Tag Archives: Technology Management

A Magical 1997-era Web Form & the Illusion of Progress

This morning, while I was checking my email, the power went out.

There was no storm, the neighbors still had power… did I forget to pay the bill? Surely not… I get an email every month & immediately click through to process the payment. But I decided to check anyway.

I went to our local electric company’s web site to check on the status of my account. It’s not a big town, and their development budget has got to be tiny… it looks like they haven’t updated their web site in more than a decade. And the “Pay Your Bill” form is even more extreme… that form is straight outta 1997, complete with a little moving text, like ants marching across the bottom of your screen. It looks like Peoplesoft used to look like, at the dawn of the millennium.

Not my power company’s web form. But close. You get the idea.

Turns out, I did make a mistake last month. I was traveling when bill time came around, and instead of clicking the button to pay all accounts, I accidentally only paid one and not the one that corresponds to the house where I live, where I work, where I absolutely positively need internet all the time.

There was a text box at the top of my screen with a phone number, and a message saying that power could usually be restored by 8pm. I started mentally arranging my work day… how much connectivity I’d be able to get by tethering to my phone… how much battery life I had left in my laptop… how much crow I’d have to eat, as the impacts impacted other people and other meetings.

I quickly filled out all the little boxes to let the electric company know that I really wanted them to take my money and turn my power back on as soon as they could. Like usual, their clunky looking web form was smooth to actually fill in.

But then magic happened.

I clicked the “Pay Now” button with the stylus on my phone. TAP! Before my fingers returned to the position they were in when they started the downward trip to click the button (literally milliseconds later) I heard whirring all around me. The printer was going through its startup sequence. The TV started to flicker on.

That 1997-era web form was like a lightswitch. When I flipped it, my power went back on. For whatever the power company didn’t invest in making their web site look slick and exciting, they sure did invest in what means the most to me: automatically, instantaneously, magically getting my power back in the blink of an eye.

Why don’t all companies invest, like this, in delivering meaningful value over delivering the appearance of value?

I’m thinking of a company I know, right now, that’s invested several million dollars over the past year trying to get a web app in place to perform a basic revenue-driving function of their business. They even “built an MVP”! But they’re still falling short of their goal. I wonder if they, like so many others, are falling into the most nefarious trap that exists:

The Illusion of Progress… showing that you’re moving forward without showing that you know what really matters, and then surgically focusing on that.

Are you making progress on what really matters? Or what looks like it matters?

There’s your challenge for this week (and life).

Agile Should Not Make You Feel Bad

Agility can be great (even though for many neurodivergent people, it’s the opposite of great). But when teams go through the motions to be “Agile” they often end up overcomplicating the work, adding stress to interactions, and achieving less agility.

If your agile processes are “working”, then over the next iteration (typically 1-4 weeks):

⬜ You have a clear understanding, as a team, of the value you’re working to demonstrate. (Note that this is not a promise or a commitment, but a shared purpose, direction and intention.)

⬜ You have a clear understanding, as individuals, of the actions that will generate that value. You know what to work on (and think about) when you’re not in meetings or with clients.

⬜ You don’t feel alone – you have teammates to communicate with and collaborate with, and resources you can use, as you move forward to advance project objectives.

⬜ You are working at a comfortable, sustainable pace.

⬜ Your team is improving every week – you continually do things a little differently to help improve quality, productivity, collaboration, or other outcomes.

None of these things require meetings (or “ceremonies”) – just communication and inclusion. We should always be asking ourselves and our team members: what’s the easiest, smoothest, least intrusive way of building this shared understanding and maintaining it every day?

When teams work with agility:

⬜ Everyone understands the overall goal and the next increment of value to demonstrate.

⬜ Everyone has clear things to do to contribute to that value.

⬜ Each person (and the team as a whole) works at a sustainable pace.

⬜ Nobody feels alone. There’s a group of collaborators to share the work with.

⬜ The client or project champion has visibility into the work and is happy with progress.

