Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Relieve major source of holiday stress caused by your new Windows 8 PC

Call it a supreme act of public service.  You don't really want to spend the holiday season, and the weeks beyond, trying to make that nice new computer work properly. If you're running a business, this could save you many hours of downtime. [PS - here's an update].

I want you to know that this post is not an Appleholic rant; I am and remain a Microsoftie by preference.  I must be, as I have now invested some 24 real hours (not just 2 calendar days) working out how to get my nice new laptop to work.  Not "as I would like it to" - in the internet age (and computers that come without any DVD-ROM drives, a computer that cannot connect to the internet basically does not work at all. And that is what awaits the recipient of the gift of that nice new Windows 8 computer.

Whether you like it or not, you will have to get into Windows 8 soon enough.  I could deal with the reliable XP operating system going out of support, but not with Microsoft's parting gift being a patch that causes intermittent blue-screen-of-death failures.  And considering the age of the beast, it might be that I had a bad spot developing on the drive.  So Windows 8 it is.  Fortunately, most new laptops also have touchscreens so the tablet-like interface will not make you completely crazy poking your finger into a non-responsive monitor. Better yet, although not revealed in the non-existent documentation [tip #1 - get the book!], one can bypass the tablet look and get back to an operating system view that is a whole lot like Windows 7.  Once you have found that view (use the <flying-windows-button><D> command) you can now get to the Control Panel inside the Setting ribbon that pops out from the right-hand side of the screen.  [The Settings ribbon doesn't work that way in Tile World, the main Windows 8 screen].  But there is no program control button (the old Start button that we all hated and now want back) so anything you cannot do from the Control Panel you'll have to find in the program file folders somewhere - or better yet, download one of several freeware that put the Start button back in play! Are you with me still?  Welcome to Tile World) ...  Get the book ...

Until you get your Windows 8 machine tamed, if you have a tablet, it's a good idea to keep it handy so you can tell whether the wireless service is actually down, which does sometimes happen.

I can't say that the following actions will completely eliminate your issues, but at last I have 2-3 days of stable operations now.

  1. Download Windows 8.1.  Make the store do it to save yourself a few hours of aggravation with monster download.  And don't let them put just any old virus package on there; the package must disable the Windows security packages (Defender and Firewall) or it will be a waste of money (see below).
  2. Preferably before leaving the store, go to your wireless adapter properties (in Device Manager) and under the Advanced tab, in Power Management, un-check the block that allows the system to turn off the wireless adapter as a power-saving feature. Now at least 30% of the time you won't get disconnected from your perfectly-functioning router.
  3. Download another browser while you can.  Better yet download 2, just in case.  but... much as people love Firefox, it has a problem for this purpose, which is that it calls on services actually implemented in Chrome and Internet Explorer. Since IE is helping to create the problem, and there's no point in calling Google is the system isn't letting Chrome operate, Firefox just adds layers of complexity at this point.  Besides, I didn't find too many posts on how to fix this issue in Firefox, just Step 2, which is only part of the problem.  But suit yourself.
  4. Go into your new browser and if it is also new to you, then let it pick up your IE bookmarks (before you uninstall IE in step 6).
  5. If your browser of choice is Chrome, then in the settings Advanced section disable the option for predicting the next screen {huge difference]. 
  6. In the control panel, go into Add/Remove Programs and disable Internet Explorer. Unfortunately, you cannot uninstall it, nor can you replace it with a working version of IE (such as 8 or 9).  [If you are stuck having to use the 2 or 3 sites left in the world that only operate on IE, all of which are operated by the government or by Microsoft, then you'll have to leave it in place, but it appears to me that disabling IE-11 and therefore all of the other windows activities that default to IE-11 was one of the most successful steps].  Now go into Control Panel again and set your other browser as the default for "all of functions that it can perform"; just setting it as the default browser when it installs only reallocates about 1/2 of the functions.
  7. Your browser still will not open websites that your tablet tells you are working just fine. Download another firewall program.  I can't vouch of which ones will or won't work but one of the problems appears to be that Windows Firewall is set up to block everything except what is on its VERY short white-list, which basically translates to *microsoft* and *msn*.  You don't really want to have to enter every site you might want to visit before you visit it.  Nor do you want to get into the actual rules engine behind Windows firewall.  I am not flacking for AVG here, just telling you what worked for me: AVG is working just fine, and it has the advantage of disabling Windows Firewall as part of its install. Otherwise you have no GUI checkblocks to disable Windows Firewall, although you can open up the console and turn off the monitoring, which may or may not have the same effect.  While you are at it, disable Windows Defender (through the Control Panel programs section).  Now you won't have a collision between security systems.  Now install the new security system.
  8. You may still find sites that will not open.  A number of sites open as regular HTTP but somehow switch themselves to HTTPS and these seem to have difficulty opening. In the Windows Internet settings (from the Control Panel), open the advanced security settings and enable SSL 2.0. Doing this seems to work, but MS turned it off as a default for a reason; I am sure the CISSPs will have a cow over this idea and your comments are welcomed - the blog could use some flame traffic!  
  9. After all this, your computer may still be dropping off the network randomly.  Go to the computer manufacturer's site and get their version of the driver for the wireless adapter.  It may be older or newer,never mind, just do it.  (You could do this step earlier but the downloads can be huge, as you often don't get just the one driver in the download). Then launch it manually (which will override the Windows build that your store did).  I learned in this process that the Window's "search for latest driver" button always responds with "the best available driver is already loaded" if it finds one, and it will not find one that is inside a zip folder.  In future, whatever your system tells you based on Microsoft suggestions, always go to the manufacturer's site first; sometimes MS enhancements are too generic for your particular model.
After step 9 I have achieved 36 hours of stability and good speed.

