Measuring matters

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When I was little I made a lot of important decisions based on color. Choosing between a red shirt and a blue? I chose blue every time. Blue was a better color. Between Icee pops? Same thing. What can I say I liked blue.

 

Over time I learned that for somethings color wasn’t a great indicator of performance. Choosing a grocery line? It almost never pays to choose based on the shirt color of the last person in line. Typically I like to choose these lines on the basis of current line length and estimated shopping cart items. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t but as far as informal decision support metrics it does ok.

 

Most of us leverage these types of learned strategies everyday. We make choices about what lane to drive in, who to ask for help and where to go next based on models we have developed over time. These models become more fixed over time, although most of us have adjusted our models here and there to account for things like the “excessively talkative checkout clerk.”

 

The decisions we make in the office should be no different. They should be based on models that we build up over time and are updated regularly to take into account for new inputs. I think one of the biggest gaps many organizations have is that by failing to develop formal decision models over time, they fail to understand what led to success and what led to failure and of course because it is informal nobody can learn from either.

 

I’m certainly not advocating for turning every decision into an overly formal exercise in data gathering and evaluation that leads to analysis paralysis. I do however think that identifying key decisions that your organization makes repeatedly and then developing set criteria for evaluation can lead to improved decision making over time. It certainly does hurt to have this information available to others within the organization as well.

 

When we go started with ExAM (ExAM4Enterprise.com) our focus was on data collection and analysis with the belief that by making it easier to collect information about their organization and then helping them to develop decision models based on that information we could be part of changing the way organizations did their business and help them achieve a higher level of performance.

 

What we didn’t know then was that it would lead to so much work in the inspections and compliance space. Looking back at it now, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Most inspections are exercises in data gathering that are supposed to support decision making (No working refrigeration, No Food Service permit).

 

In the end I’m happy that we’ve managed to help so many organizations support these types of decisions. Unfortunately, outside of compliance I think that this type of ongoing evaluation and decision support that is talked about more than implemented. Getting better results requires identifying key decisions, the information required to support the decision and ideally a method for weighing (scoring) that information to support decision making.

 

Of course if all else fails, you can always fall back on choosing blue.

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

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Changing the way the VA Innovates

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I have had the great pleasure of the last two years to be a part of a team that is working to support the execution of innovation projects for the VA Center for Innovation. The VA Center for Innovation “identifies, tests, and evaluates new approaches to meet the current and future needs of Veterans through innovations rooted in data, design-thinking, and agile development.”

This summer this program is taking a big step out into the public eye as it kicks of the VA Innovation Creation Series (May 15th to July 29th 2015). The VA Innovation Creation Series powered by the VA Center for Innovation aims to facilitate development of personalized technologies to improve care and quality of life for Veterans.

The launch of the Innovation Creation Series will take place at the Palo Alto VA Medical Center this Friday (May 15th). A curated list of challenge areas facing veterans will be posted from May to July on http://www.innovation.va.gov/challenge/ – powered by Innocentive and GrabCad, which are both online open innovation challenge sites.

Designers, engineers, and all other solvers can contribute initial design solutions to the posted challenges. The VA Innovation Creation Series will culminate in a 2-day “make-a-thon” event at the Richmond VA Medical Center where the online designs will be built and tested to showcase how they meet the needs of Veterans and servicemembers.

If you’d like to participate, get more information or learn more about this project please sign up for their mailing list and they will reach out to you with more information.

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

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Teaching is Learning

NY Times Interview of Kon Leong Interviewing for Brains and Drive

Do you really want to learn something quickly? Try teaching it to someone else. Consulting work often puts you in the position of augmenting the expertise you may have in a one particular area with deep knowledge of a subject matter you may be relatively new to working in. Our team is often in the position of building applications in the cloud to support all different types of organizational requirements from inspections and facilities management to capital planning and portfolio management.

 

Over time we have developed expertise in a variety of different types of systems but their is always a new wrinkle or new angle. For clients, who are pinning the modernization of an application whose business rules and execution they depend on, it can be nerve wracking if you are stammering through the basics of their business.

 

I never try to pretend I know more than I do, but I do try to learn as much as I can, as quickly as I can so I can be more effective and put the clients mind at ease. One trick I’ve learned over time is to teach the client’s business to someone on staff prior to a project kickoff. You may wonder how much benefit you can get from one person who is admittedly not an expert teaching another who knows nothing about a subject.