⬜ There’s an opportunity to rest, reflect, and adjust every week or two.

It’s not ridiculously hard to adjust to changes in scope, tools, or personnel. 

But I regularly see “agile” teams flailing… unhappy… in constant panic mode, with stress that just won’t end. They are very busy and always seem to be scrambling to show their client or project champion some kind of value… with the feeling that they have to defend their existence. They have a nagging sense of confusion and impostor syndrome may be creeping in. They can tell you exactly what tasks are on their JIRA boards, but they can’t tell you why those tickets exist or how their task is contributing to overall project value. They have lost sight of the forest (value) because they have planted so many trees (tickets).

For these teams, the Scrum process and Agile ceremonies may be adding layers of stress and bureaucracy rather than helping the team work sustainably to consistently drive value. They are “doing Agile ” but have actually made themselves less agile… less able to flow and adapt and respond to changes in scope, tools, or participants.

Agile methods first emerged in response to the slow, painful, unsatisfying, unhappy practice of software development. It was really depressing to spend months building software, only to have customers and users complain how bad it was when they got it (especially when you developed exactly what they specified). It felt isolating to have to figure out how to deliver a piece of the software without any input from other engineers, and it was distressing when others were blocking your work and you had to convince them to listen to you. The whole endeavor was inefficient, and people were often tense and stressed. 

The realizations in red (in the 90s) led to the Agile Manifesto items (2001) in blue

We’re applying processes and tools without really examining why we need them

So let’s prioritize…

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

  • Why this is part of the Agile Manifesto: Since the beginning of time, development teams tend to get hung up on the details of using tools (e.g. MS Project, JIRA, kanban boards) rather than why the tools are there in the first place: to make sure people are getting the information and context they need – on a regular, routine basis – to make continuous progress on the team’s overall deliverables.
  • What we should do in 2022: Focus on information sharing, context building, and working arrangements that help people get work done. This applies to interactions within the team as well as interactions with the client.

We’re doing a lot of work that doesn’t actually contribute to our goal

So let’s prioritize…

Working software [ie. tangible stuff that’s valuable] over comprehensive documentation

  • Why this is part of the Agile Manifesto: Software development in the 1990s was documentation-heavy. I even remember, in 2018, throwing away a few hundred pounds of paper (in about 20 4” binders) containing requirements and design documents for a really big software project that we did between 2002 and 2004. Often, development teams wouldn’t even produce software that matched the documentation because we’d learn about what was feasible and what was not as we were doing it. Everyone tended to deliver software that the business needed a year or two ago. We didn’t learn together and co-create the software. 
  • What we should do in 2022: We provide value in the form of information, shared understanding, and working software (which may be in the form of quality controls) – that’s it. Anything we produce that doesn’t directly contribute to making these things happen shouldn’t be done. 

We’re unable to deliver something we don’t know how to define or describe yet

So let’s prioritize…

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  • Why this is part of the Agile Manifesto: Because deciding what you’re on the hook to deliver at the beginning of a project – and exactly what the deliverables are going to look like – is dangerous. You and the customer rarely have enough understanding of the problem (or of each other) to get it right. 
  • What we should do in 2022: Establish shared accountability. (Note: this is rare. How many times has a customer been on your team and just as accountable to the project champion for the end result as you are?) A workaround is to set expectations with the client that we are discovering the shared understanding together, and we will get as close to the desired deliverables as we can, given the fact that we are embarking on a process of learning together.

We’re unable to commit to a plan when we might learn that our plan isn’t feasible

So let’s prioritize…

Responding to change over following a plan

  • Why this is part of the Agile Manifesto: As you learn about what’s possible, what’s not possible, and what the client actually values… plans will change. Instead of establishing a timeline that won’t end up working out (and that will cause you a lot of stress when you start deviating from), just start with the understanding that your Gantt Chart and your intermediary milestones will probably not be achieved when you think they will – or maybe even at all.
  • What we should do in 2022: Always keep the final goal in mind, but revisit and adjust the plan as you learn more every week. Iterate! 

