Saturday, January 30, 2010

Don't Spend 80% Of Your Time On 20% Of Your Users

Some people just don't like change. This is especially true when it comes to changes in technology that they use every day to accomplish work tasks that bring their own set of stressors. Folks learn something, fall into a routine and then just want it to stay the same. This is understandable; technology is an enabler to accomplish a goal, not a goal in and of itself. Unfortunately, the only constant with technology is change. New versions of operating systems are released, new mobile platforms, new portal technology and on and on. Vendors drop support of older technologies over time, forcing us as technology leaders to impose change upon our user base. Not all of your users will react to change in the same way and you should therefore not adopt a one size fits all approach to your change management strategy.

Leverage You Champions

Not all of your users will be resistant to change. Just as consumer technologies have a predictable early adopters portion associated with their user adoption curve, so too will your corporate technologies. Some users will be excited about the new features of a technology; some will be excited to be "first" when it comes to something new. Whatever their motives, identify your champions, get the technology in their hands early and most of all, make sure they are happy. Let these folks serve as your sounding board across the organization. Let them go to meetings, present to a group of their peers and show off "cool" new features of your new operating system. Let them sit with their peers in airports, bring up your mobile app and gain access to information their peers don’t have. These are your evangelists, treat them well and let them spread the word.

Take Care of the Masses

The majority of your user base will adopt new technology with only a short period needed to get over the proverbial "hump". Most users won’t be vocal in either direction, positive or negative. It is important to actively generate feedback from the majority to ensure true issues are separated from expected transition grumps. Pay close attention to related tickets in support desk ticketing systems, talk to as many people as you can looking for common themes and clearly document your findings to identify trends. Don’t confuse standard grumping with true wider spread issues. Nearly everyone will be slightly more vocal regarding their dislikes versus their likes. The key is to separate true, constructive feedback from simple "I don’t like this because it is not what I had before" feedback. This leads to the last group of users.

Marginalize the Hold Outs

Some people will not be pleased no matter what. Once you have listened carefully to the majority of your users, addressed the true issues related to your new technology and have started getting wide spread, positive feedback, move on. Don’t let your team spend 80% of their time struggling to please 20% of the people. If you have pleased your early adopters, won the acceptance of your masses and received positive feedback from all levels of your organization, you have succeeded. Again, make sure the few hold outs do not truly have legitimate complaints, have you over looked something specific to their job? Be sure to share your positive feedback in a very public way so as to not let the few remaining complaints become the only remaining voice being heard following a technology change.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Keeping Your Technology Infrastructure "Modern Enough"

How modern does your infrastructure need to be? The high level, seemingly safe answer to this question is that "enough" of any given technology or process has been put in place when that particular solution matches the business need. Finding this utopian point of solution fit is often trickier than it seems. It is critical however that as a technology leader, you think hard about the solutions you propose to the business. You must ensure you are not being whipped around by the latest technology trends being hyped to you by salesmen in blue blazers while at the same time ensuring that under your stewardship your organization is not missing opportunities engendered by emerging technologies. You must balance the opposing pressures of technology staff members who always see the benefit of the latest and greatest tools with the need to meet capital and operational budgets. The balance must be reached in a way that brings tangible benefit to the business. How do you deliver? I have found that staying focused on a few basics with respect to technology evaluations, business acumen and people management go a long way.

First, separate trends from true paradigm shifts. For example, no one would argue that the advent of virtualization technologies has brought about a true paradigm shift in the creation and management of corporate infrastructures. As a technology leader, you have to identify that and understand where your particular organization can benefit. With respect to something as technical as virtualization, it will likely be up to you to help educate the business about the benefits of making the virtual transition. Make sure you understand some the basics of your organizations business model and strategies in order to help guide your proposal and thinking around such paradigm changing technologies as virtualization. Be aware however that as vendors see these fundamental paradigm shifts happening, they will rush in with products to grab market share, not all of which will have staying power. Be cognizant of the vendors long-term plans for any given technology, how it fits into their strategic portfolio, how likely they are to continue to dedicate R&D dollars to the product 5 to 10 years from now.

Second, understand the real ROI potential of any new technology and take the time to analyze how your particular operation will benefit. See my post here for a discussion on calculating ROI and to download a spreadsheet model. Every particular technology operation has its specific set of characteristics that drive its cost structure. Before you recommend upgrading or changing any of them, know where you are and what your benefit will be. Don’t just use high level concepts in presentations to CFO’s such as “it will lower capital expense” or it will make us more flexible”. Dig deep and be specific, you may find there is no real benefit at all!

Third, understand your teams ability to support a new technology architecture on an ongoing basis. Think hard about what the true people cost will be when evaluating your need to move to a more modern technology infrastructure paradigm such as virtualization. Do you have the skill in house now? Do you have folks you can train? Will you need support from vendors on an ongoing basis? Make sure these “soft” considerations don’t get lost in the discussion over ROI with respect to a new technology. Training, retention, and outside support all help add the operational budget squeeze most technology managers feel. Make sure you are not putting your organization at risk with respect to available support resources just in order to introduce a newer technology or process.

Finally, make sure you are not pushing for a technology or process because you or your team “wants" to learn it. For example, many IT leaders see the value in and "want" to implement an ITIL based management process for their IT operations. This desire can easily turn into conversations with CFO's that start out as we "must" implement ITIL. Make sure any given technology or technology management practice fits the needs of your organization, that it truly has the potential to add value. Top notch technology folks crave to learn and use the latest technologies and process, harness that drive and focus it in the right places.

