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I Can Help! May 29, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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My mother tells the story of a friend who was caught in a power outage.  The line for her house was down,keeping her from getting power even as other parts of town were being restored.  Repeated calls to the power company had no effect as they busied themselves with other, more important areas.

Finally, in frustration, she called the power company and asked them to cancel the service call. “Why?” they asked.  She explained that she knew they were very busy, dealing with all those other customers.  Her husband, she said, was very handy, and was headed outside with a ladder to reconnect the drop line himself.  They were aghast.  “Don’t let you husband touch those lines!”  “Oh, no,” she assured them. “It’s OK.  We just want to help out, and this way you can send your people to fix other houses instead.”

A truck roared up in five minutes, and her power was restored.

At some point, every organization is a service organization, focused on internal or external customers.  As we try to provide “fair” service, it can be easy to lose sight of one or two customers who warrant our attention even though they may not be as big or as important as other customers.  What seems fair to us can seem completely unjust to those who are on the wrong side of the decision.  That leads to frustration that forces customers to threaten unusual behavior to get our attention.

As we manage with limited resources, we need to keep in mind that every customer is equally important.  While it may impossible to serve everyone at once, we need to find creative ways to serve everyone a little bit.  The vast majority of customers are fair-minded; when they see that everyone is getting some measure of service, they tend to recognize that we’re doing the best we can in a tough situation.

This goes beyond IT issues like fixing PCs and resolving system errors.  Some of us may be faced with allocating scarce products among competing customers.  Others may have legal work or audits to be done under tight deadlines with limited personnel.  It’s easy to tell everyone to just wait their turn as we honestly work to get to each customer as quickly as we can.  In these days of instant gratification and rapid responses to everything, we need to find ways to provide a little bit of service to everyone, just so they know we understand their needs and are working to meet them.

This kind of incremental service isn’t easy and sometimes requires a complete rethinking of how we tackle problems.  It may not always be necessary; sometimes we’re blessed with enough resources to take care of everyone at once.  But we all need these skills when times get tight.  If not, we’ll have customers reaching for live wires, and that causes problems that are a lot harder to solve.

Solutions Without Technology May 27, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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Of the many aphorisms that I enjoy using, one of my favorites is

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I pull this one out when someone is using some system in an inappropriate way.  People get so comfortable with their favorite tools, they use them for everything even when a better solution is readily available.

This is an easy accusation for an IT person to make.  Most software systems are so complicated that it is easier for a user to twist an existing system into an unusual solution than it is to learn some completely arcane new system.  People just want to solve problems and get on with their jobs and lives.  I know this is hard to believe, but they don’t look forward to exploring and mastering that latest version of some new desktop application.

Those of us in IT would do well to listen to our own advice.

How many times, when asked to help solve some problem, do we immediately reach for a computer?  Typically, the answer is “all of the time.”  We’re in IT; we know how to make computers do interesting things; therefore every problem can be solved with some technology-based solution.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Many problems do not exist for want of a technology solution.  In fact, many of the day-to-day business problems we encounter are rooted in process, flow, and data collection.  While you can certainly throw software at all of those areas, you can also fix a lot of issues by talking to people, understanding their real needs, and proposing ways to change things in a non-technical way.

Within IT, we have developed a broad range of skills that are not rooted in technology.  Process analysis, data management, project management, user interface design, audit and compliance, risk management: the list is long.  Why, then, when someone is gracious enough to give us the opportunity to help, do we reach for the hardware?  We perpetuate the perception that we are nothing more than geeks, when if fact we have so much more to offer.

I’ve been on projects where the real solution was to have a user interface designer rework a paper form layout.  I’ve seen errant projects saved by sharing good project management skills.  I’ve seen business processes reworked by applying disaster recovery discipline.  In all of these cases, not a single line of code was written in pursuit of a solution.  Instead, IT people spent time listening, sharing, and collaborating to help users do their jobs more effectively.

