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All For One, And One For All August 26, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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10 comments

I’ve been having a semi-regular delivery issue with a certain national daily publication.  Every now and then, it does not arrive in my driveway.  I dutifully go to their web site and note this oversight.  The next day, I get two copies: the current issue and the previous day.  Needless to say, getting a daily publication a day late is of limited value.

When this happened last week, I tweeted about it, and included the publication’s Twitter account in the tweet, along with two columnists who also happen to be on Twitter.  It was a bit of an experiment, I’ll admit, but it was also a request for help.  Would the power of Twitter help solve my problem?

Well, no.  What I did get was a direct message from a columnist with the number of the customer service department, along with an explanation that the columnists have nothing to do with delivery.

I know that.  I knew that when I included the columnists on the tweet.  But they work for the publication, just like the delivery people.  And in the end, they should be just as concerned that I get my paper as they are about writing their columns.  When the delivery person makes a mistake, the columnist looks bad.  When the columnists wrote a lousy column, the delivery people lose a bit of stature.  They are all in this together.

This is just as true in our own companies.  How often have you seen a group breathe a sigh of relief when they discover that “some other department” made a customer-visible error?  I hate to burst their bubble, but they get painted by the broad brush of customer dissatisfaction right along with the group that made the mistake.  The outside world does not know, or care, that some mistake occurred in a specific department.  They only know that the whole group has caused them a problem.

When you make a mistake, you hurt the reputation of every single person who works with you, whether they are involved or not.  That’s why mistakes are so expensive: not only did you inconvenience a customer, you damaged the standing of all of your co-workers.  Did they deserve that?  Did you think about that before doing your best to do a good job?

Fortunately, this works the other way as well.  When you make someone happy, everyone in your team benefits whether they were involved or not.  By making a customer feel good about your company (or department, or whatever), you improve the reputation of every person in that group.  What a great way to help every person you work with, every day!  Help a customer and make everyone look good!

The columnist dissociated themselves from the group that made a mistake, thinking that I would do the same.  But like most customers, I view the Journal as a single entity.  When my paper is late, they all decline a bit in my mind.  But if the columnist had gone out of their way to help fix my problem, they all would have gone up in my book, from the deliver person to the editorial board.

We’re all in this together, all for one and one for all.  Remember that when someone makes a mistake, and leverage it when you decide to do something good.

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Where The Prices Are Insane! July 10, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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8 comments

It happens four times a year, like clockwork.  Just before the end of March, June, September, and December, the phone calls and emails flood in, all promising the same thing: unheard-of pricing on products you absolutely cannot live without.  These once-in-a-lifetime prices are only available for a short time, if you act now!

What’s being sold at immense discounts?  ShamWow or Snuggis?  A Pocket Fisherman or a 12-CD set of the greatest hits from the 70s?

Nope.  The big sale is on software.  Big software: databases, ERPs, business intelligence platforms, and the like.  Even with the fabulous discounts, the prices still run well into six figures, plus implementation costs.

Who buys software like this?  Is there a CIO anywhere in the world who will write a check and buy software at the drop of a hat?

Done correctly, big system purchases take a long time.  Requirements analysis and market evaluation are tedious but vital to ensure a good fit for your organization.  Understanding the deployment costs and timeframe is crucial for success and can takes weeks to figure out.  Just reading and negotiating the support and licensing contracts is a major exercise all by itself.

Moreover, as CIOs work to gain the respect of their executive peers, the last thing any of us should be doing is running to the CFO’s office on June 30th, looking for a signature to close a deal before 5 PM.  Rushing a deal to save a buck is unprofessional, and any other C-level executive should question our abilities if we behave like that.

That isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate a good deal.  But the right way to approach a quarter-end discount is to start working towards it at the beginning of the quarter.  Everyone on both sides of the table knows that pricing gets tighter as the quarter and year ends.  By doing all the heavy lifting well before that time, we can focus on solid price negotiation without being pressured to short-circuit our diligence when things go down to the wire.

I really appreciate those vendors that come to me well in advance to put together a great deal with plenty of time to spare.  Not only does that let me do my job on my side, it also lets me manage the process with my management team, giving them plenty of time to learn about the proposal.  When I do go forward with the final pricing at the end of the quarter, there are no surprises to delay the process.  By helping my company reach a good decision in a timely fashion, a vendor makes themselves (and my team) look good.

Selling is about relationships and providing solid value over time.  Vendors, please leave the high-pressure tactics to late-night TV ads and used car lots, and give your customers time to evaluate and respond to good offers in a timely fashion.  We’ll all close on more deals with a lot less stress.

Eschew Entropy July 6, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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1 comment so far

Many of us in IT like to proclaim that we are Agents Of Change, bringing wonderful new technology to the world on a regular basis.  We spend a lot of time discussing Change Management, learning how to help people through the stress of change.  We look at change as a Good Thing, a necessary step in improving our lives, both personal and professional.