If it saves you the days I have put into this issue so far, and helps you avoid looking like a tool while the kiddies are whining about not being able to use the new computer, then it may be worth it.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Meeting Minutes: As-Was or As-Is?

Considering that "making a record of what happened" is core to so many PM processes, it is always surprising to see how many PM-related meetings go by with no record.

There are a least four schools of thought with regard to minutes:

  1. Minutes should be in sufficient detail that key stakeholders who could not attend can still get a good sense of what happened and why
  2. Minutes should be very abbreviated, conveying little more than a listing of what topics were discussed and a record of whatever decisions were made
  3. Minutes should reflect for future generations what was eventually arrived at and not why. Therefore, not only should they be abbreviated, but meeting members should be free to amend (and if necessary reverse themselves) after the fact 
  4. Minutes are just another waste of time.  If anything really important happens, w can put it on an action-items list. 
Items 1 and 2 are the mainstream options, with Item 2 bring (in my experience) what most people do

Personally I believe in Item 1, consistent with my corporate slogan, "It does matter how decisions get made". More importantly, for future stability, it is also important to understand why a decision was reached and the points of view that the "no" votes might have offered.  Not so that later on we can point fingers and say "I told you so", but rather so that much later yet, another PM reviewing the record has the insight to avoid going down a particular path for the right reasons.

Reasonably detailed minutes have the following advantages:
(a) Most of the people in the meeting won't write anything down. No wonder actions don't get followed up on; why should they? Nobody remembers what they were ... until the next meeting, when they remember things rather differently from what they did agree to and everyone else already starting acting accordingly.
(b) One of the key people will likely not be there. Life is that way. Decent meeting notes will let them know where everybody moved to while they were out.
(c) At some point in the future there will be turnover. A quick read through of the notes of actual meetings, even of 50+ weekly meetings, will bring a person up to speed much faster than poring over dense and probably unused policy manuals.

In addition to the detail, check out Greg McKeown's post on the 30-second retrospective. And make sure you add whatever action is required to move forward on the the important point to your calendar.

It would be so tempting to dismiss Item 4 out of hand this line of thinking -- but it seems to be so prevalent. In fact, we'll spend another whole post on why so many people disagree with this ... and then do it anyway.

Item # 3 may seem facetious, but my very respected colleague Vic Rosenberg, a former CXO in a major company and executive coach, tells me that it is quite frequent, especially in (oddly) more mature organizations.  Since the formal meetings are somewhat pro forma (you don't go to them hoping to get approval, but to ratify what everyone already agree to), does it really matter who voted for what when, as long as the record is that "it was agreed" to do X?

What has your experience been on this?  Is Option 3 really all that prevalent?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Governance: where's the beef?

Alas, I betray my age by referring to a TV commercial that in its day everybody recognized instantly.

Most people in the IT consulting business know about Gartner and Forrester, the largest IT advisory services that I know of. When I worked at Gartner, I was always amazed at the volume and quality of the material and analysis that was available. Indeed, my role was to make it more accessible to clients so they would appreciate the value of their subscription, and a full-time role it was to ferret out all the nuggets that were sitting right there. My particular role was in the area of enterprise architecture (EA), which usually evolved quickly into other governance areas as well.

What struck me was how few successful companies are actually using that advice. I don't mean adopting blindly and wholesale, but at least taking at least some significant aspect of it and tailoring it to their situation. Gartner's maturity model, mapping to SEI-CMM practice, established a 5-point range where 1 is a freebie (i.e. "clueless") and specifically means the organization has nothing is place but has decided to conduct an assessment. So really 2 is the lowest score you can get. Their practice indicated (then, anyway) that in each sector of the governance business, their clients consistently average a score in the 2.x range out of 5, and their respondents seldom get above 3.x. And these are the larger and more successful companies on the planet.

If this governance business is all it is cracked up to be, surely an organization not using it would fall into chaos immediately?  Conversely, if hardly anyone is doing it, surely the company that decided to actually do it would shoot rapidly to the top of their pyramid?  If each of these governance disciplines is truly capable of generating meaningful bottom-line impacts, either by enabling new capabilities or at least making a dent in operating costs, how high could profits go?

Yet this is not done. I venture to suggest with some degree of inside knowledge of several august organizations, even by the very companies that sell these processes to others. Are these processes really engines of productivity, or just a consultant-industry self-employment scam?

If your company is one of those that does not, I imagine you'll be unwilling to say so in public, in which case you're welcome to tell me off-line why not, and we can add it in to this topic. Otherwise feel free to comment here starting with "Some organizations find that ..." :-)

If your company is one of those that has instituted on or more governance functions and sees it as a success factor, please let us know which ones and how they are working.

