The Organizational Strategist

March 28, 2013

Mobilizing a data driven organization: Big Data and you


-Introduction-

Big data is a newer, exciting topic. It can mean so many things as it is data driven and that data can come from so many sources. A volume of information is captured all of the time via smartphones, traffic sensors, retail checkouts, and more. In my experience discussing and dealing with it, it can be overwhelming and downright unproductive without focus and alignment.  With focus, it can lead to a lot of targeted benefits.  With alignment to that focus, your org can take effective action.

-What can I do with ‘big data’?-

Big data comes down to a lot of complicated and even complex information mining. You might be able to discover which areas in the city have the worst stop signs (by analyzing police and insurance claims), where candy bars should be placed in relation to where and what different children’s toys are sold, or predictive and forecasting fleet tire maintenance. There are numerous possible information points that you can learn about, but it all depends on the data you’re gathering. The more that you have available, which can be traced, linked, analyzed, and then rationalized the more you have to work on. Of course, you need to know what you are seeking to learn and act on first (decrease cost, improve quality, share brand recognition, streamline operations, etc.).

-How to prepare your organization for immediate action-

First and foremost, it is very important to have curious people lead the data diving and hypothesizing. Big data involves a lot of critical thinking and hypothesizing to uncover the gold mine of information. To do that one needs to pull together strategic needs and desires (cost savings, higher sales, brand turnaround, etc.). For implementation of a big data initiative a staged process can be followed:

Stage 1 – Build pilots to prove the key concepts and potential within your organization.

Choose the hottest topics with the best (most comprehensive, highest quality/consistency, most thorough, etc.) data and that have people itching to learn more. Some of those topics might be around:

  • Specific geographic trends
  • Customer behaviors
  • Product line(s)
  • Service line(s)

As the data is pulled together and analyzed, document the process and procedure for future uses. Take an inventory of all the actionable areas that are discovered. Here you should be able to see the array of possibilities and potential. Brainstorm what will be the most effective initial (quick wins) and longer term (strategic) areas to act upon. Then measure the relevant baseline(s) to gauge how things are currently doing (product/service cost, timing, throughput, efficiency, customer quality/satisfaction, maturity level, etc.) so that as actions are taken, they can be evaluated properly. Move ahead and take selected action(s) based off of the prioritized inventory. This is where it gets the most exciting as you see that after the actions are fulfilled, you can measure improvements by comparing to the baseline.

Stage 2 – Expand and scale the operation.

After the initial results are back, you can make case studies and other results publicly known to inspire others and cascade the change momentum. This is important for helping ensure the case for changing how work is done and fueling the big data initiatives. Use lessons learned, process tips/flow, team structure, etc. from pilots to expand into other areas that can benefit from usage of big data. Spread and enact the big data coverage to any/all areas that make sense. The scaling up and out should be a gradual pace, not all at once, to ensure that the growth in the function is sustainable and practical. It may be that the data diving is very helpful all the time in some organizations and only periodically in others. A shared service of business intelligence operatives may be a helpful set up in an organization.

Stage 3 – Mature and operationalize the change.

As an organization embraces and utilizes big data initiatives it can make sense to have big data teams pulled into a greater program and/or PMO for governance, quality approaches, best practices, proper mobilization, templates, and so on. With repeatable approaches and optimization, the big data initiatives will become more and more successful. Start standardizing on the common areas while allowing flexibility for the unique approaches (some groups will need to make their own way as the normal approach of gathering/measuring data could be radically different). Build the data-driven and inspired change into common culture. Experimenting, testing, and learning should become standard.

-Summary-

Big data is a sophisticated approach to business and technical analysis. It involves more complicated technical approaches and vastly larger data to draw upon. As the appropriate skill sets are pulled together, an organization starts finding new and exciting ways of gaining significantly better insights about their market environment, customers, and other important information. To truly get the best of these information gathering sources, an organization needs to take the risk of trying it out and becoming comfortable with ongoing information that fuels changed and improved approaches. The more an organization can learn and take in, the better its efforts will become.

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August 13, 2012

An approach to maintaining strategic course over time – strategic divestment


-Introduction-

Businesses grow, markets mature, corporate directions change, product/service portfolio evolves, or other broad ranging factors change rapidly or over time.  Encompassing changes like these can have cascading effects and influences in how a business should approach, compete, and operate in their surrounding market environments.  During times like that, it is vitally important to keep up with the market space updates by adding new products, services, partnerships, or other offerings to stay relevant.  What is sometimes overlooked is that as a business moves forward, there can be products, services, customers, operational processes and other ways of doing business may be obsolete or no longer as helpful.