 

In my experience the act of attempting to teach someone else forces you down a deeper learning path. The simple act of thinking through how to teach something to someone forces you to find ways to map the new material to the world you know so you can express it to someone else. It forces you to begin to chunk and categorize the information as well as making it easier to identify gaps in your own understanding.

 

It usually takes me a couple of attempts to complete my teaching assignment with a colleague, but at the end I inevitably find myself with a deeper understanding of the subject matter and a deeper confidence in speaking about it. At the end of the day this better understanding not only puts the clients mind at ease but it positions me to be better prepared to service their requirements.

 

So if you really want learn something fast…maybe you should start by figuring out how to teach it to someone else.

 

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

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10 Big things every consultant (and you) should do

consultant

A consultant (should be) someone who offers good advice. Many times this is advice based on subject matter expertise, experience, or other unique qualifications. However having a particular subject matter expertise or experience is only one facet of being a good consultant.

Great consultants have a lot more than just expertise – they understand how to solve problems and work with people. These skills aren’t just valuable to those who want to make a living providing advice professionally, they can help anyone who is trying to make a difference in any organization.

Great consultants help:

  1. Define problems – the key to solving the problem is often finding it.
  2. Establish scope – successfully solving some problems planning to break it into manageable chunks
  3. Find solutions – sometimes the solution is right under your nose, sometimes it takes being able to think outside the box or how it has always been done.
  4. Work to deliver – great consultants don’t just give advice, they help get you to the solution. Whether you are trying to bring you consulting skills to bear on an internal project or have been brought in to find a solution…roll up your sleeves!

The four items above form a pretty straight forward problem solving but getting them right is hard. You can and I have talked about different specific approaches to these things. At a more basic level I think there are some things I think everyone who works in teams or problem solving should think about.

These 10 Big things every consultant (and you) should do are things I like to remind myself of every so often because doing these basics well establishes a foundation for success over time.

  1. Listen more – Even if you have deep subject matter expertise most consultants would be better served to spend more time listening. I like to spend 60-80% of my time listening.
  2. Keep your personal opinions/life out of it – Especially for paid consultants but even with internal staff, the job is problem solving not discussing random life events. The less time we spend discussing the slopes, gym, love life or pets the more likely we are to solve something.
  3. Keep it positive – Even when things are bad, they could typically be worse and for most of us literal life and death do not hang in the balance. Focusing on the positive keeps even the most daunting tasks from becoming overwhelming.
  4. Take notes – I’m amazed at how rare note taking is…I don’t care where you take them (paper, iPad, computer) but take them. Not sure what to write? Anything that someone is supposed to do that doesn’t occur in the meeting, key on the following phrases (We should be…, the problem is…, someone needs to…, I’ve asked for…, the next step is..) Also…share your notes. You would be amazed at how few other people took them.
  5. Focus on results not effort – Nobody wants to hear about how you are working around the clock on something. Trust me people know hard workers when they see them and your results should speak for themselves. At the end of the day, I don’t care if you worked 4 hours or 10. I want the results.
  6. Do or Do Not – I hear all the time about how to multi-task “better” and shake my head. I hate multitasking. Do one thing. Get it done. Go on to the next thing. Running back and forth lowers overall quality and lengthens time to market. I can’t prove it but I can sense it. Oh and turn off that loud music!
  7. Take breaks – Sometimes I will literally go for a walk to clear my head. Problem solving requires a lot of focus and energy. If you find your attention drifting change tasks, take a break or otherwise give your head a chance to recover from recent effort.
  8. Tackle the tough stuff in the AM -Trying to solve complex problems is hard.  Trying to do it at 1AM after a 17 hour day isn’t going to happen. I like to split my work day so that most of the thinking is done in the morning and the more mundane and social tasks are in the afternoon. Most people are simply better prepared to problem solve in the morning.
  9. Do the research and include the research – Even when you know the answer off the top of your head go find the backing information. I’ve been amazed over the years at how often the right answer last year has been overtaken by advances in technology, business process changes, etc. I also always try to write up solutions to include references. I do this so it is easier for others to understand how I arrived at the solution. Also, I often need to go back to at least one of the 30 websites I looked at when developing the solution.
  10. Plan your problem solving efforts – Too often the plan for solving a problem is simply getting everyone in the room and talking about it. The end result too often is an agreement to meet again next week. Create a plan for your planning. Include agendas for meetings with clearly stated outcomes and objectives. Close meetings by checking against those items and ensuring action items are clearly defined and attributed.