The Discovery Channel Test

Presentations can be boring. Talking about your work can be boring (to other people). When you’re sitting in a talk or a session that you find boring (and you can’t figure out WIIFM – what’s in it for me)… you learn less.

Although we shouldn’t have to use clickbait techniques to satisfy societally decreasing attention spans, it is easier to learn and retain information when it’s interesting. So I encourage all of you to apply the “Discovery Channel Test” to every presentation, talk, or session you contribute to or lead.

The reason I call it the “Discovery Channel Test” is that there used to be a program called City Confidential that was on all the time. Even though City Confidential was a show about murder mysteries, the first half of the one-hour show was about the city or region where the crime occurred. They talked about when the town was first settled, and key families who made the town what it is today. You heard about stories of intrigue, and challenges the town was facing today. They made the story about the town itself so captivating that EVERY SINGLE TIME I was caught off guard when they ended the first half-hour segment with “You’d never believe a murder could happen here.” Through the hundreds of times I watched this show, I was always shocked when this point came. “Oh, yeah… this is where that murder mystery happened, and we’re about to find out about it.”

Any production crew that can spend a half hour off-topic, keep me interested, and give me a dopamine burst right before the main point of the show… has achieved something great. And you, too, can achieve this same greatness when you’re talking about your tech stack or a new architectural initiative or that project you did last year that improved customer sat. Make it interesting by applying….

The Discovery Channel Test (* = could also be called The Good Podcast Test)

Rule 1: Use an emotional hook up front. Why should any of the people in your audience not leave after the first five minutes? Don’t make them guess! Tell them specifically why this topic might be interesting, or surprise them with an initial feeling of novelty or unexpectedness. Jonathan Lipnicki’s character in Jerry Maguire (1996) was great at this, with his “did you know?” questions. The dopamine surge you create with an emotional hook will keep them engaged for long enough to get hooked on your story.

Rule 2: Find the wow nugget(s). This is one of the things the Discovery Channel has always been really good at: getting me interested in things that I didn’t think were interesting to me. Remember that your projects and initiatives, no matter how cool they are to you, will be boring to other people unless you TRY to make them interesting. I try to tell my high schooler that even in the most boring classes you should be able to find some nugget, some angle, some insight that helps you see the subject matter in a way that grabs you. Find that angle for your audience, and then spoon feed it to them.

Rule 3: Use examples, screen shots, visuals, diagrams. If your presentations are full of slides with words, people will start yawning immediately and may or may not actually hear those words. You can also reduce ambiguity with examples and screen shots. For example, saying “we used Python for this project” is far less compelling than showing the tree structure of the code (or a simplified diagram) and annotating it with what each piece did to get the overall job done. Saying “we used Confluence” is less compelling than saying “we set up a confluence site at [this location] and agreed to put [this kind of information in there]” because if someone has a need for [that information] – at least they know a first place they can look for it.

Rule 4: Spoon feed the closing thoughts. At the very end, remind people what you want them to remember when they leave. Remind people why that’s interesting, and how it might benefit them in the future. Make it concrete and tangible. For example, can you give them reference material, or an infographic, or a checklist that they can use in the future? Don’t assume that people will get something out of your presentation just by attending… spoon feed what you WANT them to get out of it.

“Documentation” is a Dirty Word

I just skimmed through another 20 page planning document, written in old-school “requirements specification”-ese with a hefty dose of ambiguity. You know, things like “the Project Manager shall…” and “the technical team will respond to bugs.”

There’s a lot of good content in there. It’s not easy to get at, though… for each page I want to understand, I can expect to spend between ten minutes and an hour deciphering what’s going on. (That’s half a week of work, and I have a lot of other work to do this week. Is it even worth it?)

Also, this document is boring… and there’s a lot of filler (like “package X is useful, flexible, and open source” – OK, that’s great, and factually correct, but not very informative).

