Monday, July 28, 2014

Consultants (don't) add value

I was at this social gathering organized by one of the top global consulting companies for their current and potential customers. It had attendance from veteran industry leaders, founders of companies, CEOs and CFOs, sprinkled with a few Venture Capital heads and off-course partners from the sponsoring consulting company. I was the odd man out from IT representing my company; talking to a few known people in the room, introductions were made with some as the discussion veered from world economy to the best wine.

The Black Suits represented a diverse set of industries and functional experience easily mingling with each group and adding to the conversation. Enviously networking at its best, you could pick tips from these suave individuals on how to ease into a discussion and slide off without being rude. Their demeanor would teach many CIOs and CEOs how to conduct themselves in a senior gathering that expects you to merge in without getting technical or talking about IT barring a passing reference to the function you manage.

One of the cases under discussion revolved around a complex merger for a diversified group which was facilitated by the hosts. Everyone applauded the ease with which the deal was consummated, financially and culturally; a Partners remarked about a similar deal gone sour done by competition, stressing on the fact that quality matters when it comes to consulting and a little extra investment is worth the outcome. The wise men nodded and moved on to discuss multiple experiences and anecdotes around consulting that regaled the small gathering.

The comfort of the group with each other and the willingness to share and seek help from various quarters was a bit discomforting; these were industry captains that everyone looked up to. They controlled a large portion of the economy and influenced many strategic directions or shaped policy. They acknowledged the fact that every niche and skill has an expert or master who can do it better, faster, and consistently with successful outcomes. They sought these experts from the outside when they needed them.

That weekend mulling over the few hours spent, the big realization dawned upon me was the difference in the approach to solving problems taken by CIOs. Almost all CIOs believe that they are self-sufficient in their knowledge and skill to solve every problem that needs to be solved or opportunity to be explored using technology. They reach out to vendors and solution providers to discuss options; few subscribe to reports from IT research companies and engage their consultants to assist them. They hire consultants only when pushed by their boss.

Here’s a typical dialogue that happens with CIOs:
·         Do you need help with IT strategy or want to validate it ? That’s why I was hired !
·         Is there a business problem you want us to solve ? I know enough about the business to do that
·         Need help with any of your sticky projects where you’re struggling ? Everything is under control !
·         Are there any skills you need to augment in your team ? I will send my team for training !
It is not just the fact that CIOs are averse to seeking help from consulting companies, they even shun away individual consultants typically retired or out-of-work/in-transition CIOs. They are perceived as threats to their credibility and expertise. Why do you need to hire anyone to help you ? Not sure how many actually had the courage to go and ask their respective boss to seek external help. This is despite the fact that the enterprise may have a history of engaging consultants for various business activities, strategic or operational.

The strong individual is the one who asks for help when he needs it, said a wise old lady; how true it is in the current context of our work lives with the level of disruptions increasing day by day, expectations rising and uncertainty being the only certainty. Discussing the situation with many of peers I heard the same story again and again; no one wants to be seen as deficient in any skill or capability. All CIOs want to be superheroes, know it all and on top of every situation thereby digging holes for themselves to fall into all along.

In this case I hope CIOs will learn from their peer CXOs, it will help them be more successful.

Monday, July 21, 2014

6 Blind men and the Elephant – the awakening

Part 1 was published last week; this is the second and final part of the story.
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

The CIO struggling with disparate views of the team who were unable to visualise the big picture and decided to leave it that way with his team providing the glue that held all of it together; he felt the effort of getting everyone to the same page will inordinately delay the project. So he chugged along for another few months keeping watch on the big picture; progress was slow but nonetheless there. Soon time came to put together all the pieces, get the system tested not just technically but functionally before the training and go-live.

This was one of the critical projects for the enterprise and the CIO; it was important and necessary for everyone involved that the project succeeds. The business teams who had always lived on an island looked from their window and kept trying to refine their view of the picture; it never crossed their mind that there were interdependencies which impacted the whole when they fiddled with their parts. The Project Manager kept reminding them of the uncomfortable truth which they kept denying putting an ostrich to shame.