** Caveat: IT security is undoubtedly being practiced in most places, at least after some fashion, but even so it would not be wise to say what you are or are not doing. Organizations frown on this because attackers would love to read about what your security protections are and are not. So please stay away from that! **

Friday, November 15, 2013

Keep it simple is not for the stupid

We all know the KISS acronym. Keep it simple, stupid.  Carrying that out is -- well, not so simple. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, "I wrote a long letter as I did not have time to write a short one". Even a simple communication, such as this blog, can get longer than readers might desire. In case you don't get to the end of it ... does anyone have an example of a concise yet robust process for governing IT investments?

There is always the temptation to add a bit more detail in order to assist the end users in carrying out their responsibilities. Quite often what we really mean is the unspoken add-on: "the same way that I would have done it".  And even, "to make things easier for me". Even when our intent is truly to assist, it is almost impossible to provide for every contingency and the documentation required to do so often makes a rather simple primary process look formidable. Often, it is better to make clear what is desired and treat

Governance can also benefit from brevity. Elegance is nice, but it may take a long time to get agreement and much, much longer to get conformance even if people are trying to comply - and that is a big if. It is much more important to get some useful and truthful information in front of the governance board. Once they have that, the board members will start asking much more probing questions that introduce more sophistication into the process without the PMO having to mansate anything. That is handy when one has very little authority to issue mandates anyway.

Another key reason for trying to keep things simple is that thry need t fit into limited available time. One of the most important artifacts in the initiation of govrrnance processes is an integrated calendar. Like it or not, your topic area is only one of many competing for executive attention. The executive board is not going to meet weekly, probably not even monthly, to address your issue. Take a look at an integrated calendar - one that accounts for all the organization's major business processes - and you'll soon appreciate the value of getting even a quarterly dedicated timeslot.

One can overdo this. The recent fiasco with the Obamacare website gives clear evidence that a governance process that is fed inaccurate or incomplete information, and lacking the interest or know-how to identify obvious weaknesses, will lead to serious failures.  The hard part about making things simpler is retaining the critical essentials.

So the challenge: who has a good example of a concise but robust process for governing the selection or oversight of IT invedtments or programs?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Lessons from the polling place: the self-managing Scrum team

This week I had the privilege of being an election official in Virginia, and in the process I learned a little something about Scrum teams.

Election officers are a fairly close bunch.  Several have run the elections in their home precincts for decades. The hours are long, so people are going to be in close contact for some 18 hours.  The pay is only slightly above minimum wage, so people aren't really lining up to take the job.  In short, you need a bit of camaraderie and you really don't want to get overbearing and alienate a good poll worker such that they don't show up next time.

So what we had was a self-organizing team.  The county polling manual provides a fairly detailed SOP for election operations, but only a few of the provisions are actual legal compliance requirements; the rest are just best practices.  Most of the poll workers knew how to do most of the stations, and as people rotated around to deal with the situation of the moment or maybe just to give their feet or butt a rest, even the newbies got the hang of most of the stations pretty quickly.

The major complaint (there'll be another post on that topic) was the replacement of voting touchscreens with the old mark-sense form - talk about back to the future.  We didn't have too many problems to resolve but we did work our way through pretty much every exception case that the user manual contained and then a few more.  Almost every issue required the team chief to "take it off line" (to avoid embarrassing the voter) and often required several or many minutes to resolve.  Consequently, the chief could not have issued too many directions even if he had wanted to. The team just took the actions that needed to be taken and worked out its own task assignments and rotations, mostly by tacit adjustment.

Now at the end of the day, the rule book came back out to actually close the polls, accounting for all the ballots before running the results count.  Although this was tedious beyond belief for a very simple election, there was no grousing and no pressure to skip steps to get the workers out of there.  Some poll workers took it as their duty not to sign off on the results unless every "i" had been dotted; others took it as a point of pride that in case there was a recount (and as it turned out, there would) then the precinct staff would not be embarrassed by being found to have mislaid or miscounted a ballot.  Meanwhile the unoccupied team members just went ahead and put away all the gear, threw away all the trash, and so on.

So much to my surprise, I found myself doing cutting-edge team operations, even in the midst of a business in which the technology is actually regressing

Friday, November 1, 2013

Your customer wants a solution, not a process

In an related post, we noted some observations on the state of the IT business as seen by FedEx CIO Rob Carter.

One of those key points was that the way the company sees the world of business is encapsulated in its actual business operational processes.  In other words, as a customer, what you see is what you are going to get because that is the way the company is set up.

If you start discussing FedEx, one still thinks automatically in terms of the US Postal Service as the baseline. I am not one of those who insist on bashing the USPS just on principle.  In any enormous enterprise there will be a certain amount of bad luck or a couple of bad actors.  Remember, even six-sigma accepts that there will be some defects.  Delivering mail all across the country door-to-door is a pretty remarkable accomplishment, and especially for 50 cents.   It isn't really fair to ask for perfection, and it is true that over the years I have had FedEx mangle a package too, and ditto with UPS.  In fact, in over 40 years of dealing with USPS, I can think of less than 5 letters or packages that have gone missing (and a couple more that I thought never arrived but were later found under a piece of furniture in my own house).  Indeed, it is rather remarkable that anybody is allowed to use the excuse of the USPS losing something.  So the product itself is really quite superior.  How, then, is the USPS everybody's favorite pinata?  I believe that Rob Carter's observation is the point: the business process must not be allowed to intervene in the customer transaction.