The whole document could have been condensed into 4 or 5 slides of diagrams plus annotations. If that had happened, I’d be looking at a 10 to 30 minute commitment overall to get my brain into this particular company’s context… and then I’d be able to make some useful contributions. (As it stands, I’m weighing whether it’s worth my time to go spelunking in that 20-pager at all. Probably not.)

Unfortunately:

  • The bulk of technical documentation that I read is unintelligible or lacks sufficient meaning. I have three decades of exposure to this stuff, so if I can’t understand it, I feel super sorry for the early career people (who might think they can’t understand it because they don’t know enough).
  • Nearly all of the technical documents I see are uninteresting. And tech is interesting.

99 times out of 100, technical documentation is dull and dysfunctional. While it’s supposed to help people and teams establish a shared understanding of a system or a process or a concept, it just ends up looking really impressive and convincing you that the authors know a lot more about this than you do. It doesn’t help you much, if at all.

And as a CTO, CIO, or VP of Engineering, I don’t want to pay for crappy documentation. This particular document probably cost me between $32K-50K, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg… because it doesn’t account for the incremental costs of the people who will attempt to decipher it – which could be 10-100x more over the lifetime of that document. Although the person or team that wrote the 20-pager probably knows what’s going on (at least a little bit), the artifact itself is going to cost other people time and take them away from more value-adding tasks.

The sheer volume of information we’re required to wade through to gain understanding – without the assurance that it will lead us in the right direction, or even in any direction at all – is probably what’s led to the disease of devaluing documentation

A lot of managers think documentation isn’t value-adding, and shouldn’t be done, because… in most cases, people do it so badly that it wasn’t worth the investment in the first place.

Dear tech workers: can we fix this, please? I know it will take a whole generation to effect meaningful change, but… I’m ready to roll up my sleeves.

Lack of Alignment is an Organizational Disease. Here are the Symptoms.

Streamlines on a field. Created using the pracma package in R.

Like a champion rowing team, your organization needs to make sure everyone is working together, engaged in synchronized work and active collaboration, and not working at cross-purposes.

But like risk management, working on alignment can seem like a luxury. No one really has time to slow down and make sure everyone’s moving in the same direction. And besides, alignment just happens naturally if each functional area knows what they’re supposed to be working on… right?

Neither of these statements are, of course, true. Synchronizing people and processes – and making sure they’re aware of the needs and desires of real customers instead of cardboard personas – takes dedicated effort and a commitment from senior leaders. There are other critical impacts too: lack of alignment negatively impacts not only project outcomes – but also professional relationships and the bottom line.

An Example of Diagnosing Misalignment

Although alignment is a many-to-many problem, and requires you to look at relationships between people in all your functional areas, a January 2018 survey from Altify examined one part of the organizational puzzle: alignment between sales and marketing. This is a big one, because sales teams use marketing materials to understand and sell the product or service your company offers. Their survey of 422 enterprise-level executives and sales leaders showed that:

  • 74% of marketers think they understood customer needs, but only 44% of sales people in their organizations agreed
  • 71% of marketers think sales and marketing are aligned, but only 59% of sales people in their organizations agreed

These differences may seem small, but they reveal a lack of alignment between sales and marketing. One group thinks they “get it” – while people in the other group are just shaking their heads.

Symptoms of Misalignment

…include things like:

