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Author: Adrian Reed

Adrian Reed is a true advocate of the analysis profession. In his day job, he acts as Principal Consultant and Director at Blackmetric Business Solutions where he provides business analysis consultancy and training solutions to a range of clients in varying industries. He is a Past President of the UK chapter of the IIBA® and he speaks internationally on topics relating to business analysis and business change. Adrian wrote the 2016 book ‘Be a Great Problem Solver… Now’ and the 2018 book ‘Business Analyst’ You can read Adrian’s blog at http://www.adrianreed.co.uk and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/UKAdrianReed

Prints, Processes, and Pitfalls: More Than Just Process Design!

I was recently planning the logistics of an upcoming client workshop. I needed 12 copies of a document printed and spiral bound, and I visited the website of a printing company that we’ve used many times before for such tasks. The website had changed, and unfortunately I couldn’t complete the order.  For some reason the website was saying it couldn’t deliver to my address.

 

I’m pretty sure I know why this is.  I live in Portsmouth, on the South Coast of the UK, and to the uninitiated, some Portsmouth postal codes look similar to postal codes used on the Isle of Wight. I suspect some courier firms don’t deliver to the Isle of Wight (or charge extra as it’s an island with no roads connecting it to the mainland). This leads to some online sites (incorrectly) lumping some or all of the post codes together and tag them as an ‘exception’.  This is really, really, bad design, but it definitely happens.

I was trying to place the order on a weekend, so I waited until Monday and went to contact the company by phone. I tried to phone shortly after 9, and then again at 9.30, and then again at 9.45. No reply.  So, even though I’d used this company many times in the past, I just moved on to another supplier. And in fact, I’ll probably use this new supplier in the future, too. So the original printing supplier has lost a customer and it doesn’t even know that. Plus, it missed the opportunity to get feedback about the defect on their website… I wonder how many other cities/postal codes are affected? How many other sales are being routinely lost?

 

Considering The Customer’s Pivotal Moments In Process Design

As a business analyst, this experience made me think about process and operational design. While the example above was an example of bad design, it is impossible to design an IT system, interface or process that truly caters for every situation, nor (in most situations) would you usually want to. Sure, some call centers might have a process which defines the detailed steps to take if the President of the United States calls from a satellite phone while onboard Air Force One and asks for a message to be passed urgently to the CEO… but not many!

The point here is that there will be certain types of situations that are:

 

  • Predictable, but very unlikely and/or uniquely complicated
  • Difficult (or impossible) to predict, with unknown levels of likelihood or complexity
  • Unintended, where with the best will in the world (and lots of testing) still something unexpected has happened which has led to an unintended consequence

 

The first set (predictable) are deliberately not fully catered for by a process as they are either so unlikely that spending time specifying them is overkill, or they are so uniquely complicated that anything beyond broad guidelines can’t be issued. I’d imagine that large companies have a “respond to media request” process which ensures that any inquiry from a TV station or newspaper gets to the right person. The broad process will be structured, and the response will likely be logged in a consistent way. However, how the response is formulated is probably somewhat variable, and more likely subject to guidelines and principles than a strict process. Responding to a request for a photo of the CEO to accompany a “top 10 CEOs” article is likely to be somewhat different to responding to notification that a documentary will be airing showing evidence of corruption within the company!

 

The second set of (difficult or impossible to predict) conditions can’t be catered for as they are unknown, or the effort of trying to predict them is so great that it is prohibitive.  The final set (unintended consequences) are, by their nature, unpredicted! The key here is to find them when they occur and rectify not just the individual case, but the root causes. Taking my printing example, had I got through to the first printing company, I suspect they’d have quoted me via phone and manually processed the order. Great—except the website is still faulty and swathes of other customers might be affected. Understanding what needs to change to prevent the issue happening again is key.

 

So, what aspects can be considered when designing customer journeys, IT systems and/or processes to cater for these types of situations?

 

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Flexibility, Feedback and Responsiveness are Key Factors

Assuming an organization wants to handle these types of cases, it’s key to design processes with feedback mechanisms built in. Feedback should of course include opportunities for customer or user feedback, but it can also include feedback generated by the process itself.

