Danger, Will Robinson, Danger

One thing that bemused the hell out of me – as a Software guy visiting prospective PC dealers in 1983 – was our account manager for the North UK. On arrival at a new prospective reseller, he would take a tape measure out, and measure the distance between the nearest Directors Car Parking Slot, and their front door. He’d then repeat the exercise for the nearest Visitors Car Parking Spot and the front door. And then walk in for the meeting to discuss their application to resell our range of Personal Computers.

If the Directors slot was closer to the door than the Visitor slot, the meeting was a very short one. The positioning betrayed the senior managements attitude to customers, which in countless cases I saw in other regions (eventually) to translate to that Company’s success (or otherwise). A brilliant and simple leading indicator.

One of the other red flags when companies became successful was when their own HQ building became ostentatious. I always wonder if the leaders can manage to retain their focus on their customers at the same time as building these things. Like Apple in a magazine today:

Apple HQ

And then Salesforce, with the now tallest building in San Francisco:

Salesforce Tower

I do sincerely hope the focus on customers remains in place, and that none of the customers are adversely upset with where each company is channeling it’s profits. I also remember a Telco Equipment salesperson turning up at his largest customer in his new Ferrari, and their reaction of disgust that unhinged their long term relationship; he should have left it at home and driven in using something more routine.

Modesty and Frugality are usually a better leading indicator of delivering good value to folks buying from you. As are all the little things that demonstrate that the success of the customer is your primary motivation.

Starting with the end in mind: IT Management Heat vs Light

A very good place to startOne source of constant bemusement to me is the habit of intelligent people to pee in the industry market research bathwater, and then to pay handsomely to drink a hybrid mix of the result collected across their peers.

Perhaps betrayed by an early experience of one research company coming in to present to the management of the vendor I was working at, and finding in the rehearsal their conjecture that sales of specific machine sizes had badly dipped in the preceding quarter. Except they hadn’t; we’d had the biggest growth in sales of the highlighted machines in our history in that timeframe. When I mentioned my concern, the appropriate slides were corrected in short order, and no doubt the receiving audience impressed with the skill in their analysis that built a forecast starting with an amazingly accurate, perceptive (and otherwise publicly unreported) recent history.

I’ve been doubly nervous ever since – always relating back to the old “Deep Throat” hints given in “All the Presidents Men” – that of, in every case, “to follow the money”.

Earlier today, I was having some banter on one of the boards of “The Motley Fool” which referenced the ways certain institutions were imposing measures on staff – well away from a useful business use that positively supported better results for their customers. Well, except of providing sound bites to politicians. I can sense that in Education, in some elements of Health provision, and rather fundamentally in the Police service. I’ve even done a drains-up some time ago that reflected on the way UK Police are measured, and tried trace the rationale back to source – which was a senior politician imploring them to reduce crime; blog post here. The subtlety of this was rather lost; the only control placed in their hands was that of compiling the associated statistics, and to make their behaviours on the ground align supporting that data collection, rather than going back to core principles of why they were there, and what their customers wanted of them.

Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) has the right idea; everything they do aligns with the ultimate end customer, and everything else works back from there. Competition is something to be conscious of, but only to the extent of understanding how you can serve your own customers better. Something that’s also the central model that W. Edwards Deming used to help transform Japanese Industry, and in being disciplined to methodically improve “the system” without unnecessary distractions. Distractions which are extremely apparent to anyone who’s been subjected to his “Red Beads” experiment. But the central task is always “To start with the end in mind”.

With that, I saw a post by Simon Wardley today where Gartner released the results of a survey on “Top 10 Challenges for I&O Leaders”, which I guess is some analogue of what used to be referred to as “CIOs”. Most of which felt to me like a herd mentality – and divorced from the sort of issues i’d have expected to be present. In fact a complete reenactment of this sort of dialogue Simon had mentioned before.

Simon then cited the first 5 things he thought they should be focussed on (around Corrective Action), leaving the remainder “Positive Action” points to be mapped based on that appeared upon that foundation. This in the assumption that those actions would likely be unique to each organisation performing the initial framing exercise.

Simon’s excellent blog post is: My list vs Gartner, shortly followed by On Capabilities. I think it’s a great read. My only regret is that, while I understand his model (I think!), i’ve not had to work on the final piece between his final strategic map (for any business i’m active in) and articulating a pithy & prioritised list of actions based on the diagram created. And I wish he’d get the bandwidth to turn his Wardley Maps into a Book.

Until then, I recommend his Bits & Pieces Blog; it’s a quality read that deserves good prominence on every IT Manager’s (and IT vendors!) RSS feed.

Urgency, Importance and the Eisenhower Box

Eisenhower Box - Urgent, Important, non-urgent, non-important

I’ve seen variations of this matrix many times, though the most extensive use witnesses was by Adrian Joseph just after he joined Trafficmaster. The real theory is that nothing should be in the urgent and important square; it’s normally a symptom of bad planning or a major unexpected (but key) surprise.

When I think back to things i’ve done that have triggered major revenue and profit spectaculars, almost all fit in the important but not urgent box; instead, the pressure to move quickly was self inflicted, based on a clarity of purpose and intensive focus to do something that made a big difference to customers. The three major ones were:

  1. Generating 36 pages of text of ideas on how to increase software sales through Digital’s Industrial Distribution Division, then the smallest software Sales “Region” at £700K/year. Having been told to go implement, I never made it past the first 3 ideas, but relentlessly executed them. It became the biggest region two years later at £6m/year.
  2. Justifying and getting funding to do the DECdirect Software Catalogue. The teams around me were fantastic, giving me bandwidth to lock myself away for long periods of absence for nearly three months to work the structure and content of the work with Bruce Stidston and his team at USP Advertising plc. That business went 0-$100m in 18 months at margins that never dipped below 89% margin.
  3. Getting the Microsoft Distribution Business at Metrologie from £1m/month to £5m/month in 4 months, in a price war, and yet doubling margins at the same time. A lot of focus on the three core needs that customers were expressing, and then relentlessly delivering against them.

The only one I recall getting into the Urgent/Important segment was a bid document for a sizable supply contract that HMSO (Her Majesty’s Stationery Office), where I was asked to provide a supplementary chapter covering Digitals’ Servers, Storage, Comms and Software products. This to be added to a comprehensive document produced by the account manager covering all the other product areas for the company. I’d duly done this in the format originally requested by her, but asked to see the rest of the document to make sure everything was covered – and that we’d left no gaps between the main document and my own – with two days to go. At which point she said she’d had no time, and had decided to no-bid the work (without telling any of us!).

The sales team really needed the revenue, so they agreed to let me disappear home for two days to build the full proposal around the work i’d done, including commercial terms, marketing plan and a summary of all the sales processes needed to execute the relationship – but just for the vendor we were accountable for. We got the document to Norwich with 30 minutes to spare. Two weeks later, we were told we’d won the business for the vendor we represented.

The lesson was to put more progress checks in as the project was unfolding, and to ensure we never got left in that position again, independent of how busy we were with other things at the same time.

With that, i’ve never really hit the urgent/important corner again – which I think is a good thing. Plenty that is important though – but forcing adherence to what Toyota term “takt time” to measure progress, and to push ourselves along.