Updating your corporate strategy to streamline operations, profitability, effectiveness, strategic return on investment, product/service mix, and other factors in your approach can make your organization thrive.  The results of these updates can mean altering course, adding new pursuits, or even removing previously undertaken initiatives.  The removal of previous initiatives whether they are projects, services lines, products, acquired companies, etc. is called strategic divestment.

-Optimizing Current and Future Strategy-

Taking on these practices emerges from analysis of your planned future strategy and current strategy to how the resources and capabilities are performing.  It may be that certain customers, even if they are sizeable in nature, require far more attention and input for their size, than other customers.  Having a smaller set of higher quality (increased return/profitability, brand recognition, long term potential, etc.) customers can be the best bet.  It is not always the case that simply having high volume means high profitability.  By having fewer customers that bring increased profitability with less customer attention, which can free up the time needed to work on strategic projects or finding new customers that are also highly profitable.

It can be difficult to move forward with strategic divestment initiatives.  The previous investment of money, time, resources, and energy can make one reticent to move on. It is important to think rationally and to know when the efforts of the past are truly sunk costs.  However, the long term thinking and understanding of the costs (not just money) versus the revenue potential can make those choices clearer and easier to make.

The act of divesting can take many formats as well.  It may be a simple discontinuation of an ongoing program.  It could be selling off a product or set of patents.  Another example might be spinning off a division as a new company.  In this last case, severing or loosening the ties to the organization can make it more effective in the long run.  As was written in earlier articles, innovative new ideas need room to take shape.  A company may want to set up a particular division as a separate entity entirely to allow it to decide on the unique approach, organize, and implement with an approach which would be inhibited (oppressive culture, not moving fast enough, hesitant to take risks, etc.) by being a part of the greater company.

-Moving Forward-

The decision to take on a strategic divestment, as already mentioned, can be tough to work through.  It can also be very challenging to enact.  If you were to tell a long term customer that you’ve opted to longer work with them, which will probably be a shock.  It is important to foresee these challenges and plan your tactics.  Think about the most graceful way to deliver these actions.  It can be important to honor the arrangement (say to the close of a contract), remember and celebrate the progress made, and work to find the best time to move along and help support the transition.  Supporting the transition may mean sending a customer to one or your partner organizations, setting up the child organization (in the case of having the parent company intentionally separate the organizational boundaries), or aligning other helpful services to coordinate the transition.  That type of support can go a long way to continuing the goodwill derived from a company’s engagement and style.  Know that the tough short term decisions may be the right ones for the long term health of a company.

March 14, 2012

Strategy eats culture for breakfast, lunch, and dinner


-Introduction-

I have often heard the saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.  I flat out disagree with that statement as it assumes strategy has a very limited view and definition.  When I hear that I immediately think that whoever says that has strategy poorly defined.

-Strategy and Culture-

Strategy, as I described it in an earlier article, is the alignment of resources and capabilities to win in the market.  The more important and bigger the strategy in a company means that this encompasses more and more of the resources and capabilities.  Strategy, by its very nature, is meant to encompass as much as possible about the company and particularly all of the factors that influence, empower, and enact it.

Culture is a much discussed organizational topic.  As I see it, all other facets of organization design speak to the intended structure (people alignment, reporting, function), workflow (horizontal, vertical, lateral connections), reinforcement (valuation/benefits, metrics/tracking), and people/policy (who actually fits into the structure, talent management, rules).  Culture is the glue that binds the organizational makeup together because it consists of the behavior, demeanor, and style that the individuals and groups exhibit.  Culture is all about the people and how they work together to enable or disable the organization’s intents.  That then means strategy should include culture in its definition because that speaks to the org’s resources (the people themselves as the most important piece) and capability (how effectively the intentions are carried out).

The Fast Company article of Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch left me wanting to read more as it did not speak to the conflict or overlap that strategy and culture can have.   The article speaks about many of the benefits of culture, but falls short on the linkage of culture to strategy.  When strategy does not take into account the enabling or perhaps disabling elements of culture, then the strategy either does not build on a key strength (where culture enables) or mitigate a primary challenge (where culture disables).   Strategy should always account for culture to help ensure the strategy’s success.  The bigger the change the strategy aims to create, the more impactful culture can be in regards to the adoption of the change, the impact the strategy has on the intangibles (brand, communication, values, etc.), and the overall success because most everything about strategy hinges on people.

-Summary-

Strategy in its definition, planning, and implementation is meant to be encompassing to create a holistic approach.  This means culture should always be a consideration.  When you cook your meals, you want to have all the right ingredients in place.  Without the proper ingredients, your whole meal can be less than desirable if not cause havoc in the kitchen. If you forget an ingredient, disaster can strike in all sorts of ways.  If my own culinary adventures are any indication, Strategy needs to include and address culture whenever culture is an ingredient in the mix.  Where and how have you seen an organizational culture enable strategy’s success?

