9 Tips to Recover a Troubled Project

Dan Moore, a fellow Principal at Cedar Point Consulting, recently reminded me that, “You can’t manage chaos, but you can manage a crisis.” These are very wise words, but they reminded me of the early stages of a trouble project — one which is far behind schedule, well over budget, not delivering results, or all of the above. If anything, a troubled project is chaos waiting for a strong leader to transition it to crisis, and then ultimately to calm.

Whether you’re a C-level executive, an entrepreneur or a project manager, you may not have encountered very many troubled projects in your career, so you may not be familiar with how to transition from chaos, to crisis, and finally to calm. We consultants are often brought in to deal with just such problems, so I have a few tips that should help:

1. Don’t Panic! Douglas Adams references aside, you may have just learned that a key project is in trouble, but it’s important that you not panic. First of all, panic spreads, so you create chaos from crisis, and it won’t be long before your co-workers and your subordinates are panicked, too.Second, panicked people don’t reason effectively – they make “fight-or-flight” decisions instead of rational ones, so you’re far more likely to make a bad decision or push others to do so.

2. Be Methodical. At Cedar Point Consulting, we have a 5-step process that we follow to recover projects – Review, Recommend, Respond, Transition, Close. While this is not the only way to recover a project, it does consistently work – by step three, the project is making progress once again.Regardless of the technique or methodology that you choose, don’t attempt to solve the project’s problems until you have an understanding of their causes. Do take measures to stop the bleeding, until you’ve effectively identified root causes.

3. Read the Tea Leaves. Whether well run or not, nearly all projects have documents that tell you where the weaknesses are and whether they are being managed well. At minimum, even the smallest project should follow a consistent process ( project methodology); have a charter (with a project goal); have a project plan that includes a schedule or milestones, a budget, and assigned staff; regular meeting notes and regular status reports. If these exist, review them to assess where problems are occurring. If they don’t, find out why.

 4. Be From Missouri (“Show Me”). Reading current project documents is a good start, but what if someone is fudging the numbers or painting a rosier picture than reality? For select documents, like staff hours, project schedule and project budget, confirm that they are reasonably accurate independently. Which brings us to the next tip…

5. Use an Independent Third Party. Whether you hire a consultant or have someone in another part of your business lead your project recovery effort, they should be an independent third party. Having a friend of the Project Manager, the Project Manager’s immediate superior or one of their subordinates jump in to help is unlikely to be successful.

Is your Project Behind? Over Budget?

Cedar Point Consulting can help. Through our Five-Step Rapid Project Recovery Process, Cedar Point Consultants quickly evaluate your project’s current state and help you to make the best decision about how to move forward — in as little as two weeks.

While your situation may differ and results can not be guaranteed, Cedar Point consultants have delivered these Rapid Project Recovery success stories:

Green Check Mark For a heavy manufacturer, a troubled multi-year, multi-million dollar product engineering and manufacturing project was recovered and the project was delivered two months early and $300,000 under budget.
Green Check Mark For a large financial institution, a trend of late project deliveries was reversed by a Cedar Point consultant, resulting in three consecutive on-time deliveries in a one year period.
Green Check Mark For a large U.S. Federal agency, a $1.25 million troubled project was recovered and successfully delivered after nearly a year of little results under prior leadership.

For a free initial consultation, call 1-866-CEDAR-34, or contact us here.

6. Change Leadership or Change Process. At the most basic level, projects most often fail because either the project manager is not up to the task or the project management process is preventing them from succeeding. A good project manager controls time, scope, cost and quality on a project. If they don’t control at least two of these and influence all four, then they are likely to fail. Conversely, if they control all of these but the projects headed off a cliff, you probably need to switch project leadership.

7. Increase Communication. When you’re trying to identify problems with a project, it helps to increase communication within the team. Schedule and require participation in regular meetings – daily, if necessary, like Stand-ups or Daily Scrums. Finally, increase the frequency of status reports to key parties, such as the client, the sponsor and key stakeholders, even if the reporting is informal.

8. To Thine Own Self be True. There’s always a need for optimism in every situation, but good leaders are also honest to themselves and to others about the current state of a project. Depending upon how far behind the project truly is, consider reducing scope or resetting the schedule. Failing to do so may doom the project and the project team to yet another failure – one from which they may not recover.

9. Start Small, Review Frequently. After you’ve planned your recovery, be sure to start with small deliverables and shorter milestones, reviewing the project’s progress frequently to make sure the conservative short term goals are being met. While this is not normally the best approach with a project, starting small enables the team members to practice working together as a team before they have to tackle the larger, more challenging deliverables of the project.

The list above isn’t a comprehensive recipe for solving all the problems of a troubled project or for complete recovery, but it is a good start. In a subsequent post, I’ll provide a list of ways to minimize the possibility of troubled projects altogether.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.comm.


Seven Ways to Identify Troubled Projects

Though the traditional advice is “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket,” the celebrated author Mark Twain is famous for saying, “…put all of your eggs in one basket and — WATCH THAT BASKET.”

Whether you’re a an entrepreneur leading a small business , a C-Level executive (CEO/CFO/CIO/CTO) at a mid-sized business, the head of the Project Management Office (PMO), or a business manager watching out for your department, you are often stuck in the position of having to “watch that basket” with your most critical projects.

