About Alan Baker

Posts by Alan Baker:

If a data breach occurs, what’s the important first step?

If a data breach occurs, what’s the important first step?

Digital Guardian, a vendor of information technology security solutions, recently invited me, as well as 29 other IT Security practitioners to comment on a security topic (made all the more relevant by the recent media coverage of several significant  data security issues). The topic was: “What’s the most important next step you should take following a data breach?”

Here’s what I wrote.

Following a data breach, there’s really only two options:

You either implement your data breach response plan, or you resign, because if you don’t have a predefined plan you are doomed.

Implementing a data breach response plan can be a significant (and expensive) undertaking. It’s complex; it is absolutely not something that can be done by the seat of your pants.

What does a data breach response plan look like? Actually, to call it a plan is probably a misnomer; it’s really more of a template that allows you to quickly develop a customized response plan that is based on the specifics of the actual breach. The key to crafting this plan is to have a cross-functional team defined and ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. In addition to a team lead, it should include representatives from the organization’s executive, IT, Legal, Risk, Privacy, PR/Marketing and Customer Service, as well as any third parties that may be required. And they need to be trained; to maximize their effectiveness they should have had the necessary education and training, and a number of dry runs through a series of different scenarios. (Don’t let the response to an actual breach be the first time that the plan has been executed.)

It’s important to remember that this is really an exercise in crisis management. Studies show that organizations can avoid longer term impact as long as the perception held by their customers (and shareholders) was that the issue was properly managed. Handle the crisis poorly and the recovery will likely take longer (or not happen at all).

One more thing to remember. The data breach response plan is a living document. As individuals change roles and as the organization evolves (mergers, acquisitions, divestitures etc.) the plan needs to change as well.

Care to see the other 29 opinions? There’s many that I agree with completely (and to tell the truth, a few that I think are a bit offside). You can find them on the Digital Guardians blog.

photo credit: Amarand Agasi via photopin cc

A Need to Remember

A Need to Remember

I wrote this piece several years ago; I hadn’t thought about it for some time, but the recent loss of two Canadian soldiers in Ottawa and in Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu changed that.

Today is Remembrance Day.  The eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month.  Please take two short minutes out of your day to remember and to offer a silent thank you to all who were willing to take up arms in the service of Canada.


It’s low tide, and I have trekked out about 200 metres from the shore. It’s about as far as I can go without getting wet, and as I have no desire to make the drive back to Paris with some of the English Channel sloshing around in my shoes, I decide to stop where I am and take a moment to survey the surroundings.

A bright sun is shining down on Normandy today; there is a cool breeze, but you can see the heat shimmering off the sand dunes that line the shore. The air carries with it the tang of the sea, and I stand quietly, knowing full well that I am on sacred ground, and at the same time not quite sure of my worthiness to be here. I have waited years to come to this place, and despite my efforts at stoicism I feel the waves of emotion and history crash over me.

I am standing on Juno Beach.

For reasons that I don’t completely understand, I have always felt the need to come here and see the beach with my own eyes. I suppose part of it is personal, as both my parents were veterans of WWII, although neither served here. Another aspect is probably simple Canadian patriotism. Regardless of the reasons, a trip to France has given my family and me the opportunity experience Juno Beach.

Standing here, I am horribly conflicted. War is hell; I have never believed anything else. Yet it’s hard to come to this place, understand what was accomplished here and not feel some degree of pride.

Out on the tidal flat, I am standing where the soldiers of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles started disembarking from their landing craft. The small town of Courseulles-sur-Mer is just off to the east, nestled behind the river Seulles. To the west is a small sailing school, but no one is sailing today – despite the sunshine and the breeze the beach is relatively deserted. I try to imagine the sights that greeted these young men as they emerged from their landing craft – barbed wire, mines and obstacles strewn across the beach; smoke from the bombardment clinging to the shoreline; bright orange flashes from pillboxes and gun emplacements embedded in amongst the dunes; the thunder of the shells exploding on the beach; landing craft burning; the whine of bullets. And bodies of course; carnage and death everywhere.

