Archive for March, 2011

Bridging the Gap

I am thrilled to be a guest author this month on Bridging the Gap.  My post is in response to a reader’s submitted question about how to take his established Business Analysis Center of Excellence (BACoE) to the next level.

I hope you will check out my post on this amazing website.  Laura Brandenburg does an amazing job in hosting this site and has great resources for anyone interested in Business Analysis.  This is a site that I use often to gain insights!

I hope you will check out the site and my post!


March 31, 2011 at 7:43 pm 1 comment

The Engaged Project Sponsor

What could be more ideal – you want something done, so you give it to a group of people, and then check back in 6-8 months later to see if it’s done.  Seriously?  And why does anyone think this method will be successful? Yet, how often do we see it happen in business when a sponsor initiates an IT project. I think we lose sight that IT projects for a business are needed as a method to meet a business objective that the sponsor is responsible for.  So when a project sponsor throws the requested IT project over the fence and  just expects it will be done, they are putting their fate in someone else’s hands.

The reality is that IT faces many obstacles when working on a project and they need some help.  Stakeholders that ask for more scope than is appropriate.  Competition for resources.  Budget decisions that can have serious impacts on the project’s success.  All of these issues might need the help of a strong project sponsor to help partner with the IT Project Manager to clear issues out-of-the-way of project success.

What Should You Expect?

If you are in IT, what can you do to engage your sponsor?  What should you expect and not expect out of them?  Let’s jump in!

Let’s start with expectations!

  1. Your sponsor should be ready from the start to set the priority – Scope, Schedule or Cost.
  2. Your sponsor should be able to help you understand the impact that the project will have on the business.
  3. Your sponsor should be able to help you with the Enterprise Business Analysis – by confirming which business units should be solicited for input into the requirements.
  4. Your sponsor should be able to review the budget with you and any processes required to obtain funding approvals.
  5. Your sponsor should be able to tell you other efforts underway to support the business objective.
  6. Your sponsor should be a champion to executive leadership for all efforts underway to support the business objective.
  7. Your sponsor should be ready to review any Risks or Issues confirmed for the project.
  8. Your sponsor should be ready to handle any scope disputes as the ultimate authority of what is in or out of scope.
  9. Your sponsor should ask to stay informed of change requests, budget forecast vs. expenses, and progress on project milestones (met or missed).

Now what you should NOT expect of your sponsor:

  1. Your project sponsor will not likely be available for daily status calls.
  2. Your project sponsor cannot single-handedly write all of the requirements or verify them for completeness.
  3. Your project sponsor is not going to be able to remove hurdles out of your way without facts.

How to Engage a Project Sponsor?

We expect a lot of our sponsors but we are willing to give a lot to help deliver a successful IT project.  But what do you do to engage your project sponsor?

  1. From the start, talk to them about expectations.  What they can expect of you and what you expect of them.  If they are not able to stay engaged, ask them if they have someone on their staff who can step in and participate actively.
  2. Keep them informed. Provide them with timely updates that are fact-based.  Let’s throw away those Red-Yellow-Green subjective 4-square reports and get back to milestone and budget based reporting.
  3. Walk the sponsor through the major IT project milestones and ask for their help in motivating the team.  Let them know which team meetings could use their input and which ones are fairly routine and can be skipped.  They will appreciate your respect for their schedule.  Most project sponsors have “day jobs” to fulfill besides sponsoring an IT project so keep their involvement focused on key meetings and activities.

If you are currently involved in a project that lacks an engaged sponsor, it is not too late!  Talk to your sponsor about the issues you are facing, and how their engagement would help.  Come prepared with the facts – how the project is trending on milestones and budget.  Bring a specific list of fact-based risks and issues and some ideas on mitigation strategy.

In Summary

Ultimately, IT projects lead to business success, which is part of a masterful plan that engages various aspects of the company.  Project sponsors can have their hands full through this process so it is key to engage them in a thoughtful, productive way.  However, there is not an excuse for a dis-engaged project sponsor as it can lead to a lack of motivation for your project team and lingering risks or issues that cannot be removed without their help.

Have you experienced great success or failure due to the engagement of a project sponsor?  What techniques have you used to engage your sponsor?

March 27, 2011 at 8:14 pm Leave a comment

What to Do When Things Go Wrong

In IT, nothing gets your blood pumping like a serious production issue.  Whether you love the thrill of the challenge and adrenaline or shudder at the thought of the stressful environment, you cannot deny that there is a reaction.  The trick to any type of significant issue, including an IT outage, the important thing to do is react in the right way.

My suggestion is to live and operate by a simple principle – Do Unto Others.

When your pipes burst at home and you need a plumber, what do you expect?

