Monday, February 29, 2016

We live in a trust deficit world while lawyers spin circles around us

It seems like a long time ago, when I started my career as a fresher with a simple one page appointment letter issued by the company. The letter had a designation, department, location, joining date, probation period, and compensation, and was signed by HR. I did not require a dictionary or assistance from an attorney to understand any of the clauses, intent, or my role in the company. Along with me, three others also had no trouble deciphering the language on that precious piece of paper.

Climbing the corporate ladder rather quickly, I reached a place where I was issuing two page letters to young aspirants who liked the simplicity of communication. There was no ambiguity in anyone’s mind on what was expected, exclusions, inclusions, KRAs, official work times, rules and regulations because none of these challenged the new hires in their comprehension; there was an inclusive feeling of welcome-ness, enthusiasm and eagerness to learn, contribute and become part of the family that the enterprise represented.

With passing time, in a position of authority, power and responsibility, vendors engaged to solicit business, selling their wares, offering services, architecting the future one step at a time. Consultants big and small sought to create success in intent and execution, the good work thus acknowledged by the Management team. Towards the turn of the millennium, scams had tainted corporate ethics, hype had overtaken reality, euphoria and expectations rising sky high, the end rose to prominence with lowered regard to the means.

The meltdown, slowdown, trough of disillusionment with crashed expectations led to everyone covering real and perceived risk in any engagement, every eventuality however remote. Documents started expanding, if, but, therefore, hereinto, whereas, words hitherto unused in normal business communication started appearing in every document that attempted to bring two or more parties together. Unable to grasp the complexity, the shake of hands, gentleman to gentleman agreements now need corroboration in legalese.

Slowly and steadily the document stack continued to grow, legal teams took over the task of negotiating clauses; the engagement shifted from wanting to collaborate and achieve something to covering all risks and pinning down obligations such that any deviation, misstep or mistake would bring the sky down. The approach began to weigh down on ability to move fast, create new market opportunities or compete with agility; one-upmanship became the rule and relationship based engagement has disappeared.

Trust is earned is the new mantra today implicitly indicating that I shall not trust you until there is evidence – direct or referential – that you are trustworthy. Reference checks, customer visits, case studies, collateral, reports from external agencies, and now the internet contribute to building a persona for the individual or company. Despite all the due diligence, we still struggle with allegedly misrepresentations and continue to use contracts and legal documents to protect our interest, surprisingly on both sides.

As an entrepreneur I worry about someone plagiarizing my idea, large companies not honoring their commitments, overdue payments, despite the written word in the contract; I hesitate to agree to clauses that appear to be unilateral leaving me no recourse, but then I accept it with my inability to change the words and my need being higher than the counterparties. I wonder what happened to the world in which I started working not too long back, a world where we trusted each other despite not having a voluminous contract to enforce.

Going deeper into the changing human psyche, the emerging business and economic environment, technology led disruptive models, and the no holds barred race to riches, it is evident that it is a mercenary world now. Collaboration is a necessity driven out of need for survival or at times for convenience to get ahead of a pesky competitor. Our DNA has changed rapidly giving rise to new models of engagement, rather transactional way of doing business until the next big wave changes our reality and we start all over again.

Comparisons indicate growing complexity of engagement as well as highly targeted tacit knowledge based arrangements. These are non-frivolous yet transient in nature creating value for stakeholders, leaving behind firm and lasting impressions. Today contracts have become a necessity to set clear expectations and boundaries for coexistence. I believe that when intent overrides the intricacies of legalese, the resultant simplification works wonders in creating win-win opportunities; and that is a good place to be for all of us !

Finally to quote Mahatma Gandhi: Be the change you want to see in this world !

Monday, February 22, 2016

If your CXO buys Cloud based solutions without IT involvement, is it Shadow IT ?

At a marketing conference the CMO was childishly wide eyed seeing technology options on display which he was unaware of. His IT team had been talking about some of the solutions and benefits that could be created for the enterprise, he had not focused on them leaving it to his team. Now having seen possibilities, he wanted to get the tools and technology into his fold as soon as possible. So he asked the vendor to deep dive with his team to ascertain how quickly they could adopt the solutions.

After the song and dance, demo and reference checks, he was convinced that the solution is exactly what he needed. It was superior to the current laborious manual process followed which always ended up just a little late in comparison to required timeline. IT had been chasing him for a long time, but he did not understand technology; so he had deflected the discussion to his team who were always looking at the operational aspects of the solutions rather than the big picture that needed to be defined.