A scene such as this is completely beyond my comprehension. It is so far removed from any reality that I have known that I can only stand in stunned silence and try to absorb the enormity of what happened here, of what these men accomplished and of what it cost.

I feel very exposed this far out from the shore, almost like a target in a shooting gallery. It makes me want to hurry back, but my daughter feels no such compulsion. Living in Toronto we don’t often see the ocean, and this is a treat that can’t be passed up. We take our time – she explores for seashells while I collect some sand. We can linger on the beach as we have the luxury of time, something that the young men from Winnipeg did not have. The gulls screech over our heads as we follow an erratic path back to the shore.

It was shells that were screeching overhead on D-Day. I have spoken to a soldier who was here on that day, who left his landing craft with ten men and reached the beach with only two. I still try to do the math, but I can’t. How does one make sense of an equation such as that?

I have tried to explain to my son and daughter what happened on Juno Beach, but it’s difficult to reconcile the horrors of 1944 with the beauty and serenity of today.  Men fought and died here. On top of the shattered remains of a gun emplacement we look across the beach, and I ask them try to imagine what it have been like to be on the beach that day.  To me it looks like a killing field – I know that these gun emplacements where virtually untouched by the naval bombardment and that they were ready and waiting for the Royal Winnipeg Rifles when they landed.  I visualize the overlapping fields of fire from these guns, and wonder how anyone made it off the beach alive that day.

We leave the beach and spend a couple of hours exploring the Juno Beach Centre. My daughter wants to hear the stories of the participants and is determined to investigate every audio/video presentation in the Centre. My wife, a teacher, is as interested in how the information is presented as much as the information itself. My son is most interested in the weapons that are displayed, as I would have been at his age, but there is surprisingly few of them.  As for me, I am not disappointed.  The information in the Centre is both accurate and realistic, it makes me proud to be a Canadian and even prouder of the men who fought here.

We finish our tour of the Centre, and head back to our car, but before we make our way back to Paris there is one more place we need to visit. It’s just a short drive from the beach.

In a few short minutes we are standing next to an oasis of greenery in the midst of a farmer’s fields on small hill overlooking the town and the beach. Hedges and large trees line its perimeter, providing shade and acting as a buffer against the outside world.  Standing out above the trees is a large Canadian flag, and beneath the flag are the graves of more than 2,000 Canadians.

The wind is rustling the leaves of the trees at Benys-sur-Mer; birds are singing as we wander about. Every now and then I catch the fragrance of the many roses growing around the graves. It is a serene and peaceful place, the tranquility belying the violent end faced by these men. The inscriptions on the gravestones brings the human cost of war into focus with painful clarity, none more so than this – “remembrance is the better part of love … sadly missed by wife and infant son”. The soldier was just 24 years old. I look at my son, not all that far away from that age, and I shiver.

The beauty of the cemetery is a surprise, but as I walk around I can’t shake the feeling of melancholy that has come over me. This is a place so beautiful, but yet so sad. They were all so young. They were sons of farmers, sons of miners, sons of bankers. Sons of mothers; and they’ve been gone over 70 years. The stone of remembrance at the entrance to the cemetery carries a simple inscription – “Their Name Liveth For Evermore”.  I can’t help but feel that as the memory of WWII fades that their names, and their sacrifice, will also fade.

We place our own flags in front of the stone, the red of the maple leaf in stark contrast to the brilliant white of the memorial.benyssurmer01

Then it suddenly it strikes me precisely why I needed to come. It is the simple need to bear witness to what happened here and to make sure it is not forgotten. What happened on Juno Beach all those years ago mattered then and it still matters today. I need to let my children see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears what happened here so that they can better appreciate the sacrifice that was made.  They need to remember this place; Juno Beach needs to be more than a fact in a textbook; it needs to be a truth they can hold in their hearts.

Canadians owe a debt to the men who rest in the cemetery at Benys-Sur-Mer, as well as all the other men and women who fought in WWII and in other conflicts. It is a debt that can never be repaid, but it is a debt that needs to be acknowledged. Perhaps the best acknowledgement is simple remembrance.