Even worse, many times you’re never truly sure if one of your key projects is in trouble until it’s too late.

Fortunately, there are some signs that can help you identify a troubled project early, so that you can intervene and put it back on track. I polled our project recovery services specialists at Cedar Point Consulting, and we thought of seven effective ways to identify a troubled project:


Is your Project Behind? Over Budget?

Cedar Point Consulting can help. Through our Five-Step Rapid Project Recovery Process, Cedar Point Consultants quickly evaluate your project’s current state and help you to make the best decision about how to move forward — in as little as two weeks.

While your situation may differ and results can not be guaranteed, Cedar Point consultants have delivered these Rapid Project Recovery success stories:

Green Check Mark For a heavy manufacturer, a troubled multi-year, multi-million dollar product engineering and manufacturing project was recovered and the project was delivered two months early and $300,000 under budget.
Green Check Mark For a large financial institution, a trend of late project deliveries was reversed by a Cedar Point consultant, resulting in three consecutive on-time deliveries in a one year period.
Green Check Mark For a large U.S. Federal agency, a $1.25 million troubled project was recovered and successfully delivered after nearly a year of little results under prior leadership.

For a free initial consultation, call 1-866-CEDAR-34, or contact us online.

  1. Perpetual Green Lights, Little Activity. Many of us are familiar with the approach of labeling projects green when they are on schedule and budget; yellow when the project is falling behind; and red when the project is far behind and/or over-budget. Perhaps your key project has been reporting green for the last three months, but oddly there’s been very little activity related to the project. This is probably a good signal that the project is actually in trouble.
  2. Lot’s of TBD’s. Effective risk and issue management are critical to the success of most projects, yet they are often ignored. If your key project is well past the early stages, but is reporting back a lot of TBD’s (to be determined) in the “resolution” column for risks and issues, then it’s probably a troubled project, even when the schedule doesn’t show it.
  3. Avoiders. The leader in charge of your key project may be a formal project manager or a manager of a business line, but regardless of who they are, you are getting the unsettling feeling that they are avoiding you. Perhaps they are missing at meetings, they’re head the other way down the hall when they see you, they’re not returning phone calls, or they’re not providing status reports. Unless you have a problem bathing, the project leader is likely avoiding you because the project is in trouble.
  4. Troubling Trends. Experienced project managers are familiar in using techniques like earned value management (EVM) to identify project progress by comparing actual to planned results for work completed, costs incurred and time spent. Though you may not be using EVM on your projects, you can watch for dramatic increases or drops in spending, dramatic changes to the work being delivered or sudden changes to schedule with no new schedule dates. In many cases, your key project is in a free-fall.
  5. Non-Progress Reports. You’re wise, so you have asked your project manager to provide status reports on a weekly basis. However, they’re more like “Non-Progress” reports than progress reports because no progress has been made. In particular, if you have received two weekly status reports where no progress has been made, you’re well on your way to having a troubled project on your hands, if you don’t already.
  6. Inability to Show Tangible Results. Well in to your project timeline and knowing that interim reviews are a good ideal, you ask for a review or demonstration of work completed thus far. However, your review meeting is repeatedly delayed and rescheduled, sometimes by a few days and sometimes by weeks. Even worse, you’ve tried a quick visit by the desk of the project leader and it resulted in the person shoving documents in their desk instead of sitting with you to review tangible results. If so, this is likely a troubled project.
  7. Spidey Senses Tingling. Like Peter Parker in the Spiderman comic book series, you know which projects are highest risk and every time the subject of your key project comes up, it sets your spidey senses tingling, though you’re not certain why. While I’m a big believer in science over emotion, there is surely something very scientific that you’re reading so trust your instincts. Your likely to find something amazingly like trouble in your key project.

Of course, identifying a troubled project is one thing, but recovering that project is a completely different challenge. I provided some tips to recover troubled projects in a previous article that may be of help.

However, particularly if you don’t have experience recovering troubled projects and the stakes are high, it might be time to consider getting some help.  Our firm provides project recovery services and we’re proud of our success rate, but other competent firms do, as well.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.comm.


Acquiring New Technology? Build-versus-Buy is Dead

Still debating the build-versus-buy decision at your organization for your IT purchases?  If so, you probably aren’t getting the biggest bang for your IT dollar: Build-versus-buy is dead.  For better decision-making when acquiring IT systems, forget build-versus-buy and remember the Technology Acquisition Grid.  You’ll not only save money, you’ll make smarter decisions for your organization long term, increasing your agility and speeding time-to-market.

In this article, I describe Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), application hosting, virtualization and cloud computing for the benefit of CEO’s, CFO’s, VP’s and other organization leaders outside of IT who often need to weigh in on the these key new technologies.  I also describe how these new approaches have changed technology acquisition for the better – from the old build-versus-buy decision, to the Technology Acquisition Grid. Along the way, you’ll learn some of the factors that will help you decide among the various options, saving your organization time and money.

The Old Model: Build-versus-Buy

When I earned my MBA in Information Systems in the mid-1990’s, more than one professor noted that the build-versus-buy decision was a critical one because it represented two often-costly and divergent paths.  In that model, the decision to “build” a new system from scratch gave the advantage of controlling the destiny of the system, including every feature and function.  In contrast, the “buy” decision to purchase a system created by a supplier (vendor) brought the benefit of reduced cost and faster delivery because the supplier built the product in advance for many companies, then shared the development costs across multiple customers.

