Classic IT Challenges – Understanding Project Complexity

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This is the fifth post in a series of writings to discuss issues facing Information Technology (IT) departments. If you have not read any of the first four challenges you can find them under project work vs production supportprioritizing work, operations vs innovation, and estimating work.

IT shops vary in size, budget, and processes. But all IT shops share a common set of challenges that shape how they interact with their inter-company customer base as well as the clients of their organization. There isn’t a single answer to these common challenges and they don’t disappear after a process is put in place to address them. The manner in which IT management chooses to respond to the challenges is interwoven in the culture, processes, and services of the group. My thoughts are more around framing the problem than presenting solutions.

Challenge #5 – Understanding Project ComplexityBiggerBoat

It’s not uncommon to be in the midst of a project and to have new discovery that significantly increases the complexity of the solution. I’m not referring to intentional scope change requests. New discovery is when a detail of a scoped feature becomes known and the team has to redesign or create new alternatives and flows to existing designs. This might include a business rule for taxes, pricing discounts, or a manufacturing limitation. New discovery often leads to a scope change request document. But I classify this type of work differently because it is not a requested change in scope but more of a clarification or additional rule to an existing piece of high level scope.

Projects are usually scoped from documents such as RFPs, sales contracts, and project charters. Those are great documents, but they aren’t produced by a business analyst that has been through a series of questions to discover the finer details of project requirements. Specific use cases and functional requirements are often absent during the initiation stages of a project. In a perfect world, project teams would know every possible detail that could affect their solution set. But we don’t live in a perfect world.

The scoping phase of a project is where budgets, timelines, and tasks are defined. These three areas (triple constraint) comprise the working guidelines and constraints of the project. So if the team encounters a  new discovery then it presses the working guidelines and usually requires communications with stakeholders. Where’s the fun in being over budgets or late in the deliverables?

Example 1 

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A new client is signed and is in the process of onboarding. While setting up the invoice process a discovery is made related to special taxing rules for orders. Depending on the customer classification they may or may not be taxed.

Example 2

During the implementation of a new customer new business rules surface about who can order product and who cannot order. The right-based system was in the original scope but the new rule set creates additional criteria to define the rights of a group or individual.

The Challenge

The challenge for a business analyst is to uncover as much of the project details before project execution begins. But the bigger challenge for project teams is how to react to new discovery and how to manage the expectations of the stakeholders. The best scenario is if new discovery does not lead to an increase in budget or an expanded timeline. But in many cases it’s not possible to finish the project without expanding the original guidelines.

I’ve framed this challenge more in terms of a traditional waterfall software development cycle. Agile methodologies also encourage some level of discovery up-front with artifacts such as user stories. But the premise of the overall challenge is the same. If we misunderstand the true complexity of a project in the early stages it can have large consequences to the work during later stages of implementation.

Next Week

Challenge #6 – Reducing Costs (SG&A)

Royal Caribbean – Delivering the WOW

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I love to write about companies that deliver exceptional customer service. Quik Trip, Major League Baseball, Chick-Fil-A, and Disney are a few of my previous examples. This past week my family and I vacationed with Royal Caribbean for the first time. We’ve taken cruises before on other cruise lines, so the attention to detail that a cruise staff delivers is not a surprise to us. But there were a few things different about this cruise and the entire family came away with a great feeling that we had spent our vacation dollar wisely. Royal Caribbean likes to use the term WOW to designate their guest experience. Here’s some of our WOW from the past week.

WOW

Dietary Support

I’ll start with the support on the menu for gluten-free foods. My daughter must stay away from gluten and this restriction requires us to plan meals ahead of time or often severely limits her choices on a menu. The Royal Caribbean menu clearly marked items that were gluten-free or available in gluten-free servings. Our dining wait staff immediately picked-up on this and each night would both order my daughter’s meal ahead of time as well as bring her the gluten free bread with our asking for it. WOW!

Cruise Director

Is the job of Cruise Director the toughest on the ship? Arguably yes. I certainly value the cleaning staff and room stewards, but the Cruise Director can make or break a cruise experience with the planned activities. In our most recent trip our cruise director was vibrant and full of energy. That’s expected. But he had the right level of wittiness to hold a crowd’s attention without coming-off as forced or non genuine. Comparing him to my past cruise experiences, he was more visible in the activities than other cruise directors. In fact, in many cases, he was a participant with many of the other guests and he was always an extension of the entertainment staff. WOW!

WOW Cards

The cruise line has a formal way for guests to recognize exemplary service from the cruise staff. They provide WOW cards that can be given to the staff member in-person or dropped in a box by guest services. I like this. It’s an easy way to give a shout-out to staff members to recognize them. My wife did take the time to fill-out a few cards with some specific examples of service that our family enjoyed. This example has me thinking about ways to transform the idea to my office environment. It’s a great way to both encourage and reward high levels of customer service. WOW!

The Centrum

The centrum (center of the ship) was a large open area that spanned six or so floors on the ship. There were multiple activities planned in this space including dancing, live music, and game competitions. I was amazed at how the cruise guests would gather and watch the festivities on each floor of the centrum. In many of the games we saw active participation not just from the main floor but in the overlook of the floors above as well. I liked the use of this space by the Royal Caribbean crew. It created a town-hall type feel and was a public gathering place to enjoy some laughs and to be entertained. WOW!

It wasn’t all sunny

To be fair, it wasn’t all sunny. The ice machines on the ship were either broken or out of ice. On several occasions we had to walk from machine-to-machine just to get a cup of water with ice.

Smokers seemed to take over much of the outdoor areas on the ship. We don’t smoke and we don’t enjoy second-hand smoke. This is a personal choice for others and they have their right. But I wish Royal Caribbean would designate some of the outdoor space as smoke free.

