IT chalta hai

“Hearing the words ‘I LOVE this…’ from a client is a magical thing”  So tweeted Graham Smith.

Now how often does “the business” say that that to IT?  Rarely I guess.  Why is that?  Why doesn’t “business” love IT?

I think the Indians have got a phrase for this: Chalta hai.

I’ve recently come back from India.  As always it was a pleasure to read the Indian newspapers and weekly news magazines.  In discussing the Commonwealth Games, several columnists in their English language columns made reference to the hindi ‘Chalta Hai‘.  There is no direct translation (hence the columnists use of Hindi) but “it’s all right” or “it’ll do” comes closest.

Chalta Hai is an attitude.  It is mediocrity.  The columnists applied Chalta Hai to service culture and getting things done (or rather the lack of it).  Whilst Chalta Hai may be an Indian affliction, India is not alone.  I’m going to suggest that corporate IT suffers from Chalta Hai.  There’s an industry mindset that success is just getting stuff delivered.  Success is  “it’ll do”.  Mediocrity is a sufficient goal.  To hell with the experience; who cares what the users think, it’s all about delivering functionality and features.  We’re happy if “it’s all right”.  No-one has the desire to hear the business say “I love this!”

Let’s bring some magic into the enterprise.  Let’s introduce a new acceptance criteria to our requirements; that the stakeholder who signs it off says “I love this”.

It’s bad said the doc, case of business locked in, customer locked out.

The customer is the oxygen that keeps a business alive.  No. The customer is more than just the oxygen that keeps the business alive, (my mother was recently on a life support machine with Guillian Barre Syndrome; she was getting oxygen but paralysed, unable to move.  With that condition you see that life is more than just about breathing oxygen).  The customer is more than just corporate oxygen, it is the reason a business lives for.

Shareholder value means nothing if the organisation doesn’t provide value to the customer.  Yet  I see far too many organisations who fail to grasp  the importance of their customers.  They prioritise their internal processes and policies to the detriment of customer satisfaction.  They focus upon narrow propositions that represent organisational silos rather than meeting the broad needs of the customer.  Innovation is morphed into ‘requirements’ that are performed by ‘actors’ in multiple volumes of ‘use cases’.  To my mind, too many organisations are struck down by corporate Guillian Barre Syndrome.  The brain knows what is going on but is powerless to act.  It feels pain, it senses something is wrong but is paralysed, it cannot move.  Prisoner in its own body.

If that is the diagnosis, what is the cure?  There are many, but a starting point would be to place the customer at the heart of your design.  Don’t start any proposition without the customer experience at the core.  Create personas and walk through customer journeys.  Use scenarios to develop your thinking.  Broaden the scenarios to introduce what-if models.  If it is an internet offering, sketch out the screens, if it is a service, sketch out the touch-points with your people, processes and technology.  Don’t allow the proposition to be talked of in the abstract, work with the concrete.  Would a persona accept the experience your proposing? Would she accept that pricing model? Does that journey make sense? You do not need to spend weeks and months documenting the exercise.  A couple of days with the right people in the right room with white boards, post-it notes and business-speak banished from the proceedings should deliver far more fruitful insights than playing document-tennis with revision after revision after revision. You may even kill the proposition before you invest too much time on it. Or better still identify a better, customer-centric proposition waiting in the wings.

Are you managing expectations beyond the team?

There’s this idea called the Disconfirmation of expectations theory that states that having unrealistically high expectations from the adoption of a new IT application will result in lower levels of realised benefits.  Get customers excited about a new product and fail to deliver on it and you will have unsatisfied customers.  And unsatisfied customers are unlikely to use the product to its full advantage.

There is a risk with products developed using agile approaches that they fail to deliver on their initial promise.  The immediate stakeholders know that the product will evolve incrementally, but is this true of the broader audience? Are they aware of the intended regular heartbeat of delivery or are they expecting a fully featured product at the first release.  How are you managing expectations beyond the immediate product team?

Be wary of what you say early on.  Creating a vision is essential but be mindful of how this is communicated. Early demos, proof of concepts, prototypes, wireframes often show a vision of the end goal, several releases into the future.  Words are easily forgotten, explaining that this is an end goal vision is not enough, you must show a vision of what the cut-down product for the first release is and ensure it is appropriately communicated.