Back then, we thought of build versus buy as an either-or decision, like an on-off switch, something like this:

build-versus-buy-switch

In the end, the build-versus-buy decision was so critical because, for the most part, once you made the decision to build or buy, there was no turning back.  The costs of backpedaling were simply too high.

The Advent of Application Hosting, Virtualization, SaaS and Cloud Computing

During the 2000’s, innovations like application hosting, virtualization, software-as-a-service (SaaS) and cloud computing changed IT purchasing entirely, from traditional build-versus-buy, to a myriad of hosting and ownership options that reduce costs and speed time-to-market.  Now, instead of resembling an on-off switch, the acquisition decision started to look more like a sliding dimmer switch on a light, like this:

 

build-to-buy-slider

Suddenly, there were more combinations of options, giving organizations better control of their budgets and the timeline for delivering new information systems.

What are each of these technologies and how do they affect IT purchasing?  Here’s a brief description of each:

Application Hosting

During the dot-com era, a plethora of application-service-providers (ASPs) sprung up with a new business model.  They would go out and buy used software licenses, then host the software at their own facilities, leasing the licenses to their customers on a monthly basis.   The customers of ASPs benefit from the lower cost-of-ownership and reduced strain on IT staff to maintain yet another system, while the ASPs made money by pooling licenses across customers and making use of often-idle software licenses.

While the dot-com bust put quite a few ASPs out of business, the application hosting model, where the software runs on hardware supported by a hosting company and customers pay monthly or yearly fees to use the software, still survives today.

Virtualization

One of the first technologies to change the build-versus-buy decision was virtualization. By separating the hardware from the software, virtualization separates the decision to buy from the need for new software.  In virtualization, first, computer hardware is purchased to support the organization’s overall technology needs.  Then, a self-contained version of a machine – a “virtual” machine – is installed on the hardware, along with application software, such as supply chain or human resources software, that the business needs at that point in time.

When the organization needs a new software application that is not compatible with the first application, because it runs on another operating system, they install another virtual machine and another application on the same hardware.  By doing this, the organization not only delivers software applications more quickly because it doesn’t need to buy, install and configure hardware for every application, the organization also spends less on hardware, because it can add virtual machines to take advantage of unused processing power on the hardware.

Even better, virtual machines can be moved from one piece of hardware to another relatively easily, so like a hermit crab outgrowing its shell, applications can be moved to new hardware in hours or days instead of weeks or months.

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)

Like virtualization, Software-as-a-Service, or SaaS, reduces the costs and time required to deliver new software applications.  In the most common approach to SaaS, the customer pays a monthly subscription fee to the software supplier based on the number of users on the customer’s staff during a given month.  As an added twist, the supplier hosts the software at their facilities, providing hardware and technical support, all within the monthly fee.  So, as long as a reliable Internet connection can be maintained between the customer and the SaaS supplier, the cost and effort to support and maintain the system are minimal.  The customer spends few resources and worries little about the software (assuming the SaaS supplier holds their side of the bargain), enabling the organization to focus on serving it’s own customers, instead of on information technology.

Cloud Computing

The most recent technology innovation among the three, cloud computing brings together the best qualities of virtualization and SaaS.  Like SaaS, with cloud computing both hardware and software are hosted by the supplier.  However, where the SaaS model is limited to a single supplier’s application, cloud computing uses virtual machines to host many different applications with one (or a few) suppliers.  Using this approach, the software can be owned by the customer, but hosted and maintained by the supplier.  When the customer needs to accommodate more users, the supplier sells the customer more resources and more licenses “on demand”.  Depending upon the terms of the contract, either the customer’s IT staff maintains the hardware, or the supplier.  In addition, in most cases, the customer can customize the software for their own needs, to better represent the needs of their own customers.

Adding Application Hosting, Virtualization and Cloud-Computing to the Mix – The Technology Acquisition Grid

Remember the dimmer switch I showed a few moments ago?  With the addition of application hosting, virtualization, SaaS and cloud computing to the mix, it’s not only possible to choose who owns and controls the future of the software, it’s also possible to decide who hosts the software and hardware – in-house or hosted with a supplier, as well as how easily it can be transferred from one environment to another.  That is, it’s now a true grid, with build-to-buy on the left-right axis, and in-house-to-hosted on the up-down axis.  The diagram below shows the Technology Acquisition Grid, with the four main combinations of options to consider then acquiring technology.

technology-acquisition-grid

 

Here’s where application hosting, SaaS, virtualization and cloud computing fit into the Technology Acquisition Grid:

technology-acquisition-grid-with-new-tech

 

Making a Decision to Host, Virtualize, go SaaS, or seek the Cloud

If the rules of the game have now changed so much, how do we make the decision to use virtualization, application hosting, SaaS or cloud computing, as opposed to traditional build and buy?  There seem to be a few key factors that drive the decision.

At the most basic level, it comes down to how much control – and responsibility — your organization wants over the development of the software and the maintenance of the system.  Choose an option in the top-left of the Technology Acquisition Grid, and you have greater control of everything; choose an option at the bottom-right, and you have far less control and far less responsibility for the system.