The above points are certainly not exhaustive but taken together they can help you think critically about technology architecture shifts or upgrades. Make sure you have truly thought out your decisions. Be willing to make hard decisions even if they are not the most popular with your team. Most importantly, be prepared to give a well thought out business case with respect to your current technology architecture state and your strategic plans for moving forward.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Digital Distractions

In a recent meeting, I looked around the table and noticed many of the attendees typing on laptops or thumbing through emails on a Smart Phone. The thought crossed my mind wether these people where diligent multi-taskers’ dedicated to productivity or whether they simply had nothing to contribute to the topic at hand. Perhaps the organizer of the meeting had invited them and they had simply came out of either politeness or a sense of obligation due to the organizers rank on the company org chart. Perhaps they really did need to be there and where totally missing critical information about the current topic as they dazed into glowing LCD screens. Regardless, conducting a meaningful meeting with a room full of folks armed with digital distractions can be a daunting task. The easiest way to overcome digital distractions is to simply ban them from the meeting room. No laptops allowed, no checking email on smart phones, all phone ringers set to vibrate. If this is not possible however, here are a few tricks of the trade that may help minimize digital distraction.

Make sure follow-up items don’t become immediate tasks

When access is immediate though laptops, it becomes easy to let items tagged for follow-up become immediate action items. For example, someone may be assigned a task of sending someone else a copy of a system configuration as a follow up item. The assigned team member immediately jumps on and starts trying to grab the configuration. Problems occur when a small issue arises getting the configuration, the team member whispers to a colleague sitting next to him and they both start working on the issue. Before you know it, you have two separate streams of work and thought going on. Explicitly state which items are follow-up items and inform attendees not to work on these items now while the meeting is still focusing on the task at hand.

Let someone else "drive"

It is common for work to get done during meetings with one person projecting up a spreadsheet, word document or Visio diagram, filling in content with the input of meeting attendees. It is also common for the organizer or the most senior person at the meeting to "drive" the work by being the one projecting up the document and typing in the content. I have found it useful to let someone drive during working sessions. You will often know who the folks are most likely to be distracted by working on side items during meetings, let them drive. By having your most easily digitally distracted team members project heir desktops on the screen while work is getting done you can help them and the meeting stay on task.

Call people out

I often get to the end of a meeting or even a section of the meeting, turn to the person who I have noticed working on other tasks during the meeting and ask them to summarize for the group what we have just covered. This is not meant to embarrass anyone and I never push it if the person obviously does not have an answer. It is an effective tool if used consistently as team members will come to expect this and will be more likely to at least home in enough on the current discussion to be able to articulate the current tasks in a short summary.

Have an agenda and roll for everyone

This point is more of a general meeting principal than it is a way to overcome digital distractions. You will find though that if you follow this consistently, people will likely start to see your meetings (and even the fact that you are calling a meeting) as more relevant. Know who really needs to be there and only invite people who will play an active role in the task the meeting is meant to accomplish. Be clear at the start of the meeting why everyone is there, what you want from everyone during the meeting and what the end goal for the meeting is. Foster cooperation and interaction to keep people from falling into a digital distraction.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

New Year’s Resolutions of a Technology Director

As we enter into 2010, my mind is pulled in two seemingly disparate yet interrelated directions. After all the project planning, goal setting for staff members and financial budgeting in preparation for 2010, it is time to focus on two guiding principles: Staying Above the Frey and Sweating the Small Stuff.

Staying Above the Frey

Anyone in an IT leadership position knows how easy it is to get caught up in the plethora of daily issues confronting a typical technology department. There is never a shortage of small tweaks that need to be made, patches that need to applied, configurations that could be better, infrastructure upgrades that need to made etc... Each of these things is of critical concern to someone. It is very easy to find yourself engaged in never ending meetings arranged to address small fires. These types of issues are important and no doubt contribute to the overall stability of your operation. They also represent the types of issues for which you as a leader should hold your people accountable and insist on execution without your immediate involvement. Continuously jumping into daily operations is a huge distracter from your ability to set the broader course of technology operations. As a leader, focus on the overall program of projects your different teams are involved in. Just like the Director of a symphony, ensure that each team is working separately yet towards a common goal that you have defined. Make sure your team understands the overall vision for your organizations technology operations, give them the tools, training and support they need to execute and stay out of the way. Keep an ear to the ground and an eye to the sky making sure the teams are not straying from the goal, that energy is being spent in the correct areas and that progress is being made. Be flexible in your vision, making sure that you understand your organizations business objectives and adjust course when necessary. All sounds great in theory, just like the resolution to lose 50 pounds by summer. Sticking with it on a daily basis when temptations arise is harder than it seems.

Sweat the Small Stuff

A more accurate depiction of this goal is probably sweating the correct small stuff. Toping this list is focusing on customer service and support levels with respect to technology operations. The perceptions of users will drive our realities in technology operations. Pursue a relentless commitment to customer service. Take every opportunity to help an end user that you can get, listen to them, talk to them, and embrace their criticisms. Conversations your end users have regarding their satisfaction with your organizations technology operations can serve as your canary in the coal mine. Make every effort to stay in tune with the general feeling of your user base. Try as much as possible to interact with end users and help them through their day. Going the extra mile and doing the small things for the users will buy you much, much more than it costs so invest heavily.