First, you expect them to return your call when you leave them the frantic voicemail about water flooding your house.
We have to be responsive, acknowledge the concern, and, depending on severity, we need to provide immediate triage support.

Let your client know that you are aware of the issue and that you are contacting others within the IT organization who need to engage.  Ask if they have contacted any other business teams or 3rd parties that need to be notified of the issue.  If you need to notify a large number of users, you should have a template available to send a consistent message.  This way, whomever on your team is responding, you know the message will be clear & concise.  Let the users know that the proper teams have engaged to help.  Let them know what they can expect (functionality failing, loss of data, slow responses, etc), steps they should take to work-around it (if known), how to escalate extreme issues, and your communication plan (next notification will be when the issue is resolved or in 2 hours, whichever is the shorter period).  This does a couple of things – first it eliminates the “hair on fire” drama.  Calls into your Helpdesk should slow down, and those who need to take action to workaround the issue are aware of what they should advise people to do.  It also sets an expectation of when they will hear from you.  You’ll call them – they don’t need to call you every 15 minutes for an update.

What is going on with my pipes because I need water to run my household?

As soon as your clients know you are working on the issue, they will expect you to have an answer.  Yes, IT systems are complicated but you are their go-to IT guys – of course you have the answers!

Keep your clients informed of your progress.  What issues have you eliminated as possibilities?  Which potential issues are you focused on?  Appoint a spokesperson – someone from the IT team who can step away from time to time to provide timely updates to your clients.  Again, this is something you can determine BEFORE something breaks.  Maybe your situation/culture calls for a person with a certain title or level of authority to handle this.  Other times, you might decide that there is a team member that you work with that is fantastic at handling this type of communication.  Either way, consider this early on because a lot of IT professionals get very focused on the solution and forget to stick their head out from “under the sink” to let the clients know what is going on.  Again, the point to this is timely updates – that doesn’t mean every 20 minutes.  It means whatever is appropriate for your business impact.  If your order management system is down and you are hemorrhaging orders by the minute, an update every 30 minutes may be very appropriate.  If you have a workaround in place, perhaps every 1-2 hours is acceptable.  Every application team should know what business processes their system supports, which business groups (clients) that impacts, and who their primary contact is – just for this type of scenario.

Great – you found the fix!  What is this going to cost me?

Eureka!  You’ve isolated the root cause and you know how to fix it.  Before you pick up the phone to tell your anxious clients, be ready with the following information:

  • The root cause of the issue summarized in a non-technical way
  • Any other impacts identified based on the root cause (sorry but it’s not just your kitchen drain but now it’s impacting your main line….)
  • Confirmation that the work-around (if there is one), will work until the long-term fix is in place
  • Timeframe for the long-term fix
  • Any steps that will be needed to recover from the issue – is data corrupted?  orders need to be resubmitted?
  • What your clients can do to help – will you need them to test the fix? Will they need to re-submit orders?  Let them know early so they can have people ready to help.

Now it’s time to call.  It is also a good idea to have this information written up in an email that you send shortly after your phone conversation.  This helps because you can copy anyone else who needs to be aware and you have it in written form, which allows the client to fully absorb the information.

Ask your client about their impacts.  Can they survive on your timeline?  Are there others that need to be notified due to the timeline?  What can you provide them – now or after the fix is deployed – to help them recover & get back on their feet?  I appreciate it when my plumber tells me he can at least get my cold water going again while I’m waiting on the final repairs.  And I would appreciate it if he would ask me about my impacts.  Maybe he can’t go any faster, but he cared enough to ask and to listen.  Besides, he’s getting paid by the hour, why does he care?

If the fix is going to take more than a couple of hours, you should plan on a status update regularly.  Let them know you are making progress – even if it’s just dropping them a note every few hours to say “It’s going as planned and we are on track to be done by 9pm”.

Great – it’s fixed!  Now why did it happen and how do I avoid this mess again?

Before my plumber walks out the door, I want more than the bill.  I want to know how to avoid this type of disaster from EVER happening again.  In IT, we owe our clients the same thing.  We owe them Root Cause and Irreversible Correct Action.

Root Cause is the analysis of what failed.  Was it a set of badly written code?  Hardware failure?  3rd party software issues?  Explain to your users what occurred, and some details as to how your team addressed the issue.

Irreversible Corrective Action is the steps to be taken to avoid this from happening again.  Did your fix temporarily solve this or is the fix permanent?  If your fix is temporary, you need to outline the steps to be taken to get to a final fix and the timeframe.  You may also want to have a discussion, down the road, about what you could do to preventively identify the symptoms of this issue before it happens, or alarming to notify IT and clients when the system encounters this issue.  Pro-active & Reactive – good combination to help increase the confidence of your clients in your system.

