Monday, December 28, 2015

Fixed bid or Time & Material contract, which one to choose ?

The customer was known to be a tough negotiator; the partner knew it would be a long and tiring discussion going over each and every line item in the contract. They had spent almost 6 months discussing the scope, exclusions, inclusions and service level agreements. Now that the detail was out of the way, the last mountain to climb was deciding the commercial terms of engagement. Both were masters of the game and that made it an interesting setting for others to observe and learn from.

Starting point was the global RFP which had taken everyone by surprise with level of detail and articulation of expectations; none had seen such a comprehensive document clearly outlining the selection criteria and process towards the journey that would select first among equals. It was an important engagement for both customer as well as providers who had reached the penultimate stage towards closure; for the partner it was a long and hard fought battle to emerge as the better player amongst global competition.

Considering deals in the market, the contract value was not very large or the customer a big name to add as a logo; the deal was important in the goals and audacity of what it attempted to achieve. Thus interest from OEMs and partners was definitive with local and global teams from vendor organizations putting their best teams on the job to respond to the RFP and subsequent clarifications. Everyone commended the process, transparency and the professionalism shown by the team through the journey.

The solution architecture was complex yet simple in its design with integrated pieces that made up the whole. It had not been attempted before and that raised adrenalin levels akin to conquering an unscaled peak. With passing time the scope became clearer to everyone with vendors garnering global resources to stitch together the masterpiece. Tough filter criteria eliminated some of the contestants leaving behind a mix of large credible players who imbibed confidence with their brand and experience.

Between the remaining contestants two camps emerged which proposed to use Commercial-Off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions with minimal customization, or setting a foundation of COTS but with extensive customization to create comfort fit to existing processes. Both approaches created the solution demanded by the opportunity though with divergent approaches. Conventional wisdom dictated that minimal customization while a school of thought propagated adaptation to what business can use.

The two approaches demanded alternative commercial models with respective recommendations on why one is better over the other; these were fixed bid versus time and material, the first for COTS, the latter for customized solution; the company had used both approaches in the past though on smaller initiatives with mixed results, neither emerging as a preferred way of working. The current project much larger with budgets that were well-defined, thereby required a very different yardstick to arrive at any conclusion.

COTS fixed bid offered some level of certainty of outcomes, the number appeared large; it also created perception of limited flexibility by which business teams were discomforted. What if the solution delivered does not meet our requirements, what if people are unable to use it as expected, what if it did not deliver promised results ? There were many case studies on what did not work in large projects including for solutions proposed by the vendors; it thus required acceptance of associated risks.

Customized always gives the comfort with the syndrome that I know what I want and I will get it; it leads to extensible timelines and in many cases suboptimal process. Agreed that when completed it is used by everyone eventually; this methodology has been fast losing traction among savvy business and IT folks with the balance in favor of COTS and Cloud hosted for purpose apps. It may sound counterintuitive for someone attempting a project so large and complex, but there were proponents of bending the solution.

Coming back to the commercials, the customer finally decided to take the risk with a fixed bid hoping to pull it off with the bravado demonstrated by some of the team members, acknowledging that the world has moved on. They fought hard on every line item and then some wanting to create an open book costing which eventually prevailed in the interest of the marquee project. Both sides came out of the marathon negotiations feeling exhausted but with a win-win having listed out all possible risks to the project.

The project got off to a great start, did it deliver to promise ? Wait for the next year !

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Don’t let your Digital Strategy fail; align to execution on the ground

I have been searching for replacement tires for my car for the last few weeks; so I traveled from search engines, to websites of popular manufacturers, to social media groups, to for purpose automobile portals to find where I can get genuine, reliable tires at a good bargain. Search results pushed me towards aggregators and marketplaces who probably do better SEO but did not carry the product I wanted. That is when I realized that the specifications of my requirement are unique and will require me to invest more time and effort.

In the digital world with every newspaper carrying multi-page advertisements from popular internet marketplaces to hoarding on roads, I believed that everyone is hungry for business. So painstakingly I filled all kinds of forms on various manufacturer websites and portals giving them the information they wanted – personal details, car make/model, tire specifications, timeframe for my requirement, and waited for a response. I was hopeful that between 8 portals and manufacturers I will be able to fulfill my need.

Patience is a virtue and the portals/manufacturers were colluding to prove that I am not that virtuous after all. Days passed with no response from anyone, big name global and local internet shopping sites as well as global and local big brands who collectively invest ridiculous amounts on advertising enticing consumers to choose them or shop on their sites over others (barring one who regretted that they did not service my location). Wondering if my email id or phone number had a problem, after a week repeated the process while expanding my search to the physical world.

Many years back I was involved in setting up an internet portal for a large retailer; we evaluated multiple technology solutions wanting the best option within our affordability. The team was excited and it was the beginning of the new cycle of euphoric expectations that subsequently resulted in obscene investments being thrown at virtual retailers and marketplaces. Conservatively we focused on process: how we will receive queries from customers, check orders for completeness, inventory availability to promise.

As we went live and the site picked momentum, we learned the ropes spending frugally on SEO, SEM, PPM, PPC, social media, steadily increasing traction. We exercised care to respond to every message received, suggestions, bouquets and brickbats, and fulfil all orders. 93% order completion was a sore thumb while 99% response to queries offered solace. Enviously we observed the investments into the perceived bubble with no focus on customer or end to end process while we toiled to create a profitable, sustainable business model.

The market expansion based on the promise of low price ensured that remaining wisps of customer loyalty disappeared into thin air fueling a race to burn money faster than others. Abandoned carts increasing and returns crossing the teens, some believe that they are too big to fall and moneybags will continue to prop them with the fear of losing their investments. What does it take for someone to become irrelevant ? Someone with deeper pockets and money to burn to eventually starve the other to oblivion.

Checking around with friends I discovered a few contacts with some of the manufacturers and portals; so I send emails to my connects describing my need and predicament. Prompt came the responses apologizing for the lapse and the offer to help connecting me to relevant people. This is where things started to get interesting. One manufacturer advised that they do not manufacture the specific SKU and that it would be figuring on the website by error. Another offered an attractive price but could not guarantee availability.

The portals/marketplaces feigned remorse that they did not control their partners who listed their merchandise; they were only a technology provider and offered fulfillment services as a value add. The merchant claimed they were out of stock and did not know when the new consignments would arrive. In comparison the store that I visited courteously offered alternatives to choose from explaining the finer nuances of my choices making me wonder why I spent so much time attempting to buy online.

Digital marketing strategies work, they attract customers, create a pull, help customers choose, and then they need the real world to take over with real processes that will stand the test of time without failing. Success requires alignment to create customer satisfaction, repeatability ensures delight and repeat purchases. The future belongs to those who unflinchingly focus on execution, right first time, every time. Invest in technology and also in process and execution, they will collectively stand by you.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Crisis Management: you can prepare for natural disasters, not stupidity

In the last month a large number of enterprises were flooded by unseasonal and incessant rain; the situation was such that people shelved differences and collectively in unison worked to save human lives. Stories of valor and selflessness published and circulated on social media gladdened the heart wanting to reach out to make a difference. If anyone did think about loss of property or submerged data centers, wisely they did not air their concerns lest be seen as insensitive to the disaster and loss of human lives.

Nature’s fury has no answer, we prepare for what we can imagine and what we get the budget for; the rest is assumed to unimportant not to attract attention or funding. This is despite the fact that many enterprises have suffered due to their oversight, inattention, or plain simple apathy towards their critical infrastructure, IT being a prominent part of it. In the three decades in the (IT) industry, I have seen a lot of things go wrong, experiencing some natural calamities and many more avoidable manmade disasters.

When I started my work life, mini computers were just beginning to gain interest, and my role included advise customers on how to set up Computer Rooms (yes that was the term used, there were no Data Centers then), power stability, routing of cables and the general stuff that we take for granted now. Customers would end up allotting basements, terraces, under the staircase, next to the elevator shaft, space locked in the middle of the office, and crunched space after all the executive cabins were provided for.

