project management

Bag of risk

I’ve only thought of blogging about Lois Vuitton once before and that was on how they positively encourage queueing outside their stores during busy periods. It’s a pretty strong brand that can tell its customer to hang about before being allowed to come in and shop.

This time I’m not blogging about them in a positive light, and nor are many others. Jeremiah Owyang describes the situation they are in well. Their brand has been hijacked by Nadia Plesner, an artist trying to raise awareness about Darfur and how the media considers Paris Hilton with her “designer bags and ugly dogs” to be more worthy of attention than genocide in Darfur. She uses an image of a LV bag in her T-shirts. LV take offence and sue, she refuses to budge and suddenly the image, the issue and LV all hit the spot-light. And in this David and Goliath contest, who is going to come out worst? There can only be one looser.

So why didn’t LV just ignore it, or even as Jeremiah suggests, harness the issue, turn it into a conversation that would paint them in a good light? I’ll argue that it is because they don’t understand risk.

There was always a risk to the brand be de-valued by being associated by asociation with Dafur. And this is what the marketing and legal team jumped on with such zeal. Did no-one think about the risk to the brand of turning this into the issue it has become on the web? Laying out the options and doing a risk analysis would have been a worthy exercise.

Option 1. Assess the global impact of nadia plesner, assume it is minimal and do nothing. Risk to brand: minimal.

Option 2. Follow standard route of brand defamation and sue. Ignore association with ‘good cause’, ignore blogosphere. Risk to brand: potentially significant.

Sadly, it seems that LV ignored the whole concept of risk and went with the default option – sue. They are not alone in failing to assess the risks properly before pursuing a course of action. In IT this approach is endemic. Where is the greater risk? Placing all your eggs in one basket, investing heavily in a desired outcome that will be many months before it sees the light of day. Or take a more gradual approach, investing ‘just enough’ to get ‘just enough’, ‘just in time’. The latter approach is lean and agile. A good agile project is a lesson in risk management, building resillience into the process and testing options as you go. It is organic and evolutionary, (rather like nature), as opposed to the plan and control approach of waterfall which is brittle and will struggle to react to or accommodate risk appropriately. I should write more but there is a day’s work ahead.

Cutting waste: dump PowerPoint and invest in a camera

So you’ve run a workshop and generated ideas. There’s a list of points on the flipchart and diagrams on the whiteboard. What now? Write it all up in Word or commit the drawings to PowerPoint?

Stop! Ask yourself why you are doing this? Is it just to record the ideas, to socialise back to the group involved in the workshop? Creating PowerPoint slides is not always an inconsiderable effort. It takes time. That effort is waste.

Think of the purpose of what you are doing. Then take photographs of the flipcharts and whiteboard diagrams, paste them into PowerPoint, and think of how much time and effort you have just saved.

Paired introductions

Starting a meeting or workshop with new people will almost certainly commence with introductions.  Usually I will ask participants to say not only who they are and what department they are from, but also why they think they are at the meeting.  If someone is not sure, or says “because my boss told me to attend” there might be an issue.

Last week I attended a workshop run by a couple of our developers from China.  Because paired programming is a fundamental practice to what we do, they asked the participants to do paired introductions.  Participants paired, were offered a minute to talk to each other and then introduce their colleague.  Because the team already knew each other, they didn’t need the minute to prepare.  As each participant introduced his colleague, he emphasised the persons strengths and good points.  At the end of the introductions there was a tremendously positive vibe in the room which set the meeting up for success.  It might have taken a little longer than just doing the straight introductions, but the value was clear; get people to introduce their colleagues – it breaks the ice, promotes the positive (and as a facilitator gives you another hook by which to remember people).

Was it just a simple database query?

So the sensitive personal details of 25m people has been lost and there is a huge political furore over it. Whose fault is it? As far as I can see, (and this is my personal opinion,) blame must lie with IT, specifically the IT contractor and either the contract they work with or the perception of that contract.

The National Audit Office asked HM Customs and Excise for child benefit in “desensitized form”. Sensitive details were specifically asked to be removed, ostensibly to make the file size smaller. This would require a bespoke query to be run. It was deemed too costly so it was assumed that a full extract of the data would do. The fact that this was then burned to a CD, posted unregistered mail and lost is not the point (that is stupidity). What is the point is the IT contract prohibits the business (in this case the governmental offices) to do their job properly.

What sort of contract demands extra payment for a simple database query for “NI numbers, child benefit numbers and children’s names in order to select a risk-based sample of cases to audit as part of anti-fraud work“?