The CIO and the IT team gave up the chase since it appeared to be a futile exercise; other parts of the enterprise were happy to collaborate and implement new age solutions and appreciated their contributions. Thus when the CMO saw the solutions on display at the conference he was overawed and wanted to make up lost time as soon as possible. The vendor convinced him that he did not need support from IT as the solution was cloud based and required no infrastructure except an internet connection.

Weeks later the solution was procured and deployed quickly; it was easy enough to use, did not require training, worked on their laptops and most smartphones, allowed analytics that the business wanted, and was quite affordable with monthly subscription which he could fund from his budget. Integration to existing data sources was not considered since his team had almost all the data in spreadsheets that they used to conduct analysis and created customer engagement models; the CMO believed he had a good deal.

Months later he presented outcomes from his new baby in the Management Committee Meeting to a round of applause which he beamingly accepted. The success story continued for a while as the marketing team leveraged the solution which provided better outcomes than the earlier manual way of working. The dream run would have continued except that they reached a plateau and to leverage new functionality now required help from IT to integrate with existing data sources to move to the next level.

Success creates arrogance that can be the undoing not just for the individual but also for the team. Emboldened by success of his earlier indiscretion, he hired resources to address the requirement. Unfortunately to get what he needed, there was no way to circumvent IT and thus he approached the CIO who feigned surprise and looked adequately stunned at the request. The IT vendor had apprised him of the purportedly illicit relationship which the CIO did not confront since it was running of its own steam.

The CIO did not throw tantrums neither did he chastise the CMO; his demeanor and approach to the request had the CMO confused on whether the request would be reported to the CEO or discussed in the Management Committee meeting or the CIO will now ask for his pound of flesh or he would just acquiesce to the request. The CMO did know that if he did not get the required data feed, the fairy tale would come to a horrific end which would also mean opening the proverbial can of creepy crawlies.

With benevolence the CIO asked for an all hands meeting with Marketing in which he explained the impact of the CMO’s request. There was a need to understand the elements required, security of data in motion and at rest, ability to maintain the interface while ensuring that exceptions are addressed, and finally data quality. In the manual world, marketing team had increasingly spent time managing some of these issues. The CMO realized the complexity and sensing no animosity with relief agreed to work together.

Cloud based models will entice CXOs to explore uncharted territories as they have low entry barriers and easy pickings to validate use cases. I believe that CIOs should proactively offer assistance to such forays rather than blocking them considering business ownership increases chances of sustained adoption. Conventional mindset would paint this as Shadow IT or a threat to the supremacy of the CIO; I see this as an extended arm of IT which can create win-win propositions for business, IT, and vendors.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Is it even remotely possible to wean off users from spreadsheets ?

The CFO loves it, so does the CEO; CMO is neutral, while HR, Supply Chain, Manufacturing, and Delivery Head/Project Manager in services companies are dependent on it for their functioning. Mid-level managers and junior executives need to be adept in managing it; creators, reviewers, and approvers are happy with it. It’s probably the best and most widely used single technology solution across industries, geographies, level of hierarchy, beginner or expert, the spreadsheet has created a permanent place in our lives.

Business and technology has been enamored by the need to sift through ever increasing volumes of data to find trends to help them understand the past which may create markers for the future. From statistical to complex models and tools, the evolution has been rapid; technology evolution rose to the challenge and offered solutions to manage the volume, complexity, diversity and multiple sources of disparate data. As a result today enterprises can potentially create models that help them scale up and scale out.

Though Business Intelligence had been around for a while, since turn of the millennium BI gained popularity with significant investment by enterprises in a quest to find and sustain competitive edge. Initial euphoria died down with struggles around quality and inadequacy of available data. Enterprise users thus used their expensive tools to create better reports in comparison to transactional systems. BI became Better (Presented) Information for the intelligentsia to present in management meetings.

The intent to leverage external data sources and streams of unstructured data led to technological innovation and models that attempted to make correlations. Consultants and vendors hyped use cases fueling additional spending hoping to catch the invisible wave. Big Data, machine learning, predictive analytics, data visualization, and in-memory kept the confusion alive resulting in users finally gravitating towards the old and comfortable: download the data into spreadsheets and leave the techies alone with their toys.