No amount of suggestions or fear of disruption made them reconsider; it was as if the temple of computing (you had to take off your footwear before entering the computer room) did not merit the importance that hardware providers demanded. My first tryst with natures’ fury happened with basements in a business district getting flooded with floating mainframes and submerged UPSes. It took almost 2 weeks for the impacted to recover leaving aside data loss from which some never recovered; history repeated itself again twice in a span of a decade.

People started moving the computer rooms upward locating them on higher floors much against the ire of the well-heeled executives who wanted the vantage window view and corner; servers needed backup window air-conditioning, until commercial data centers and improving networks made it feasible to outsource them. Clouds, ISPs and hosted applications made way for elimination of the hardware from the equation of things to manage. For the laggards and those who believe they can do better themselves they continue to face challenges.

Unfortunately stupidity manifests itself in many ways which cannot be obviated; the internet has many stories of engineers and users who have tickled the funny bone while they had to manage the effects of their actions with fried servers to roasted peripherals. The case of a factory gate pass system on the cloud has been told in many forums on how not to use the cloud or for that matter how the CEO fired the CIO and the entire IT team with their inability to fix his computer (he had forgotten the wall power switch).

Today the cart has been put in front of the horse many times with technology being imposed on the hapless in a quest to find the question to which they can be the answer. These are justified with same old anecdotes of disruptive companies having grown larger than life. There is little evidence that any of the followers have made any significant impact. IoT will change the world, Beacons will disrupt your life, Wearables are the next big thing, aggregators of the world unite; we have nothing to lose except the investor’s money.

Coming back to natural disasters, we try to save a planet for our benefit which has survived evolution of mankind and will probably live beyond its extinction too. We want it to remain habitable to our liking preserving the development we have indulged in precariously in proximity to water as well as hilly regions. Nature keeps reminding us our fragility and place in the ecosystem; my sympathies with the ones who lost a lot more than their personal belongings, their lives disrupted within a few days never to be the same.

Let us all put together our resources and energy to do what we can to reduce the impact of the fury that we cannot control.

Monday, December 07, 2015

First generation CIOs are vacating their positions; bridging the leadership gap

At the age of 25, I aspired to retire after putting in another 25 with a view to enjoy the rest of my life the way I wanted to with my friends and family. I did not want the compulsion to get to a workplace which expected me to put in 40 hours a week, but ended up demanding 65-70; not to talk about the travel and homework (as my kids called it) that took my attention post dinner when I was not traveling. I wanted to be the master of my destiny, time, and fulfil my bucket list before age related ill-health incapacitated me from living my desires.

It took me a year post the landmark and mid last year decided to hang up my boots. There were a few who preceded me in the same quest – most of them having crossed the golden milestone a little earlier. In the last few months I met many CIOs who want to take the plunge and get out of the rat race to do various things that they are passionate about. Most of them wanted a view on how green the grass is on the other side, pros, cons, challenges and opportunities; it’s evident that the trickle will become a flood sooner than later.

The CIO role has evolved and changed from techie to business leader with many taking on dual/multiple responsibilities; some have made it to the corner office and a place on the Board. With every new technology disruption irrespective of whether it impacts the enterprise and its customers, noise levels challenge the existence of the role which subsides as quickly as the hype is created by consultants, vendors and others. The business criticality of the role is now beginning to be felt and many companies are making efforts to retain their CIOs.

But what has been the trigger point for the CIOs aspirational breakout into newer horizons ? Why are they in droves wanting to get off the corporate treadmill into different roles ? They have started consulting companies, some joined hands with startups; academics has been the calling for a few, while the rest search for meaning in their life. Whatever they decided to do, the number of active first generation corporate CIOs, most of who started their professional lives at the bottom of the technology pyramid, is slowly and steadily dwindling.

Their experience makes them valuable contributors to industry bodies and associations where they rally resources and support to solve common problems. They are also active participants in Angel networks investing time, effort, and money into nurturing startups helping them take off and realize their true potential. Those who started work on succession pipeline and coach their teams to be ready for the eventuality are able to move off with relative ease with the knowledge that their legacy shall be remembered positively.

Everyone however has not been able to create smooth transitions; their teams were not perceptibly ready to take on the role. Thus the vacuum that they left behind was filled by external hires similar to a situation where the CIO would have left for other corporate opportunities. The interesting trend that appears to be emerging is to hire from big consulting and IT companies – practice heads, technology experts, and at times even senior project managers – each of them vying the CIO position and wanting the corner office.

Early results appear to indicate that successful succession planning and transition delivers better results for an enterprise with continuity of the journey; getting a seasoned CIO from outside fares better than a first time CIO from other disciplines despite their technical or functional expertise clearly demonstrating the complexities and nuances of a CIO role now having moved beyond technology. Organizations would do well to take cognizance of how the role impacts their ability to continue using IT as an effective tool to differentiate.

The CIO role and IT leadership is not just about the number of years of experience, it is about relevant experience that marries together technology, industry expertise, domain knowledge, people skills, and the generally accepted managerial skills. Current economic ecosystem with new disruptive business models necessitates the need for strategic CIO skills that were not so critical in the past. It is contingent upon CIOs to develop such skills in their teams to create a multiplier effect and also help them move off whenever the bug bites them.

If you are a CIO, get started now so that you can follow your heart when you are ready to graduate to the next level.

Monday, November 30, 2015

IT project success are Business success too, learning from disasters – Part 3

With the CEO’s ratification the challenged implementation was turned around by the CIO along with the business teams; the project eventually delivered more than the original expectation becoming a first in the industry. The big name consultant wisely stayed mum on the episode and focused on discussing other projects they were involved in; the CIO stayed understated in his success letting the Sales team talk about stories from the field. The CEO raised the question, what has been the learning in the turnaround and success ?

The question appeared to be thrown across the room to no one in particular though the individuals who had to fend the query knew that they were in the spotlight. In adversity most find it difficult to provide the facts as they occur; it requires enormous courage to accept that something did not go as planned. Irrespective of the cause, acknowledging and individually or collectively owning up to an unsatisfactory decision is not normal human behavior. People can write reams on what contributed to success, so the ask required brave confessions.

Ensuing silence appeared to stretch time making seconds appear like hours; everyone was glaring at their shoes and hoped the other would start ! Seeing no movement, the CIO stood up to speak, he was waved to by the Sales Head to sit down. Slowly he rose from his chair, looked around the room and nodded to the CEO that he shall apprise the group of the journey that had created lots of heartburn, frayed tempers, and accusations before eventual success. The aggregation of facts, observations and learning took everyone by surprise.

Failures are orphans who no one wants to adopt; people attempt to make them stick onto others shying away from their direct or indirect contribution by the way of their actions or inaction. The position within the organization hierarchy does not matter, everyone hates to acknowledge their contribution to the outcomes. At times failure to act or raise the flag when we see something that does not appear to be in harmony has a cascading effect on the team which accepts suboptimal solutions with a view that it is not my problem.

Disconnect from reality and inability to see from others frame of reference while imposing our views by virtue of rank, position or loudness of voice, leads to reluctant participation by the team despite the gut feel that wants to protest. We take a frivolous stand or approach to some of the mundane detail when presented, wanting to surf at 30,000 ft. thereby not providing the benefit of experience or holistic view that could improve the end result. Patching bad process or automating it hurtles us towards disaster quicker and we blame the technology !

When the downward spiral begins and there is no hope for nirvana, we find scapegoats, which 
typically end up being the meek or the geeks since both are unable to find a voice. We hasten the judgement and move on from the bad news; we rarely want to get to root cause analysis, institutionalized learning. Introspection and internal team review is a scarce phenomenon in the corporate work which does not take failures lightly. Fail fast sounds good in case studies and management books, we don’t like it when it happens in our teams.

