Friday, September 30, 2011

Bring me a rock

"Bring me a rock" is an exercise in which a manager or client asks an analyst for a particular piece of work. The analyst runs off and does the work. The conversation looks like this:
  • Mgr: "Bring me a rock."
  • Analyst: Finds a rock and shows manager the rock.
  • Mgr: "Not this rock. I need a different rock."
  • Analyst: Finds another rocks and shows it to the manager.
  • Mgr: "No, this isn't the right rock either. Bring me another rock."
...and so on. This can end in any number of ways, but it usually doesn't end well unless the analyst is able to get the manager to explain his goals for acquiring and using the rock. I've written about one version of this pattern before, and called it generate me some alternatives.

I'm going through a bring-me-a-rock exercise right now that includes a strong element of the value-add demotivation technique. It's interesting, and it really helps to have models of these scenarios to help understand what's going on under the surface.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Counting points, or "stats are for losers"

Sports fans are familiar with the phrase "Stats are for losers." If your favorite team got hammered last Sunday you can count on a few people jumping into a discussion with an argument about how the team "should have won because we outgained the other guys 500 yrds to 250 blah blah blah..." The simple rejoiner from the winning side is, "Stats are for losers."

I was thinking about this in the context of an agile project that was comparing its iteration point count with another team's. "Yeah, we got 25 points last iteration, the other guys only got 21." Agile practitioners know that if you're doing estimating correctly, the points are only measures of relative effort, comparable only to the team's effort within a release. They can't be used to compare to, for example, another team's point estimate. The team that was congratulating itself had delivered a design that was flawed (and they knew it) but didn't fix it once the flaw was pointed out, because it would have affected their point count.

Stats are for losers. Winning means delivering high quality product that is of value to the business, not having a high score on some arbitrary measure like points.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Spammed by an ex-favorite

I've been deluged with junk mail recently. I'm pretty careful about where I send my email address. Then someone tipped me off to the privacy changes in LinkedIn. I started going through all the privacy settings and fixing them - it took a while to find them all. But I have them all set properly, and the spam has mostly stopped. I can't guarantee it was caused by LinkedIn, but circumstances suggest that it was.

LinkedIn, you aren't doing yourself any favors by exposing your customers to a bunch of crap. As I've asked before, when did "social media" come to mean "spam?"

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Designing for freedom

Writer Andrew Potter thinks that Steve Jobs is selling conformity to the masses, and his greatest success has been to market conformity as freedom. Potter sees Apple's products purely in terms of marketing success, and points to the famous 1984 TV ad as evidence of excellent branding and positioning statement.

Potter doesn't acknowledge that the success of consumer products often depends on the ability of the company to fulfill its brand promise. Apple's products are a marriage between great design, functionality, business model, and marketing. Jobs' great success hasn't been to sell a vision to hipsters, it's been to sell a vision to his employees that says, "We only create the best. 'Good enough' isn't acceptable here." Based on that vision, the designers, engineers, and marketers know what they need to do.

I was in the market for a laptop recently, and I looked at the various Wintel machines first. They all come with a little demo program that says, "Let me show you all the cool stuff you can do. But keep your hands off the machine, you'll see what I want you to see." The demos all sucked. Then I went to look at Macintosh laptops at the Apple Store. There are no demos. The machine itself is the demo. You get to drive. That's how Apple markets its products. For Potter, having the ability for a customer to drive is just freedom disguised as conformity.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A simple test for UX design sensibility

A manager says "the customer understands x," where x is a concept, a complicated control on a UI, or a navigation path through a web site.
  • If you respond to that statement without a question and simply wait for the next requirement or instruction, you're a technician.
  • If you react to that statement with immediate, polite skepticism and ask how the manager knows that, you're a designer.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

You're doing it wrong: American Airlines

I've been writing about other peoples' experience with service failures lately, so it's time to post one of my own. I was flying back from Chicago yesterday after a business meeting. I got to the airport early, at 5:30pm, and noticed there was a flight to Raleigh-Durham that was boarding. I went to the counter at the gate and asked if I could step on the flight. The attendant snapped at me, "I'll have to check." She checked, and said "Yes, you can. It will be $50." Fifty dollars to step on a plane that was boarding, and I'd paid full fare for my ticket! Apparently the attendant was simply checking to see if I was a Platinum/Gold/Rewards blah blah member who merited some small free service. I said no thanks, and walked away.