In my own experience advising clients during technology acquisition and leading technology initiatives, decision-makers tend to choose a “control everything” solution because it’s the easiest to understand and poses the least risk.   While this may, in the end, be the best answer, organizations should weigh the other options, as well.  Certainly, more control usually sounds really good, but it almost always comes along with much higher costs, as well as delaying use of the system by months.  Particularly for smaller organizations,  which probably need those IT dollars to serve their own customers more effectively, a “control everything” answer is often the wrong decision.

Which should your organization choose?  Start by making an effort to include software products that take advantage of hosting, virtualization, SaaS and cloud computing among your choices when you start your search.  Then, weigh the benefits and downsides of each option and combination of options, choosing the one that balances cost and time-to-market with your own customer’s needs and your tolerance for risk. A good consulting company like Cedar Point Consulting can help you do this, as can your organization’s IT leadership.  Using this approach, you’re sure to free yourself from the old rules of build-versus-buy, delivering more for your own customers at a much lower cost.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in technology strategy, project management and process improvement. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

 


Are You Planning to Crash?

Nearly every experienced project manager has been through it. You inherit a project with a difficult or near-impossible schedule and the order comes down to deliver on time.  When you mention how far the project is behind, you’re simply told to “crash the schedule”, or “make it happen.”

As a long time project manager who now advises others on how best to manage projects and project portfolios, the term “schedule crashing” still makes me bristle. I picture a train wreck, not a well-designed product or service that’s delivered on time, and for good reason. While schedule crashing sounds so easy in theory, in practice schedule crashing is a very risky undertaking that requires some serious evaluation to determine whether crashing will actually help or hurt.

In this article, I’ll explain the underlying premise behind schedule crashing and describe some of the typical risks involved in a schedule crashing effort.  Then, I’ll provide seven questions that can help you assess whether schedule crashing will really help your project.  Combined, the schedule crashing assessment and the risks can be brought to executive management when you advise them about how best to proceed with your project.

Schedule Crashing Defined

As defined by BusinessDictionary.com, schedule crashing is “Reducing the completion time of a project by sharply increasing manpower and/or other expenses,” while the Quality Council of Indiana‘s Certified Six Sigma Black Belt Primer defines it as “…to apply more resources to complete an activity in a shorter time.” (p.V-46). The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), fourth edition describes schedule crashing as a type of schedule compression, including overtime and paying for expedited delivery of goods or services as schedule crashing techniques (PMBOK, p. 156), though I generally think of overtime as another type of schedule compression – not crashing.

From a scheduling perspective, schedule crashing assumes that a straight mathematical formula exists between the number of laborers, the number of hours required to complete the task, and the calendar time required to complete the task. Said simply, if a 40-hour task takes one person five days to complete (40 hours/one person * 8 hours/day=5 days), then according to schedule crashing, assigning five resources would take one day (40 hours/5 people*8 hours/day=1day).

The Risks of Crashing

Frederick Brooks had much to say about the problems with schedule crashing in, “The Mythical Man-Month“. In this ground-breaking work about software engineering, Brooks explains that there are many factors that might make schedule crashing impractical, including the dependency of many work activities on their preceding activities and the increased cost of communication. This phenomena is now referred to as Brook’s Law–adding resources to a late project actually slows the project down. I personally saw Brook’s Law in action on a large program led by a prestigious consulting firm where the client requested that extra resources be added in the final two months of the program; because the current resources were forced to train new staff instead of complete work, the program delivered in four more months instead of two.

Additional risks of crashing include increased project cost if they crashing attempt fails, delayed delivery if the crash adversely impacts team performance, additional conflict as new team members are folded into the current team to share responsibility, risks to product quality from uneven or poorly coordinated work, and safety risks from the addition of inexperienced resources.

In short, schedule crashing at its most extreme can be fraught with risks. Managers at all levels should be very cautious before recommending or pursuing a crashing strategy.

Making the Call to Crash

So, how can a project manager decide if crashing will help? Here are seven questions I ask myself when deciding if crashing is likely to succeed:

  1. Is the task (or group of tasks) in the critical path? Tasks in the critical path are affecting the overall duration and the delivery date of your project, while tasks outside of the critical path are not affecting your delivery date. Unless the task your considering crashing is in the critical path or will become a critical task activity if it substantially slips, crashing the activity is a waste of resources.
  2. Is the task (or group of tasks) long? If the task is short and does not repeat over the course of the project, then it’s unlikely you’ll gain any benefit from crashing the activity. A long task or task group, however, is far more likely to benefit from the addition of a new resource, as can tasks that require similar skills.
  3. Are appropriate resources available? Crashing is rarely useful when qualified resources are not available. Is there a qualified person on the bench who can be added to the project team to perform the work? If not, can someone be brought in quickly who has the needed skills? Recruiting skilled resources is a costly and time-consuming activity, so by the time the resource(s) are added to your team, the task may be complete and your recruiting efforts wasted.
  4. Is ramp-up time short? Some types of projects require a great deal of project-specific or industry-specific knowledge and it takes time to transfer that knowledge from the project team to the new team members. If the ramp-up time is too long, then it may not make sense to crash the schedule.
  5. Is the project far from completion? Often, people consider crashing when they’re near the end of a project and its become clear that the team will not meet it’s delivery date. Yet, this may be the worst time to crash the schedule. Frederick Brooks told the story about his schedule crashing attempt in “The Mythical Man-Month” where he added resources to one of his projects at the tail end, which further delayed delivery. In most cases, schedule crashing is only a viable option when a project is less than half complete.
  6. Is the work modular? On many projects, the work being delivered is modular in nature. For example, in automotive engineering, it’s possible for one part of the team to design the wiring for a new vehicle model while another part of the team designs the audio system that relies upon electricity, as long as points of integration and dependencies are defined early. Through fast-tracking, or completing these tasks in parallel, it becomes beneficial to also add resources, crashing the schedule.
  7. Will another pair of hands really help? All of us have heard that “too many cooks can spoil the broth,” but this also applies to engineering, software development and construction. Consider where the new resources would sit, how would they integrate with the current team, would their introduction cause an unnatural sharing of roles?