This is the point where my plumber usually tells me to use a different brand of toilet paper or to put a lock on my toilet lid so my kids can’t flush their tennis balls just so they can see if they will fit down the drain.  He also usually shares with me how I can help increase the flushing power when toys are shoved down by running the facets in my bathroom while flushing because my pipes are on a bad slope.

The point to all of this is Do Unto Others.  When things go wrong in your system – and it will happen – it’s important that you react to your clients in a way that puts them at ease (as much as possible), and keeps their confidence in you and your systems.  If you treat them as you would appreciate being treated, odds are that you will come out of the issue with not only their confidence, but also their respect.

March 11, 2011 at 6:44 pm Leave a comment

Investing in Yourself

In the past 60 days, ask yourself what skill you have learned or worked on enhancing?  WHAT?  You can’t think of one?  Oh, you’ve been busy.  Long days at work, no time to take training.  Maybe your boss hasn’t required you to take any training.

Excuses.  That’s what those are.  You have to find time every week to invest in yourself.  You owe it to yourself.  No one else owes it to you.

Many companies have amazing training programs for their employees.  Libraries of online or classroom training available for the taking.  Employees build development plans each year with their manager and for at least a short time in the year, there is a focus on training.

That is not enough.

Each of us is responsible for our own development.  And if you think that you are in a good place in your career and that you do not need to “develop”, then think again.  The professional world is competitive these days.  If you are not focused building your skills, you could find yourself competing against someone who has.

Enough of the doom & gloom – hopefully you get the point now.

Now what to do about it.

1.  Ask yourself what you want to be when you grow up

Do you have aspirations to develop into the next technology leader in your industry?  Do you want to change career paths?  Are you really satisfied with what you do & contribute now?  There is no such thing as a bad answer to these questions – just having an answer is half the battle!  Each person has to decide what they want in life – professionally & personally.

2.  Build your plan to get (or stay) there

If you want to grow, then there are skills that you need to work on.  If you do not know what those skills are, then talk to someone in that role.  Find someone who loves what they do, and they will embrace the opportunity to tell you about it.  Make a list of those skills.  Really – write it down on paper.

Set goals for which skills you are going to work toward each month.  And be reasonable – you can’t learn 10 things at once.  It’s about forming a habit, so pick one the first month.  Next month, focus on two.  If you have a busy month coming up, pull back to only focusing on one, or just continue on the one you have.  No skill is learned over a month but some fundamentals can be learned and every month, you should be adding to your knowledge and experience to make your skills stronger.

Like any lifestyle change, it’s about forming a habit.  You can do this but you have to make it a priority.  And it does take an investment of time.  Go to work 15 minutes early every day to work on this.  That’s an hour extra a week – 52 hours a year!  You could pack your lunch and work on this during your lunch hour while you eat.  You could stay late 1 day per week for 2 hours and work on your training.  The important thing is, find a pattern that is reasonable for you, and stick to it.  If you have a setback, get back on routine.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, and no one became CIO over night.

Consider which skills can be learned informally and which ones require formal training or certification.  Especially in technical skills, you may need proof of your skills besides experience.  This might require money out of your own pocket.  That is a hard pill for some people to swallow.  There is a perception that our employers should cover these costs.  Yes, if your employer has a particular skill they want you to have, then yes, they should pay.  But if this is a skill to help you towards your goal, then you have just as much obligation to pay for yourself.  You may need this proof later on when you are applying for a new position…. so the cost may lead to a greater reward!

3.  Invest in Yourself

Here’s the point of this post – take that list and figure out how you can work towards those skills in your current job.  What classes can you take?  What books should you read?  What people in your organization have those skills – find opportunities to work with those people or ask them how they gained the skill.  Ask your boss for tasks that will give you a reason to work on those skills?  A lot of bosses would LOVE to delegate some responsibility off their plate, you may be a blessing to them if you ask if you can handle next month’s forecast, or this week’s resource planning, or whatever other task you want to work on.  Anything you can get out of your existing position to help you grow into your next positive, is a GOOD THING!

To me, the reason this is okay, and not just about building your resume, is because your current employer wins in this situation too.  They get a stronger employee.  They get someone who’s working hard to contribute more.  Someone who is focused on building their own skills – and not an employee they have to keep pushing along year after year.

If your company does not offer any opportunities for training, that’s okay.  Look for other options.  Look for an association in your field – many offer free training.  Do research online – iTunes offers free learning through iTunes University.  Look for books, magazines, blogs – anything to read to give you ideas to support your goal.