Just last week in a venture capital forum, Priceline co-founder Jay Walker (@TedMedjay) noted that there is a vast difference between the company (the institution and processes by which you deliver a service) and the business (the delivery of a solution to the customer's need).  How very apropos to this discussion.  Once the process intrudes, the customer changes their view of the company from "service provider" to "mindless bureaucracy".

Now I am sure that the USPS would like to get my package from here to there in as convenient a manner as I wish to undertake (and pay for).  I know they are constrained by their mission, their history, their union and the US Congress. With friends like those, enemies are hardly needed.  But with the USPS,  for anything but a simple envelope that I can put in the mail, I have to go to their place - which is only open during bankers' hours, when most of us happen to work, or of course on Saturday when everybody else who works also has to go there.  When I get there, I much prefer to use the automat machine, which seldom has a line and usually works.  Usually.  In the nature of things, it tends to be out of order when I need it the most.  And there are a number of transactions that  one cannot do on the automat, which means (a) getting forms and materials and (b) waiting in line.  Forms and materials are often out of supply, and in 20 years I doubt I have ever seen one of their pens work, and this is all before getting a proper place in line.  Generally the staff tries to siphon off those folks who are doing a no-register action (mostly picking up a letter or package) but that too requires a clear departure from the normal process.  All in all, I have to be pretty conversant with USPS' processes to get even a reasonable result, and at every turn the process introduces itself.

FedEx is open 24x7 as a result of its partnership with Kinko's; they never seem to run out of boxes, forms or pens; and except for major holidays there is seldom any line at all at the times when I choose to go (which are deliberately off-hours).  While it is true that there are many conditions that make their job considerably simpler, starting with a more narrow range of services, it's also true that I do not have to be an expert  in their process.  For the  most part I don't even have to fill in their form; I can just hand the desk staff a piece of paper with the address written on it (and mostly they prefer it if I do so, and then they enter it in their computer).   This too I am sure USPS would do, but the truth is when there is a major line going on, which is usually the case, I don't want to inconvenience everyone else in the line behind me by having the postal clerk do every little thing for me.

The process is not the service.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

ACA/Obamacare website team develops new extension to Brooks' Law

*** Updated: The IRS system to support Obamacare/ACA does work.  As a result of which we learn of yet another hole in

Some day the political furor over the introduction of government-run health care will simmer down, and it will either start working or we will be stuck with it anyway (since that's the way government works).  At that point, academe will be free to climb down from its partisan cheerleading role and do some actual research into the issues that surface every month or so [or perhaps into the reasons why the issues do not surface until then], at which point will be included in every textbook as the defining case study on governance issues.  Meanwhile, you can look into governance issues via this blog ;-) ***

In "The Mythical Man-Month", Fred Brooks posited what has come to be known as "Brooks' Law": adding resources to a late project simply makes it later.  The reasoning is that the existing team now has to stop much of what it was doing to explain what is going on to the newbies rather than getting on with the actions that they already know they need to take.

The Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare) website project has recently undertaken what it calls a "surge" -- somewhat ironic, considering Obama's opposition to the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan -- to correct the problems in the ACA healthcare website and enrollment process.

At first sight this would appear to be an interesting and very public case study in whether Brooks' Law can be overcome. But Brooks' Law talks about technical resources, and it does not appear that the repair concept is about adding any significant numbers of contractors (i.e. developers or testers).  On the contrary, the contractors (in a display that was certainly unique in my experience) threw their contract-holders under the bus and claimed that the only resource lacking was project management skills on the part of the government.  Indeed, the primary change appears to have been the assignment of OMB Deputy Director Jeff Zients to give the matter his attention.  At least he has evidently taken one of the elementary steps of project management, which is to hold a review to determine what the plan actually is, what the status is, and what the issues are.  Elementary, perhaps, but we are to gather that this is concept is entirely novel for this program.

So it would seem that HHS and OMB have developed an extension to Brooks' Law - we can call it the Zients Law:  "while the addition of resources could delay a project, bringing a project manager on board may well be a necessary condition of getting a project back under control."

*** Update:  Within days, Zients announced that the web site would achieve full operating capability in 30 days, a breath-takingly remarkable assertion. Even simple things in government take more than 30 days. At the end of 30 days there was no announcement of anything: the manual enrollment process continued, and Zients slunk back to OMB with no fanfare.   In January 2014 the enrolment figures zoomed -- as the result of a back-end process moving millions of people from Medicaid to ACA.  

To be fair, Zients, or somebody, did put a lot of project management things into place.  A new contractor was brought on board at the turn of the year and they must have done a bang-up job because within weeks (March), more or less in the nick of time to meet the enrollment deadline, the website apparently handled several million last-minute on-line enrollments, thereby proving both the financial viability of the program itself and of course the technical viability of the website ***

I'll go out on a limb here and say that if (as claimed) senior executives and appointees never inquired into the status of this administration's number one domestic policy initiative, then they are so incompetent as to deserve removal for that.  On the other hand, if the project managers at any level were fully aware of the issues and chose not to pass that information up the chain, or worse to alter it, then they need to be terminated - not "allowed to retire", but terminated without future pensions and be darned glad that they are not being subjected to recoupment of the cost of this botched effort.