-Links-

My early strategy article: http://blog.seattlepi.com/organizationalstrategist/2009/10/17/market-leadership-requires-enduring-strategy/

Fast Company article: http://www.fastcompany.com/1810674/culture-eats-strategy-for-lunch

June 29, 2011

Establish your foundational tool set to seed success


Earlier this year I was reading the book Change Making by Richard Bevan and I got to thinking about how it is important to have “tools” ready ahead of time for your work.  Much like a blacksmith has an anvil, a forge, sets of tongs, and other items that are needed for the craft, a strategist should have important materials on hand.  In the corporate world, these often take the form of templates and process documents for repeated use.  In more thought based scenarios conceptual frameworks can be generated to allow for the needed customization of each objective. 

There is some foundational infrastructure and planning that an organization must do to have at the ready.  These are areas in which having a plan can really benefit or secure an organization’s efforts for the long term.  As a short sample, here are tools an organization needs before their intended use:

–          Marketing materials, specifically company branding

  • All office documents (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Project, etc.)
  • Letterhead for formal communications
  • Website
  • Other branding documents (ex: hand-outs, product/service pamphlets)

–          Legal documentation

  • Purchase Orders/Invoices
  • Accounting/HR materials
  • Personnel  materials
  • Company agreements and deals

–          Thought leadership

  • Organizational mission, vision, strategy, and objectives
  • Trademarks, patents and other proprietary idea information
  • Product and service delivery plans

In addition to the special purpose materials above, there are many efforts that can be built in such a way that they can create operational efficiency gains later on.  Here is a sample, and definitely non-exhaustive, list of reusable tools that can be created and later repurposed:

–          Structured meeting notes (it helps to have a guide and flow to record discussions)

–          Project Communications

  • Kick-off announcement
  • Progress update
  • Feedback request
  • Request for action
  • Go-live announcement
  • Close out announcement

–          Deliverables

  • Visually appealing or structured slides
  • Reports (assessments, progress, recommended actions, etc.)
  • Approach summaries
  • Designs
  • Processes
  • Requirements/Objectives
  • QA/Test/Audit materials
  • Question sets (surveys, focus groups, interviews, etc.)
  • Workshop and offsite materials (timing, structure, ground rules, agenda, etc.)

The challenge is to find the right thresholds in standardizing and formalizing.  If too much policy is dictated or documentation is required, it can become burdensome and counterproductive.  The higher security or sensitivity that needs to be incorporated, the more thought needs to be put into its preparation.  As services are delivered, the iterative improvement process can lead to fantastic results. Often times, the guiding principle is to create a foundational process and have best practices brought in, but not mandated, to allow for ingenuity and innovation. 

Is your organization equipped with the right tools for success?

February 22, 2010

Unlocking Hidden Potential through Positive Deviants


-Introduction-

In any organization, there will be top performers, exemplary people, and outliers from the norm of the workplace. Those people have experienced the extraordinary in some fashion and the better ones will be able to repeat or recreate their great efforts over time. One can identify them because they are the ones that receive awards, get recognition, obtain big promotions and raises, succeed where others fail, get placed in the high profile and visible projects and more. They are the rock stars of an organization. These are the positive deviants. They are set apart from the flock because of their efforts, which makes them a deviant. Their excellent results are the positive aspect.

-Background of Positive Deviance-

My experience with searching for positive deviants came from my studies and application of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as taught by David Cooperrider and Ron Fry while in my later years at Weatherhead School of Management. When taken as a part of an AI interview and allowing for interviewees to engage in their own stories, positive deviants or examples of their actions can be a very powerful and moving start to a change initiative. When the AI interview questionnaire is well worded to allow for variety, diversity, and imagination, interviewees share their stories of positive deviance with pleasure and fond remembrance. Eyes light up, energy flows from the story teller, and everyone gets engaged in the moment. It’s a marvel to witness and leaves a lasting impression on everyone.

The more diverse and encompassing the positive deviant search is, the higher the likelihood that fantastic ideas, actions, and results will emerge. Any time where an experience or approach may be different, a positive deviant search could take place. If there is a rigid structure that must be followed with no divergence, then there will be no deviants, positive or otherwise, available. The tightly scripted internationally routed computer tech support calls, where the tech support person knows no more vocabulary than the script itself, comes to mind. That is a situation where positive deviants would be difficult to find. The environment where positive deviants will blossom the most would be one that is diverse, learning, experimenting and evolving. For example, business development professionals that make sales calls seem like an art form of intricately dancing wordplay, skillful topic navigation, and provocative offers would be a highly promising area to look for positive deviants.