Take the printing company example I mentioned earlier. As a nationwide printing firm, they are almost certainly finding that there’s been a minor drop in Sales (Portsmouth is a relatively big city, but probably not big enough that the drop in printing sales would ring any warning bells) and the distribution of where they are sending parcels has changed. A curious analyst diving into the data might say “hmmm, it’s odd, there are entire cities where we are no longer sending parcels… maybe we should look into that”.  Making sure diagnostic data is captured and examined is important, and this is so much more than just performance data.

It’s also important to ensure there’s a viable support option and, yes, this does usually mean ensuring someone can speak to (or communicate somehow with) a human being when they need to! That support person or team needs to have sufficient autonomy and be empowered to raise issues for investigation. A team that just “raises tickets” and passes them on to others is unlikely to cut it.

 

Finally, it’s important to note that processes will need to change and this should be expected. Building in responsiveness to the environment is important. Expectations will change, the way people communicate will change and so forth. By designing processes with this in mind, and ensuring they are owned, reviewed and adapted when needed, is a small but important step towards agility.  As BAs, we can often nudge towards this way of thinking, and every step in the right direction is a good thing!

 

 

Editing for Success: Applying Hollywood Wisdom to Projects

I’ve long been a believer that a good movie is 90 – 120 minutes long. Sure, there’s the occasional storyline that can keep my attention for longer than that, but generally speaking after a couple of hours I’m getting pretty restless. One of the reasons I rarely go to the movie theater these days is that films seem to be getting longer and longer, and unlike watching at home I can’t press ‘pause’ in the theater!

 

It turns out that I’m not alone. Celebrated film director Sir Ridley Scott, who directed films including Alien, Gladiator and Blade Runner recently spoke about the ‘bum ache’ (‘butt ache’) factor of films. Too long sitting down and apparently movie-goers will get uncomfortable, and this is something that he takes account of in his editing. A classic case of “less is more”, and a director being empathetic to his audience.

 

Less Is More

I know virtually nothing about movie production, but I’m guessing that it is probably technically easier to produce and distribute a long film than it was, say, 40 years ago. I gather that in the past films came on multiple spools, all of which had to be physically duplicated and distributed. Apparently since the early 2000s, films have been distributed digitally to theaters. With fewer constraints, you could have a ten hour film if you really wanted it.

Yet being unconstrained isn’t a good thing. I’m guessing few people are lining up to watch the ten hour film “Paint Drying” (which is a real film, but was a protest against the cost of censorship). The fact that it’s possible to do something because a constraint is removed doesn’t mean that it’s actually a good thing to do. Sometimes constraints can foster creativity.

 

From Hollywood To Projects: Time As A Constraint

I’m guessing that you probably don’t work on Hollywood movies, but there’s a direct parallel with projects here. After all, a Hollywood movie brings together a collection of specialists for a period of time to create a deliverable that will generate benefits for its sponsor… which sounds strongly analogous to a project!

One constraint that you and I probably come up against frequently is time.  There never seems to be enough, and time is always the thing being squeezed. It is easy to become somewhat jaded to this, and either just accept the deadline (but implicitly know that it’ll never be met) or rally against it.

Certainly, calling out unrealistic deadlines is an important thing to do. Yet, in some circumstances an alternative approach is to test the constraint and see how it balances against others.

 

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Let’s imagine that a sponsor has set a deadline of 1st January for the launch of a product or project deliverable. We feel there’s a risk that this is an arbitrary deadline, so we start to tactfully ask “if it was two weeks later, but 10% cheaper, would that be beneficial?”.  If the sponsor says “Absolutely, yes!” then we know that they probably value the budget over a fixed deadline.  Or we might ask “How about we delivered it on that date, but the quality was lower?”. They might answer “No! Absolutely not”, at which point we know quality is paramount. We might ask these types of questions about all sorts of things, including scope, timeframe, deliverables, style of delivery and so on.

What we’re doing here is understanding which are hard constraints that genuinely can’t change (or, there would be a significantly negative impact of breaching) and those that can potentially bend. Not achieving regulatory compliance by a mandated date, where the regulator is strict and there’s a significant fine, might be an example of a hard deadline. It’s better to pay more now, and dedicate more resources to ensure compliance. Other things which appear to be constraints might be more malleable.

 

Product Management and Business Analysis as Film Editing

Once the hard constraints are identified, it’s tempting to be deflated. Rarely are we dealing with a situation where there’s too much time, resources and budget. Yet another way of looking at this is to think about the movie theater experience… sometimes less is more. Much as an ambitious scriptwriter might have a scene cut because it’s not essential to the story (or the location is too expensive to hire), we can ‘edit’ elements of a project or product in or out.