*** Update: CIOs are required to certify the condition of their major investments on the Federal IT Dashboard. It's managed by OMB -- which is part of the Executive Office of the President -- and it's quite a big deal. Lateness is not tolerated.  Except, apparently, sometimes.  The Dashboard, which is publicly available -- usually -- reveals that in January 2013 the project was suddenly listed as RED because -- well, because it wasn't passing planned tests.  The following month it went back to green.  In August 2013 (right about the time that the September rollout issues with HAD to have become obvious to anybody working on it) the ENTIRE Federal dashboard reporting process simply stopped.  Coincidence? Well, I guess you can't show a RED on a dashboard that isn't being updated, now can you?  Maybe Zients, as the OMB Deputy Director, knows how that happened.   Anyway in April the data stream started back up again.

So who's been fired?  Well, nobody.  A couple of people have been retired in regular order and Secretary Sebelius moved on amid the usual political and media swooning about her greatness.  The contractor was eventually replaced by another based on its track record of having done a similar project for one of the states (well, there's a good idea -- except that later it transpired that the state's exchange wasn't doing so well either). And 6 months later we learn that system has been making millions of dollars of erroneous payments of subsidies.  It is not the system's fault that the subsidies themselves are also coming under scrutiny as to whether they are legal at all  How do we know any of this?  Because the IRS system supporting ACA, which does work, is finding discrepancies in tax returns between the filer's incomes, the subsidies to which they are entitled, and the subsidies they have been getting.  So the technical solution is not impossible to attain; the IRS has already figured it out. ***

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Metadata more important than the payload? Exhibit A.

Noted in an earlier post, FedEx founder Fred Smith regarded the company's data about its packages as more important than the packages themselves.  How can this be?  Isn't the reason people use FedEx that they trust the company to handle their treasured packages with a bit more care and accountability than the alternative.  As with all worthy epigrams, the seemingly nonsensical and heretical remark contains some deep truths.  Of course I expect FedEx to value the actual package.  The point is that there is not much real value in taking very good care of the package if you don't actually remember where you put it.

This one certainly strikes home for me.  I've certainly experienced the opposite effect.  This isn't really a bash on United Airlines - after 18 years I've gotten over it - sort of, although apparently I remember every grim detail so maybe not.  But it is a great illustration of Fred Smith's point.

When my wife and I left for the UK on our honeymoon, the trousseau came along in two checked suitcases.  I only needed one for my clothes, and you should have no trouble guessing which one of the 3 bags actually made it to the conveyor belt in Heathrow.  Bad enough that we had to go purchase emergency gear in one of the most expensive cities in the world, but then because United (yes, you get named here) had absolutely no idea where these bags were, and very little system-wide data visibility, we had to go stopping into their office almost every day for 2 weeks in order to try and get some information and to pick up our daily ration of $20 which of course does not last more than a few minutes in London.  Needless to say, my better half was not showing up for multiple nice events in the same outfit, so I was in hock for several nice Peter Jones outfits by the time the trip ended.  Ouch.  But it gets worse.

The only consistent information we got was that eventually, all the bags they cannot repatriate with their owners are eventually carted off by policy to the Bag Mountain in Chicago, so at least after 3-4 weeks we would know where the bags were ... if, of course, United still had them under control at all.  On returning to Dulles airport, it occurred to me to stop by the baggage desk in case there was an update on the situation from within the US where maybe the interoffice communications were more effective.  By golly, yes!! The bags had been found and flown off that very morning ... to Chicago.  This was actually recorded in the same electronic file that documented the effort made to date to find the bags, so the only thing I could not work out is why (being in possession of my itinerary) they didn't just hold them and give them to me that very day.  The airline promised to get them back from Chicago on the next flight and I went home shaking my head.  At least the new clothes would last a long time, and indeed they did.

The adventure was't quite over.  I got home to find a dozen messages on my answering machine (that'll date you!) beginning an hour BEFORE the original flight saying they had my bags at Dulles and would I be home to accept delivery.  What??!!  How does THAT  not show up in the bag record?  So at any time in the prior 2 weeks they could have put the bags on a flight to the UK, which would have saved me a couple of thousand dollars and endless aggravation.

The metadata was definitely more valuable than the actual package.

I don't think there's value in a bunch of comments flaming United Airlines in particular, but I'd love to have your comments with examples of other cases where the metadata is indeed more important than the payload.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Has IT world really reached a global consensus design?