People in IT chafe at being known solely for their technical expertise, yet we fall into our old habits when confronted with a problem.  We need to follow our own advice, set down the hammer of technology, and look for effective non-technical solutions to many of the problems we’re asked to solve.  We’ll grow in our ability to be of service, and we’ll begin to build a better reputation with our end users.

Idiot Or Thief? April 24, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I love shopping in a store and being accused of being both stupid and a thief.  What better way to win my long-term loyalty?

It all started back in 1973.  A nearby grocery store had installed a high-tech checkout system that used new-fangled “bar codes” to scan items at checkout, eliminating the hand-keying of prices into the cash register.  Well, what could be better?  As bacon is to all foods, lasers are to all technology.  There is no device that does not get better by adding a laser in some fashion.  And these checkout systems had visible lasers, flickering across the products, ready to blind or maim at a moment’s notice!  Dangerous technology, bent to the will of man!

Over the years, scanners replaced cash registers, until they were pervasive in every shopping experience.  But the technology was off-limits to all but a select few: the highly trained cadre of cashiers who were granted access to the mysterious machines.  Only they knew how to hold the products just so, and move them at the right speed, to get a good scan each and every time.  Mere mortals stood back in awe as these artists worked their magic with cans, boxes, and even plastic bags.

The desire to use the machine and scan something was overpowering.  Alas, my career choice precluded being a cashier, so I tried to manage my impulses.  A rare encounter with a cashier that would let you scan something was like a brief glimpse into another world.  It felt so good!

Imagine my excitement when my local grocery installed self-checkout machines.  I could be my own cashier, scanning all by myself!  This was heady stuff, and I was quick to use those lanes whenever possible.

The fun was cut short when I found that the machine assumes that I am both an idiot and a thief.  As you scan each item, the system tells you to place it in the bagging area.  If it doesn’t arrive in the bagging area in quickly enough, the system repeats the command and then locks up, awaiting intervention from the system manager.  After the manager unlocks the system from their console, I can then move on to the next item.

As to the idiot assumption: where do they think I am going to put the item?  Throw it to the floor? Back in my basket?  Juggle it?  I know to put it in the bag.  Why would you tell me this for each and every item I am buying?  Thanks for assuming that a typical adult has no idea how the purchasing process works.

And a thief? Apparently, these machines are built with scales in the bagging area, and some poor soul has entered the weight of every conceivable item you might buy.  As you scan an item, the system is carefully checking to see if what you bought is correctly placed into a bag.  If that weight is not registered in the bag, the system assumes you have not bagged it and must therefore be committing some sort of fraud.  Did you scan one item but bag two?  Scan a cheap item but bag something far more expensive?

The reality is that the scales on these machines are not that great, so that bagging errors happen all the time.  Set an item down too hard or too gently, and it is misread.  Jostle the scale or try to shift things in the bag, and you upset the system.  Most items weigh so little that they cannot possibly register accurately every time.  Yet the assumption is that the system is right, you are wrong, and some shenanigans are going on in aisle seven.

Let me clarify something for my local grocer: my long-term retirement plan does not involve skimming extra candy bars and razor blades for potential resale on eBay.  I am not out to rob you; I just want to quickly check out while experiencing the vicarious thrill of using a laser to do so.  I understand that certain miscreants might uses lasers for nefarious purposes, but that usually involves sharks.  I am honest, long-term customer that wants to be treated that way.  For goodness sake, I scanned my frequent shopper card when I started; if there was some sort of problem, you know whre I live!

Once again, companies are usnig technology with the best of intentions but ending up alienating and irritating customers.  We preach about trust and relationship with customers, but that seems to only go one way.  Our systems assume there is no trust or relationship, and customers are quick to perceive that.  We need to live the customer experience more often and translate our feelings into the systems we design.  Then we can start building trust and earning a relationship with our customers.