This probably sounds obvious, I mean scoping and prioritization is crucial. Yet, too often scoping and prioritization are carried out somewhat in isolation. It’s easy to end up with an incoherent set of features, or (worse) to find that only the person who shouts the loudest gets what they want…

 

If we reframe this as a process of ‘editing’, then we are keeping in mind the coherence and desirability of the product as a whole. Imagine asking twenty people for their favorite ever scenes in movies. Perhaps one mentions a scene from Wargames, another from the Barbie movie, another from Love Actually and so on.  Now imagine making a film out of these ‘best’ scenes… it wouldn’t make any sense.  The same can be true of a product too. If the features aren’t coherent it can become somewhat of a Frankenstein’s monster that is difficult to use and doesn’t really serve any single purpose well.

Another thing about editing is that it involves compromises and making difficult decisions. I’d guess actors probably hate having their biggest scene cut. And script writers probably hate being told they can’t have that on-location scene in Barbados due to budgetary cuts. But, it is the editing that means that the film makes money (achieves its financial outcomes) while also providing an experience that the consumer wants (achieving another of its core purposes).

 

I suspect this is a balance that we all tread on our projects and products, and bringing it to the fore and making tradeoffs transparently and purposefully can only be a good thing!

Beyond the Finish Line: Understanding the Art of Value Enablement

We recently needed some repair work done to the roof of our house, so called some local roofing firms. Understandably, roofers don’t always answer their phones immediately (I guess they are often out on site working), so we left voicemails for three different roofers.

Out of the voicemails we left, only two of the roofers replied. Both came round, inspected the roof, and explained what needed to be done. They both said they had availability and would send over a quote showing how much the work would cost. However, only one of the roofers actually sent a quote. We accepted the quote and I’m pleased to say that the work is now complete.  But this got me thinking about business, business analysis, and value-enablement more generally.

 

Close, But Stopped Short

Let’s examine the approaches that the different roofers took. The first one didn’t reply. We might argue that this is bad customer service, but if they knew they were busy and had no shortage of business, then not replying might be an acceptable thing to do. It might not be a good long-term approach, but it doesn’t waste any of my time or their time. So while I might have preferred them to drop over a quick reply, I can understand why they didn’t.

The roofer who I really don’t understand is the one who came out, inspected the roof, but didn’t follow up with an estimate. They were so close to actually getting the work, but they failed because they didn’t carry out the final task. They’d spent time (and gas) driving out to see the roof, only to implicitly ‘give up’ by not following up. I found this really puzzling!

 

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When Is Value Enabled?

This led me to think about value in a broader context, and I think it has some interesting parallels with business analysis. The roofer did all the work to potentially enable some value for him (payment) and for me (a fixed roof), but stopped just before a crucial moment.

In a project or product context, usually we are building (or changing) something with the purpose of enabling value for a range of stakeholders. The value that is enabled may vary for each stakeholder group. A retail bank releasing an app might provide convenience for its customers, while also saving money (and increasing profit) for its shareholders. For the app to be a success, it needs to balance the different perspectives on value. If it’s inconvenient, or hard to use, it’ll backfire—it might actually increase the number of times people call the call center, meaning operational costs increase. Knowing what different groups value is important so that this balance can be struck.

Yet as well as knowing what value can be enabled, it’s important to know when that happens and what the precursors are. Imagine a bank released a self-service banking app but didn’t advertise it to its customers. Sure, some early adopters might find it in the app store, but there would be a range of people who would use it if they knew about it that probably aren’t actively looking for it. Delivering the app without a communications and engagement plan alongside might end up being similar to the roofer who didn’t send a quote… it stops just short of the line for value enablement.

 

Finding The Finish Line

It is worth fostering discussions over what needs to happen not just for a product or project to be delivered, but what needs to happen for value to be enabled. It is too easy to stop just short of the finish line and declare success prematurely. “On time” and “on budget” are important aspects, but “on strategy” and “on benefit” are things that make a long-term difference. In the fog of urgency, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of these.

As James Clear comments in his book Atomic Habits, there’s an old saying that “the last mile is the least crowded”. Perhaps that’s just as true in a project and product context, and by focusing on the last mile and cultivating conversations about value we can help achieve better results for our stakeholders and communities. And surely that’s worthwhile?