Surely this is an extra request that an experienced database analyst could easily run in the course of a day? If not you must ask why not – is it because the database is badly designed with nested tables and stored procedures and stuff that would make a decent DBA go eugchhh (I’ve seen that happen). If this is the case, the IT contractor has done a bad job; if an electrician worked in your house and left a mess of an electrical installation, would you keep employing them, even if they were cheap?

Maybe however it would not have incurred a cost and this was just the perception; “we must not… run additional scans/filters that may incur a cost to the department”. If this was case it suggests a breakdown in the relationship between the business and IT, with tendency towards the confrontational and transactional rather than co-operation and partnership.

Organisations that outsource their IT often fail to realise what the true costs are. Anything outside the terms of the contract is a change request. It is not unusual for the request itself to incur a cost (someone has to write the documentation, specifiy the design, estimate the effort) before a line of code is written. (At one organisation I worked with that had outsourced their IT function, I was told that to add some basic client-side field validation to a single field on an application form on their website was likely to cost in the region of £60k). The business starts to believe that everything costs and IT becomes a hindrance and a vicious cycle commences.

How could things have worked differently? Let’s say the HMRC IT department was run on more lean/ agile lines. With agile it embraces change. The request comes in (let’s assume such requests are not regular occurances) and in the morning stand-up the BA describes the request and asks the developers for its feasibility in a word. Someone says “yes, I ran a simiar querry last month, it’ll take me ten minutes”. (In reality double or treble that estimate), but it will not have an imact on the developers ability to get thier prioritised work completed. Alternatively the developers say “given the database structure we have inherited that’s a lot of effort” or the project manager says “another request?! pritoritise it like the others!” and it is prioritised in the weekly iteration planning meeting (pushing something else out) and then it gets done.

My hope is that when the inevitable investigation takes place, they don’t just look at the policies and procedures, but also at the underlying structure of the way that IT is managed.

Version control

Tortoise Subversion is a simple and elegant tool for version controlling files. It is generally used on software development projects; it would be interesting to know how widespread it’s use is outside IT. For example, marketeers are enthusiastic PowerPoint users. When collaborating on documents they will generally share them via email, changing the file name with each revision, (e.g. salesdeck-0.1.ppt salesdeck-0.2.ppt until it is finished with salesdeck-1.0.ppt. But inevitably a 1.1 or 2.0 will rear it’s ugly head before it goes out).

Some organisations use rather heavyweight intranets / document management systems such as Sharepoint; could this be over-engineering when a lightweight tool such as Subversion could do the job almost just as well. This thought was recently confirmed when we were demonstrating how we would be sharing files using Subversion to our stakeholders. I demonstrated creating and checking in a document, and then showed someone else working on it, all from the familiar starting point of Windows Explorer. One of the guys from the business who’d never seen this before was incredulous. “And we’ve just spent $$$$$ on installing SharePoint. Why did no-one suggest this?!” Good question. As was “oh, by the way, Tortoise Subversion is free”, but it didn’t seem appropriate to say that at the time!

Hey CIOs, call me a cynic…

So, “Although there’s some dispute as to the average life span of a CIO, it’s generally held to be in the neighborhood of 21 to 24 months. [pdf]”.  Think about that tenure.  That’s just enough time for the new CIO to get through the first 100 days of viewing the landscape, seeing the mistakes of his predesessor, deciding on a new direction, getting a new bunch of vendors / integration partners in and seeing a major project be delivered.

Delivered?  Well probably not delivered to the full satisfaction of all stakeholders, but it is a “delivery” all the same.  And it’ll be recorded as a success on his resume.

Onwards and upwards the CIO goes (to repeat his experience at a slightly larger and more prestigious firm).  He’d been there almost two years – good time to leave actually.  Just before it starts to become clear that the project has not really delivered the benefits the business was expecting and actually there are a whole bunch of issues outstanding. That stuff is left for the next CIO to embark on his 100 days of viewing the landscape, seeing the mistakes of his predecessor, deciding on a new direction, getting a new bunch of vendors / integration partners in…

It’s how you ask it…

Prioritising requirements

You’re running a workshop and the group have come up with a bunch of new propositions. You want them to vote on which ones to take forward to the next stage. Or maybe you’ve identified a bunch of functionality and features and you want the group to prioritise what they’d like to see built first. What question you ask the group next is critical to the answer you will get.

You need to frame the question appropriately and make it clear to the group the criteria by which they are making their vote…

Do they need to be thinking about “do-ability”, the ease to implement, or do they need to be focussed upon the innovation and the idea itself. Should they be considering the cost to implement, time to market, return on investment, or should they be thinking about the art of the possible; the “blue sky”; the destination, regardless of the journey to get there.