No? No. No! April 22, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , , , , ,

There is a fatal trap into which all IT Leaders fall, sooner or later.  It isn’t a sudden trap, sprung upon you all at once, but a slow, gentle descent into a disaster that can break your career if you aren’t careful.

It starts by saying “no.”

Every IT organization in the world is understaffed with respect to the total demand for all IT projects contemplated by the business.  While we may have enough people to keep the lights on and systems running, we’ll never have enough people to execute every project envisioned by our peers in the business.  That’s the way it should be: not every project needs to be completed, no matter how badly it is wanted by its champion.

As the owner of scarce resources, IT can become the arbiter of what gets done and what gets ignored.  And therein lies the trap: for every project you accept, you are telling one or more people “no.”  Each person that gets turned away views IT as an impediment to their grand plan, a speed bump on their road to success.  Over time, you’ll wind  up telling everyone no at some point.  You’ll have accrued so much resentment among your customers that they will begin to bypass you to get things done.  When that happens, your effectiveness as a CIO has diminished, and your ability to serve your company has ended.  Soon after that, you’ll be looking for a new job.

There is a better way, and savvy CIOs know how to avoid this trap.  The key is to engage your peers to decide, among themselves, which projects should or shouldn’t get green-lighted.  IT has no business determining the ultimate cost and benefit of a project.  That’s up to the project champion and his or her peers, debating the project in the broader perspective of the business as a whole.  When they finish their debate, your job is to step in and make their collectively-chosen projects successful.  The animosity of those whose projects were declined can be directed at their peers who made that decision, not you as the CIO.

Every CIO needs to develop this governance process in their company.  Whole books have been written on how to gather projects into portfolios, build governance teams at various management levels, and facilitate the debate among business leaders.  The IT organization provides guidance along the way, with scope estimates, impact statements, and technology assessments.  This is done objectively to support the conversation, not to champion a particular cause.

But, some CIOs complain, change only occurs when I initiate it!  How do I get things to happen while being objective?

You have two choices.  The right way is to present your big idea to another business leader, convince them of the merits, and allow them to champion the project.  With them as champion, you step back into your role of objective facilitator and implementation expert.  The more difficult path is to advance the idea yourself, acting as a business leader and not as the CIO.  This requires a deft hand and can be fraught with peril.  Honestly, if you can’t convince someone in the business to champion your idea, why would you advance it on your own anyway?

Good IT governance is a crucial part of every successful company and every successful CIO.  It takes time to develop the culture and process for successful governance, but your patient efforts will be well-rewarded.  Good governance gets you out of the position of being the “guy who always says no.”  That’s important, because the “guy who says no” is soon known as the “guy looking for a new job.”

Pansies And Tulips April 3, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Last fall, my wife bought some potted plants to put on our front porch.  As winter approaches, she plants pansies in our front flower beds.  The pots came with pansies pre-installed.  For reasons that escape me, pansies like cold weather and bloom throughout the winter.  As spring approaches, they wither and she plants new things for the new year.

This year, as spring approached and the pansies began to peter out, she got a pleasant surprise.  Unbeknownst to her, there were tulip bulbs buried in the pots, underneath the pansies.  As the pansies died, the tulips sprouted, providing a beautiful welcome to the spring.  Even better, tulips are one of her favorite flowers, so the surprise was especially nice.

The pots weren’t advertised as having tulips in them.  She wasn’t expecting tulips.  Had the pansies gone about their business and died, she wouldn’t have been disappointed. But she got tulips.  Without asking, she got bonus flowers that made her original purchase of pansies that much nicer.

Wouldn’t it be great if every purchase we made or service we provided had some hidden tulips in the bottom?  How much happier would our customers be if we always provided a little extra surprise at no extra charge?

As you go about your job today, big or small, deliver the pansies.  But make sure you plant a tulip, too.  It may not sprout for six months or more, but imagine the smile you’ll bring when it does.