Expectations work both ways, it is easy for the business to tell IT their requirements and assume they will be developed in their entireity in one go.  Similarly it is easy for agile developers to expect the business to understand their incremental approach to delivery. The key to success is effective change management; identifying all stakeholders (both core and peripheral) and create a culture of agility that goes beyond the immediate project team.  In a large organisation that maintains more traditional approaches, agile projects must be supported by a well designed communication plan that builds the relationship between both IT and the business. Identify whose life will be touched by the product and develop a strategy for communicating to them.  This doesn’t mean “they can see what is going on on the project Wiki” this means someone taking responsilibity for listening, engaging and evangelising on the product, the project and its goals.

Have you considered the cost of context switching

One of the great things with running a project with Microsoft Project is that it enables you to allocate resources to activities and you can assign the time they work on each activity.  A resource can then work on several projects at the same time, 50% on project A, 50% on project B.

With this ability it is easier to accommodate multiple projects that the business request.  Rather than having to say we can’t start on a project in six months when the current one finishes, we can run both projects at the same time, using the same resources.  We can do things in parallel rather than in series.

Only it doesn’t really work like that.

One of the great things with running a project with Microsoft project is that it enables you to allocate resources in a way that hinders productivity, effective planning and quality.

The problem is with context switching and the overhead that multi-tasking brings.  This article succinctly describes the problem.

No matter how efficient you think you are, multitasking comes with a high cost. Because we’re people, we don’t swap out the content of our brains as easily as a computer does, and we definitely don’t swap in the old state when we’re ready to return to the original task.

Gerald Weinberg, in Quality Software Management, Vol. 1, Systems Thinking (Dorset House, 1992), estimates the context-switching cost among three tasks to be 40 percent. That means that 40 percent of your available work time is spent on non-task activities. The rest of the time is split among the three projects. So, if you thought that in a 45-hour week, you could spend 15 hours on each of three tasks, don’t kid yourself. You’re really spending eight hours on project A; eight hours on project B; eight hours on project C; and 24 hours context-switching, figuring out where you were and what you have to do next. The time spent on each project works out to about half of what you expected.

So whilst it is easy to appear to please business sponsors by taking multiple projects on at the same time, and the model of working in parallel rather than in series being a politically favourable approach, in fact the costs of multi-tasking far outweigh the benefits.

Thinking about value in terms of advantage and benefit

A product rarely sells itself.  What sells a product is the advantage it brings and the benefits it delivers to the customer.  It is the benefit of the product that sells rather than the product itself. What is the advantage of the requirement you are stating, and what is the benefit it will bring the customer?

Let’s start with a product.  Think broadband.  It’s dull.  Put 10MB in front of it and it is still dull.

Now think about the advantage that 10MB broadband brings.  The advantage is that it is fast.  Lightning fast.

Now think about the benefit which that advantage brings.  The benefit is that you can download an MP3 tune in seconds rather than minutes with your old dial up connection.  You are no longer selling broadband, but the experience that it brings.

Let’s consider IT requirements to be products.  A dull list, a thick document gathering dust. How do you prioritise one requirement over another?  What is more important?

Agile introduces ‘stories’ as the requirement product.  They are written in the format ‘As a <role>, I want <a feature>, so that <some benefit is achieved>’.  It is the ‘So that’ which is usually the hardest part to articulate, yet it is the most important part of the story.

Liz Keogh describes how prompted by Chris Matts her preferred narative reads:

In order to <achieve some value>
As a <role>
I want <some feature>.

Applying the marketing thinking to how the story will “achieve some value”, don’t just define that value in the advantage it will bring, rather also consider the benefit it will deliver to the user.  The two are different.  There maybe a business advantage to delivering some feature, but if the benefit to the end user can’t be articulated, it’s real value must be questioned.

The user journey

“Faster, slicker, easier to use.  That’s how we sold it to the business.”  It is a common theme, IT have a system that is costly to maintain, hard to extend, is on a dated platform and no longer fit for purpose.  The business are persuaded of the need for a replacement.

