Facilitation – Some Guidelines
Copyright Alistair Davidson, 2016. All rights reserved.
Companies and their management teams tend to operate on inertia. They tend to do more of what they have done in the past, independent of whether the market has changed or the results now are very different. In technology projects, decisions about tools are particularly difficult – projects may be legacy, open source, or occur in a rapidly changing supplier market. In some cases, they continue with projects that any reasonable person would have shut down. And in some bizarre cases, companies simultaneously pursue projects that are both consistent and inconsistent with the companies’ goals and objectives.
Companies therefore, can benefit from a review of their projects and outcomes. But because individual managers may feel attachment to projects – they may feel that criticizing their own project benefits an internal colleague – it’s very hard to obtain an objective view of the resources, progress and outcomes of a project. An outside neutral facilitator can surface the actual results being obtained faster than someone with vested interest in the project.
Much of facilitation’s benefit comes from quickly deciding not to do something, terminating an unsuccessful project or transferring resources from a less successful project to a more successful project. Ruthless pruning of project portfolios and strategic initiatives requires some framing of the project to avoid over investment in “more of the same” projects. In most companies, the portfolio of initiatives falls into four categories:
- Regulatory demands – in this situation, the company has little choice about fulfilling the regulatory requirement.
- Strategically critical investments – while every project has the potential of being critical, the key management decision is to identify the critical decisions that will influence the future of the company.
- Nice to have investments – such projects tend to be optional unless the company is highly profitable or has deep pockets.
- Experiments – doing experiments is a critical part of innovation. In the early days of the Internet, the ROI of a web site was not clear. But not investing in learning about the Internet could set back the competitive position of a company. One only has to consider Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble to illustrate this phenomenon.
Each of these four buckets needs to be evaluated separately from the overall portfolio.
Just as importantly, a multi-unit business can mess up its project and strategic portfolio by applying similar selection criteria to small emerging businesses as are being applied to large, well thought businesses. In many cases, a project or strategy that is critical to a smaller business unit, may appear lost in consideration of the strategies of a larger business.
Facilitation and Strategic Management – the Role of Agile
Over the past 30 years, strategic management — or the idea that those responsible for developing a strategy or project should be responsible for executing the strategy or project – has become popular. A key assumption behind strategic management and agile management is being economical in spending. If you can postpone decisions, you should. The focus should be on developing the minimal viable project or product that allows a company to test its assumptions. There is no easier way of increasing developer productivity or the success of a product than not developing features unwanted by users or customers. Just as importantly testing projects and products on users/customers often reveals issue previously unaddressed. In fact, an agile approach to portfolio analysis assumes that tight and frequent interaction with customers will increase the value of a project/product.
Outsourced projects are often sold on lower costs, but impact of employee turnover is often significantly underestimated.
Enlisting the energy, knowledge and enthusiasm of developers is, as a result, a key task. After onboarding, two approaches are likely to be effective. First, facilitated planning sessions may educate and influence employee attitudes and behavior. Second, disciplined agile processes such as Scrum can shorten the development cycle, avoid developers pursuing low pay-off activities and provide faster learning for both the organization and its individuals.
With outsourcing, the most important decision is to avoid reinventing the wheel in a more modern technology. With today’s technology choices, a project must consider outsourcing development not just to less expensive developers, but also to already developed technology . Decisions about linking in delivered software, services, platform, etc. can significantly reduce costs and speed up development. And just as importantly, development now includes taking advantage of already developed software libraries.
But such decision while strategic in a technology sense can often be tactical in a business sense. With massive competition, companies often must change their delivery approach, turn to a more outside-in (less siloed) perspective on prioritizing development and in some cases alter their business model. Such decisions need senior input and can benefit from an outside facilitator.
Architecture is one of the key decisions in setting up a business and in designing software. Often those responsible for architecture hold different assumptions about their level of analysis. For example, database storage is today a complex area. The traditional dominance of SQL-oriented servers does not work as well for the myriad information collected on customers at web sites. Issues such as latency (in-memory databases), different representations (e.g. network databases such as Neo4j) and parallel processing (Hadoop) all represent important choices for storage.
Organizationally, dividing up teams into smaller chunks makes non-performers less obvious. It also can empower team members. In larger projects, managing development or strategies across multiple teams or units, requires active management. Coordination does not happen by accident.
The Facilitation Process
Facilitation can be done blind, but it generally benefits from pre-work. Investigation prior to the even makes it more likely that buy-in from customer will occur.
For most companies, the first and most important discussion revolves around values. If the team can agree on what their company stands for, then subsequent decisions are easy to make.
Outside-in: because of the increasing importance of digital interactions, many companies find that assessing their interactions with customers, suppliers and even employees is a critical task. The challenge is to act on behalf customers and avoid using the Internet to generate annoying fees, revenues or slow down interactions.
Stakeholder analysis forces management teams to identify where they are over or underinvesting in activities or projects. It’s very common for companies to discover that they are misallocating their resources to low impact customers, processes and products.
Timing: issues such as critical success factors, the path of risk assessment, and delivery dates are all important. But the real issue is to have employees commit to the project or new strategy.
For more information on facilitation services from Alistair Davidson, please email at [email protected] or call at +1-650-868-5588.