  • Vague Feelings of Fear. Your organization has a strategic plan (knows WHAT it wants to do), but there is little to no coordination regarding HOW people across the organization will accomplish strategic objectives. You know what KPIs you’re supposed to deliver on, but you don’t know how exactly you’re supposed to work with anything in your power or control to “move the needle.”
  • Ivory Tower Syndrome. You’re in a meeting and get the visceral sense that things aren’t clear, or that different people have different expectations for a project or initiative. But you’re too nervous or uncertain to ask for clarification – or maybe you do ask, but you get an equally unclear answer. Naturally, you assume that everyone in the room is smarter than you (particularly the managers) so you shut up and hope that it makes sense later. The reality is that you may be picking up on a legitimate problem that’s going to be problematic for the organization later on.
  • Surprises. A department committed you to a task, but you weren’t part of that decision. Once you find out about it, the task just may not get done. Alternatively, you’ll have to adjust your workload and reset expectations with the stakeholders who will now be disappointed that you can’t meet their needs according to the original schedule. Or maybe work evenings and weekends to get the job done on time. Either way, it’s not pleasant for anyone.
  • Emergencies. How often are you called on to respond to something that’s absolutely needed by close of business today? How often are you expected to drop everything and take care of it? How often do you have to work nights and weekends to make sure you don’t fall behind?
  • Lead Balloons. In this scenario, key stakeholders are called into projects at the 11th hour, when they are unable to guide or influence the direction of an initiative. The initiative becomes a “dead man walking” that’s doomed to an untimely end, but since the organization has sunk time and effort into it, people will push ahead anyway.
  • Cut Off at the Pass. Have you ever been working on a project and find out – somewhere in the middle of doing it – that some other person or team has been working on the same thing? Or maybe they’ve been working on a different project, but it’s ultimately at cross purposes with yours. Whatever way this situation works out, your organization ends up with a pile of waste and potential rework.
  • Not Writing Things Down.You have to make sure everyone is literally on the same page, seeing the world in a similar enough way to know they are pursuing the same goals and objectives. If you don’t write things down, you may be at the mercy of cognitive biases later. How do you know that your goals and objectives are aligned with your overall company strategy? Can you review written minutes after key meetings? Are your organization’s strategic initiatives written and agreed to by decision makers? Do you implement project charters that all stakeholders have to sign off on before work can commence? What practices do you use to get everyone on the same page?

How do you fix it?

That’s the subject for more blog posts that will be coming this spring – as well as what causes misalignment in the first place (hint: it’s individual behaviors on an organizational scale). The good news is – misalignment can be fixed, and the degree of alignment can be measured and continuously improved. Sign up to follow this blog so you don’t miss the rest of the story.

What other symptoms of misalignment have you experienced?

Make Strategic Alignment Actionable with Baldrige

It can be difficult to focus on strategy when your organization has to comply with standards and regulations. Tracking and auditing can be tedious! If you’re a medical device manufacturer, you may need to maintain ISO 13485 compliance to participate in the supply chain. At the same time, you’ve got to meet all the requirements of 21 CFR 820. You’ve also got to remember other regulations that govern production and postmarket. (To read more about the challenges, check out Wienholt’s 2016 post.) There’s a lot to keep track of!

But strategy is important. Alignment is even more important! And in my opinion, the easiest way to improve alignment and get “Big Q” quality is to use the Baldrige Excellence Framework. It was developed by the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, and is administered by NIST.

In Is Good, Good Enough for You? Taking the Next Step After ISO 9001:2015, former Baldrige Program Executive Director Harry Hertz outlines similarities and differences between ISO 9001:2015 and Baldrige. After examining complements, Harry shows how Baldrige helps organizations grow beyond the conformance mindset:

I have not shared all the commonalities of or differences between ISO 9001:2015 and the Baldrige Excellence Framework. Instead, I have tried to show the organizational possibilities of building on conformity assessment to establish a holistic approach for achieving excellence in every dimension of organizational performance today, with a look to the strategic imperatives and opportunities for the future. Baldrige helps an organization take this journey with a focus on process (55% of the scoring rubric) and results (45% of the rubric), recognizing that great processes are only valuable if they yield the complete set of results that lead to organizational sustainability… I encourage organizations that have not gone beyond conformity to take the next step in securing your future.

Read More Here! –>

The Achilles Heel of Customer Journey Mapping

Journeying through western Wyoming in August 2011. Image Credit: me.

Achilles was that guy in Greek mythology whose mother, when he was born, wanted to protect him soooo much that she held him by the heel and dipped him in the power-giving waters of the River Styx — making him bullet proof (and much more; no bullets then), except at the heel, because for some reason she didn’t think about just dunking him a few inches deeper. Maybe she didn’t want to get her hand wet? Who knows. (In the research literature this is called perverse unintended consequences — it happens in business too. You try to make an improvement or protect against a particular hazard and oops, you made it worse.)