With the inability of large monolithic enterprise solution providers to provide credible alternatives to mine data, everyone who used any kind of data embraced the spreadsheet as a life saver. Across layers of management, consultants, and even the basic user, rows and columns became the default way to leverage data; addition of graphs, functionality and add-ons ensured that no amount of coaxing and cajoling could separate consumers from their beloved spreadsheets. They were here to stay for good.

Spreadsheets became the poor and rich man’s BI tool as it could connect to all kinds of data sources, it allowed changes, offered flexibility, had a low learning curve, could be adapted to any kind of data. Unable to dislodge the humble tool, vendors big and small provided the ability to extract reports and output into a spreadsheet for final consumption. Ineffective implementations, lack of skills, and failure of IT and vendors to offer simplicity, and resistance to change has unanimously made the spreadsheet the de-facto standard.

Wannabe heroes attempted to change this universal reality only to be politely or brazenly told to back off since alternatives were short on functionality or feature. Idealists who persisted joined the ranks of martyrs or were sent on wild goose chase. Management consultants will point out in their diagnostic reports that enterprises should desist from using spreadsheets since they allow data manipulation and lacks controls; the same consultants shamelessly build models on spreadsheets for critical work functions.

So when a CEO told me he hated spreadsheets, I was taken aback; without waiting for a response, he wistfully hoped that leaders and managers would start using BI tools for consumption of data, trends, analytics, and reviews. His company had invested heavily in a big name much discussed BI/DW technology solution and still continued to get his daily dashboard on a spreadsheet. He sought help to alleviate this situation and become a benchmark like much named global competitor who had case studies from almost every vendor.

He is not alone in this lament, many enterprises have invested and not been able to wean executives off. Is it futile to even attempt this ? What would it take to achieve this presumably utopian goal ? I believe that if people will not get off spreadsheets, BI will have to come to spreadsheets. It has been happening with some of the vendors, others are following; it will remain the primary tool for consuming data, dashboards, and analytics due to its entrenched nature. That is how I consoled the CEO that this is probably a good compromise today.

After all a wise man said “If you can’t beat them, join them”.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Delayed decisions, rushed implementation, the story of our lives

Predicament at every company: a year from the time the project was conceptualized, the deal was concluded. Year-end pushed start of the project by another month. Everyone’s patience had reached a break point; the originally estimated project plan of 8 months was trashed with a view that it needs to be done faster. The business wanted it done in 5, the CIO was willing to push for 7; the vendor knew it will take 8 months realistically; having lost time no one wanted to accept reality thus putting the project to risk.

And that is how they got started on a project that was beginning to lose relevance after the elapsed time since it was identified as a business need. The project team was cobbled together with an eclectic mix and the vendor provided his best team at that time. The compromise plan of 6 months appeared achievable with the fine-tuned steps which required rigor thus far unseen with the team. The CIO and the function head wanted to stay involved but other priorities and fires competed for their attention.

Customers had embraced the new offering of which competitors enjoyed the benefits, being early in the market. Demand was at its peak and the company wanted to regain some of the lost ground and recover loyal customers; so they pressed on with the effort. Like all projects this one did not get off the ground with ease, the baggage of the delay was too large to discard. The first fortnight saw slippage of a day which was deemed recoverable; but by the end of the month it had stretched to three days.

The second monthly steering committee had an uninvited guest who was pleasantly surprised to learn of the progress made; the CEO thus complemented the team for their commitment promising them a brighter future. With redoubled effort everyone applied themselves to the challenge as if it was the ultimate test of their skills and their existence depended on it. Passion hitherto unknown ran through the team with mini celebrations marking crossing of milestones and camaraderie that had the potential to become corporate folklore.

Moving through the project stage gates and two months remaining, the peak appeared to be within grasp; the team did not relax or let their guard down. Their perseverance and togetherness is what management books profess as the secret sauce to team effectiveness. The team was surprised by the random occurrence of the CIO and the business head for an impromptu review and words of encouragement; little did they know the deliberate design between the two to let the team discover their formula for success while they kept a watchful eye.

Finishing touches to the offering is what remained with two weeks to launch, cross checking and verifying results. The tension in the air was palpable, excitement infectious, the team bonding complete in their quest for glory. A couple of members had left traversing the tough terrain unable to take the pressure, few were eased out with their unwillingness to change polluting the team. There was no bitterness for these colleagues, the focus unwavering; other parts of the organization were taking notice of the magic.