Escalations to respective business and function heads brought everyone to the table looking worried and making the right noises. Admonishments distributed around liberally and pulling up done was deemed adequate response to the crevice that was getting bigger by the day. Not convinced that this was going to work, working with the CEO, the CIO decided to use some creative analogy to explain to the group why they need to acknowledge the elephant in the room and look at the unified view before the beast tramples all of them.

The CIO asked each functional lead to present their process maps and changes sought to the system; he put all of them through the paces noting down points that were discordant with overall progress. As a clear picture emerged through the noting the real challenge was as visible to everyone as the elephant in the room which no one could any longer feign ignorance about. Acknowledgement of the creature was a starting point towards redemption and everyone looked up to the CIO for the proverbial silver bullet.

He highlighted the fact that everyone had agreed to the commercial-off-the-shelf-solution (COTS) as the right choice before the project began; everyone also acknowledged that the solution has best practices that are used by many peers and competitors globally. The team had willingly agreed to adopt the new normal and reality to improve their operational efficiency. Some of those team members were no longer in the implementation team but representation of the organization process cannot be person or location specific.

The CIO went on to demonstrate how individual views were being projected as departmental views to the detriment of the project. Ignorance arising out of lack of experience or alternative perspectives manifested in the dialogue that the users had with the development and implementation team; their unwillingness to look at possibilities was driving the change averse behavior. They were good people who were proficient in what they did; they had invested their lives in maintaining status quo as it worked for them.

The CEO recognized the malaise and applauded the fact that the CIO had escalated the issue which has plagued many other non-IT projects too. No one talked about it openly and it had almost become part of the culture of the enterprise. She faced the nervous group which had difficulty in accepting that now they can no longer live with their view of the elephant; the whole had been uncovered, it was discomforting. Some of the team leaders were enthused, the rest mortally scared with no real choices but to change.

She promised to stay on top of the situation and asked for all progress reports to be marked to her and attend all review meetings; she expressed her disappointment at the progress and timelines and asked the CIO to recast them with a stretch achievable target which he readily did. The teams accepted the eventuality and assured the CEO that they will collectively own and deliver the project. Many moons later the CIO was in the news for a successful deployment of a complex solution, a first in many ways in his chosen industry.

Do you have an elephant in your backyard ?

Monday, July 14, 2014

6 Blind men and the Elephant

It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant,
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation,
Might satisfy his mind.

So goes an old parable from a few centuries back which has many even older variations across countries with their cultural nuances thrown in. While the object of curiosity does not change, the number of people in the group does and so do their inferences. Conclusions derived too have varied by context of the narrator and the reader or listener though they all end up pointing to one key aspect of human behaviour, i.e. people jumping to conclusions based on their frame of reference and global ignorance.

Corporate world experiences elephants in the room, often leading to embarrassing and hilarious situations for those involved including instances where the elephant was never discovered. My friends have narrated many instances of the sum of parts being larger than the whole; differing frames of reference like the blind men in the fable have frustrated much intent to progress with incessant harping on their version of truth. Then off course there is the wise owl consultant who ends up painting a different animal farm.

The project was critical to the company impacting every function directly or indirectly. There weren’t any alternatives which is why it was a project that everyone agreed to unanimously. The CIO was happy that there was consistent alignment and endorsement of the project with hardly any resource constraints. Mood in the air was exuberant and success was perceived inevitable; everyone involved agreed that it could not have been done better with the transparency in decision making and setting expectations.

Few months into the project the CIO met with his peers to get feedback and inquire if he was missing anything real or perceived. Everyone had a fair view and appreciation for the flawless execution that had followed the project kick-off. Satisfied with the responses he forged ahead full steam; completing one phase and while moving to the next he hit some rough weather. With choppy seas and a pronounced roll, he again went back to the CXOs to check if course correction was required. What he discovered…

First stop Finance, he queried the CFO; everything is fine, it is a great financial accounting tool but… the indirect taxation model is not suitable and we would like to retain the old solution. Head of Supply Chain quipped that Sales & Distribution were good to go but… the planning part was not good enough and he would like to build a custom solution to meet the need. Manufacturing felt that their needs would be met at the basic level however… it did not address the stores and repairs current processes which would require additional solutions.