Which line of thinking they should use will depend upon where you are in the process. Get them thinking about practicalities of implementation too early and you are likely to dilute the vision. Too late in the process and you will have candidate propositions or features that by their complexity or uncertainty will never the light of day.

So two tips. Before you ask the group to vote, or to prioritise, clarify the objectives and the critiera by which they are to decide. Maybe ask them to assume a ‘persona’ and vote in the way they’d expect the persona to vote, for example a customer will have different priorities to a developer.  Whose vote is it anyway?
And after they have made their vote make sure you manage the group’s expectations. Don’t let them leave the room thinking what they’ve decided upon is final and binding. It rarely is.

Are you building a potato or a Sensation?

The humble potato is not worth a lot. The farm gate price for a 150g spud is negligible. How do you add value? How do you turn a worthless Maris Piper into a valuable commodity?


Potato crisps (chips) are a great example of a low value product being turned into high value one.

Walkers salt and vinegar crisps

But that’s the easy part. The real value add is further transforming the product without fundamentally changing it. Innovation through packaging and marketing, making a basic product appear more desirable. Appealing to higher sensations beyond just satisfaction; differentiating the same basic product into an up-scaled, up-market luxury item. The same item that customers will happily pay more for.

The retail price for a 50g bag of Walkers Salt and Vinegar crisps at my local One Stop is 35p. The price of the Sensations bag is 47p. (For reference the retail price of a 50g potato – is 5p). Now I’m no crisp expert, but I’d guess that the incremental cost for adding a couple of new ingredients to the flavour is marginal. There’s some sunk cost in product development- creating the new flavours and developing the new brand, but this is little effort compared to the benefits that will be accrued.

Walkers Oven Roasted potato crisps

But that is not the end of the story. Focussing upon the experience of the Sensations product, Walkers see an opportunity to change the packaging – to increase the bag size. Now their basic Sensations product is a whopping 150g bag that retails at £1.35.

Walkers Lime and thai spices crisps

Sometimes it is easy to focus upon just delivering the basic package, to just satisfy the customer. Is there anything you can do on your project to transform delivering the hygiene of customer satisfaction, to selling a compelling value-added experience?

Cultural differences in toilet walls

US executive toilet gap legs and all

What do you see? Depends on who you are. In the US it’s just a row of toilet cubicles. Elsewhere in the world it is “what’s with the huge gap between the floor and cubicle wall? A gap large enough to see the legs of the person in the cubicle next to me!”

Apologies for dragging this blog to the level of the toilet, but there is a point to this observation. Things that are normal in one culture may not be quite so normal in other, even the most mundane. On distributed projects with off-shore teams it is not enough to ensure you have robust processes and open channels of communication. You need to ensure that cultural differences are understood and respected. Don’t assume everyone shares your design of toilet.

Reflections on QCon

Qcon is a “Conference for the Enterprise Software Development Community;” a pretty hardcore techie bunch then. So it was really refreshing to see a whole days track given over to usability and a keynote by Larry Constantine on “Meeting the Usability Challenge”. Last night Martin Fowler and Dan North gave an excellent keynote titled “The Yawning Crevasse of Doom”. Their central theme was around communication between the customer / end user / consumer / business and the developers / IT. Martin drew a great analogy; do you want your communication between the two “sides” to be like a ferry boat or a bridge. Part of the bridge that Martin and Dan talked about was the use of ethnographic research – observing users in their natural environments and storyboards / wireframes / lo-fi prototypes to visually articulate requirements in a way that written requirements can never do. i.e. championing the stuff that I am passionate about, and what we at ThoughtWorks do deliver successful projects.

A couple of other nuggets that are worth sharing; Jeff Sutherland talked about how at Google they don’t have performance appraisals. Instead everyone has personal “three month objectives” that are posted on their blogs (the first thing that a new recruit at Google does apparently is creates a personal web page). In this way people can share with the broader organisation what they are doing. With google search experts and their knowledge can easily be found. Advertising to the organisation what your goals drives performance far more effectively than a sterile quarterly form distributed by HR…

Jim Webber gave an excellent and entertaining presentation on Geurilla SOA. If you get a chance to see him in full opinionated flow, you should seize it. (And I don’t just say that because of his kind words about my presentation, that I’ll upload soon).

At the conference one of the vendors was JavaBlackBelt. They had a multiple choice test on your knowledge of Java. Some of my esteemed colleagues did not fair so well on it; my programming knowledge goes little beyond

10 print “hello world”
20 goto 10

So I am very proud to announce that I came top of the JavaBlackBelt class and won a t-shirt, scoring 3/5 in a little over 40 seconds, a cool 2 minutes faster than the second placed geek. Don’t you just love multiple choice.

Top of class java black belt programmer

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