Customer Journey Maps (CJM)

I’ve been reading a lot about the Customer Journey Maps (CJM) technique used in marketing (see Folstad & Kvale (2018) for a fantastic and comprehensive review). It formalizes the very good suggestion that when you’re trying to figure out how to engage with prospects, you should put yourself in their shoes. Empathize with them. Figure out what they need, and when they need it. Then, identify how your company can not only meet them there — but connect with them in a compelling way.

CJM also goes beyond conceptual modeling. For example, Harbich et al (2017) uses Markov models to predict the most likely path and timing of a customer’s journey. Bernard & Andritsos (2018) mine actual customer journeys from sales force automation systems and use them in a Monte Carlo like way to uncover patterns. There’s even a patent on one method for mining journey data.

Benefits of Journey Maps

Annette Franz says that “done right, maps help companies in many ways, including to…

  • Understand experiences.
  • Design [new] experiences.
  • Implement and activate new experiences.
  • Communicate and share experiences.
  • Align the organization… get executive commitment for the customer experience (CX) strategy, get organizational adoption of the customer-centric focus, provide a line of sight to the customer for employees, and help employees understand how they impact the experience.”

But like Achilles, Customer Journey Mapping has a vulnerable spot that can wipe out all its potential benefits. (Fortunately, success lies in the way your organization wields the tool… so there’s a remedy.)

The Achilles Heel of CJM

Here’s the problem: creating a journey map does indeed ensure that you focus on the customer, but does not ensure that you’re focusing on that customer’s experience. Diagnosing Voice of the Customer (VoC) is hard [long explanation; shorter explanation], and there are tons of ways to do it! Through journey mapping, you may accidentally be focusing on your company’s experience of that customer throughout the stages of the journey. 

Diagnosing the Symptoms

How can you tell? Here’s a non-exhaustive list of ways to diagnose the symptoms, based on recent research and observing companies who do this since about 2009 (please add in the comments if you’ve observed any other ones):

  • Do you ever hear “How can we move the customer from [this stage] to [the next stage]?”
  • … or “How do we get more customers to join us [at this stage of the journey]?”
  • … or maybe “How can we get customers to [take this action] [at this stage of the journey]?”
  • Does your customer journey address differences in customer personas, or do you have a one-size-fits-all map? Rosenbaum et al (2016) says “We contend that most customer journey maps are critically flawed. They assume all customers of a particular organization experience the same organizational touchpoints and view these touchpoints as equally important.”
  • Do you systematically gather, analyze, and interpret data about what your current customers are experiencing, or do you just kind of guess or rely on your “experience”? (Hint: subconscious biases are always in play, and you’ll never know they’re there because they are subconscious).
  • Do you systematically gather, analyze, and interpret data about what your prospects would benefit from experiencing with/through you, or do you just kind of guess or rely on your “experience”?
  • Do you focus on ease of use over utility? (Just like perfect is the enemy of perfectly OK, easy can be the enemy of possible if you’re not careful. This often shows up in the journey mapping process.)

Like I mentioned earlier, this is definitely not a comprehensive list.

The Solution

What’s the solution? ASK. Ask your customer what they need. Find out about their pain points. Ask them what would make it easier for them to do their job. Finally, ask them if you’re getting it right! And even though I said “customer” — I do mean you should ask more than one of them, because needs and interests vary from person to person and industry to industry. Just interacting with one customer isn’t going to cut it.

Ask early, ask often! (As people learn and evolve, their needs change.)

Improving the Method

How can we improve the quality of customer journey mapping? Share your insights and lessons learned! CJM is a promising technique for helping organizations align around empathetic value propositions, but just like agile methods, it’s got to be applied strategically and deliberately… and then checked on a continuous basis to make sure the map is in tune with reality.

« Older Entries