Marketing was non-committal in their response, master data needs to be fixed by someone before we can comment. Fortunately the Purchase team took to it like fish to water; they loved the solution which they believed will give them wings. Human Resources did not believe that they needed to change whatever they were doing; they were averse to change and closed. Fearing the worst he spoke to the IT team only to realize that the team was toiling away to keep everyone together moving in the same direction.

The disjointed and independent frames of reference portrayed a different view and plane; connecting the dots provided a picture that was far removed from reality. Everyone took a view based on what they saw and how it impacted them; there was no effort to stitch together a bigger or holistic picture. The original dream and expectation appeared a faint memory. Their views reflected a myopic vision in their risk-averse mindset and no one felt like challenging it. I know how to manage my part of the elephant.

The CIO realized the elephantine proportion of the problem where everyone in the functional teams saw a part of the animal they were exposed to and made preparations based on their conclusions. The IT team was left holding the portrait that the solution was expected to be. He contemplated different options and finally decided to leave the incomplete picture as is; he believed that he knew the elephant and how to tame it. After all this was not the first time he was in this situation.

And so these men of Indostan,
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion,
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

Was this the best option for the CIO ? What would you do ? To be continued…

Link to Part 2

Monday, July 07, 2014

The Chicken and the Egg

They traveled the seven seas in a small group looking wide and far for the ultimate solution to beat all solutions and their competitors. Visiting software solution providers and their customers, the team ensured that they explored all the nuances of the solution as used by their hosts. It was a search spread over many months and millions of frequent flyer miles. They came back with voluminous notes which were put together to create the decision matrix. A winner emerged from the chaos; it was the current market leader.

The team was excited with the prospects of implementing the world’s best solution; they presented their conclusions to the management using business case formulated on vendor provided parameters and some internal thinking. Despite the high investment required, management accepted the widely used solution considering that alternatives were not even known by name. The system integrator and implementation partner who had worked through the journey celebrated the decision along with the team.

The team chosen from business, IT and the vendor made preparations and started the project as a cohesive group with broadly defined timelines. It was perceived to be easy with clear use cases and the fact that current manual process was riddled with inefficiency. Lagging competitors by many years, the team and everyone around acknowledged the need and urgency. Well begun is half done, so goes an old English saying; that applied quite appropriately to this marquee project which had all the ingredients that consultants and wise men talk about.

Months passed by in the requirement gathering phases and everything was hunky dory; the rigor of the business team was highly appreciated. Some more months passed by, the team was still in discussion on feature fit to the future state process. Exceptions were highlighted and the system expected to cater to these. The implementation partner was getting restless. Another couple of months later there were no conclusions on the final process; the IT team raised a red flag to the CIO, users reciprocated with an escalation to the functional head.

A senior functional resource was brought in to resolve the bottlenecks; he quickly realized that the users were attempting to force fit their existing processes into the new system. The group had challenges in understanding the basics features of the system despite multiple rounds of demonstrations and step by step explanations. Their lacked the ability to define new optimized processes and with no interest in changing the process they kept shifting the goalpost. Soon it was evident chances of success were like water on Mars.

The SME decided to unearth documents that were the foundation of the product selection. The going in comparison set was not a portrayal of the future state but a broad level definition of the function which obviously met every systems checklist. The selection was based on market positioning and market share in their industry. Almost everyone was using it and thus the decision was kind of obvious. It did not need the process that was adopted to determine the tools. The lack of focus on process from the beginning led to the current situation.

What comes first, process or technology ? Should an organization determine the future state before attempting to select a tool or follow the process that this company did of finding the best tool and then try to figure out how to make it work ? If technology is indeed subservient to business and process, then the journey traversed by the team had a fallacy; even when choices are limited as was the case again, should the process take precedence over technology ? The savior understood the problem and solved it quickly to get the project back on track.

The Knight in shining armor took some difficult decisions and changed some resources while staying involved with the rest focusing on what mattered. He separated the critical and the important while parking the good and nice to have. Exceptions will be addressed when they occur, let’s move on with the 99%. Suddenly everything started moving and though delayed they were back on track. Given the situation I believe that it does not matter which comes first in the poultry farm; it is about where you want to go.

The organization acknowledged the fact, “People are not your best assets, the right people are !” and that’s a story for another time.