At the Akamai annual meeting, FedEx CIO Rob Carter gave an engaging talk on the role of IT in a global business.  Three aspects of that talk stuck with me, two of which explain themselves and the other being worth some exposition:
  • (Paraphrasing) "The organization's philosophical approach to the management of business is encapsulated in the operational processes they use to carry out their business."  This topic deserves its own discussion space.
  • (Again paraphrasing) - Founder Fred Smith's observation that "the information about the package is more important than the package itself". Anybody who has ever had an airline lose a bag get this: it doesn't really matter whether the bag is safe or not if the airline cannot find it.  I've lived that nightmare, and the hassle was far  more than the value of the package.
  • Dominant design.
What is Dominant Design?  When all else fails, consult Wikipedia.  Here's the layman's version.  At some point emerging industry leaders with different solutions gradually get winnowed down through a market process based on choice and/or cost.  At that point, suddenly a single solution-type is discovered to have become the norm.  The previous solution-differentiated market leaders dissolve and the new market leaders become those that are using the new norm, with the providers who delivered that norm in the first place usually (but not always, see "Tandy" and IBM) dominating that clique.

Mr. Carter believes that the IT market, at least at the level of being a global info-structure, has reached that point of enduring paradigm for each of the major layers of the architecture:

  • Servers and calculation engines, and their underlying processors, have obeyed Moore's Law since 1975.  The geometric effect seems impossible to continue, yet it does.  Actual circuits continue towards nanoscale. With virtualization we have worked out how to scale without buying more boxes.
  • Network Fabric (WAN and LAN) presents the illusion of an alphabet soup of supported protocols but the reality is that TCP/IP is the pervasive standard.  As far as carrying capacity, it has been very little time since DSL replaced phone modems; now we expect 1Gb (and growing); the Moore's Law curve seems to apply in this space also.
  • Storage is another area showing exponential yet stable growth, with the original concept of transient memory being steadily eclipsed by persistent memory.  This was an area that seemed to have issues (cost, speed, size) not so long ago, but now pervasive memory technology appears to have crossed the bridge.  This area is also exhibiting Moore's Law behavior.  It's DC so not everybody is allowed to carry USB drives (ahem) but look at the SD cards everybody is buying for their smart phones as Exhibit A! 
  • Software is moving away from last decade's focus on application rationalization (portfolio management) to a general acceptance of application stores and SaaS.  Buy what you want or just rent it for a while; the "build" option is finally being seen as the approach of last resort.

His premises seem unarguable in the short term.  For the middle term, I have to wonder whether it is possible that the changes still to come can be just as creative as those we have witnessed over the past 25 years.  If they are, then these technical approaches too will one day seem as ludicrous as the 8-track cassette.

Your thoughts?  Are we there yet?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Handling the irrevocable decision

This particular week, with no Washington Redskins game and no government (and yet the world continues to turn ...), we who reside in the Chesapeake area have the free time to ponder the mysteries of decision-making and governance.  That is what you were going to do, right?  Well, if you spent any time thinking "what in the heck were those guys thinking?", that's all about governance.

Executive-level choices are not easy, or they would be made by junior clerks.  Worse, they will not come to fruition for some time, leaving lots of opportunities for second-guessing.  Government and industry alike use processes built around the idea of gradual approaches to the objective, permitting periodic re-assessment. Nonetheless, it is a brave analyst who will insist on derailing a program at a milestone review, a dynamic that significantly weakens the value of those reviews; and, as in the current examples, it is not uncommon that decisions are made that essentially preclude re-thinking.

For those from other regions, the Redskins'  superstar rookie quarterback Robert Griffin (RG-III) was massively injured in his first season.  This spring, long before anyone could know whether a full recovery was possible, the organization announced that RG-III would be the starter in the fall no matter what. That choice also meant that the team would have to go through the pre-season (quite successfully) with a different leader; then adjust to the return of an unpracticed RG-III.  That adjustment has (so far) cost 3 of their first 4 regular games against very weak opponents.  Now for the part we don't know: did the early decision permit an orderly march to a future that is not yet apparent but just needs a couple more weeks to prove itself?  Or, with the season at risk before it is a quarter over, is it time to rethink the approach, and if so - how? If they change now, will the team end up going back to square one while re-synching?  Some time between late November and February, we will find out how the actual strategy worked out; but if it fails, we will never really know whether alternative choices would have worked any better.

*** Update: It didn't work out.  Throughout the 2013 season, RG-III was a shadow of his pre-injury self even though the rest of the team was uncharacteristically healthy.  Later in the season he was benched to see if the backup could get the team but with morale in the toilet it didn't make much difference either way.  As the last game ended, the coaching staff was fired.  The team owner resisted a strong push to bring in RG-III's former college coach. ***

Separating ourselves from the political content, the government shutdown offers similar decision-making puzzles.  With both parties having equally but oppositely apocalyptic views of what might happen if the other party gets its way, both of the party leaders adopted a public policy of "no compromise".  That admits of only one outcome: eventually someone must back down and thereby "lose".  That loser will surely be finished as party leader, and may well have led their entire party to effective annihilation; ironically, "winning" will gain almost no change in the status quo at all and does not relieve the winners' practical problems.  As with the Redskins, leaders elected to lock in, well in advance of any practical deadline, to a decision that effectively nullifies other options, and after a certain point any change of plan becomes pretty much impractical.