Most of my 10 Big things every consultant (and you) should do are common sense. What is on your list? Do you have a repeatable approach to problem solving? Let me know @jmillsapps.

 

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

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Every Kickoff needs a Pre Kickoff

Everybody loves a good kickoff meeting and a lot of planning goes into making them go well. I agree…a great kickoff meeting gets everything moving in the right direction. However, I think the process should actually be backed up a step. Many times before starting an engagement I will ask for a Pre-Kickoff meeting. The purpose of this is threefold:

  1. Facilitate discovery – How many times have you started working on a project only to find that you left a critical stakeholder out of the first three meetings? Ever discover that the solution you are working on fixes the problem at hand but exacerbates a problem somewhere else? A good Pre-Kickoff provides enough free flowing dialog to help capture these types of scoping issues.
  2. Determine the appetite for change – Every transformation is going to have real and perceived winners and losers. This is a fact. You can sugar coat it, but doing so doesn’t make that fact go away. Having an open forum helps you understand where people feel they fall. Once you get a sense of where people are actually going to fall or perceive they are going to fall in the “Winners → Loser continuum” you can work to address that perception or reality.
  3. Gather the stuff – Yep…you can’t have transformation without stuff. The bigger the effort the more stuff that is usually involved. Creating an inventory of helpful materials can be a key step in ensuring that your project isn’t a net new effort. Getting the reports people are using to manage the business today, process models, system diagrams and other items helps you to get a jump on your project. It also sends a signal that you value the input of the existing stakeholders and the effort they put in before you showed up.

Pre Kickoff Homework

I admit it, I am a pretty informal guy. I like my pre-kickoff meetings to be pretty informal events, but a little structure isn’t a bad thing. Here are ten things I ask people to bring to my pre-kickoff:

  1. Your existing reports and management tools. This helps us understand how you are managing your business today so we can help facilitate this in the future. Discussing a particular spreadsheet can often uncover the manual, multi-system processes lurking beneath a management approach.
  2. A conceptualization of the role your organization, group, etc plays in the overall value chain. Organizational transformation needs to happen in the context of the big picture. Your Pre-Kickoff should play a key role in helping people think about it in those terms.
  3. Your stuff. Got process models, system diagrams, etc? Bring them. No matter how rough they help us get insight into how you are thinking about the As-Is and To-Be environment.
  4. Your questions. If you don’t come into this meeting with some burning questions something is wrong. If you are at the meeting you will be affected by this…if you don’t ask questions I can only assume you aren’t doing your homework.
  5. Your listening ears. I try to focus on the quiet folks in my Pre-Kickoffs because they are typically being underserved. I always ask participants to remember that multi stakeholder projects require everyone’s participation to be successful and that means listening to others input in addition to providing your own. Projects too often serve the squeaky wheel.
  6. Your own voice. On the other side of the folks who can’t say enough are those who aren’t saying anything. When you are contemplating doing something,new asking questions is a natural part of the process. Verbal participation is a must.
  7. Someone who actually does the work. Pre kickoff meetings and planning meetings tend to be dominated by managers who are often not quite as up to speed on how things actually work as those in the trenches.
  8. One person instead of two. Every time you add a person to a meeting it becomes less productive. Nobody knows why but it just happens. So keep it at a minimum. I know I just said to bring more people in number seven, but really less is more so choose wisely.
  9. Food and beverage. I always get a laugh out of this because of my size, but I hate breaking for lunch during a day long session. It destroys the whole flow and many times the best bits of the meeting happen over a sandwich tray in the meeting room.
  10. An open mind. The whole point of a Pre Kickoff is to get a level set across all parties and kick the tires on the way you are thinking about potential solutions. Nothing kills this faster than someone whiteboarding the solution end to end in the first 30 minutes of the day.

In the end Pre Kickoffs are about sharing perspective, finding the gray spaces and ensuring you understand the complete problem statement. Sure that includes talking about solutions, but don’t try to “get ahead” by getting a jumpstart on the solution or you may find you’ve missed the value of the Pre Kick Off completely.

 At the end of the day a successful Pre-Kickoff may leave you with more questions than answers but that is a good thing. One of the major goals of the session should be to leave knowing you have uncovered all of the questions and identified the gray spaces so that you can plan your kickoff and project to address them.