 

Secure or Sorry: From Gym Lockers to Cybersecurity

I’m a member of a local gym, and a few weeks ago I noticed that they were maintaining the lockers in the changing rooms. The lockers are pretty standard metal boxes, and members bring their own padlocks for added security.

I’d noticed for months that the latch mechanisms had been getting very loose, so I was glad to see maintenance happening. The staff member doing the maintenance was chatting to another member, and I overheard him say that there had been a whole series of thefts the previous week. Accordingly, they were ramping up security, including turning on the keycode lock on the changing rooms (members each have a PIN code which can be used to access the facilities, but was usually switched off during the day).

I suddenly felt a real perception of risk, to the point that I decided not to leave my house keys in the locker, but take them with me onto the gym floor. I’m now even more cautious when closing my padlock, to make sure it’s properly secure.

 

The Horse Had Left The Stable

While all of those personal security measures are useful, the gym (and I) were only prompted to review our security posture after an incident had occurred. The thieves had probably long gone, and had moved onto a different gym. Perhaps they even tour the country, buying day passes, finding the gyms with weak security. Who knows.  Not only this, but the gym had increased its security, so my possessions were probably the safest they’d ever been. Yet I felt the most uncomfortable I ever had.

Ironically, the time I was most at risk (the previous week, when security was lapse and thieves were at the gym) I was blissfully unaware, the risk wasn’t particularly on my radar. I may have been happily running on a treadmill at the very moment a thief was breaking into a locker and stealing someone’s property.

This pattern of the gym increasing security after an incident occurred might be seen as a classic case of ‘closing the stable door after the horse had bolted’.  However, it’s not that simple—reacting to a security threat after an incident occurred is still valuable, as it will prevent a similar thing from happening again.  I suppose it is more akin to closing the door after one of your three horses has bolted. Not as good as closing the door earlier, but better than continuing to leave it open…

 

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Predictable With 20/20 Hindsight

The thing which struck me about the locker thefts is that it was completely predictable with hindsight. The latch mechanisms on some lockers were so loose it’s easy to see how they could be overcome. Not only this, a culture of trustworthiness (which is lovely) had emerged. People would leave their expensive coats out, and some people wouldn’t even use padlocks at all.

As my father used to say “it only takes one bad apple”.  And as time goes on, it seems statistically likely that the bad apple will emerge.

 

It’s Not Just Lockers: Information & Cybersecurity

This pattern of trustworthiness and complacency doesn’t just exist in gyms, it can also be an issue within organizations.  If you haven’t had a data breach, then security of data might seem an irritating formality, or it might not feel as ‘real’ as some other more proximate risks. However, the fact is that there are hostile actors out there targeting companies just like yours and mine.

I’ll bet in most organizations there’s at least one application that is creaking at the edges, is out of support (or nearly out of support), or an application where there’s a maintenance patch needed, but that’s not seen as a priority just yet. Or an application that’s been customized so much it’s not on the official upgrade path any more.  Upgrading it or replacing it has always been seen as important but not urgent, so it’s left there, collecting more and more dust. Might there be some security vulnerabilities there? Perhaps it’s like an insecure gym locker, fine for the moment, but once a ‘bad apple’ finds it there will be chaos… and that single vulnerability might gain them wider access to all sorts of systems and information.

It’s not just about customer data either. Do you know what your organization’s key intellectual property is? Where it’s stored? Who can access it? Where it’s backed up and archived? In many organizations it’s spread out, with key information that yields competitive advantage mixed with more routine stuff, all dumped in a folder or repository of some type… Hopefully someone from ‘corporate IT’ is backing it up. Let’s hope so, eh?

 

Security Matters: Business, Process & IT

There is sometimes a perception that information and cybersecurity is an ‘IT thing’. The reality is so much wider than that. The weakest link might not be the tech, but the person operating the tech who receives a call out of the blue by someone they believe to be a colleague (but is actually a hostile actor engaging in ‘social engineering’ to gain information).

This has wide implications for business analysis. Security needs to be built into IT systems and processes from the very beginning. It’s important to think “who might be trying to gain unauthorized access to this, how would they do it, and how will we prevent it?”.  It’s important to think about the types of information and data held, its sensitivity and the impact if it were to be damaged or disclosed. This will lead to specific requirements and acceptance criteria around these aspects. It will likely lead to a BA asking challenging questions, which might include “is this the right thing to do, right now, when we have a security vulnerability over here?”