As we walk back to our car, I look out past the cemetery and the town and see the English Channel. It shimmers in the sunlight, a brilliant band of blue separating the shore and the horizon. I close my eyes and try to burn the image of this place into my memory. Tomorrow my family and I will cross the Channel to England to finish our vacation.  The likelihood that we will ever return this way is slim.

But we will always remember.

photo credit: Owen Benson Visuals via photopin cc

CRM for Fun and Profit, Part II: Costs

CRM for Fun and Profit, Part II: Costs

Some time ago I was at a Microsoft Convergence conference and was immersed in all things CRM. During one discussion the topic of the costs of CRM implementations came up. I distinctly remember one of the comments.

“The trouble with CRM projects is that the first 80% of the project takes the first 80% of the budget and the remaining 20% of the project takes the other 80%.”

I recall that we all had a pretty good laugh over this.

Like most humor, it’s funny because it’s true. The typical CRM project costs more than originally expected.

I think there are a few reasons for this. The first is most of us are unreasonably optimistic and tend to underestimate the complexity of the average project. This just doesn’t apply to CRM projects – it’s virtually every technology project. (See Management by Wishful Thinking for background on why this occurs.) Invest some time and though in the planning process in order to combat this.

A second reason is that companies try to go it alone and don’t get expert help. It is very difficult to get it right the first time; contracting some expert help can minimize the risk greatly.

A third (and biggest) reason is that the scope of CRM projects become broader than originally planned. There are several factors that influence this.

Business Processes: Your company probably has its business processes documented and there’s a good chance that they reside in some dusty binders resting on an obscure shelf somewhere. The challenge is that they are likely out of date. Processes change fairly regularly and unless your company is extremely diligent the documentation doesn’t necessarily get updated. And these are just the formal changes. Users develop their own shortcuts and workarounds and these never get documented. The processes in those binders are at best an approximation of what actually happens. So you are going to have to spend some extra time understanding the current state of your processes.
Organization: It’s not just business processes. To get the maximum benefit from CRM you have to make sure the culture and philosophy of the organization are themselves customer centric. Companies that are implementing CRM for the first time typically aren’t focused on the customer – they are focused on whatever product or service they offer the customer. The journey to becoming customer-centric is longer and harder than expected.
Another organizational consideration is who owns the customer? I have seen CRM create turf wars in organizations over ownership of the customer. Sales? Marketing? Customer Service? Does the regional office or national office own the customer? CRM requires a customer engagement strategy where this type of thing is defined in detail, or else your customers could be bombarded by disconnected messaging from various functions in your organization. Developing this strategy takes time and money.

People: Winning the hearts and mind of the users can be difficult. It’s great that CRM is good for the company, but what’s in it for them? There will be resistance because the implementation of CRM is creating a new area of subject matter expertise and likely diminishing the importance of some existing subject areas. That’s a difficult situation for the present subject matter experts. Change is always hard – it can be helped along by providing compelling explanations of the benefits that the users will get from CRM. Make sure that end-user training is complete and answers the ‘why’ questions as well as the ‘how’. Also remember that CRM can give you a lot of information on end-user productivity and that attention is not always welcome. The bottom line is that training and education will be a larger effort than you originally anticipated.

Integration: Most CRM systems are integrated with existing systems and data. Integration with existing systems is harder than you think it will be. There’s a number of reasons for this. It’s likely that, like your business processes, your current systems and data are inadequately documented. The effort to better understand your current state will again be larger than expected.

Once you understand what you have there is the issue of data quality. Data quality has numerous properties that need to be considered (accuracy, validity, timeliness, consistency and completeness). The older your data the greater the likelihood that a data quality effort will need to occur before this data can be integrated into the CRM system. This is not a trivial effort.
One more thought about integration – there are actually two integration efforts that need to be considered. The first is the initial data load, the second is the periodic (daily, weekly or whatever) update/refresh. The efforts are similar but different; plan to manage them as two separate and distinct efforts.

Security: CRM collects (and generates) a *lot* of data. It needs to be managed and safeguarded. Regardless of whether it’s on-premise or in the cloud, security, confidentiality and privacy of data is a big deal and by implementing CRM you have just made it bigger, particularly if any of the data is being exposed to the internet through a portal. Protecting the CRM data from unauthorized access from both internal and external sources needs to be considered part of the project.