I am thankful to our CEO to have raised the question and provide the opportunity to bring out the learning in our project – what rather than who. We all know how we contributed to what happened. Everything that I said happened in this case of our Sales system. We started with flawed assumptions and bad design, we skipped due diligence, we did not connect consistently with the process on the ground. And when the system failed to deliver, we found a scapegoat in the vendor knowing fully well they cannot retaliate.

Our CIO did not flinch during the predicament he faced, he demonstrated maturity that we should learn from, and I thank him for holding it together. I would also like to meet the vendor and thank his team for standing through thick and thin and keeping the faith. Let’s apply the lessons across the company and ensure that we do not falter in any venture, project, collaboration, or cause, by remaining alert to such behavior. I give freedom to every member of the team to challenge constructively to create better outcomes for ourselves.

The management team gave him a standing ovation; he had spoken from the heart which connected with everyone. He had said what everyone wanted to but were hesitant; he personified what they wanted to be.

Links to Part 1 and Part 2

Monday, November 23, 2015

IT project success are Business success too, turning around failures – Part 2

No one expected the CIO to stand up to the big name Consultant and other CXOs who wanted to fire the IT vendor for a disastrous outcome; but he did and also raised some relevant points which do not get asked in such situations. The project started with flawed process design which was pushed through by the Consulting Company; which Consultant should be fired ? The business head and the business project lead accepted the large forms that found no traction with the field staff; which business lead or head should pay the penalty ?

There was an uneasy silence which demanded answers from the assembled group of leaders; the Senior Vice President of Sales and President of the business were shocked beyond words. How dare anyone raise a finger in their direction ? Had the CIO crossed the boundaries of acceptable behavior ? IT was and is expected to translate business requirements into a system that the business can use. They can suggest improvements to process but are not expected to challenge business supremacy in an open forum. All heads turned towards the CEO.

The CEO faced a dilemma, he could chastise the CIO for his remarks and enforce a decision to revoke the earlier development contract and give the reins to the Consulting Company to deliver what they had designed and promised. His other choice could have been to give the development partner another opportunity to redeem themselves, after all it was a business project and there was some merit in what the CIO said. He was tech savvy and aware that success would have had business and the Consultant patting each other’s back; the vendor was a convenient scapegoat.

Without defending the business, Consultant or the CIO, as a matter of fact he asked the CIO, “As a business leader, what do you recommend as the course of action” ? The CIO had been hired to change IT performance and improve levels of engagement with the globally spread business; the CIO had high pedigree and was a prize catch. The CEO did not ask others since they had proclaimed their verdict and delivered the judgement; the trail in absentia had unanimously declared the defendant guilty. The CEO knew his team and was a fair man.

The CIO outlined the plan to salvage the situation with meticulously charted steps, actions, roles and responsibilities across the project team. He sought absolute control over the process and metrics with a tight deadline to deliver the desired functionality in phases. He had done his groundwork with the field staff and the vendor to understand what would practically work within the operating environment and constraints in which they lived. He had also reviewed the technology stack to assess if the vendor had put in the best effort possible.

It appeared to be the best way forward without shedding any blood, answering the uncomfortable questions, or disgrace anyone. A compromise for the business who would have loved to hang the CIO and the vendor, they reluctantly accepted the verdict from the CEO who accepted the plan. The CIO on his part volunteered to forego his variable pay should the project not deliver as he had promised, which satiated the team as an acceptable bargain. The CIO wagered for other CXOs present to match the stakes, which none did.

Leadership is about many traits, some of them being – to lead from the front, walk the talk, take risks, and take your team along in adverse situations. The IT vendor was apprehensive of the solution and also experienced adrenalin rush at the dangerous move. He conceded control to the CIO who put his more than two decades of experience behind the project, driving the team in high energy mode for the next four weeks. The sales team matched the rigor with the development team frequenting the field to collaboratively engage with their customers.

Success cannot be denied to the possessed and the driven; the CIO and the project team were razor focused on the outcomes. The solution emerged from the shadows and made the grade step by step across layers and geographies; news of success floated in from all quarters across the entire user workforce. They loved the simplicity and the ease of use which was defined with their inputs casting aside the complexity imposed by global best practice models proposed earlier; they had a first in the industry and everyone loved it.

In the next management meeting the CEO asked the group the learning in the unprecedented success !

And that is another story for next time !

Link to Part 1

Monday, November 16, 2015

IT project success are Business success too, what about failures ?

It was pronounced a total disaster by the Sales Head in the management meeting; the teams were unable to use the solution that was launched with much fanfare and back slapping just a few months back. Usage reports indicated compliance of less than 20% from across the ranks with multiple reasons fighting for top position. Other CXOs backed the Sales Head in their vociferous chant about IT inability to meet business requirements. Everyone joined hands to blame the development vendor, unanimously agreeing that they should be fired.

The project was the culmination of work done by big name management consulting company along with the sales and marketing teams working in a cross functional team. The new CIO had joined the project mid-way through and followed the process to its conclusion. The project was handed over to an existing partner who had created the earlier version of the solution much against the wishes of the big name consulting partner who wanted to build the solution albeit at a budget 10 times larger than the incumbent software company.

Sales team had been using version 1.0 for some time with basic functionality and low cost device, a good starting point for the company. The IT team and the vendor worked hard to deploy the new system raising usage to 70% with some potholes and an uneven ride. The data captured served the initial purpose and the teams wanted to move up the value chain in customer engagement and market data capture. The Consultants engaged in other work with the Sales team coerced their way into the project to add value to the new process.

As the new specifications emerged the CIO was wary of the unwieldy system that emerged from the stables of management consulting. His views were brushed aside with pompousness that only big consultants know how to pull off, which they did especially when they did not get to build the system. They defined the Project governance and reporting with all the “best practices” that have never been collectively used putting significant overhead on the development team with challenged timelines that they had no choice but to accept.

The vendor CEO took the CIO into confidence wanting to abdicate but was cajoled into staying with a promise to make amends in the future. He knew that the Consultant would find many reasons to plot their downfall and the project had limited chance of success. Reluctantly he accepted putting his best team to work and treat the project as a learning of better coding standards, governance, and project management; he was painfully aware that declining the project would have shut the doors at this customer forever for his small company.

Struggling through the process, burning the team, the vendor delivered to the unreasonable timeline; the pilot was deployed with a small team who rejected the system as cumbersome and unusable. Sales highlighted many impractical processes which had been introduced by the Consultant despite protests. The vendor took the big list in his stride and worked to deliver knowing well that the cause was already lost but not giving up hope. On the other side the IT team attempted to manage perceptions while business winced at the lost opportunity.

The quarterly management meeting is when things came to a boil and blew the lid; fire the vendor appeared to be an appropriate redemption to the cause. The consultant fueled the fire with “If we had done it, the project would have worked” and “I told you so …” remarks. The business teams were not interested in the blame game, they wanted the project to work; they stressed a simpler process which can be easily executed on the field; they were not interested in the far-fetched analytics proposed by the Consultant.

Not accepting the fait accompli, the CIO stood up requesting permission to speak: The project started with flawed process design which was pushed through by the Consulting Company; which Consultant should be fired ? The business head and the business project lead accepted the large forms that found no traction with the field staff; which business lead or head should pay the penalty ? If we can decide on this, I will definitely fire not just the IT vendor, but also people from my team responsible for the fiasco; we all are responsible for where we are !

On hearing the episode, I wanted to nominate the CIO for all the possible leadership awards; may his breed multiply !

PS: Curious what happened in the end ? Wait for the next episode.

Monday, November 09, 2015

People build companies, people destroy companies

This is a story of an industry that has seen digital disruption that started as an innocuous event two decades back and became a force to reckon with within a decade. The last ten years systematically dismantled whatever was remaining with local, global and legendary brands biting the dust. Whatever remained in a few parts of the world were undone by incompetent leadership unwilling to listen to their teams or adapt to the change quickly – something we have observed across industries. This is based on events that are very fresh in everyone’s memory.