My own flight was at 7:30pm, and after the obligatory delays, the attendant announced that the flight was ready to board. And, he added, they were looking for three people to step off the flight because they were overbooked. They were offering $300 to anyone who would agree to re-book the next day!

If they had allowed me to move to an earlier flight they would have had an extra seat. American Airline was willing to forego $300 to not allow me to move from the later flight to an earlier flight, and they earned a dissatisfied customer in the process. As a final, perfect note to their general incompetence, the attendant announced, "the bathroom on the plane is out of order, so customers are urged to use the airport facilities before they board."

And the management of AA probably doesn't understand why they're getting beat to death by Southwest Airlines and its culture of customer service.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Want to work on strategy? Don't call it strategy

I used to work at a company that struggled with strategy, as many companies do. The leadership team would issue vague aspirations at the beginning of the year about producing software better, faster, and cheaper, and would forget about strategy until the next end-of-year planning cycle. However, there were strong ownership issues around strategy, and anyone outside the leadership team who used the word "strategy" found themselves with some explaining to do. The "strategy of no strategy" may sound like a zen-like approach to life but it's no way to run a company in a very competitive environment.

I decided that the way around this problem was to pull together some like-minded individuals and develop an innovation strategy, but simply not call it by that name. We would call it an "engagement approach" or "marketing meta-analysis" or something similarly vague that wouldn't hit any leader's hot button, but the content would contain a real strategy. We worked on it for a little while but the business sponsor of the effort left to pursue a developmental opportunity and was replaced by someone who wasn't with the program. I left the company a little while later.

I was reminded of this incident after reading Richard Rumelt's excellent The Perils of Bad Strategy. Rumelt's describes the hallmarks of bad strategy, including (1) failure to face the problem, (2) mistaking goals for strategy, (3) bad strategic objectives, and (4) fluff. The descriptions of each will be familiar to anyone who's seen bad corporate strategies. Highly recommended reading, but I wonder if any strategy-impaired leadership teams will recognize their own so-called strategies in the descriptions.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Stuck in DFW airport

What happens when two videographers' flights are cancelled and get stuck over night in an airport with their video gear? They make a great video. I'm envious.

STUCK from Joe Ayala on Vimeo.

Then they post it on their account at Vimeo and very quickly a million people see it and start commenting on it. Companies really need to understand that their service failures can become public very quickly. Like the brilliant United Breaks Guitars video, a couple of talented media creators got some payback for their treatment from the airlines.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Remarks on Snakes in Suits

Snakes in Suits, by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, describe the behavior of psychopaths in corporate settings. Hare is a clinical psychologist who wrote a screening tool for psychopathy; Babiak is an I/O psychologist who does research on leadership in organizations. Together, they present a pretty convincing case that corporations, especially those undergoing a lot of changes, are excellent places for psychopaths to work and prosper. Many of the psychopath's traits, like superficial glibness, persuasiveness, feelings of importance, entitlement, and the ability to read people and manipulate them, are mistaken for leadership within organizations. Fascinating read, highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Southwest understands customer focus

Flying has become such a chore that I avoid it as much as possible. But sometimes it's not possible. When I have to fly, I fly Southwest. Everybody has heard about the big things Southwest does, like leaving and arriving on time, the high customer satisfaction scores, the profitability when all the other airlines are losing money, and on and on. But there are little things that are never mentioned because they don't really make a big deal about it.

