What the customer wants

I’m a strong proponent of engaging the customer in all stages of the design process. But sometimes you need to be careful with what they say and not always believe their first answer.

Ask the customer “what do you want” and the chances are you will get an answer that is rooted in their experiences and expectations. Not what they really want.

I want an intranet portal“.

No, you don’t. You want a place where your employees can share files and documents.

I want a google search appliance“.

No you don’t. You want to be able to find documents quickly and efficiently.

Worse is when vendors try and force products onto the customer…

You want an integrated BI toolset“.

No they don’t. What they really want is to be able to pull some specific data from a legacy application into an excel spreadsheet and insert a graph into a word document.

OK, so it is easy to say that, but how to follow though? How do you actually get the customer to create a vision of what they really want? Well I’d start by not asking them that question. Get them to articulate what their goals are. Then try to understand in what context they will try to accomplish those goals? Think in terms of customer journeys and value outcomes over features. Think about the what, not the how. Start with the “to-be” vision rather than dwelling in the “as-is” quagmire, indeed use a system obituary to kill the as-is thinking. Use visual tools to model your ideas. And don’t get bogged down in detail.

I’ll write more about this in the future…

What about the non-functionals?

Non-functional requirements (NFRs) are the poor, ugly sisters to the functional requirements. They are often left out, or worse written in wooly and non SMART terms; “the website shall be available 24/7”. Is this what happened with HMRC? The website that allows UK citizens to complete their tax returns on-line has gone down, just as the deadline looms. I wonder if this is a case of the non-functional requirements around performance, scalability volumes etc being forgotten about or just not tested for. Inexcusable really.

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.

Technology makes my blood boil

Technology is great when it works. But when it doesn’t it can be a world of pain. Productivity is slashed and stress levels rocket. Just one thing going wrong hurts, but multiple failures? Eugchhhh. I’m sure they are unrelated, but this has been a particularly bad Monday. Somehow I’ve lost administrator rights on my laptop. This means that lotus notes no longer works and I’ve got no access to email, other than via web-mail. Worse, I can’t roll back to previous back-ups or install any admin tools. Slingbox has crashed and requires a reboot. Hard when it is in a living room the other side of the world. I need VPN access but my version of Windows XP is x64, and as far as I can tell Cisco do not have any drivers for it.

I wouldn’t usually use my blog to moan about my technical gripes. But wordpress has pushed me over the edge. Every comment on my blog has been replaced with:

WordPress database error: [Table ‘wp_comments’ is marked as crashed and last (automatic?) repair failed]

Where do I start?

(Of course you could comment, but it won’t work because of the error.  Doh!)

What not how

All too often the business thinks in terms of the “how” rather than the “what”. But why should they care how something is to be implemented? Why doesn’t the business state their requirements in terms of their desired outcomes? What is it that they want? Then, and only then should anybody think about the “how”.

Sadly, focusing upon the how rather than the what is a driving factor behind so much of the mediocrity in enterprise software. Rather than stating “what” (they want) in terms of their dreams and aspirations, the business express their requirements in terms of what they perceive IT can deliver. “What” could never be the design quality of Apple (visionary) because they believe the “how” (their IT team) is not Apple (mediocre). But wouldn’t your average developer rather be building something visionary than something mediocre?

The best CIOs don’t care about IT

One of the (many) things about ThoughtWorks developers is that, whilst they are passionate about technology, (and will happily argue for hours amongst themselves about the relative merits of REST over SOAP or ruby on rails over django), more often than not when they start a conversation with a client, technology will be at the back of their mind. I think it is safe to say that generally the primary driver in the ThoughtWorks mind is business value:

  • Why are we building this application?
  • What are the business objectives?
  • What will deliver the greatest value in the shortest timeframe?

Once the requirements of the business are understood, and framed in terms of their business value, then (and only then) should we turn to the technology. This can often be a challenging message; IT professionals like to think in terms of architecture and platforms, yet often these constrain the ability to truly deliver what the busines really needs.

The development team may be a Java shop and only does Java, yet the end users live in a world of Microsoft. So what happens – IT develop user interfaces that expose data in a web browser only for the business users to copy and paste it into the tools of their trade – Microsoft Office. And because IT only do Java that’s the way it has to be.