The entity started with humble beginnings, a young team passionate about the cause working in perfect unison build the company brick by brick, byte by byte, one step at a time. They worked hard to create a brand that gained trust of their customers with every interaction raising the bar with each engagement, getting into the psyche of their patrons. Quickly they had overtaken older competitors who were unable to change their personas; soon they became the benchmark against which success was measured in their industry.

Talent attracts talent, they grew from strength to strength and became an aspirational company work for in their segment. It appeared that nothing could go wrong for them, they were in the zone almost all the time, minor aberrations were pardoned by the staunch loyalty of the staff and customers alike. Their challenges if any – internal or external – appeared to be minor bumps on their journey to greatness. The journey continued and the customer facing leaders became brands in their own right, synonymous with the company.

Some of the founding members moved to alternative careers handing over a bigger organization in the hands of professionals to run. The team adjusted to the new way of working of the new management with a different ethos, trying their best to eliminate friction in the interest of progress. They toiled hard to stay in the good books of the new powers and at the same time keep their customers delighted. The strain slowly started appearing in stray conversations and murmurs in the corridors; attrition began to slow them down in a deliberate but sure way.

The brand ambassadors put up a brave face to the external world while the internal turmoil began to show cracks on the surface. Loyal customers demonstrated elasticity which was surprising to many, but it appeared to be a matter of time before the institution crumbled. The irrational behavior attributable to the people now at the helm confused and belittled some customers who were unforgiving, chiding the senior management for letting them down; they disengaged leaving some of the surviving founder members seething and helpless.

It was then a matter of time that the monument start falling, the demise imminent; customers and sponsors shied away from active long-term engagements, as one of the pillars withdrew leaving the load on the lone surviving and primary mainstay. He bravely took the brunt of the illogical and unreasonable demands and frequent and predictable indecision driven by the highest levels of (in)competency which had now become the norm and accepted as a distraction to work. On one fine day the cup overflew and the last man standing too quit.

The spiral effect downwards was predictable; the marquee annual gathering that followed a few months later was an unprecedented disaster that left everyone saddened. The primary business suffered an unrecoverable setback with cascading adverse impact on the organization which was almost wounded fatally. The industry at large cried in anguish at the fall of the mighty, the patrons wondered if the vacuum will ever get filled, the world moved on. Having been a part of the journey from inception though from the outside, I mourn.

Outcomes could have been different had the old leadership stayed on or the new listened to the team or the warning bells that tolled globally; maybe they could have survived longer if the team had revolted against their boss; there may have been an epitaph less if someone had recognized the ineptitude early on and got rid of the damaging elements. Companies suffer this way every day across industries – at time due to inaction, false sense of stability or bravado, the ostrich effect, or a combination of these and leadership indecision and stupidity.

Many of my friends from the company have found their niches and calling, I wish them all the best !

Monday, November 02, 2015

Why is IT so different from other industries ? A Customer’s perspective

We are amongst the largest construction houses in business for many decades; we have provided homes to tens of thousands of people, offices and commercial spaces to many companies. We build them to standard specifications with nominal deviations depending on customer requests. We also create custom commercial spaces for customers which we deliver within timelines and budgets; they love us for the quality and with some we have done repeat business too. We strive to stay the benchmark for the industry.

Why cannot the IT industry also follow similar principles when they build software solutions ? Take the case of our homes or standard commercial offering: they are like packaged software, you the base product and customize it with your own décor, furniture, and fixtures, to personalize the way it looks. Standard software products implementations are like this; Vendors offer AMC contracts to maintain and provide continuous support, we do that with our facilities management offerings in larger complexes and commercial offerings.

Our built-to-order or custom campus/buildings for large companies are similar to IT industry offering of bespoke solutions based on defined requirements. Requirements are signed off before construction starts; any changes post sign-off are expensive and follow change management process. IT does the same, right ? The difference comes after that ! Once we have built and handed over the building, we move off giving the customer the source code (drawings); they rarely come back to us after that for anything.

My IT project has been on for years; a large team has been working on it. They have delivered in phases though there have been many changes from where we started. The large team appears to have become a permanent fixture, always tinkering with the software, modifying it, tuning it, making changes at times unknown to us. I think they will be around as long as we use the software ! In my business nothing like this ever happens; can you imagine construction workers and others lingering on after residents have started staying ?

The comparison set me thinking about the differences and similarities not just with the construction industry but also drew parallel with other industries like automobiles, white goods, consumer products and even the service industry. There were many similarities like the above comparison, but none of the industries came anywhere close to the characteristics observed in IT. Why is the IT so industry different when compared with some of the long-standing behaviors that depict the way business is done by other industries ?

Let’s bifurcate the industry into two parts: the first which manufactures physical devices like desktops, laptops, mobiles, printers, networking equipment etc. These come from different manufacturers with their own brand identities and features; nominal change is possible, mostly using add-ons, rarely with change in core. Customers buy based on their preference and brand affinity; the industry competes on features and value added services, no different from the value proposition articulated by the CEO of the Construction Company.

The software industry again divides itself into 2 segments: commercial off the shelf (COTS) or custom solutions. COTS personal use solutions are easy to deploy and need little if any expertise to get started. COTS enterprise solutions on the other hand require armies of skilled resources to build a usable version; however this is changing with modular standardized process based offering on pay-per-use similar to renting ready to move-in office space. Most companies are beginning to see benefit in the new way of deploying such solutions.

Bespoke development is different and does indeed require continuous build and manage capabilities from IT. This is like the custom built office which is expected to adapt and keep changing based on multiple parameters like occupancy and attendance, male or female worker needs, external environment, day or night, seasons of the year, and do so with minimal disruption. This leads to a lag between requirement and delivery while requiring skilled resources to change configurations, test and deploy with herculean agility.

Comparisons thus create interesting scenarios to reflect on reality as others see it; as long as companies believe that their enterprise, processes, industry cannot be served by standard COTS solutions, the IT services industry will continue to thrive and grow to meet the demand. CEOs and CIOs will engage in the inane debate on optimizing IT while business has a free hand to create anarchic and at times necessary process change. The other factor being the survival of high maintenance prehistoric solutions which people have found impossible to dislodge. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Chief Inaction Officer: I will do nothing until I am explicitly asked to

An audit finding raised the compliance flag which necessitated the CIO to take action; he acknowledged the limitation and was thus tasked to find a solution to be deployed before the next audit. The technical team was summoned and the task assigned between 2 of his deputies who controlled the applications and the infrastructure respectively. With healthy contempt for each other, they thrived in challenging each other, at times with detrimental effect to deliverables. Their professional strengths secured them in their positions.

The problem was not unsolved in the industry and there were standard offerings that collectively created the solution required. To the CIO thus the issue at hand appeared to be an easily resolvable one, the criticality defined by the compliance requirements within the stipulated time. The team went through the motions and presented the solution and budget to the CIO who was struck by a red herring; was it a decoy or reality ? It appeared to be a new player in the market, the solution quite elegant and better than the sum of parts that made other solutions.

So he probed further inviting the vendor to present their value proposition; his team willingly obliged sensing an opportunity to differentiate from the normal. Multiple meetings and presentations later the CIO requested a Proof of Concept which was diligently completed by the team and results submitted. In a normal scenario, vendors would push for closure post a successful PoC; the vendor did the same and was then updated on the decision making cycle; the CIO then proceeded to present the solution to the Board for approval.

Boards typically want a solution to a business problem or an opportunity; they are largely agnostic to the technology solution. True to form the board left the technology decision on the CIO’s best judgement citing that they were interested in compliance using the best possible technology at the lowest possible cost. Unwilling to take a risk with no clear technology mandate, the CIO did what he was good at; no decision while keeping the vendor at bay with meaningful and irrational questions and finally an unreasonable price.