*** Update: the government shutdown lasted 27 days in in 2013 (the government's fiscal 2014). House leader John Boehner backed down completely, having gained absolutely nothing from the battle and losing some of what was already agreed to.  He survived that fight but now faces for the first time in many years a combative challenge for his House seat, which he is having to spend millions to defend.  Just as with the 1994 shutdown, the country got along just fine with only the essential personnel and saved a lot of money which is now being credited as "deficit reduction".  It saved a lot more when the looming specter of global warming resulted in an unusual number of snow-related shut-downs through the winter of 2013-2014.  You can't make this stuff up. ***

When you step back from the content issues, these two situations bring up similar questions with regard to governance:

  • How far in advance do we really have to lock into a decision?  At what point does lack of a committed decision create more confusion than having to change a decision?  How much detailed effort should we put into a concept that hasn't really been endorsed?
  • How deep into the future should we look when analyzing a particular short-term decision?
  • How do we identify that a decision needs rethinking without being condemned as a trouble-maker? 
  • How should we approach apparently irreversible decisions, as opposed to the usual ones that can be approached incrementally?
  • How can we be confident that the current fiasco really is less of a problem than what would happen if we moved to a different solution?
  • Intervening too early at the first sign of difficulty will eventually lead to stifling all innovations.  How do we tell whether early setbacks indicate growing pains of a bright new future, or the slide into worse results to come?  
  • If we are planning to shift gears, how do we assess the disruption effect?  Our economic analysis methods address Plan A and Plan B, and the partial costs involved in a shift.  We do not really  have a strong methodology for assessing the practical implications of making the change either within those programs or on other related activities, but for the most part decision-makers are making implicit subjective assessments of that disruption when they cling to something that is obviously not going too well rather than consider alternative approaches.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Financial estimating with zero data - what a business

I've recently had the pleasure of attending a series of seminars about angel investing.

First a shout out to the National Defense University and its associated Foundation for setting up outreach to bring an under-served population (military veterans) to the attention of the investor community. I agree with NDU that the veterans' reliability and creativity, especially under stressful situations, makes them great potential partners, and looking at the correlation between huge business successes and military service it certainly makes sense to look beyond MIT, Stanford and Caltech once in a while.

What does this have to do with governance?

○ It's good to work with people who understand the word "integrity".  But still you need to make sure the documentation is straight nonetheless.

○ Unlike Shark Tank and the true venture capital phase of a business, the angels don't expect to be handed an already thriving business. They supplement whatever factual data may be available with their knowledge of their special market areas, with the sense of how the would-be entrepreneur will be as a partner (see previous bullet) and a strong helping of gut feel.  Don't use this as an excuse to shirk your due diligence. Angels are using their own money and a lot of domain expertise and there IS no better data (they will indeed do due diligence!). If you are in the PM business you have a fiduciary responsibility to someone - the taxpayer or shareholders, or at least the executives who must make the decision.

What makes this work is a solid concept of the operation. If you really understand what problem you are trying to solve, and more or less how the solution will solve it, then you'll be able to develop a fairly coherent narrative of how the business (or project) will evolve and from there you can probably start putting some number ranges around it.  Surely the average project with much better defined situations should be able to do at least as well.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Free the Z-word !

Maybe my vocabulary is too salty but I can think of nominees for *-words in a whole lot of slots in the alphabet, but today we have a new one for you.

Let's meet our friend the Z-word.    Zero-sum.  This is the basis for all of our "management" disciplines.  About the time that "win-win" became trendy, zero-sum got dismissed as the relic of antiquated thinking.  I am not so sure that this is a binary choice (there's some geek-speak for you), and even if they are mutually exclusive, there are times in the life of every leader (well, every manager anyway) when there just is not enough pixie dust to go around.

Zero-sum does not mean forcing an artificial conflict.  We really do have a finite amount of time and money. Failing to illuminate the constraints simply sets us up for even more destructive conflicts later on when the resources really are inadequate and we have already made a lot of promises about (and spent a lot of money on) a half-dozen initiatives that are all now stalled.

How does this work?

  • Everything that is to be decided must start from a level at which everything is included.  Everything you approve for execution must fit within the grand total.  No special cases, no players to be named later.  It is OK to maintain a global reserve as long as it is specifically called out as such.  If there are special cases that will not be considered, fine, but then they need to be supported with their own resources rather than dipping into the common pool later on after bypassing all due diligence reviews.
  • Break the total down into subordinate buckets using whatever word your organization will accept ("program" is the idea, but it may already be taken) from the perspective of capability, not organizationally, unless those are the same. Appoint managers for each bucket and let them propose what they need to accomplish their missions.  At this point it is often wise to provide rough guidance on appropriate size ranges for those buckets.
  • Allow the managers to devise and explain the detailed trade-offs within their programs to achieve the desired capabilities (or as much as possible) with the available resources.  Everything at a more detailed level must conform to the constraints imposed at the next higher level.
  • Each program must specify the (more or less stable) operating costs to keep doing what you are doing now.  These are usually 60-75% of the total.  Benchmark those costs against other organizations to identify fat.  Now the program has money left over for enhancements and new initiatives
  • Make largely subjective decisions as to how to allocate total resources against these different desired capabilities
  • Continue this process down through the programs, allowing the program managers to drive allocation decisions internally, as long as they remain accountable to deliver what was approved.

Notice that this approach provides an incentive to pull down the cost of operations since it is through those actual reductions that the "cool stuff" can be funded.  I have seen this simple approach yield substantial (15-20%) reductions in previously sacrosanct steady-state funds.