This is what happened at an organisation I recently visited.  But it didn’t quite go to plan.  A number of years later and they’ve got an application that is slower, uglier and harder to use.  What happened was the business intent was distilled into requirements (based upon the existing functionality).  Each requirement was captured as a control on a screen.  These were bundled up and sent to India for coding, and the developers went and built a bunch of screens.  They considered interface design but not interaction design.  They focussed upon technical processes rather than user journeys and the resultant deliverable was something that functionally ticked all the boxes (it did what the specifications said it should do) but was ultimately rejected by the people it was intended to help. The code may have been great but that meant little to the business who found the application a pig to use.  Another failed multi-million dollar IT project.

User interface design is more than just screen design, it is about the journey the user takes to accomplish their goals.  Remembering that could have saved this particular organisation a lot of money.

If software was an airline

All airlines are the same.  They fly the same planes to the same airports for (roughly) the same prices. What differentiates them?  Attention to detail.  It’s not just the functional detail – it’s the experiential detail that really makes the difference.

It’s the same with software.  If the application you are building was an airline, which airline would it be?  All to often developers focus on the plane, building something to fulfil the utility of getting people from A to B.  Yet the customer doesn’t care about whether it’s an Airbus A330 or a Boeing 777, what they care about, and what they remember is the experience they have.

(This can be a useful exercise at the outset of a new project, ask stakeholders to imagine their finished applciation was an airline, what brand would it be?  This helps anchor expectations; are you building a full service Singapore Airlines or a no-frills EasyJet?)

What is the story?

One of the problems with IT development is that it is tactical and piecemeal in its approach. Functionality is added in response to competitor or broader market activity. Expect to see an increasing number of brands doing something ‘social’ (and tactical) on the web, but don’t expect these new initiatives to be (strategic) seamlessly integrated into the existing digital channel offering.

This piecemeal approach extends to larger initiatives as well. In refreshing the website or developing new digital channels such as mobile and TV, IT will typically build out features and functionality prioritised upon their perceived individual business value regardless of what the sum value of the proposed release is. (Focusing all your effort of building functionality that delivers to your bottom line will seldom be as successful as you predict if it is not supported by features that meet the customers needs).

So when it comes to thinking about new features and functionality, where’s the best place to start? I’d suggest collaboratively, thinking around the customer. Collaboration is important to ensure that everyone starts with the same vision. It needs to be shared it with the broader audience, the product teams, IT; anyone whose day to life life will be touched by the project when it starts. I’d argue that you cannot start this soon enough. You don’t need to spend time doing analysis, interviewing all stakeholders individually, coming up with a document that is circulated and reviewed and re-written (with all the delays and waste that such a process incurs). Start the process getting all those stakeholders off-site for an afternoon and get the thoughts out on the table.

Commence with a presentation that introduces thinking in terms of customers and customer journeys. The below SlideShare presentation does this for the airline industry, addressing a new customer experience across channels. I acknowledge that it is pretty simple and doesn’t touch on half the ideas that airline executives may have. That is the point, it is just enough to get people thinking about different customer types and their touchpoints without getting bogged down in detail. This is what we want the participants of the off-site to share.

[slideshare id=912224&doc=airline-deck1-1231817842408345-3&w=425]

Once we’ve been through the presentation we break out into small groups a, each taking an individual customer (or persona) and build up a story; a day in the life of… (It is important not to forget the internal users of the system). These breakouts last 15-20 minutes with ten minutes for the team to play back their findings. As they build out a richer picture of the customer interactions they are asked to sketch out what the user interfaces may look like. The process is rapid, intense and iterative, but always focussing upon the customer journey; how will the customer realise their goals. When the teams tell their stories an analyst captures the essence of the requirements on index cards. The final exercise is to lay all these cards on the table and ask the team to group them into similar areas then prioritise them according to their perceived importance. In an afternoon you will have achieved four things. Firstly, you will have captured a vision for the new product in less than a day, with all stakeholders understanding not only the vision itself, but also the process that developed it and the concerns and issues that different parts of the business have with it. Secondly you will have an initial prioritised roadmap for its development. This will change, but it is a good strawman to circulate. Thirdly you will have introduced all the stakeholders together – projects succeed or fail based upon the strength of relationships and getting people engaged from the start will go a long way to creating shared ownership. And finally you will have generated energy, engagement and traction; to do the business case and to get the project started, recognising that just one part of the business having a vision is not going to bring it to the life that they dream.