The CIO sought to validate the solution with the Technology Advisory Committee who deferred the decision back to the CIO; referring to the Regulator, he asked for a guideline on the solution which was not forthcoming. The Regulator declined to specify the technology while impressing upon the Company to expedite the solution deployment within the timeline. The passing time had the CIO under pressure while his team stood divided on between the conventional and the innovative solutions giving no solace to the cornered CIO.

The vendor attempted to provide necessary documentation that was duly submitted to the Committee and the Regulator, both maintaining status quo. The vendor demonstration immense patience stayed engaged with the team through the imbroglio and parallel commercial negotiations as the deal appeared close but open through the elapsed time of over 6 months. The impatient CEO was counseled to provide a direction which he finally did in the interest of progress sensing that the CIO will continue to dither on the decision.

Technology teams under the CIO are expected to be the evaluators, evangelists, proponents and finally the educators of possible technology solutions to the business. Heightened awareness of possibilities from technology with business users does make them influencers and at times critics of technology, the decision finally rests with the technology teams and accountability with the CIO. The unwillingness or inability to take a decision does not reflect positively on the leadership of the CIO and adversely impacts the team’s credibility.

Observations from the industry do indicate a set of CIOs who are extremely risk averse and they rarely take decisions on new technologies satisfied with being followers. They are good operational managers and struggle in their ability to partner with the business to impact business performance indicators. In the changing business environment with technology agility a necessity and essential to stay meaningful with disruptive business models threatening the core and existence, it is imperative for CIOs to embrace the new and leave business as usual to their teams or outsourced partners.

A good decision now is worth a lot more than the best decision after delayed analysis paralysis !

Monday, October 19, 2015

What do you present to the Board ? A primer for CIOs

Before the turn of the millennium I made my first presentation to the Board; I had butterflies and wasps in my stomach, fluttering and biting. While I had multiple interactions with them – formal as well as informal – this was the big day when either I get the strategy and roadmap cleared, or I go into the shadows where IT had been. Coming in from the outside, the entrusted task was to ensure that IT delivered and my goal was to also get the IT team some respect for the work they did ensuring that business runs with minimal IT led disruptions.

Talking to many Board Members and CEOs it is evident that in the ensuing time, a lot has changed; for one, there is a heightened awareness of IT across the board. Technology has invaded our lives, homes, and Digital Natives are now getting into the workforce. Boards are being challenged to come up with Digital strategies – relevant or not – lest they be caught unawares. Startups have glamourized technology innovation with most Board Members individually investing in the euphoric and at times irrational models.

On the other hand CIOs have catapulted themselves to newer heights and positions by casting aside their technology vocabulary and embracing profitability, cost and process rationalization, discounted cash flow, NPV and IRR, along with customer satisfaction, supply chain agility and everything that was seen as foreign to IT folks. With a vengeance, IT arrived on the scene disrupting old models over and over again leaving no choice for CXOs but to acknowledge that they do need ample doses of what the CIO can bring to the business.

These are not exceptions any more, the laggards are indeed enterprises who still relegate CIOs to work under the CFO wings, starving themselves of the benefit that IT led efficiencies can bring. They have not been able to discard their antediluvian behavior and mindset but continue to expect miracles from the CIO while s/he has to win the sprint and the marathon with no support. Thus IT scrounges for budgets and business support which is reluctantly given treating IT as spenders of hard is earned revenues while the CFO keeps cutting IT budgets.

For the Board too this was the first time IT was presenting a plan; they were curious and allotted half an hour for the last item on the agenda. Walking into the room full of serious looking wizened grey haired audience, I wished I had never asked for the time. But now it was done and I had to get on with it. The Chairman peered over his glasses and asked me to begin. I started by describing the current state of business, growth aspirations, IT challenges (real and perceived) and waited for acceptance of reality as I saw it; nods assured me to continue.

Outlining the vision of a better tomorrow and the day after with some aggressive investments and moves from the business, I kept going while clouds descended outside and it started pouring. I reached the last slide and thanked the audience waiting for a response; silence greeted me and then an applause with an affirmation to the plan. I could have jumped in joy that I made it without getting beaten up for a non-technical presentation that defined new opportunities to expand market leadership. Only then I also realized that my allotted half an hour had extended to three !

What do you present to the Board ? Most of them don’t care about technology options, they want to know how IT will impact business growth, profitability, customer loyalty, retention and satisfaction, efficiency, market positioning or expansion, benchmark with the industry, enable business strategy, or enhance shareholder value. Effectively can IT help the enterprise and its leadership team win in a competitive and disruptive world ? On the flip side, the CFO shadowed IT is challenged to prove ROI on every investment.

The CIO requested a meeting with the CEO to present to the Management team and the Board on some of the path-breaking initiatives that would help the company tactically as well as in the long run. He was asked to vet the presentation and investments with the CFO (his reporting boss). Unfortunately the CFO did not give the attention requested despite repeated reminders; the presentation never happened and after trying all possible options, the CIO left in disgust. The company continues to struggle with their IT while competition has begun to nibble at their market share.

CIO or not, what is your reality ?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Why do people rejoin their old companies ?

It was in the news that he is rejoining a large enterprise in a meaty role which would be the envy of those who read it; a company he had left sometime back. The company had been on the growth path though lagging in a few tenets of business. Not shy of investments, neither was the company known for lack of boldness in their wanting to change the future. On a rollercoaster ride through economic cycles, competition from international players, and disruptive new business models, the company had survived holding leadership position in some segments.

Talking to a few friends in the industry we conversed about common friends and colleagues, who were seen as successful in their professions. Most of them had spent reasonably long time in their current companies giving them credible accomplishments. It emerged that most of them were in their second innings in their respective companies having spent time earlier though in junior positions or in different roles when the company was also younger. Rejoining your old company was after all not an isolated incident with the person who made the news !

Researching the subject using popular professional social media sites, it was evident that a segment of people have indeed gone back to their previous companies. There were two visible patterns: the first where the person rejoined quite quickly (from a few days to about couple of years) and in most cases in the same or similar role. Presumably the “grass is greener on the other side” or a bigger professional challenge of a lifetime actually did not work out and thus they came back to the comfort zone or the familiar and known.

The second category of people went back to their earlier companies did so by taking on much larger roles in now significantly bigger companies than what they had left behind. The Promoters, CEO, or the Board picked back talent from (in most cases) competition to bring the same magic within their companies. Such individuals by virtue of their work ethics, professionalism, and results are able to perform wherever they go. A soft corner for their previous teams or the lure of a larger role coupled with a massaged ego does the trick ?

There are many individuals also who shudder to even think about going back to their previous companies ! Not that they had difficult or unmemorable tenures or they left in difficult circumstances, it is probably the queasy feeling that accompanies the thought of getting back into an environment which was relegated into the past. Nostalgia or memories tend to play in a different way for different people; for many the frame of reference changes based on recent experience even though the past may have been pleasant or forgettable.

Enterprise HR policies play an important role in this; many companies have a rehire policy which states the terms and conditions for a person to come back. There is also a group which is quite strict about not hiring back. Which one is a winner or loser ? Which company is better off in comparison ? What about the employee ? Does going back diminish extrinsic value of the individual in the company ? What about market perception ? Is the candidate seen as unadaptable to foreign territory or seeker of comfort zones ? Does or should this matter ?

Circumstantial evidence suggests no real difference between the two approaches (yes there are exceptions to every statement). Pros of rehiring: the candidate is known and thus there is a level of predictability in what to expect, factoring in evolution and maturity over the years, if the person is coming back after a reasonable gap. S/he knows and understands the corporate culture and way around the processes and policies, knows many people, so will fit in easily. They will try harder to cement their value and rebuild trust and relationships.