Value is lost in this thinking. It is easy to argue on the cost to expand the team requiring new skills by introducing .net into the architecture. But what is the cost to the business of time spent through inefficient work practices? All to often IT is an end unto itself, rather than the means. IT needs to remember it only exists to enable organisations. The most refreshing CIOs are those that recognise this. Those who focus upon delivering business value and question every big decision – what value is this giving to the whole organisation rather than thinking in terms of their IT silo. In fact, the sort of way that ThoughtWorkers think.

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).

New year plan

Well its that time of year again for new years resolutions. …Only for them to be broken a few weeks into the new year. Resolving to do something different is always going to be hard if it is not associated with a goal or a desired outcome – something to strive for. So instead if mumbling a bunch of new years resolutions on Tuesday (“I will get fit”), turn them into personal goals that will be measurable and (at a stretch) achievable.

And then frame them in the story your future self will tell one year from now; “In the last year I started running round the block every night. In January it took me 23 minutes, now I can do one lap in 15 minutes and two laps in 33 minutes”.

Success this way is more likely than “this year I am going to get fit”.

Lotus notes, outlook and Office 2007

I’m no fan of Lotus Notes. I prefer to use Outlook to read Lotus Notes; there is a connector that makes it possible to read your mail and use your calendar without ever having to open Notes. So it was happy days until I got a new laptop which only had Office 2007 installed. Office 2007 may be great, but the connector is not compatible and it meant having to go back to using Notes again. A couple of days of that and I was tearing my hair out. Even the promise of Lotus Notes 8 would entice me to stick with the experience.

So, how do you run Office 2007 and use Outlook as your mail client on top of Notes? It is possible… Office 2003 needs to be installed first with the notes connector working. Then install Office 2007, selecting to keep the old version of Office, perform a “custom install” and in the installation options remove all outlook components. You must not install Outlook 2007.

Result? Happy days again – Office 2007 goodness for all but Outlook! And I can live with email and calender in Outlook 2003 using Outlook’s text editor to write mail if it means that Notes can once again be an unused Shortcut on my desktop.

Duplication and lack of clarity: That’s most corporations right?

A couple of weeks ago the share price of BP plummeted because the CEO “did a Ratner” and criticised the company. Essentially he was criticising his company for being inefficient. “There is massive duplication and lack of clarity of who does what”. Yet is this so uncommon? Spend some time in most FTSE 100 company and I’m sure you’ll soon discover duplication, inefficiency and waste. It seems to be the consequence of scale; a growing company gets organised around business units and these inevitably become inwardly focussed and support a silo mentality. These silos soon cease to have a single minded focus upon the stakeholder that matters most, the customer, and instead focus upon the good of themselves.

For example, the organisation may have a number of different products. These are organised into product lines with each product having its own targets. The product lines then start competing against each other; it is not in the product managers interest to consider anything outside increasing the profitability of her own product line. So if this means cannibalising the market share from other product lines so be it. Her bonus depends upon the success of her products.

Undoubtedly she needs IT support. Here comes more inefficiency. Whilst a similar technology may be used by another part of the business, it does not entirely meet her requirements. So a new product is built. Throw in outsourcing and inefficiencies are abound. It is not in the interests of the vendor to strive for simplicity. (Read PG’s excellent analysis of the problem with outsourcing IT).

Then you’ve got “channel” The Web Team, the Mobile Services team, Telephony, Retail Stores… Again, each has their own P&L and targets, each competing against each other. The talk may be of a seamless cross channel experience, but when the staff in the Stores are remunerated based upon sales they make, what is the incentive to direct the customer to the website to complete the transaction? Better loose the sale than do that.

Once a product has been sold it requires support – another bunch of stakeholders with their own (muffled) agenda. Customer acquisition is more costly than customer retention, yet the focus is usually upon the former, regardless of how wasteful this may be.

And what of the “Gold” team, looking after our “best” (read most profitable) customers. Another bunch of stakeholders with their own priorities, requirements and bottom line. All different parts of the organisation competing against each other. It’s not a team effort with a common goal (maximising customer and shareholder value), it’s a battle lining business unit against business unit with a common enemy of IT.

Is there an answer to organisational inefficiencies? There’s a solution to everything if you’ve got enough time and money. But for a start I’d love to know of a company that has scaled and has maintained a true focus upon the customer. That doesn’t internally compete for their customers share of wallet. That is transparent and shares knowledge effectively, where duplication is unknown. That uses IT strategically to support the business meet its common goals. An organisation that remunerates according to total value earned regardless of where it was fulfilled. An organisation that, regardless of the fluff in the annual report really does deliver value for the shareholder and customer, and waste is the common enemy.

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