Success was declared with one day to spare much to the delight of the team who had forgotten to breathe in their commitment to deliver. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief, congratulatory messages poured in from across the enterprise, the CIO put the team in front to receive the truly deserved accolades. The vendor had never experienced success of this type and was animatedly excited backslapping everyone around. The CEO and the Board commended the commitment and leadership of the two believers.

While decision delays on project initiation are normal, the recovery and delivery on committed time with quality is a rare occurrence. Over the last three decades in corporate life and sports, I have observed consistently winning teams’ exhibit synergistic and symbiotic relationship between team members, accepting diversity and complementary skills. They stay cohesive with invisible leadership thus giving opportunity to each team member to take charge as the situation changes discounting hierarchies and titles.

Have you experienced such magic before ? Share your story …

Monday, February 01, 2016

Companies take inordinately long to take a decision and then set unreasonable timelines for execution

There was a sense of urgency towards getting the system up and running and rightly so considering that competition had already launched; the industry had seen cutthroat tactics to stay ahead of the game as the gap between similar offerings had reduced to barely a few months. It was thus critical for companies to shed their legacy way of working and embrace agility; this was well acknowledged in however some parts of the organization were unable to rise to the occasion thus slowing down the company, putting pressure on IT to deliver to an unreasonable schedule.

Scenarios like this play out across domains and geographies with disruption not just within the incumbent players but also from digital startups who are turning business models upside down. The universality immerses itself until someone breaks out and creates a scurry of activity by others to eliminate the difference and then again uneasy calm prevails with the cycle repeating itself many times over. In a hypercompetitive world that is a way of life, but unpardonable for business as usual decisions.

The CIO was asked to evaluate technologies for a business problem that faced the industry with regulators breathing down their necks. Cost of non-compliance was high and so was the budget for implementing the solution; however it had a clear ROI of less than two years. Since the project was important, rather than handing over responsibility to one of the team members, the CIO decided to work with one of this trusted team members. They got started with vigor and enthusiasm that pleased the business teams.

Global and local vendors reached out to strut their wares, wanting to impress their differentiators and suitability to the proposed opportunity. The specification document was well laid out on intent and requirement leaving little doubt or ambiguity. The evaluation process started with extensive demonstrations, transparency and rigor, with formal and informal customer reference calls. No one could have faulted the process; vendors, business users, most applauded the professional approach to doing business.

Three months later the CIO and his protégé with the business head presented their evaluation to the Management Committee. They were given a timeslot towards the end of the meeting since there were other important matters to discuss (like the next offsite for the senior leadership, the first item on the agenda apart from the usual monthly sales performance). Delay in the proceedings finally gave them 10 minutes which they accepted as the next meeting would mean a delay which they could ill afford.

As they unraveled the solution the CFO caught a number and decided it was too expensive irrespective of the payback period and asked the team to come up with alternatives. The fact that competition had already deployed from among the suggested solutions did not matter. Resigned to the fact that they will have to come back another day, they thanked the audience and left much to the relief of some of the members who wanted to go home; the CFO’s parting shot to the CIO: find open source options.

Time passed quickly, the following month was the offsite and subsequent month was half yearly results meeting. The CIO and business head decided to approach the CEO for assistance and seek approval by meeting individual members of the Committee. The CEO listened and asked them to get approval from the CFO before taking it to others; few weeks later they were in discussion. The CFO reviewed the proposal, understood the rationale and asked them to refine the numbers and put it up in the next meeting.

D-day arrived, the presentation received the usual slot and were welcomed into the Boardroom with tired smiles. They went through the pitch, the proposal given in-principle approval, the financials to be validated by Finance who were also tasked with negotiations. Vendor Account Manager having moved on, the proposal past its due date, the vendor was unwilling to offer the same price leaving the CIO, Business and Finance teams at a roadblock. So they went back to the Committee to plead for additional funds.

Six months later and a year from the time the project was conceptualized, they concluded the deal. Year-end pushed the start of the project by another month. By this time everyone’s patience had stretched to a break point; so the project plan was trashed with a view that it should be done faster than the original estimate of 8 months. The business wanted 5, the CIO was willing to push for 7, the vendor knew it will take 8 months realistically, but no one wanted to accept reality putting the project to risk.

This predicament presents itself in almost every project across companies !

What happened in the end ? Come back next week !