On the flip side looking at the negatives, s/he knows and understands the corporate culture and way around the processes and policies, knows many people, so will take things for granted and his/her right rather than earn back the trust. The person may elevate bitterness (if any) from the past and disrupt the equilibrium. Depending on the circumstances of exit and rehire, s/he presents a different persona to the world. Will the rehire be successful or not depends on the hiring manager and setting expectations unambiguously with clear communication across the enterprise.

Would you rehire someone who left your team or want to go back to an earlier company ?

Monday, October 05, 2015

Enterprise challenges in getting ready for Generation Z in the phygital world

The other day I was reading about a new generation of future customers/workers/citizens referred to as the Generation Z. According to this piece of analysis, it is a term used to collectively refer to people born in this millennium. They are different from generation Y which was the classification for Digital Natives – people who grew up with the Internet and computers during their school and college years – while generation X typically bunched together Digital Migrants (who were exposed to Personal Computers as they got into the workforce).

Generation Z is on the go with their computer in their pockets; they are the mobile generation equipped with smartphones, apps for almost everything they need or want, socially active, leaving a trail behind for anyone to leverage, fickle in their behavior with no perceivable loyalty to brand or product, ready to experiment and explore the world at large, impatient with the pace at which the rest of the world is moving, have a strong mind of their own; a generation that is going to be ready to get into the work force in the next 5+ years.

If we look inwards, enterprises today have embraced Cloud and Mobility working their way through the legacy systems which are not easily amenable. The journey has been full of challenges while the new generation systems have attempted to disrupt the monolithic systems of the past. Organizational inertia and fear of breaking a running system and process has prevented large scale deployments. App-ification of the world of IT has begun with new startups wanting to optimize every micro process by making it available in real-time.

Productivity on the move has rendered the laptop an unwieldy device which is losing ground to tablet computers as the primary consumption device. The tablet too has evolved bridging the gap and offering similar or better capabilities on the go; progressive early adopters have embraced this trend while conservatives continue to view the tablet as a consumer device under the ambit of BYOD. The sooner the transition happens, the faster the enterprise will be ready to move to the next level of engagement and productivity.

Focusing on the external world of direct and indirect consumers, some parts of the world are going mobile first with the web being an alternate channel; optimization of engagement and experience on the mobile is the Holy Grail that everyone is chasing. While Generation Y is adaptable across different channels, Generation Z will seek gratification primarily on the mobile channel and may not engage on other mediums. Organizations are thus building for current as well as the future which is creating discomfort for existing decision makers, the Generation X.

Generation Z presents new paradigms for enterprises internally as well as externally. The mobile first consumers of information are used to finding everything at their fingertips. Can they be tied down to a desk with a monitor, keyboard and mouse at their workplace and expect productivity at the same level that is delivered today ? Their restless will be challenged to stay subdued while they are corporatized to conform to existing norms of workplaces. The multi-tasking generation will seek avenues to vent their high energy existence.

At the same time, their social existence in the physical world is complemented by the mobile digital world with 4G and 5G speeds. They do not shun personal touch and immerse in the real world with equal élan leaving bread crumbs for marketers and analysts to microsegment personas. Can enterprises find a way to stay omnipresent in the new phygital world ? This was a much debated topic in a recent conference with thinking caps of all knowing consultants to enterprise captains and participants from all walks of life.

Conclusions were sparse with the world still evolving and no one wanting to put their bets on one direction or another; pace of change being what it is, attempting to hazard a guess was seen as epitome of foolishness. Everyone agreed that the future remains opaque with wearables bringing in a dimension as yet little understood in its impact. Work and Life are fungible today; in a boundary less world of the future, the focus will shift to outcomes rather than tasks; micro specialized skills will create new opportunities for enterprises and people.

Get ready for the phygital world, its coming sooner than you think !

Monday, September 28, 2015

The anti-social social media in a Digital World

She was a teenaged student enamored by social media, trusting quickly, befriended what appeared to be similar minded youth. The emotional play slowly convinced her to take steps that would have been forbidden by her parents resulting in indescribable gory incident that left her wounded for life. Similar fate has courted many young lives globally; awareness and education being a partial cure, cutting off the connecting threads being a drastic step rarely enforceable. Peer pressure coupled with rebellious nature has not alleviated the situation significantly.

Sharing and social platforms have now been around for almost a decade, first among them took off in 2002, others followed; some are raising their heads even now. In the not too distant past everyone was going gaga over social media and its relevance to the enterprise and why it mattered to be on various social media platforms; quickly the problem morphed into an analytical one with social listening and unstructured data giving rise to a new paradigm – Big Data – that promised to provide insights hereto unknown and unthinkable.

The market segmented itself into personal social, professional networking, image sharing, chatting, and short messages with 140 characters to broadcast or send to individual subscribers (the origin being that the messaging service was built on top of the Short Message Service or popularly known SMS on mobile phones which had a limit of 160 characters). Then came convergence with each of them wanting to take mindshare from the other. Blurring lines and interconnect reduced the distinction to almost nothing for consumers and corporates.

Popularity was determined by the number of followers, connections, and shares by others of what a person or corporate account posted; which obviously gave rise to false accounts and commercial models to buy followers showing inflated numbers against a profile which was the measure of success. Slowly as the hype died down, investments were questioned and everyone scampered around to find financial models to justify their budgets. Stretch of imagination and leap of faith set aside, fear of not doing it kept depleting the coffers.

Unable to hold ground with ROI models, marketing justified brand building, customer engagement, pulse of the market, and put effort in managing negative vibes spread by dissatisfied customers. Smattering of success selectively by a few campaigns ensured that everyone kept trying as the dynamics continued to change. Individual customers made the most of the paranoia of corporates to decimate all evidence of their shortcomings until it reached a point where many just gave up or ignored the listening justifying their steps using statistics.

Success of the medium attracted unwanted elements who used social engineering methods to target the gullible; emboldened by their success, they gradually increased threat levels and expanded scope to target the young and innocent or holding naïve and unprepared corporates to ransom. Changing terms of engagement on the platforms kept everyone guessing on what next and how to keep themselves sane. In the melee emerged experts with a proficient air of confidence to part the fool from his money promising salvation.

Overloaded and fatigued by Digital flood, people sought vacations with no connectivity or rationing time to get some real work done while hundreds of messages filled with good intentions, emotional stories, knowledge snippets, motivational videos, tips and tricks, humorous anecdotes and more, all of them converging to occupy free and busy time until personally and professionally the impact begins to hurt. It also ends up overshadowing meaningful communication from those who matter while everyone runs faster to stay in touch.

How to unshackle and detox from this whirlpool of quicksand ? How to protect corporate reputation and assets ? How to keep the innocent youth shielded from nefarious elements ? How to keep customers happy and reduce negative mentions ? What can individuals and enterprises do with everyone pushing the Digital agenda as if survival depended on it ! Maybe for some it does but it is not the universal truth; Technology does not have all the answers, some of them require a different level of thinking discarding current beliefs.

I believe that we need to go back to basics and start challenging every demand on our sensibility and stop reacting to external stimulus that forces us to mimic others. Create a decision matrix that aligns to your company, industry, geography, and customer demographics. Keep a vigilant watch for the next hype with a responsive strategy; do not fear for survival, adapt to the situation. IT will play a significant role in your ability to execute, give some latitude to your CIO and IT teams, they hold some of the keys to the future.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Clouds hit by El-Nino, future of Clouds in Enterprise Infrastructure

In the not too distant future, Cloud computing will be celebrating its 10th birthday; yes, it has been that long since the term was coined and people started talking about clouds of all kinds. Subject of many barbs, humor, analysis, predictions, conferences, and angst, Cloud has had its share of good and bad with accompanying confusion for those who decide, create, deploy or manage it. Every vendor created their interpretation of what they wanted to offer to their customers, ASPs (Application Service Provider) rebranded themselves which added to the chaos.

It was not just about Public or Private, someone decided that why not create a heterogeneous cloud and called it Hybrid. Not to be left behind, fine tuning of the definition began with Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), Software as a Service (SaaS); Storage as a Service (SaaS) confusing proponents of Software as a Service. These were followed by Community Cloud and Distributed Cloud which created new business opportunities and models. How to evaluate, differentiate, or create value for enterprise use.