Examples from my own experience. I was watching the queue at another gate as people were preparing to board. People shift restlessly in one place, look at the door to the gate, and try to occupy themselves before getting on. Boarding and exiting a plane can be a little stressful. A flight attendant appeared at the gate and made this announcement. "Folks, a young man on the incoming flight couldn't handle the turbulence, if you know what I mean. Right now, you don't want to get on that plane, believe me. But our crews are working to clean it up and we'll be boarding very shortly." At that moment a baby started crying. The attendant added, "I know just how you feel. That's how I felt when I saw that mess." Everyone in the queue and in the boarding area started laughing. No one was anxious about getting on the plane anymore, and everyone relaxed.

My own flight was delayed getting in and I had a tight connection. I wasn't worried about catching the plane because I knew Southwest would hold the plane until all the stragglers were on board. I had checked luggage so I wondered about my luggage. A customer in the seat in front of me was talking on his cell phone. "I made it, but there's no way the bags are going to make it." At that moment the flight attendant made this announcement. "We're going to hold this flight until all the bags from our connecting flights have been loaded, then we'll be on our way." Rather than creating the hassle of putting the bags on a later flight and letting customer service in the airport deal with it, Southwest chooses to hold a flight and get all the bags on the flight. Huge win.

How do they do this? They think about customers, and what customers worry about. They know that people want information about boarding and delays and bags and dozens of different things. So they arrange some of their processes for the benefit of customers and their needs for information. These incidents happen too often and too predictably to just be happy accidents. They are doing real experience design. They're training and inspiring (and probably rewarding) employees to do things right.

All companies pay lip service to being customer focused. Southwest really gets it, and it shows up on the bottom line.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Your Call is (Not That) Important to Us

Emily Yellin's Your Call is (Not That) Important To Us is a fast, fun read about the customer service/call center business, with a little bit of IVR thrown in. The book does well when it describes the history of customer service. There are some insights into companies that try very hard to get it right, like FedEx and Zappos and Jet Blue. It doesn't do as well with the speech IVR material. She grants too much credibility to fringe players like the MIT profs who want to create "emotional" computers and the companies pushing interactive avatars.

One of the central observations in the book is that customer service doesn't occupy a very high place in the list of priorities at most companies. This I've seen many times in the companies I've worked for or consulted with. Personally, I'd love to work at a company that decides at the highest levels that customer service is a top priority. The challenges of getting customer service right are very hard, even with a lot of support from executives. Without that support, it's impossible.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Doctors or waiters?

How would you describe your company's approach to customer service? Is it a waiter or a doctor? The waiter is friendly and engaging, and after some small talk, takes your order on a pad of paper and disappears for while. Eventually your order arrives, and if you got what you asked for in a timely manner and the quality is good, you're happy.

When you go to a doctor's office with a complaint, the doctor takes some time trying to understand the issue. He or she may order some tests or consult with others before producing a diagnosis and prescribing some treatments. If you respond to treatment and the malady disappears, you're happy.

Of course, there are different kinds of happy. The doctor has provided a different level of professional service than the waiter, who took some simple orders and was reasonably pleasant and efficient in the process. Not surprisingly, the doctor charges a lot more for his or her expertise than the waiter. Can you imagine a doctor listening to you describe your symptoms briefly, then pulling out a pad of paper with a friendly, "OK, now tell me what drugs you want." You'd think the doctor was a fraud. Doctors are trained to understand and diagnose health problems. They aren't order takers, they're problem solvers. Waiters take orders.

So, how would you describe your company? Doctor or waiter? Problem solver or order taker? If you're an IT shop, it makes a big difference to what you can charge your customers.

Monday, May 23, 2011

What if your company gets verbed

Everyone knows what it means to xerox a printed page. A printed page is reproduced on a thermographic sheet of paper. It also implies less directly that the copy is highly accurate and done with a miminum of fuss. Likewise, Fedexing a package means shipping it to a location for delivery the next day. It also implies that the sender can be sure the package will arrive on time. If you're asked to Fedex something and you send it USPS and it doesn't get there overnight, you may find yourself in some trouble. Everyone is probably familiar with the verb "to google."