Really?  Let’s be honest: as Oliver Kamm points out, the “most common form of change is decline.”  Are we simply Agents Of Decline?

Like every other system and entity in the universe, software and hardware are subject to entropy, the inexorable collapse of everything over time.  Computers fail.  Disk drives seize. Power supplies overheat.  Cables crack. Ports fill with dust. Databases fill up. Logs grow inexorably. Software gets patched.  Left on its own, everything we own and touch on a regular basis simply gets worse.

Disciplined operations is the heart of IT.  Consistent operational discipline is our only defense against entropy.  Without it, our systems will grind to a halt.  Unfortunately, there are two problems with good operations:

  • It takes an ever-increasing amount of effort to do it well

and

  • No one cares until we stop

As we deploy new things, bringing change to the world, we increase the operational burden.  Every system deployed today must be maintained forever.  More and more of our time and resources are spent on simply keeping the lights on.  Even worse, all of these systems communicate with each other, so that the potential system conflicts grow super-exponentially.  Running IT is a lot like those plate-spinning acts you used to see on the Ed Sullivan show, except that your audience is throwing plates at you during the act.

For some strange reason, users expect us to keep all of the plates in the air all of the time.  And why shouldn’t they? Why would we deploy a new system if we didn’t intend to keep it up and running? No one deploys a new system along with a planned shutdown date. (“Here’s your new collaborative environment!  We’ll keep it up and running until December”)  No, we deploy things with the promise of maintaining and expanding them forever.

As our systems grow in number and complexity, the cost of maintaining them grows as well.  This cost can overwhelm our budgets and limit our ability to develop and deploy new systems that really are important to our business.  As our ability to develop new tools diminishes, our perceived value to our customers drops as well. That’s a dangerous vicious cycle with bad career implications.

We’ve portrayed ourselves as Agents Of Change, so our customers judge us on that.  We didn’t label ourselves the Enemies Of Entropy, so users really don’t care that we spend most of our time forestalling the inevitable.  Behind the scenes, we need to strike a balance between both roles so that our systems keep running, our users are happy, and new systems arrive on a regular basis to keep our businesses ahead of the curve.

Is it easy?  Of course not!  If it were, everyone would be in IT.  Is it challenging?  You bet!  That’s what makes it fun.  Can you hold off entropy and still deliver the right stuff for your customers?  Even more importantly, will you enjoy doing it?

Whose Fault? Yours. June 19, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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10 comments

As CIOs, we lead a service organization.  Although there is much talk of late about turning IT into a profit center, the reality is that most companies rely on IT to get something else done.  Just as finance, legal, and HR provide crucial support to help a company succeed, IT provides important services that allow the other employees to accomplish their jobs and serve the external customers.

By definition, service organizations exist to serve their customers. This may seem a bit obvious, but there are many IT shops that have lost sight of this core principle.  Our job is not to find cool new tools, or nifty phones, or the sleekest laptops.  Our job is to help people get their jobs done as quickly and efficiently as possible, using technology where appropriate.

When people fail to get their jobs done as quickly and efficiently as possible, it’s our fault.  Period.  It doesn’t matter why they failed; we still own the problem.  That’s a hard concept for some people in IT to grasp and accept.

Anyone who has worked in IT for any length of time has seen this happen.  We listen to our users and determine there is a need we can fulfill. We diligently collect requirements and build a potential solution.  With the users’ approval and assistance, we develop some new tool.  We provide training and support.  After scrupulous testing, we release the tool to its intended audience.

A smashing success?  Not always. Users get confused.  They make mistakes.  They didn’t attend all the training, or misunderstood the documentation.  They forgot to tell us everything during the requirements meetings, or didn’t provide a complete testing regimen.

Whose fault?  Ours.   We should have asked more questions. We should have asked for more testing.  We should have rethought usage scenarios.  We should have anticipated certain mistakes and found alternatives.  No matter what goes wrong, we are at fault.  Figure out why, fix it, and file away the lessons learned for next time.

IT folks at every level fall into an easy trap when they start complaining and fussing about the end users.  It’s easy to push blame onto the unsuspecting customers when a system is used incorrectly or mistakes are made.  After all our hard work, how could they still get it wrong?

Easy: because we obviously did not work hard enough.  We build this stuff; we must ensure people can use it effectively.  If they can’t, we dropped the ball somewhere.  Railing about the users does not fix the problem.  It only annoys the users, makes us look petty, and reduces our ability to serve them.

This concept, that we are always at fault, is at the core of our ability to serve and satisfy customers.  The burden sits with us to make it right, do it better, and meet our customer’s needs.  If you are in IT, and you cannot accept this or live up to it, you have chosen the wrong career.  Get out now, before you make the rest of us look bad.

I Can Help! May 29, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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5 comments

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.