Learning is not enough.  You have to have the chance to use what you have learned.  If you cannot do this in your current position, look for outside opportunities.  Maybe another team within the company could use some help.  Look for volunteer opportunities that might give you a chance to use those skills.  Any of those methods can lead to a future reference that can verify your skill level.

The other thing – pay this forward.  If you are finding great resources for learning, share it with your peers who might be wanting to learn the same skill.  Some people will thank you for it.  Others will ignore your information.  It’s their decision – just as investing in yourself is yours.

4.  Monitor your progress

Every week – look at your progress.  What time did you invest in yourself this week.
Every month – ask if you feel that you have built some fundamental knowledge in your skill.  If not, re-address your schedule.  If not, ask yourself why?  Are your objective changing?  Are you not finding training resources?  One way to keep yourself motivated is to share your plan with a friend who will hold you accountable.  I post sticky notes around my house or work to keep my “eye on the prize”.  Everybody is motivated differently – ask yourself what drives you and use it.

Every year – make a year in review list of what skills you have worked on.  Share it with your boss.  Toot your horn and ask for their help in making you a stronger contributor in the upcoming year.

When you decide to take a step towards a new position, bring along your notes about your skill-building journey.  Tell the person you are interviewing with about the skills you have developed through training and experience.  Tell them about your approach for investing in yourself.  Most people would be impressed.  You are demonstrating self-worth, ability to self-motivate, ability to adapt, ability to learn, and big picture thinking.  These are attributes that most people look for in an employee.

In Summary

52 weeks in a year.  52 opportunities to improve yourself as a professional.  Nothing happens overnight but everyone should have a plan that helps them hit their goal.  Not many things happen to us by accident.  It takes effort and no one is going to show up one day and say that they want to be the one that pushes you towards your goal.  You have to step-up to make that happen.  It can seem difficult but taking it one step at a time – one week at a time – you can do it.  And really, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

March 6, 2011 at 5:43 pm 4 comments

Consider the Return

In Consider the Cost, I talked about the need to consider the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) when making decisions about requirements.  Well, here’s the other side.  As you develop your requirements with your stakeholders, a Business Analyst needs to help the stakeholders consider the Return on Investment (ROI) that could be obtained with the requirement.

Now I’m not advocating that for every Stakeholder Requirement that you write, you build a business case.  Seriously, I love Excel but not that much.  But I do think that when you have a set of requirements that are starting to add up, there is nothing wrong with taking a step back and asking “What gain are we going to get out of these requirements?”.  Ideally, it is a quantifiable gain – like “this functionality will reduce order time by 5 minutes per order”.  But some times it may be more intangible – “this requirement aligns with our need to improve Shareholder reporting on our financial statements.”. 

I think stakeholders get caught up in the excitement of requirements gathering.  I don’t know about you, but my sessions are fun & lively!  I like to encourage my users to dream – but to keep a balance of what would be ideal with what we can afford.  I often ask “Are we getting the Bang for our Buck?”.  I use that phrase a lot!  Are we getting the most out of our resources?  Time spent.  Money spent.  Resource time (money) spent. 

My software team is often asked to make updates to existing systems or reports.  It is not uncommon for someone to ask to have a report re-formated or a template updated.  While I understand the need to keep my clients happy, I do push back and ask “What value will that bring you?”.  Not to say that I won’t do it – we often do if it’s a minor change with low risk and a chance to improve their experience but I am trying to get my clients in the mindset of asking themselves that question before coming to me with the request.

I think IT needs to be trained in the same way.  We are often our own worst enemy.  What is the ROI on that new faster server?  What is the business reason that we need to upgrade our database software?  Not that these things are not important but how can you say that IT is “ran like a business” when you can’t even state why you are doing these things.  In the past, I have heard “because the supplier says we should” or “we don’t want to get behind”.  While those might be good reasons, what is the cost of getting behind on a version of software?  The quantifiable costs – risk of being out of maintenance with the supplier, inability to take advantage of new functionality (if it’s truly needed), inability to find resources familiar with older version.  These are some good reasons but I have not always heard those answers.  And rarely do I hear alternatives to these issues (could pay to extend maintenance, could cross-train resources, etc).  That’s probably a good post for another day.

This ROI concept goes with so many things – including Time Management.  What is the ROI on attending this meeting or that one?  Should I work late and catch up on email, or eat dinner with my family?  If I use this method of “Bang for my Buck” in managing my time, I find that I am more satisfied with how my day is spent, and when asked by my boss as to what I’ve accomplished, I’m prepared to not only tell him but tell him why.

What are your experiences in gathering requirements and having your stakeholders focus on Return on Investment?  Any tricks on making this work?  Any drawbacks?

March 3, 2011 at 5:34 pm 1 comment

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