Better, faster, cheaper…

Here’s a presentation I gave a while ago to a bunch of senior execs, introducing the concepts of lean and agile to software development.  Many of the slides are taken from a presentation given by Richard Durnall which can be found on the ThoughtWorks website [pdf].  If nothing else, the slides about the problems with conventional development methodologies – that they take time, are not responsive to change and rarely end up satisfying all stakeholders, struck a chord with the audience I presented this to.

[slideshare id=657541&doc=it-forum-presentation1-1223980207243199-8&w=425]

Software Dams and recipient participation

There once was a time that international development was all about big capital projects, building dams and the likes. Times change, now the focus is on eliminating poverty; DFID “focus [their] aid on the poorest countries and those most in need”. There is a realisation that those big projects did very little to address poverty, indeed they kept countries poor forcing them into debt (read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man for a cynical view of this). And besides, dam projects are rarely successful and before you know it they silt up.

A focus on reducing poverty requires a new approach. It requires an understanding of the root problems, it means spending time with the poor to understand their circumstances to be able to create appropriate and sustainable solutions rather than prescribed programmes that develop and maintain a dependency culture.

There are parallels here with the IT industry. Much of the IT game remains focussed upon those big projects. Software dams that can be launched with great fanfare but do little sustainable good to those most in need. The customer.

Before I wound up in IT I worked in international development. My PhD. “Ergonomics tool and methods for use in Industrially Developing Countries” was based on working with farmers in Sub Saharan Africa, looking at how technology is transferred and how it can be made more appropriate, sustainable and usable. Many of the tools and techniques I used in the bush I apply with the corporations I work with today. These came under the umbrella of “Participatory Technology Development” and “Participatory Rural Appraisal”.

Rather than the delivering the white elephants of expensive machinery that you see littered around Africa, Participatory Technology Development is an approach for developing simple low cost innovative solutions that have the ownership of the community who work with researchers to build them. The PTD framework starts with gaining a shared understanding problems and opportunities. This is followed by defining priority problems then experimentation. Experimentation is collaborative with options derived from indigenous knowledge and support from the researchers experience and expertise. The farmers own the experiments and the results. This leads to the next step of the framework; sharing the results with farmer led extension. (Traditionally dissemination of agricultural advice is done by agricultural extension officers – government employees who despite their best intentions preach too the farmers, sharing centrally defined agricultural advice rather than the more appropriate, locally developed technologies that the farming community have developed themselves). The final step to the process is the researchers withdrawing, leaving the community with the capacity to continue the process of change.

(Sounding like agile?)

If PTD is a framework, then PRA is a basket of tools and techniques that can be used to support it. These can be broken down into nine categories:

  • Secondary data reviews – reviewing existing sources of information
  • Workshops – getting key stakeholders round the table (or more appropriately under the banyan tree)
  • Semi-structured interviewing – talking to people with a loose conversation direction
  • Ranking and classification techniques – identifying “things” and ordering them according to different criteria. (Often this will involve moving pebbles around boxes drawn in the sand).
  • Diagramming, illustrations and graphics – pictures to convey ideas and concepts, through “boxes and arrows”, Venn diagrams and charting to cartoons and imagery
  • Mapping – drawings or models that represent the local environment
  • Structured observation – watching people doing
  • Timelines – What happens when, for example seasonal calendars, a line in the sand and people put pebbles down against the time to show when crops are sown, harvested, how the price fluctuates, labour migration etc.
  • Community meetings – meeting the whole community rather than just the immediate stakeholders who participate in stakeholders. Showcases?

Are you building a Software Dam? Or are you focussing your aid on those most in need? PTD and PRA are approaches that have developed to help introduce appropriate, sustainable improvements to the life and wellbeing of subsistence farmers. Much of their content can be transferred to IT projects, helping introduce appropriate, sustainable improvements to the life and wellbeing of customers / users.