Verbs are the words for actions, and we can't do without them. To eat, to sleep, to talk, are all things that we have to name because the concepts they capture are so necessary to our lives that we have to call them something. Nouns come and go, especially company and product names. Xerox and Fedex created functions in the business world that have become so necessary that we can't imagine operating without them. In the 1970's the idea that you could ship a package anywhere and guarantee 24 hour delivery was considered ridiculous. Now we expect to be able to Fedex anything anywhere in 24 hours. Need to move 24,000 sea turtle eggs from the Florida gulf coast to the east coast ahead of an oil spill (or "BP'ed")? Just Fedex them.

These companies were rewarded for their status in the business world by having their company names verbed. Other companies may provide a service that fulfills the function, but the verb adopted to name the action comes from the company that invented and fulfilled the service.

So, if your company name was verbed by your customers, what would it mean? Would it mean providing a unique and necessary function with high reliability and outstanding customer service? Or would it mean something else? What would you want it to mean? Do this exercise. Come up with a definition of the intended meaning of your company's verbed name. If you can do that, you just wrote yourself a mission statement.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Whac A Mole ideation sessions

Have you ever been in a brainstorming session where every idea that gets proposed is quickly beaten down by some of the participants? These are what I call "Whac A Mole" sessions, by analogy with the popular arcade game of the same name in which players score points for beating down mechanical moles as they pop up from their holes in the ground.

As we know, good initial brainstorming sessions try to generate a large quantity of high quality ideas, with judgment deferred on each idea until later rounds of refinement. That's a simplification of the ideation process, but you'd be amazed how quickly people join in with others to play whack a mole on new ideas.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Requirement: the Devil's Definition

"Requirement (n): the absolute minimum amount of information necessary to get a developer to start writing code for a desired function."

A bit cynical, sure, but it captures the essense of a lot of "requirements" I see thrown around in project meetings. The assumption here by business people is that the sooner the developers start coding, the sooner they'll be finished. Another unspoken assumption is that the developers' time is a lot less valuable than the business person's. Experienced developers push back and ask for something resembling a so-called "SMART requirement." New developers just start hacking, with predictable results.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"We do that already"

Ever had a great idea and pitched it to a gatekeeper only to hear the words, "We do that already?" Or, in another form, "We know that already." Pretty demotivating, isn't it? You stop pursuing the idea, only to learn later that your idea hasn't been investigated, no one is working on it, or someone started working on it after you made your pitch.

The gatekeeper has one or more reasons for their response. One, they may simply not understand what you are saying, and mistake your idea for an unrelated idea. Sometimes the gatekeeper may be making a snap decision about your standing or ability to pursue the idea. At worst, the gatekeeper is thinking, "That's a pretty good idea. I need to take this back to one of my people and have them look into it."

Keep in mind that responses to your ideas are just data that you should collect and analyze more fully. A response of "We're on that already" should be met with polite skepticism. Keep generating those ideas, and pitch them to a lot of people, and triangulate the responses. You may find that your gatekeepers don't know as much as they claim.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Funny thing about blogging...

Funny thing about blogging, at least from my own experience, is that when I'm neck deep in the most interesting work and I have the most to write about, I never manage to write the stuff down. It's only during periods of relative calm, when I can reflect and document, or that I'm just working on familiar stuff, that I actually get around to it. This past month has been so new and required so many cycles that I barely have time to think, let alone write. All of this is just a way of explaining why the blog entries have slowed down so much.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Good luck to Borders

I'm a reader, and I always liked Borders bookstore. I was delighted when it opened a store in Bloomington, Ill., where I used to live and work. So I was dismayed to learn that it may soon close its doors. I used to drive past the local Barnes and Noble to go to Borders in Chapel Hill, but the CD selection was so ordinary I stopped going.

As the article in the Atlantic points out, the original owners sold the chain, and Borders has been owned by a series of companies with no particular interest in or skill selling books. Successful businesses have a tendency to attract business people who are interested in profit and who believe that good managers can manage anything. That's wrong - domain knowledge counts for a lot, and passion counts for more.