Most of all, while things might be calm now, there might be a storm waiting round the corner. It is the calm times when a little investment in the ‘important but not urgent’ will save a lot of headaches in the future. And surely that’s worthwhile?

 

 

 

Lost in Translation: The Perils of Ambiguity in Business Communication

In recent years, I’ve traveled a lot less than I did before the pandemic. One thing this has led to is me seeing processes and practices with fresh eyes. When you travel regularly, the novelty wears off and a sort of ‘autopilot’ kicks in, and a period of not traveling means that everything is less familiar and more open to scrutiny.

I was recently thinking about the questions that are commonly asked when checking in bags before a flight. I can’t even remember if these questions are asked verbally any more, or if there’s some sort of sign or declaration, but there certainly used to be questions such as:

 

  • “Have you left the bag unattended at any time?”
  • “Did you pack the bag yourself?”

 

I suspect, like many people, if you were asked these questions a semi-autopilot would kick in and you’d say ‘no’ without thinking. After all, presumably these questions are aimed at catching smugglers or criminals of some other type. The questions almost seem redundant for ‘normal’ people.

Let’s examine one of the questions, as I think some of the patterns here are important for business and business analysis more generally….

 

What does “unattended” mean?

Let’s take the first question (“have you left the bag unattended?”).  This question is, upon examination, really quite vague.  In fact, I’m pretty sure the actual question airport staff is more specific, but humor me and let’s imagine they ask it in this way.

A first challenge is what the word ‘unattended’ means to one person might be quite different to another.  Take the following situations, do you consider them to mean that the baggage has been left ‘unattended’?

 

  • You’ve just taken a connecting flight and have had to re-check your bags. Your bags have been handled by baggage handlers, and have been left unattended in the hold of the plane
  • You traveled to the airport by bus. The bags were in the baggage compartment of the bus and you didn’t have access to them during the three hour bus ride. There were several stops along the way where passenger bags were loaded/unloaded. Anyone could have accessed your bag at those times.
  • You drove to the airport. It was a long drive so you stopped for gas and a meal. Your car was parked in a car park for over an hour
  • You traveled as a group in two taxis. Your bag was in the other taxi, accompanied by your friends but not you

 

It’s tricky, isn’t it? Technically, if you’ve checked your bags into a previous flight, they have been unattended for a period of time. Yet, you’d likely say ‘no’ to this question… because you know that this isn’t a circumstance that actually counts as ‘unattended’.  I suppose as travelers we intuitively know what’s being asked and what matters. Or at least we think we do…

After all, if we were to literally interpret the question “have you left your bag unattended at any time?” then there is no way that ‘no’ would be a valid answer. Of course it’s been left unattended at some times… when it’s in the closet not being used!

 

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Beyond Airports: Why Definitions Matter

You probably don’t work in an airport, so might be wondering why I’m obsessing over the wording of a check-in question. This pattern of ambiguity potentially leading to misunderstandings, confusion or (more usually) people making assumptions is rife in organizations and projects too.

Much like the term ‘unattended’ has ambiguity attached, other seemingly ‘obvious’ terms can be problematic. Take the word ‘customer’, it sounds clear, doesn’t it? Perhaps you’ve even written a requirement or user story which articulates what a customer can do.  Yet even such a simple-sounding word leaves room for ambiguity. For example:

 

  • Does someone have to have already bought something to be considered a ‘customer’? Or does the term ‘customer’ include prospects/people in the buying pipeline too? Or do there need to be two terms, ‘prospect’ and ‘customer’?
  • If the person paying for a product/service is different from the person using/benefiting from it, which one is the customer? Are they both customers?
  • Is the term used to mean internal as well as external customers?
  • Are there different customer types? Does a requirement or story apply to all types or only some types of customer?

 

Things can get even more complicated than this. Who is the ‘customer’ of the judicial system, the prison service, and so on. It very much depends on who you ask, which is why it is important to actually ask the question!

 

Definitions Make For Concise Requirements And Stories

This comes back to a key point that is (sadly) often overlooked: definitions matter. A glossary might not be considered a new or exciting artifact, but it can really help ensure people are on the same page. With a clear and shared understanding of key terms, requirements and stories can be more concise.

A small investment in a shared glossary can save lots of time in the long run. Starting early is the most effective way of doing this. And believe me, if you don’t create one, there will come a point in time where you wish you had!