If you’ve answered these questions and responded “yes” to at least five of the seven questions, then you have a reasonably good project-crashing opportunity; a “yes” to three or four is of marginal benefit, while a “yes” to only one or two is almost certain to end for the worse.

Alternatives to the Crash

Fortunately, there are alternatives to schedule crashing that may be more appropriate than the crash itself.

  1. Increase hours of current resources. For a limited time period and within reason, asking current team members to work overtime can help you reach your delivery date more quickly than schedule crashing. When considering overtime, it’s important to remember the caveats, “a limited time period” and “within reason”. Asking resources to work 50-60 hours a week for six months is unreasonable, as is asking resources to work 70 hours per week for a month for all but the most critical projects.
  2. Increase efficiency of the current team. Though it’s surprisingly rare on projects, examining current work processes and adding new time-saving tools can improve the productivity of a team by 10% to 50% or more if a project is long. I once led a team that increased it’s productivity by roughly 30% simply by re-sequencing work activities and adding a single team member to speed up cycle time at a single step in the process.
  3. Accept the schedule. In some cases, it’s better to offset the downside effects of late delivery rather than attempt to crash the schedule. In some cases, this amounts to using a beta or prototype for training rather than a production-ready product.

A Final Caution About Crashing

Because it’s rarely well understand by anyone other than project managers, schedule crashing is often recommended by co-workers who really don’t understand the implications of the decision.  While they see an opportunity to buy time, they almost never see the inherent risks.

As a result, it’s critical that project managers not only assess the likelihood of success when considering crashing as an option, they also educate their stakeholders, their sponsor and other decision-makers about the risks of a schedule-crashing approach.  Doing anything less perpetuates the myth that crashing is a panacea that cures all that ails a late project, creating much bigger problems for everyone down the road.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in applying Lean and Agile to develop new products and services as well as improve organizational performance. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.


Intuitive to Whom? In Web Design, it Matters

During a recent Management Information Systems course I taught for the University of Phoenix, I posed the discussion question to students, “What do you think are the most important qualities that determine a well-designed user interface?” While responses were very good, nearly all of my students used the term “intuitive” in their response without providing a more detailed description, as though the term has some universal, unambiguous meaning to user interface (user experience) designers and web users alike.

I responded by asking, “Intuitive to whom?…Would a college-educated individual and a new-born infant both look at the same user interface and agree it is intuitive? Or, would the infant prefer a nipple providing warm milk to embedded-flash videos of news stories?”

Far from obvious, an “intuitive” user interface is extremely hard to define because “intuitive” means many different things to many different people. In this article, I challenge the assumption that “intuitive” is obvious and suggest how we can determine what intuitive “is”.

Nature and Nurture

Our exploration of intuitive user interfaces and user experience starts with “nature” and “nurture”, much like the “Nature versus Nurture” debate that occurs when explaining the talents and intelligence of human beings. For those of us who haven’t opened a genetics book in a few decades, if ever, “Nature” assumes that we have certain talents at birth, while “Nurture” proposes that we gain talents and abilities over time.

Certainly, “Nature” plays a role in an intuitive user interface. According to research by Anya Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling (http://ts-si.org/neuroscience/2464-sex-differences-and-favorite-color-preference), there’s a great deal of evidence that we are born with color preferences and that color preferences naturally vary by gender. In addition, warning colors like red or yellow, such as red on stop signs and yellow on caution signs, are likely a matter of science and genetics rather than learned after we’re born. So, an “intuitive” interface is partly determined by our genes.

“Nurture” also plays a big role in determining our preferences in a user interface. For example, link-underlining on web pages and word density preferences are highly dependent upon your cultural background, according to Piero Fraternali and Massimo Tisi in their research paper, “Identifying Cultural Markers for Web Application Design Targeted to a Multi-Cultural Audience.” While research in personality and user interfaces is still in its infancy, there’s a strong indication that CEO’s have different color preferences from other individuals, as Del Jones describes in this USA Today article.

But, what about navigation techniques, like tabs and drop-down menus? In a recent conversation with Haiying Manning, a user experience designer with the College Board, I was told that “tabs are dead.” This crushed me, quite frankly, because I still like tabs to effectively group information and have a great deal of respect for Haiying’s skills and experience. As a Gen-Xer who spent much of his teen years sorting and organizing paper files on summer jobs, I’m also very comfortable with tabs in web interfaces, as are my baby-boomer friends. My Net-Gen (Millenial) friends seem to prefer a screen the size of a matchbox and a keyboard with keys the size of ladybugs, which I have trouble reading.  (Nevertheless, Haiying is right).