The list of touted benefits from Cloud was long: agility, cost saving, multi-tenancy, reliability, scalability, elasticity, availability, manageability and finally security. Models mushroomed based on assumptions that did not hold water; CIOs and Infra Heads challenged them but they did experiment and explore in bits and pieces. Anecdotal references of swipe your card and solve problems with on-demand extension to enterprise compute/storage made many sit up and take notice. How did they pump TB of data on constrained corporate internet pipes ?

Pay-as-you-go the new mantra; pay for what you use, not peak capacity, differential rates, variable metering (happy hours ?), orchestration layers across different clouds and combinations made headlines invoking CXOs desire to challenge their IT setups. Every IT major, data center provider, telecom operator and pure play companies vied for attention with me too offerings. Cheaper, faster, better, innovators and startups challenged the bigger players only to be acquired or die in the muscle match, the dust is now beginning to settle.

In the decade that went by – with acceptance of different variations and stretched definitions – focus shifted to real life business use cases. SFA, communication and collaboration, on-demand infra for startups, and HR solutions have become mainstream. For purpose task oriented apps are gaining ground, while every legacy solution aspires to offer itself on the cloud. Mobility solutions leveraged the cloud offering new capability. Flexible models of deployment, scale up on demand (conditions apply for scale down).

Today a greenfield enterprise IT roadmap can be created without ownership of software licenses or data center hardware provisioning; almost everything can be bought on the cloud, from office automation, to ERP, CRM, SCM, WMS, BI, Helpdesk, SDIM, the list is comprehensive and deep. The challenge arises in two parts, integrating each of the cloud solutions with the other seamlessly (as compared to monolithic solutions from vendors) and orchestrating all the pieces; on the second part in managing multiple relationships and licensing terms.

The question that keeps popping up is the transition of current enterprise IT to the Cloud; when will it happen and what prevents mass adoption ? On the other hand the counter question is, if it is desirable or adds value or removes complexity ? Why does it have to be either or ? I would propagate coexistence is a fair strategy in comparison to extreme and absolute ends of the spectrum. Enterprise Data centers will lose their relevance and disappear in the coming years pronounced some analysts; sounds familiar to past doomsday predictions.

Clouds are ubiquitous and pervasive today; innovative solutions and business models are emerging by virtue of mass penetration of mobile access devices. The future shall be strongly influenced by these disruptive trends of today. With an open mind and agility, Enterprises and CIOs need to experiment and weave these into strategic business and IT initiatives lest they be caught napping. The future is coming sooner than we thought, be ready to face it, embrace it, challenge it, love it, hate it; ignore it at your own risk !

PS: Clouds fail too like enterprise infrastructure, latest news on AWS failure that impacts business. Can you prepare for them

Monday, September 14, 2015

Selling to CIOs is a difficult process and getting tougher

He reached out to the CIO with resolute frequency almost like clockwork; his connects were based on the timeline given by the CIO on when to reconnect for the decision on the solution. The CIO on his part never closed the loop, kept him lingering in the background with a hope that he will someday be successful in getting the order. This continued for almost a year with distractions in the form of small activity that he had to engage in with the IT team to validate a use case or elaborate on technology integration, scalability, etc.

His organization was running out of patience with the prolonged engagement which for most of the year continued to remain in the active pipeline but failing to convert. The management wondered on the investments made over the year with the lure of a referenceable customer with high value business. The story was beginning to look like a stretch of belief with a growing feeling that the CIO will not be able to convince internally. It was a tricky situation where reaching out to the CEO could potentially make or break the deal, the relationship with the CIO would have anyway broken.

On his part the CIO – a veteran of years – would keep finding new clarifications or actions in every meeting, each sounding logical and never really answering the question on what will result in closure. The vendor systematically addressing each and every query, his team finally signed off the pilot and put the ball back in the CIOs court. The CIO sought help to present the solution to the Management which was promptly provided as time continued to slide. The vendor CEO cracked the whip and demanded closure either way in a defined timeline.

Agreeing with the direction set forth, the salesperson confronted the CIO and pleaded for closure citing helplessness in offering the enviable deal beyond the timeline. He hoped against hope that the fish will bite and was seemingly rewarded with an opening that promised closure with a foot in the door and conditional commitment to scale up should the initial engagement deliver to promise. This was taken in the spirit of partnership but he was cautious in his pronouncements internally. The wait appeared to have been worth the efforts invested.

The ordained time came and went; the order continued to elude him, the message from the CIO was that the powers that be wanted further evaluation of options. It was quite evident that the business was not really coming to fruition in the near foreseeable future. The inability of the CIO to push internally was quite apparent, in hindsight his demeanor was always defensive, lacking assertiveness required to push through a decision. With lost credibility the salesperson had nowhere to go except to grin and bear it and keep the CIO humored.

Why do CIOs not come clean on the need, process, decision making hierarchy and metrics, timeline, urgency, and finally the budget upfront before engaging the partner ecosystem ? What keeps them opaque to the external world, at times even to their teams ? Is it power that they enjoy or they try to hide their insecurities behind the bravado and resultant activity with occasional outcomes ? Are their successes random occurrences of chance or the teams’ hard work that happens because or despite the CIOs interventions ? The broad brush that I paint applies to a large cross-section !

Why don’t vendors ask tough questions on the need, the timeline in which the decision will get taken and allocation of budgets ? I know some who do and some CIOs who give straight answers; in many cases the sales teams hear but don’t listen in their desperation to close a sale driven by period end pressures and targets indulging in wishful thinking, running towards a mirage. Then there are CIOs who are uncomfortable elucidating a clear and crisp no thereby resulting in long periods of courtship and eventual breakup.

For the vicious circle to break it requires change on both sides; the change begins from sales leadership who need to be ruthless in their pipeline management moving off when they don’t see traction. They push sales teams hard resulting in wasted efforts. Internal and external expert facilitated sales training and mentoring are required to imbibe and sustain the sales process using experiential training rather than templated workshops. Changing your customer is going to take a long time and then again it may not happen.

My sales pitch: Workshops on “Don’t sell – help your customers buy” available to the interested !

Monday, September 07, 2015

The fragile bridge of corporate relationships

The CIO had spent almost 5 years in the position thriving and surviving all the uncertainties of business and change in management. He had done well to build a reputation with business leaders with his can do attitude and ideas helped them win in their playing field. Technology vendors loved him for the fact that he was willing to experiment and deploy emerging solutions with calculated risks that brought them further business. He took on additional business responsibilities which added to his experience of a score of years. Then suddenly he quit !

Everyone wondered what happened, some guessed what had happened, confidantes knew the reason behind the presumably sudden move. It was cooking for a while within; his outwardly calm disposition did not raise any suspicion of the turmoil within. For a large part of the year prior to taking the drastic step, he continued to live with a façade which eventually impacted his persona. Something snapped inside, his professional pride hurt he found it difficult to continue. As soon as he had an option, he hastily exited inconsiderate of the adverse impact.

A difference of opinion, perceived gap in skills, and real lack of experience for a favorite project of a Board member left him in no man’s land despite industry experts willingness to back him. The project was thus separated from IT and a new peer position was on-boarded. As time passed by he found himself being marginalized in some of the discussions falling off the radar with attention largely focused on the favorite project. He continued to toil until the proposed change of reporting relationship (to his peer) became the proverbial last straw and he quit !

A post-mortem would throw up many advice on what he could have done to rescue the situation and bring himself back into relevance; that anyway belongs to lessons provided from the stands when the game is on. The cardinal mistake he made was to leave in a huff with scant regard to the impact his exit had on ongoing activities, tasks, and outcomes. Pleas to reconsider his decision and later to extend his notice period were ignored with ego prominently dictating the actions. With a small step the bridge built over the years was broken.