Odds and Ends

I laughed out loud when I heard the theme song from the Titanic (musical version ) played in the quiet pool deck area. Great song, but really?

We played a few of the trivia games with the cruise entertainment staff. One question was “what is the longest living mammal?”. I said blue whale. The correct answer in the game was humans. Hmmm.  See life expectancy for the bowhead whale.

All things considered, we were WOWed. Thanks for the customer focus Royal Caribbean!

Classic IT Challenges – Estimating Work

This is the fourth post in a series of writings to discuss issues facing Information Technology (IT) departments. The first three challenges were project work vs production support, prioritizing work and operations vs innovation.

IT shops vary in size, budget, and processes. But all IT shops share a common set of challenges that shape how they interact with their inter-company customer base as well as the clients of their organization. There isn’t a single answer to these common challenges and they don’t disappear after a process is put in place to address them. The manner in which IT management chooses to respond to the challenges is interwoven in the culture, processes, and services of the group. My thoughts are more around framing the problem than presenting solutions. Estimation

Challenge #4 -Estimating Work
Estimates provide the basis for developing budgets, creating timelines, and setting customer expectations. I have suggested before that estimating is the most powerful step in the software development cycle because it determines if projects are approved or rejected.

There are a couple of challenges with estimating work. The first is that despite processes that call for initial estimates and then re-estimates when more requirements are defined, most of the important decisions are based on the high-level estimates. Project budgets, timelines, chargebacks, and approvals are most often formed at the beginning of a project and often before the requirements are truly understood.

The second challenge is trying to keep the amount of time spent on an estimate within reason and to keep the time spent on the estimate from impacting active work. Creating an estimate requires time from an analyst. So there is a cost! Organizations should be mindful of this because spending money on a project that is not yet active or approved lengthens the the time to recognize return on the investment and it could possibly take people away from working projects that are already approved.

Example 1
A team receives a high level description of a project and is asked to provide an estimate. A timeline is built from the estimate and shows a final delivery in 90 days. 15 days into the project a discovery is made that two systems are not compatible and that a major assumption about equipment availability is not true. The new information will require an additional 30 days on the project timeline. How does the team and react to this information? Is the budget revised? Is the timeline revised?

Example 2
A portfolio management organization has five active projects. Three new project requests arrive. The same people working on the five active projects are the estimators for the new work. If they stop work on the active projects it will create delays in the project timelines, but executive management wants estimates on the new requests to determine what to do with the requests.

The Challenge
Estimates are by definition inaccurate. Yet, important decisions are made from them. IT team members feel the pressure not to underestimate because budgets are created from the estimates and it’s hard to secure additional funding for budget overruns. But IT team members are also pressured not to overestimate because stakeholders may cancel the project, complain that estimates are unreasonable, or take the work to an outside agency. Business stakeholders want accurate estimates delivered in a timely manner and with a minimal amount of detailed project requirements.

Next Week
Challenge #5 – Understanding Project Complexity

Classic IT Challenges – Operations vs Innovation

This is the third post in a series of writings to discuss issues facing Information Technology (IT) departments. The first challenge was project work vs production support and the second challenge was prioritizing work.

IT shops vary in size, budget, and processes. But all IT shops share a common set of challenges that shape how they interact with their inter-company customer base as well as the clients of their organization. There isn’t a single answer to these common challenges and they don’t disappear after a process is put in place to address them. The manner in which IT management chooses to respond to the challenges is interwoven in the culture, processes, and services of the group.  My thoughts are more around framing the problem than presenting solutions.

Challenge #3 – Operations vs Innovation

1916 Library Truck
1916 Library Truck – Innovation or operations?
The third challenge is based on the fundamental service expectations from management and stakeholders of the Information Technology group. Some business stakeholders primarily rely on IT to keep technology equipment operating efficiently and with high availability. I call this the operations expectation of IT. The business owner is concerned about delivering some service or product for the business, not about all the details of the equipment that make it possible. I like to think of this as the invisible part of IT. If everything is working then stakeholders don’t know the group exists. But if something is wrong then everyone knows it and IT is on point to fix it. The operations side of IT is expected to reduce or eliminate costs in the business.

But some stakeholders in the business are expected to grow the business through sales and market share. For that they often need innovative solutions. They want the IT development department to be innovative and provide new solutions that offer competitive advantages or competitive differentiators. That’s a completely different mindset and skill set from the operations teams within IT. The innovation teams are expected to grow revenue for the business.

Allocating resources within IT to support these two thoughts is a challenge because most IT shops don’t have the luxury to have dedicated personnel for each function. Even within IT development, programmers are pulled between production bug fixes (operations), new functionality, or even completely new technology platforms.

This challenge is similar to the first challenge of production support vs project work. The key difference is that the innovation expectation often takes IT into new areas where they have not previously provided service. Innovation requires IT to think about new ways of doing things rather than solving a request with existing tools.

Example 1
The IT development group has a backlog of helpdesk tickets reporting software defects and another backlog of defects discovered during QA testing. A new project request is entered by the marketing department to create a new application and is expected to grow revenue by some forecasted amount. Do the production defects or the new request receive priority?

Example 2
The IT team is three days from launching a new service for a client. The data center takes a lightning hit during a thunderstorm and several pieces of equipment are lost. Replacing the equipment will take team personnel away from the project and jeopardize a schedule overrun.

The Challenge
The immediate challenge is allocating people across operational work and new innovation. But I believe the challenge goes deeper. An operations skill set and mindset are different than an innovation mindset. Innovative individuals work with shades of grey and unknowns whereas operations individuals operate with black and whites and certainties. Innovation is open to explore. Operations minimizes risk through tight controls.

Next week
Challenge #4 – Estimating Work