In the end, because of “Nature” and “Nurture”, the quest for an “intuitive” user interface is far more difficult than selection of a color scheme and navigation techniques everyone will like. What appeals to one gender, culture or generation is unlikely to appeal to others, so we need to dig further.

It’s all about the Audience

In looking back on successful projects past, the best user interface designers I’ve worked with have learned a great deal about their audience – not just through focus groups and JAD sessions, but through psychometric profiling and market research. This idea of segmenting audiences and appealing to each audience separately is far from new. Olga De Troyer called it “audience-driven web design” back in 2002, but the concept is still quite relevant today.

Once they better understood their target customers, these UI designers tailored the user interface to create a user experience that was most appealing to their user community. In some cases, they provide segment-targeted user interfaces – one for casual browsers and one for heavy users, for example. In other cases, they made personalization of the user interface easier, so that heavy users could tailor the interface based on their own preferences.

They also mapped out the common uses (use cases or user stories) for their web sites and gave highest priority to the most used (customer support) or most valuable (buying/shopping) uses, ensuring that they maximized value for their business and the customer. More importantly, the user interface designers didn’t rely upon the “the logo always goes at the top left” mind-set that drives most web site designs today.

Think about the Masai

In hopes of better defining what “intuitive” is, I spoke with Anna Martin, a Principal at August Interactive and an aficionado of web experience and web design. Evidently, “intuitive” is also a hot topic with Anna, because she lunged at the topic, responding:

Would you reach for a doorknob placed near the floorboard; or expect the red tube on the table to contain applesauce? Didn’t think so. But what’s intuitive depends largely on what you’re used to.  Seriously, talk to a Masai nomad about a doorknob – or ketchup for that matter – and see what you get. And good luck explaining applesauce. (Cinnamon anyone?). Clearly intuition is dependent on what comes NATURALLY to a user – no matter what the user is using.

So why would the web be any different? It’s not. Virtual though it may be, it’s still an environment that a PERSON needs to feel comfortable in in order to enjoy. Bottom line is this…if you wouldn’t invite your 6 year old niece or your 80 year old grandmother to a rage (did I just date myself?) then don’t expect that every website will appeal to every user.

Know your audience, understand what makes them comfortable; and most importantly try to define what ‘intuitive’ means specifically in regards to sorting, finding, moving, viewing, reading and generally experiencing anything in their generation.”

So, audience-driven web design has firmly embedded itself into the minds of great designers, who must constantly challenge the conventions to create truly creative interactive experiences on the web. Consequently, as the field of user design transitions into a world of user experience, it’s going to require second-guessing of many of the design conventions that are present on the web today. This not only means pushing the envelope with innovative design, it also means we need to have a good handle on what “intuitive” really is.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy.  Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

Baby Bottles and Web Design


Departing Waterfall – Next Stop Agile

It’s been more than a year since I penned, “Before Making the Leap to Agile”, an article intended to guide everyone from C-level executives to IT project managers on the adoption of Agile. The goal was to offer up some of the lessons I learned through actual implementations, so that readers could avoid of some of the pitfalls associated with Agile adoption.  While a few saw it as an assault on Agile, many understood that my goal was to assist Agile adopters and thanked me for writing it.

Five-thousand-plus page views later on the last article, and I’ve finally cleared my plate enough to address an equally important topic: why people, and organizations, are making the shift to Agile from the more typical Waterfall. After all, Agile is a revolutionary approach to software development and it continues to grow in popularity, so I think it’s important for those who do not yet use Agile to understand why others have embraced it.

Why are people abandoning Waterfall and moving to Agile?

1. Agile is Adaptive. For the project team, as well as the business, Agile enables you to make quick changes in direction so that your software product and your business can respond to a rapidly changing business environment.

How? Agile teams use two-to-four week iterations, often called sprints, in which to develop and then release a working product.  At the end of each sprint, the team uses retrospectives to look back on the work completed and see how productivity can be improved; the team also works with the customer to determine which work should be accomplished during the next sprint.  One technique enables continuous improvement, the other enables the business to re-prioritize work based on changes in the business climate.  Together, they make Agile highly adaptive when compared to a Waterfall approach that effectively locks the team in to both a process and business strategy for a number of months.

2. WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) Development. Many of us are familiar with this wonderful cartoon that shows how projects really work — at least in a Waterfall world. Notice how there’s an enormous disconnect between the first image, “what the customer asked for”, and the last, “what the customer really needed”.

Arguably, this happens because those of us in software development listen dutifully to what our customer says, document their words in the form of requirements, and then go off and build it, assuming all along that our customer knows not only what they want – but what their end customers want.  In reality, many of us have a rough idea of what we want and often less of an idea of what our customers want, particularly with software products that serve the masses (sure, focus groups and usability testing make a big difference, but still fall short in many instances).

Agile takes an entirely different approach to requirements gathering. Product features are identified for development and then the team works together with the business customer to build the features cooperatively. In many cases, user stories are written, screen mockups are drawn and simple business rules are written, but nothing too sophisticated. Instead, the Agile team relies upon heavy interaction with the customer or product owner to elicit requirements on-the-fly.