 

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

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Back to The Lab again

Exterior_patio_of_the_National_Ignition_Facility

I went back to Lawrence Livermore national laboratory again this week and this time I got to get a tour of the National Ignition Facility…aka the most powerful laser on earth. The simple scale of the facility is awe inspiring as is the science. We are talking about a laser capable of replicating the birth of a small star. Commissioned in 1999 the lab is a cutting edge facility but one that brings home the pace of innovation across the globe but particularly in a facility like this. One of the things we were shown was the the next generation laser. At a tenth the size of the current version it is capable of being loaded onto a semi truck rather than being housed in a massive facility. Looking back across time this “tiny” laser’s output would have required a mile long facility in the 1980s.

For myself and Andi the working with the lab to develop a next generation proposal system has been exciting because it has let us feel like we are a small part of helping deliver scientific benefits that a place like LLNL a is uniquely capable of providing to a broader audience and to ensuring that the best use of this limited resource is made in order to ensure that every shot (firing of the laser) counts. Working with a dedicated team within the lab we believe that the social capabilities of Salesforce a well as its flexibility will help the lab not only make tough decisions on how to expend resources but also enable outreach to a broader community of scientists and institutions in order to bring in proposals from around the world that ultimately push science farther, faster than ever before.
When you think about it for any institution the proposal management process is critical whether in the realm of academic research, as it pains to public sector contracting and in the everyday commercial contracting occurring in businesses large and small across this country. Casting a broader net means more competitive proposals, more ideas and if done correctly better capabilities to vet those proposals such that the broader reach doesn’t become overwhelming.

This was our last week at the lab on this project. I’ll miss the people and the atmosphere. It is truly a unique place that is is chasing answers to some of the most complex lines of scientific inquiry that exist today. Playing even a small role in that is something I will always remember and treasure.

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

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10 ways to use “little data” to help your organization make better decisions

It seems like every time you turn around these days someone is talking about big data. Big data is changing the way we live and work as people find correlations between things that in years past would have never been connected. While I have no doubt that the way that big data has a big role to play in helping organizations look at the enormous complexity of their operations I think people often miss the mark in their planning by not focusing on “little data.” What is “little data?”— it’s that Thin Layer of information that makes a difference when it comes time to make decisions for our organization.
Little data is the stuff that is the stuff you absolutely have to know because it drives organizational decision making. It’s little because while the volume of information that could be and is captured in most organizations is huge, most of it is just noise. It is crowding out the stuff that really matters. The things that help you make decisions every day about investments, programs, projects and resources. The Thin Layer is difference making information, its three columns from one spreadsheet and four from another. It is the things you absolutely have to get right in order to steer the ship. In your search for the Thin Layer you should avoid simply accepting all the default columns on the management report. People only have so much mental space…use it wisely!
In the same fashion organizations only have so many resources so use them wisely as well. Don’t spend time and effort processing unnecessary data, building unnecessary reports, or managing data quality on things that don’t matter. That time and effort is better put to the decision making itself. One of the biggest failures I see in decision support is that people spend so much time gathering information and building the decision making process that they never actually get to making the decisions.
In today’s resource constrained business environments good decision making processes start light weight and become more mature and robust through iterations. I like to think in terms of two week sprints with six week iterative time boxes as we build decision support systems. These short time frames ensure that you don’t get so caught up in thinking big that you fail to deliver or over build. So how do you get started? I’ve put together a simple 10 step approach to getting the most out of the Thin Layer.
Building the Thin Layer of Information that Really Matters
  1. If you haven’t already figure out your information marketplace, start by figuring out what the critical decisions are in your organization. 
  2. Once you know what decisions need to be supported its time to figure out who needs to be involved.
  3. Work with the decision makers to decompose thise decisions into the information you need to support those decisions. Hint: They probably already have some reports they are using now to support decision making.
  4. Work together to determine the best way to provide that information in order to support decision making (form, access, messaging, timeline).
  5. Identify the sources of information required to support the decisions and an approach to gathering it consistently and accurately (Accuracy is critical!)
  6. Pull it all together including the people, processes, technology and information.
  7. Make decisions using the information to drive them. The whole point of this exercise was making better data driven decisions. It only works if you actually use it.
  8. Measure results. This can be tricky, but understanding the outcomes of your decision making helps drive the next iteration of your decision making process. 
  9. Make changes. Decision making processes are living things and need updating in order to be successful. Make sure you are capturing your outcomes so you can update your processes accordingly. 
  10. Every once in awhile repeat the entire process. As your organization changes you are going to have new decisions to support and new people to work with in order to support them. Having an annual or other regular time frame for re-evaluating your information environment is critical to long term organizational growth. 

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

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