don’t understand what it is you are trying to achieve. Either way something is wrong and you need to work quickly to understand what that is. If it’s the latter then once you are sure it’s not your communications efforts, be wary, as continuing a project with a vendor that does not grasp the project, is a disaster waiting to happen.