For example, not sure what the business customer wanted on a particular screen? Show them what you’ve got and see if it fits their expectations. Even if it is what they asked for, see if it’s going to serve their customer’s needs as they intended, or if it needs some refinement. Either way, if they want a change, change it. Using this nimble approach, there is little risk of misinterpretation of requirements and even less risk that the finished product misses the mark.

3. Shorter Time-to-Market. Let’s be honest here – who among us hasn’t reported to a C-level who has a great idea and wants something on the market – yesterday. (Heck, I’ve been guilty of this myself). Using a Waterfall approach, delivering anything to the marketplace takes months and sometimes years. But, by taking an Agile approach, the bare-bones features of a new product can be delivered in weeks, then, further enhanced to provide a truly robust solution. Again, the secret to shorter time-to-market lies in the use of iterations (sprints), with the end of each sprint another opportunity to deliver more features to the customer. Agile has this – Waterfall doesn’t.

4. Greater Employee Satisfaction. One of the oft-cited byproducts of Agile development is greater employee satisfaction – both by the project team and the line-of-business responsible for delivering the product. According to Steve Greene and Chris Fry, Salesforce.com reported an 89% employee satisfaction rating after adopting Agile when compared to only 40% before adoption.

In a similar vein, research by Grigori Melnick and Frank Maurer from the University of Calgary showed 82% of employees at Agile-adopting businesses were satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs, while only 41.2% were satisfied or very satisfied in non-Agile shops (2006, Comparative Analysis of Job Satisfaction in Agile and Non-Agile Software Development Teams).

5. Higher Quality. By most accounts, adopting Agile reduces defects and results in higher product quality. While personally I have seen Agile projects head in the wrong direction and suffer from higher defect rates initially, many sources have noted significantly higher quality on Agile projects. According to a 2008 survey by Version One, 68% of respondents to a survey on Agile adoption and corresponding results reported improved product quality as one of the benefits (3rd Annual Survey on the State of Agile Development). Similarly, David Rico, et. al report on average a 75% improvement in quality by adopting Agile (The Business Value of Agile Software Methods, 2009, J Ross Publishing).

6. Higher ROI. If there’s one single reason for the corner office to be sold on Agile, it has to be higher ROI. Because Agile reduces project overhead, delivers beneficial work more quickly and produces higher quality products, Agile also delivers a higher ROI to the businesses who adopt it. According to research that compiled data from multiple different sources, including Microsoft, Version One and the University of Maryland, Agile projects average an 1788% ROI when compared with Waterfall projects at 173% (The Business Value of Agile Software Methods, 2009, J Ross Publishing). While these numbers appear to be skewed toward the low side for Waterfall because the comparison only included CMMI-adopting organizations, that hardly makes up for a 10-fold difference between the two.

With all of this evidence residing squarely in the corner “for” Agile adoption, it’s sometimes hard to understand why Waterfall is still practiced. But the truth is, adopting Agile takes a paradigm shift in thinking that is not easy for individuals, much less organizations, to make. It also takes experience not only in practicing Agile, but also in managing organizational change, two qualities critical in Agile consultants.

This is why the Cedar Point Consulting team tailors its Agile implementations to each organization, choosing the tools and techniques that best match your industry and needs so that you avoid many of the pitfalls and have a successful adoption. It’s also why I have personally put so much time and effort into making Agile even more robust, not only by exploring Agile at Scale, but also by off-setting some of Agile’s weaknesses with common-sense approaches that nearly every business can implement.

So, go ahead, make the leap to Agile. Just be certain you’re taking the right approach to Agile adoption for your organization before you begin.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

 

Waterfall Model diagram

 

 


Product Pricing: Avoiding the Dead Zone

I was talking to an entrepreneur-friend recently about product pricing for business products, and the fact that there’s a dead zone between the $1000 and $5000 price range that most successful products avoid. That dead zone exists for a reason and it’s important to avoid it, as I will explain here.

For most businesses – even large ones – a purchase under a $1000 can typically be made by a first-level manager and even by a staffer. In some cases, they put it on a corporate credit card and in others they use a discretionary budget, but when the user wants your product, the sale is usually pretty quick and simple.

In contrast, a sale of $1000 or more often requires a mid-to-senior level manager’s approval, a signature from purchasing and even a formal purchase order and invoice. In some cases, I’ve even seen $1000 plus sales rise to the VP level for approval, so this can become heck of a hurdle to clear to close a sale.

As a result of these restrictions, it makes sense to stay below $1000 if possible. But, why might your product need to be priced at $5000-plus instead of, say, $1500? The answer is the sales person. Over the $1000 price range, you not only have more hurdles to clear before closing a sale, you often have to use a one-on-one selling approach to close the deal, which requires a sales person. This sales person earns a small salary, makes commissions, generates expenses and only closes a portion of their leads, so suddenly a $1000 sale becomes very unprofitable.

It turns out that, in most cases, a sale through a salesperson is not profitable until the price reaches over $5000. Hence, the dead zone between $1000 and $5000.

So, if your business product or service is priced in the dead zone, there are things you can do about it.