What this approach really accomplishes is to force those difficult conversations up to the appropriate level. Anything is possible as long as [almost] everything else is given up to accommodate it.  Several times I have seen an organization's leaders agree to give one initiative the lions's share of the funding for a year or so - and the sacrificing leaders exert a great deal of pressure to make sure that the initiative delivers!  It is the zero-sum concept that makes it work.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Syria and Sausages

This is a non-political post but it makes use of current events to make a point.  The event is the sudden and complete reversal of US foreign policy regarding Syria as a result of the seizure of a single and possibly facetious remark by the Secretary of State.  Ironically, the situation forms an interesting segue from last week's blog post suggesting that effective governance is less about which way a decision goes than it is about making clear what the decision was and is.

  • Don't make the sausage in public.  If the executives cannot really commit to a decision once it is made, then let it wait, or it will face passive resistance from the outset - often inspired by those same executives.
  • Address and welcome obvious questions before the decision is made. That way, an executive's unrehearsed remarks are already informed with regard to reasonable questions. "Have you considered any alternatives?" is a pretty obvious question in regard to almost any decision.
  • Executives are always on stage, everywhere, every minute.  You knew this; so did Obama and Kerry. It just goes to show how easy it can be to forget.  Never miss a golden opportunity to remain silent.

All too often, decision processes are viewed as just another procedural hurdle.  Presenters seek to get the answer they want, and they avoid mentioning any potentially adverse information.  Putting the issues on the table early allows those issues to be considered and dealt with; then we are prepared when the question does arise or when the risk event does occur.   Nonetheless it is human nature, and even more so among the compulsively competitive rising stars who are trying to get their ideas implemented, to believe that what is good for them is good for the organization.  Many such strivers view any questioning as a personal affront aimed at undermining, rather than improving, their initiatives.  The unsung heroes are the chiefs of staff and the secretariat who must work out what the important issues and questions are, and make sure that these matters are actively included in the eventual decision.

Having said that, it is not necessary to grind the sausage in the store window.  Executives mostly get to that level precisely because they prefer not to confront anyone directly, least of all their peers, and certainly not openly.  The issues involved in any complex decision cannot be discussed and resolved in a 30 minute slot at a board meeting.  Beyond actual conflicting issues, there is also (like it or not) often horse-trading of resources associated with many high-level decisions; that will seldom be included in the record of decision!  For the most part, these matters will be resolved in multiple meetings before the actual board meeting, which will therefore take on the appearance of a rubber-stamp because everyone has already agreed beforehand.  That makes it easy to document what the decision was, but not as easy to document that the critical issues were considered or how they were resolved.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

What Trumps How

My business cards carry a slogan: "How the decision gets made DOES matter".  I do think that is true, in two ways: the the information that as provided to the decision-makers in advance of the decision being made, and the actual method by which a decision is made and advertised.  More transparent decisions tend to be better decisions because participants in the decision process have to be able to answer the implicit question of "why?"  But I'll go ahead and open this blog with a contrarian angle:  knowing why something was decided does not matter nearly as much knowing what the decision was.

I have experienced a couple of situations (names changed, of course) where executives simply didn't want to give up any power to a decision board, regardless of what external mandates seemed to require.  With one, the process was not very conventional, but it was workable: and once we settled that part, it was actually possible to build a compliant framework around it.  Just as long as it was quite clear that Sandra would have the last word.

What does not work is a system based on random acts of decision - or indecision.   Let us say that Bob announces his decision.  But Lucy is unhappy and gets a closed-door meeting to complain to Bob, who agrees that Lucy's issue is important and she should continue with her project (without making clear where these resources are to come from, and Lucy knows better than to ask).  Bob never actually tells anyone about this, and Lucy runs into a resource conflict with the original project team.  Meanwhile, Jaime ignores the whole process and diverts his resources to something else altogether; Bob agrees (again behind closed doors) that Jaime seems to be working on something very critical and should keep doing whatever it is that he is doing. Once all of the organization's resources are committed to wholly incompatible activities, none of the projects can get access to the skill sets they need to complete a phase; the organization is up in arms.  Bob then announces that he made his priorities quite clear in the original meeting and there had better not be any any further discussion of this topic. As a result, all of the projects grind to a halt and stay there.  As Dave Barry would say, I swear I am not making this up.  I'm not that talented.

What I learned from all that was that the first priority of any governance process must be to make sure that everyone knows what has been decided.  It would be nice to know when, and why, and who was in the room; to know that this week's decision will not be overruled next week; or to know that the decisions were supported by some actual facts.  But, given some degree of general competence, organizations can absorb quite a bit of subjectivity, whereas they must know what the current marching orders are.  If you can simply get that published, your governance program may find itself with a more solid foundation than you expect.

Welcome to the Business and IT Decisions blog!

I'll set a goal of a new base posting weekly, although several may be continuations of previous posts.

This blog will be about how decisions get made and, probably for the most part, about some of the processes that support making decisions: planning, architecture, budgeting, and so on.

Given the wide-open nature of the Internet, it wouldn't be surprising if some overheated and/or irrelevant comments or responses got added to the blog over time.  Those will be removed and/or blocked. Otherwise, please feel free to agree OR disagree; not much learning results from mass agreement.