Coping with disruptive technology

We live in an age of disruption, where new IT-driven models of commerce are ripping the heart out of the High Street, and transforming whole markets. What makes this possible is the rapid development of new IT solutions, linked to businesses that are adapting to the new technology; they are ready to deliver value.

Many of these disruptive organisations are new, though – starting from scratch, with the business built around a new, technology-driven business model.

Are existing businesses like dinosaurs, doomed to extinction as this comet of disruptive technology hits their world?

Some have already died out, and others will follow, but it’s a big world, and those organisations willing to evolve quickly can still prosper, I believe, if they address business change in an integrated way.

I was recently asked to help the University of Cumbria develop a new project management course for a major client, and in doing so I reread a lot of published wisdom on project management, illustrating it with case studies from my own experience.

The mismatch between the published wisdom (around which that client operates) and my experience of successful projects, is in business readiness to create value from the project. This is CORE to success, not a bolt-on at the end, I have found.

The published project management bodies of knowledge mention business engagement in the right places; it’s the emphasis that is wrong, as they are largely derived from major engineering activities. In the world of business change, the short timescales and return demanded on investment put business readiness at the heart of all successful change, and quite quickly, corporate survival.

Solicitors, accountants – take a look at estate agents!

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The role of consultancy in strategic planning

For many years I’ve found strategic planning to be a rare skill; most people struggle with it.

When discussing my approach (which is pretty standard) with a client recently, I split the problem down into 3 parts:

  1. Knowing where you are
  2. Knowing where you want to get to
  3. Constructing the road map to get from one to the other

Looking at these, I would argue that most business people, with a bit of teaching, are quite able to do part 3 – it’s a core human skill, quite logical, analytical and not demanding much creativity (though detailed planning of large projects is highly skilful).

This leaves parts 1 and 2 where the problem lies, and they are problematic for quite distinct reasons.

1. Knowing where you are is a problem for many people as they are too close to things and prejudiced by assumptions. It may even be that they are a part of the problem, so self-justification will distort and cloud their analysis.

It requires cold, dispassionate assessment.

The other key factor is that an accurate situational analysis requires integrating the perspectives of all stakeholders, something difficult to achieve for someone inside most organizations, as structure and hierarchy stand in the way of honesty and completeness.

An external person can provide clear insights that no internal person is able to offer, through confidentiality and mobility.

2. Knowing where you want to get to is a real challenge when your nose is to the grindstone – it requires quality thinking time, plus releasing the imagination. Most of us have to work very hard, frequently 50 – 70 hours a week, making mundane decisions – lots of analysis, but little creative thinking. This means our creative muscles get flabby and wasted.

The hardest aspect of this is that when we are facing gritty reality hour by hour, envisioning an ideal world where everything is great is not a simple event but a journey – we need support when trying to be creative.

Human beings are rather good at learning by analogy (abductive reasoning) but getting first-hand that wider view of what others are doing is often a luxury.

An external expert can provide insights from your competitors, and best practice from other industries to stimulate the imagination, and help form that “ideal world”  vision.

As a business owner, do I practise what I preach? Well, I haven’t always done so effectively, but I’m getting better; I don’t want to be “penny-wise, pound-foolish”.

The Seagull Manager

This post on The Seagull Manager made me laugh – I’ve come across a good few in my time and never ceased to be amazed that they get away with it – activity is used as the measure of performance, not results.

A good friend, who is a great believer in working smarter not harder, was kicked out by a major telco because they had a culture of long hours doing pointless work, and he just didn’t fit.

Working harder not smarter is the British corporate way – people are praised for digging MORE holes in the wrong place then filling them in again QUICKER.

What we need is to think and dig them in the right place at the start. This means being one step ahead of the seagull manager, and having validated options and robust defences ready!

Be very careful when selecting the information you act on!

Just read this interesting article on how selecting the wrong sample of people to listen to can skew your choice. This prompted recollections of the business intelligence strategy work I did at Willis and Centrica, and a warning story about data mining, where the “training data” wasn’t randomly selected, leading to astonishing performance that was too good to be true, sadly.

I’m currently engaged in helping a client move from having no data at all to a (hopefully) detailed and balanced view of the problems their customers face in using their products. At the moment they’re planning product development through a mixture of informed opinion and guess-work. It’s good that they are unhappy with this situation, but the solution is a challenging leap for many of them – become a customer-focused organization speaking to the customers frequently and in detail.

As scientists and engineers, they are comfortable working with numbers and precision – they just don’t have the data required, and that can only come from from the customers themselves. We’re working on how to collect and analyse as much data as possible, prior to developing a phased development and deployment plan.

This has just reminded me that we need to build in data quality detection and management to detect skew before they make the wrong choices!

Measuring performance

On Friday I listened at the BCN to someone with a much more prestigious career (thanks, Duncan Ashurst) echoing my own thoughts on the huge difference between efficiency and effectiveness.

Seeing this article on the challenges of performance management where it’s not simple or easy to quantify output led me to think back to setting the performance measurement strategy at Willis and Centrica, and how that led to driving another project around something as subjective as customer experience.

There is a sad tendency towards measuring what is easy to measure, not what is truly needed.

In the case of driving through a major billing migration project, we could measure complaints and churn, but that would have been too late – the customer would have walked away already.We had to work pre-emptively with the customer services manager and use her skills and judgement to predict our performance qualitatively, and fine tune very quickly in the light of feedback.

There are many key parameters for success, and often a large fraction can’t be quantified easily  – you still have to assess them if you want to succeed!

P.S. Just saw this article on customer service cooking the books. This is a lovely analysis of why poor performance measures damage business performance by distorting business intelligence information!

Organizational alignment: coalescing culture, organization and leadership

Torben Rick’s piece on organizational alignment made me think – it’s a simple concept but never-the-less overlooked: strategy can only be implemented if the organization is aligned with it. A strategy that isn’t implemented is worthless.

So align your organization with its strategy:

  • individual goals and remuneration
  • KPIs
  • structure
  • IT
  • culture

It’s all or nothing.

Driving forwards just looking backwards?

I really like this article as it summarizes many of the problems with the hierarchical management approaches I see in larger clients:

Can you imagine getting into your car and trying to drive to work only looking out the back, not where you are going?  Terrifying thought, yet poor planning and communication means just that for many organizations – decisions are made purely on retrospective information (“fighting the last war”).

I’m currently setting up a new education programme in Nuclear Engineering, an area in which none of us can afford mistakes to be made – the driving philosophy is to teach engineers to think about what they are doing, not just mindlessly do as they are told.

In a completely different field recently, I saw a case in which  a design engineer had omitted a vital piece of information from a specification leading to a serious quality failure: when asked why, he retorted “Because the standard didn’t say I had to include it” – abdication of professional responsibility to mindless obedience.

In industry worldwide we employ a vast amount of brainpower and expertise, yet management usually spends much of its time suppressing it to maintain “control”. Paradoxically this means that the company has less control, because it has turned off the power steering, the headlights, the windscreen wipers and the brake servos.