  1. If possible, move your product below the dead zone. Find a way to lower the price just below the $1000 threshold, break the purchase up in to multiple payments across multiple months, or sell a service-based subscription that generates monthly revenue.
  2. If going lower is not possible, rise above it. Consider ways to bundle your product with others so that you can charge more and justify a salesperson, sell maintenance or support along with the product, or sell your product to someone else who can bundle it.
  3. Stay in the zone. While this is the least appealing option, this option can work. Instead of using an outside salesperson, consider online ad campaigns with inside sales representatives at lower costs. Or, consider a multi-tiered marketing approach that allows for slack labor (college students, work-at-homes) to sell your product. Or, a viable option for a small business may be to sell the product yourself.  (Hey, I already said it wasn’t very appealing).

Interestingly, a dead zone exists to some degree for consumer products and services just as it does for business products, though the zone for consumer products is a good deal lower and it doesn’t appear to be quite so “dead” – it’s probably between $100 and ending at $500. It may be coincidental, but $100 is about the point at which I start running purchases by my wife and she runs purchases by me. Hmmhh.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he assists organizations in applying Lean and Agile to develop new products and services as well as improve organizational performance.and small business strategy.  Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

 

 

 


Does Process Improvement Kill Creativity?

Early in my career, ISO-9000 was just coming into vogue and my employer, a Fortune 500 company, had earned the honor of being called ISO-9000 certified.  To say the least, the ISO-9000 concept was a little irritating to a young, creative-type:  Processes are documented, standardized, and followed without deviation because deviation yields an inconsistent outcome and inconsistent quality.  Even worse, ISO-9000 principles were being applied not to manufacturing but to services, where the human factor was so important.  While people certainly admire the fact that a Hershey bar has the same consistently delicious taste, would the feel the same if the service rep answered the phone in an identical manner every time, smiled at visitors in the identical manner and greeting them with the same Mr. or Ms. in the same robotic way?  Somehow, ISO-9000 seemed to be forcing the soul out of services and driving creativity out of the American worker.  This would not stand.

A big believer in creativity and diverse thinking, I know that the World’s greatest innovations come from ignoring conventional wisdom and trying something a different way, so the question, “Does Process Improvement Kill Creativity?” is not trivial.  However, there is a way to balance the roles of quality and creativity in your business, though the answer comes from two disparate figures:  Geoffrey A. Moore and Kiichiro Toyoda.

For those of you who don’t know Moore, he’s a business geek’s ultimate hero — the man behind the technology adoption lifecycle, Crossing the Chasm, and Dealing with Darwin.  It is in Dealing with Darwin that Moore introduces the concept of reallocating business resources from context to core.  Context is all that work done by employees that does NOT separate your business from its competitors.  Cores represents all work that is critical to delivering your products or services uniquely; core helps to separate you from your competitors and is the leading driver of innovation.  According to Moore, businesses spend far too much of their time (80%) in context activities and far too little in core (20%) involved in the core.

Let’s apply this to process improvement and process standardization.  These exercises provide a window for innovation, then they lock down a process so that it yields consistent results.  They also reduce a business’ emphasis on context activities by removing unnecessary steps and automating once-manual processes.  So, more time can be spent on the core, where a business can differentiate itself, developing new products or services with the creative mind.

Kiichiro Toyoda had a similar mindset nearly fifty years earlier when he developed the Kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement and the lean manufacturing concept targeting the elimination of waste.   Founder of Toyota Motor Corp, Toyoda had a keen eye that focused human efforts on eliminating waste and improving processes rather than perpetually repeating them without question.  Combined, Kaizen and lean are key reasons why Toyota leads in sales and product quality and why Toyota employees are among the happiest in the industry.

So, considering Toyoda and Moore when reflecting upon my past sins in the areas of process improvement and standardization, I’ve developed a few principles to keep in mind as we standardize:

(1) Wherever possible and cost-effective, automate.  There’s no sense in having people do work that a machine or computer can do faster and more consistently, especially when this is sure to dull the human capacity for innovation.  Instead, people should monitor repetitive processes, not do them.

(2) Involve workers and end-users in innovation.  Your best ideas often come from the line-worker, the front desk staff or a computer system’s end-users.  This also gives them an opportunity to flex their mental muscles.

(3) Focus your employees on creative efforts inside the core.  If you have people who are spending their time trying to marginally improve legacy products or services, redirect them to activities that create new products or radically transform current ones — efforts that will benefit most from the human capacity toward innovation.

(4) Leave room for creativity and individuality.  Where product quality won’t suffer and humans are involved in production, leave room for creativity and individuality.   This one is the hardest to follow, because we know that a consistent product is best created by a consistent process.  But, avoiding excessive detail in a process leaves room for grass-roots innovation and keeps the human mind engaged.

(5) Build a World that is Human-Centric.  Human beings are inherently creative and intuitive:  We move beyond patterns to think of completely different ways to solve a problem, create art or experience life.  All of the products, services and processes that we create need to remain human-centric, recognizing that they exist for the benefit of humans and to add value to the human experience.

Looking back at the list, there’s no guarantee that following these recommendations will bring harmony between high quality, innovation and human creativity.  But having the list makes Cedar Point Consulting teams aware of the need for balance, while providing a set of principles to follow and measure our progress. As a result, we do a better job of allowing creativity to flourish in a high-quality environment.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where where he assists organizations in applying Lean and Agile to develop new products and services as well as improve organizational performance. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.