He took up the new assignment that had triggered his bold step only to find out that culturally he was unable to fit into the new organization; unable to accept the ethos, he left within weeks without notice. These steps did not go unnoticed in the industry and quietly seeped across through the network; while no one raised the question, peers were nice to him in a diffident way with warmth of the past missing. His requests for connects towards new openings and opportunities were accepted though none made any progress towards materialization.

Young professionals today tactically make career moves based on their need for gratification, personal gain and opportunities in the market. In the build phase of their foundations they flutter around before they find their bearings and settle down. In the mid-career stage relationships are built that help climb the corporate ladder and build credibility on the task and people axis. The persona thus created aids move to level of leadership from just managing people thereby connecting the dots and strengthening the bonds that can last a lifetime.

Courting period with an enterprise starts with best behavior; why does the exit need to be the worst ? If there is any bitterness towards the culture, environment, incident, team, people, anything that makes the blood pressure rise, let go as from the next day onwards they are not going to be part of daily life. It is unfortunate that some companies also behave like jilted lovers when someone senior decides to pursue alternative opportunities. The market quickly comes to terms and discounts reference checks with such companies.

The struggle of the protagonist with a few bad decisions impacted his ability to find an opportunity; when alternatives are plenty, prospective companies are not amenable to forego such indiscretions. What if he does not fit in here culturally ? What if there is really something wrong with him as a person ? Will he bad mouth us when he leaves ? There are many what-ifs that deter an opportunity. Bridges are expected to withstand a lot of stress and natural elements; bridges of relationships too require strength from within and resilience to survive incidents and external factors.

Take care !

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Why don’t employees attend training programs seriously ?

The HR manager announced a program on different people skills like: listening, reading body language, effective communication, business writing, negotiation skills, and many more. These were being conducted on every Saturday for interested participants. The enterprise had a 5-day work week and the rationale behind a weekend investment was to get the interested participants only. The curriculum was good and participation voluntary. There was no charge nor there was post course assessment or for that matter feedback on faculty.

The inaugural class had 15 participants to the surprise of those present; the expectation was that there would be at least 25-30 representing about 10% of the strength. The group was welcomed by the HR Manager for their quest to learn; the group remarked about their self-improvement focus and the journey started for the teacher and the students. The course, expected to run for 20 weekends, needed strong willpower and commitment; by week 4, the list was down to single digits and by the time the course ended, there were only 4.

Most training programs suffer from this phenomena even when the training program is not that long. On the penultimate day the trainees discover urgent work or cite exigencies to escape from the clutches of learning. The end of the program is typically seen by a few participants who were interested in learning, the totally disinterested who had nothing else to do, the HR representative to complete the loop and the trainer who has reached the end of patience and wants to get out lest s/he lose their poise and temper.

The situation is no different for even a full day learning curriculum; everyone arrives charged up for the day off from work, some look forward to enhancing their skills. As the day progresses, phone calls start interrupting the flow, an urgent mail that needs to go, and customer meetings that pop up or something fails that needs their personal attention, enough to disrupt the class. They all have genuine sounding reasons to go back to the same work that many wanted to avoid at the beginning of the day; learning takes a backseat.

Why is learning such a chore ? Are people not interested in their own advancement ? What makes them such shirkers when it comes to adding value to themselves ? Do they believe that they know everything they need for their success as well as movement in the corporate ladder ? If that was the case then everyone would excel in their roles and get promoted with regular periodicity. Learning & Development would be a dead function for most corporates (it is another matter that many play a subservient role with limited latitude to make a difference).

Training are mostly determined during the appraisal cycle based on the discussion between Manager and the staff member; there is a self-determined need based on career aspirations or skills that need to be acquired to fill a gap towards executing their work effectively. Enhancements to existing expertise to move up the ladder to a larger role or a lateral shift to another position also create the need. Soft skills and other seemingly non-essential training are scheduled with published training calendar which are then available for enrollment by everyone.

As an employee I always looked forward to training programs even if they were just to validate existing knowledge. Complementing these with aggressive reading helped me move across industries and roles with ease. As I climbed the ladder, I had the task of managing teams who needed to perform at their optimal best to keep raising the bar and enjoy associated fruits of success. The formula that worked for me mostly was to make the team responsible for their own training, not me, not HR, not the company, only themselves.

They were individually responsible for their career, growth within and outside; most found it contrary to conventional wisdom, after all isn’t the Manager expected to take care of the team ? Should HR be providing them all kinds of training including technical skills ? Isn’t the company responsible for taking care of the employees ? This worked quite well for me; for those who were unable to accept this responsibility, they found themselves floundering in their positions or out of place in the rapidly changing environment and facing forced attrition.

One of my Managers’ had summed it quite well: “We offer employment, we do not guarantee continued employability” !

Monday, August 24, 2015

Hard realities of soft skills of current CXOs

Please call me back after an hour; I will call you back; send me an email and I will revert; remind me to send you the details; the list is quite long, so I will stop here. I am not even listing unanswered emails, requests to call back, text messages, and connects on various professional and personal social media sites. These are a few statements from busy CXOs running from one activity to another, meetings, conferences, review discussions, lunches, business trips, who have no time to catch up with work, forget time for their life !

I am sorry I forgot, I was too busy, my work has been killing me, there was pressure to complete for the board/weekly/monthly … meeting; and then there are those who believe that they are above the rest and don’t need to apologize for their silence. The resultant perceptions are generalized in culture (we are like this only) or end up labeling the person “that’s the way s/he is”. There is no reference or mention of the resultant loss of time or opportunity or the challenges such tardiness creates for the other stakeholder.

The multitude of channels has increased the complexity of staying abreast with the increased interest towards connecting with each other for various purposes; there are also cold calls and messages from interested parties to gain attention. Tools and technologies have also evolved to a stage that they can provide notifications, alerts, and alarms across all kinds of off-person and wearable electronic devices. Despite this interconnected scenario, at least 70% of reverts do not happen (this is based on data I have collated over the last year).

And then there is a minority who always get to meetings on time, call back when they have promised, send you a response when they said they would; they are apologetic if they miss their commitments and make amends as a corrective step. They use Assistants (earlier referred to as Secretary), technology, and plain and simple to-do lists to ensure that they don’t slip on personal integrity. They value their time and give the same respect to others time too. Driven by the clock at times, an appointment turning up late is not tolerated.

What creates these two distinct breeds of professionals ? Before we start analyzing their childhood and the foundation set in their formative years and then blame the past for their current behavior, I would say that internal stimulus is far greater than external stimulus to create any change. External factors like training, mentoring, and coaching do help in triggering internal change which when sustained becomes a habit. The bigger stimulus is failure or an adverse outcome as a result of self-behavior or lack of action arising out of habit (inertia).

When one falls hard, the natural reaction is to blame the other person(s), circumstances, rarely if at all looking in the mirror for the person responsible. It is an uncommon occurrence that a person accepts accountability towards suboptimal or undesired end results; they justify their conduct based on their perception of themselves and excuses based on level of activity that constrained them. It is almost inhuman effort to acknowledge a self-limitation, learning or improvement opportunity that gives the power to change results.

Representative issue, not isolated: A vendor sought inputs on getting through to a CIO; he had emailed, phoned, text messaged, and called her Assistant innumerable times without success; it was as if he was not relevant to her. She was an existing customer and the relationship preceded her elevation to the position. The same request also came from other sources wanting to understand how to get through to her or get her attention/audience. Talking with one of her compatriots it emerged that even internally within the enterprise the situation was no different.

There are no easy answers to change; it happens one step at a time and requires significant effort and active coaching. People who give themselves the freedom to explore the new world gain from the new world of possibilities; they rise from self-imposed mediocrity to taste success. People want to be associated with such individuals who are beacons of qualities that make them worthy of emulation. If you have been in any of the situations above, give yourself a chance, a small chance to make a difference to yourself.