-Tapping into the Latent Positive Deviance-

Surfacing the stories and examples of positive deviance is the core element of improving an organization or initiative. Here are some simplified steps to take to realize the value of positive deviance.

  1. Set the topic, context, direction or strategy that frames the environment where some may have demonstrated positive deviance
  2. Inquire about examples where the extraordinary happened in as many areas as possible
  3. Capture the story, knowledge, ideas, and more from these positive deviant examples
  4. Combine the captured information by theme
  5. Make the information actionable to individuals, teams, and organizations

There are many, many ways that learning can take place from positive deviants. Here are some opportunities that immediately come to mind:

  • Personal and professional development
  • Business process improvement
  • Training material expansion
  • Informational interview arrangements
  • Product/Service innovation
  • Career advice and insight
  • Cross-functional or team collaboration
  • Efficiency or effectiveness acceleration

-Conclusion-

Everyone has their brilliant moments. Some people, groups, or organizations have more moments than others. Unearthing and surfacing those moments of greatness and making more of them happen can be achieved through cultivation from positive deviants. Recognizing the sound of opportunity knocking is the first part, but taking the chance to engage in that opportunity leading to new adventures is a decision everyone must make. Who wouldn’t want to learn from those who have had astonishing adventures?

February 3, 2010

Harnessing your Organization’s Innovation Potential via JAM Sessions


-Introduction-

Generating ideas, making the most of the energy, intelligence and wisdom of an organization is often a topic that executives and leaders ponder. Who wouldn’t desire to get the most productivity out of their employee’s time? There are many activities that can help to achieve this, but they are often costly and/or take a lot of time away from the everyday demands of working life. What you may want to consider is holding what IBM has called a JAM session, which is also known as a flash forum. JAM sessions are also known as fly-ins or flash forums. I’ll use the terms interchangeably because they generally refer to the same type of action.

-Defining Fly-ins-

JAM sessions are high impact, short term, and intensive mass collaboration efforts done via virtual forums. Within these interactions members access the online forums wherever they may be to contribute ideas, add to the discussion of other ideas, and evaluate the quality of the created ideas. The participants can contribute at their own leisure during the day since forums allow for asynchronous updates. Usually these events last only a few days, but they are accessible 24 hours each day. That allows for global involvement and allows for contributions to be made at the participant’s convenience.

-Flash Forum Benefits-

The results of these events give energy, ideas, and increase networking in an organization at a fraction of the cost when comparing to the traditional in-person multi-day events. Such events are an opportunity for open innovation. For instance, it might play out that Susan in accounting introduces her new product idea in a forum that Claire in engineering helps imagine and then designs. With peer involvement and social navigation ratings (think digg.com or vendor reviews at Amazon), it becomes clear where the energy in an organization lies and how feasible an idea could be for implementation. These events conclude with loads of ideas, a more refreshed workforce from having done something different, and idea champions that could become future leaders in the organization.

-Making a JAM Session Successful-

There are many factors to making a large scale event possible and effective over time. I’ve listed suggestions that should help aid the planning, application, and follow through of the event.

Setting up the activity:

  • Direct the outputs to achieve particular aims that align with the organizational strategy
  • Bring in diverse stakeholder input to ensure representation and perspective sharing
  • Have a solid technological forum infrastructure to support the event needs such as:
    • high volume load capacity to allow for maximum involvement
    • ease of use (particularly in the readability areas of idea conversations)
    • information security (if needed)
    • objective peer rating and overall ranking

Implementing the activity:

  • Share and champion each other’s ideas
  • Create real dialogue to imagine implementation, predict ROI, and understand what resources or capabilities need to be aligned
  • Utilize respectful, professional behavior while contributing
  • Encourage and allocate time to allow employee contribution while the event is live

Following through the activity:

  • Recognize, celebrate and reward the good ideas, involvement, and contribution
  • Provide support from key decision makers to give sponsorship funding, empower the idea champions, and clear obstacles or hindrances to the projects
  • Make efforts to sustain the momentum, networking, and progress made from idea champions

-Conclusion-

The potential benefits from putting on a flash forum are tremendous. Employees get a chance to try out their ideas, exhibit their energy and organizational wisdom, and realize leadership potential through the championship of ideas. The management and executives can cultivate wide scale innovation, networking, and collaboration easily, effectively and at a significantly lower cost than traditional alternatives. The setup and execution of such events will only get easier and cheaper over time too! I hope that flash forums accomplish much for anyone who implements one.

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