Success: Success can be a problem. Once the business community starts to better see the benefits of CRM there will be pressure to broaden existing functionality or add additional capabilities. There will be demands to broaden scope and start adding these additional capabilities immediately, particularly if you are implementing CRM in a series of small releases. Indiscriminately adding scope to the project is an easy way to turn a 12 month project into one that takes 18 months. Ensure that you have a robust change control process defined or you may find yourself with a project that never ends.

CRM is worthwhile investment but it’s good to start with your eyes wide open. There are aspects to CRM projects that aren’t readily apparent at first glance; missing these can lead to increased costs, extended durations, unfulfilled expectations and general disappointment.

And who wants that?

photo credit: photosteve101 via photopin cc

When it comes to data security …

When it comes to data security …

I was recently asked to participate in a group interview sponsored by Digital Guardian (a vendor of information technology security solutions) that centred on a simple question: “What’s the #1 biggest mistake companies make when it comes to securing sensitive data?”

One of the biggest challenges I had with this task is that it’s really difficult to narrow it down to a single mistake; unfortunately organizations make far too many mistakes (as the articles about data loss and breaches of privacy in the business pages of the newspapers can attest). But after pondering the question for a while I arrived at an answer that I really liked. Surprisingly, it’s not a technology issue.

When it comes to securing sensitive data the biggest mistake companies make is that they minimize or ignore the human dimension of security. There is a cultural aspect to security that must become part of the DNA of the organization; all too often they fail to make the essential investments to make it happen.

Organizations are willing to spend a lot of money developing the necessary standards, guidelines and procedures required by a comprehensive security program, and they are willing to spend even more on the technology required. Where organizations tend to drop the ball is the human element; staff needs to be acutely aware of the security policies, trained in the proper application of the policies and understand (and accept) their personal responsibilities and accountabilities. There needs to be a training regimen for both new and existing staff, as well as periodic refreshers. Security responsibilities should be built into their role descriptions and their personal objectives.

It’s also necessary that security be deployed in a manner that will allow staff to fulfill the responsibilities of their job while fully complying with the requirements of the program. The information security program cannot be a roadblock; its application must be proportional to the risks identified and it must support (and not inhibit) the ability of the organization and (and its staff) to conduct its business.

And a second mistake: Organizations implement a security program and think they’re done. They’re not. Security programs need to continuously adapt to in order to meet new threats and environmental changes. The security landscape is ever evolving, both on the side of threats and on the side of regulators; organizations need to ensure that their security programs change in response.

Care to see the other 33 opinions? You can find them on the Digital Guardians blog.

photo credit: -Tripp- via photopin cc

Towards consulting success: six essential behaviours

Towards consulting success: six essential behaviours

I’ve worked in the IT and financial services industry for almost 35 years and I’ve worked with a lot of consultants. A seriously astounding number. Mind-boggling, actually. They’ve come in all shapes and sizes ranging from independents to teams of consultants from the Big 4 firms. Men and women, new graduates and grizzled veterans, native born and new Canadians. Some had a list of designations on their business card that was as long as my arm, others had none. Taken together, they’re a varied and diverse cross-section of society; you wouldn’t think that they would have something in common. But the vast majority did, and that realization is a bitter pill to swallow.

What was it that they had in common? Simply this: what they produced wasn’t worth the money we paid them.

That’s a really harsh judgement and I don’t want to tar all of them with the same brush. Some of the consultants that I worked with were absolute delights. They had the skills, expertise and knowledge coupled with the right attitude. They worked hard and cared about the outcome. They taught me a lot about business, how to get stuff done, how to work cooperatively and about accountability. They helped us succeed in our endeavors, and if we didn’t succeed it was no fault of theirs. Their fees were money well spent.

On the other hand, there was a much larger group that didn’t really have the impact on the business that they should have had. I wish I understood why, but they were lacking something that ended up making their engagement less than it should have been. We usually realized a nominal benefit, but in the worst cases we were just a meal ticket for them; their objective was to squeeze as much money out of the organization as they could for as long as possible.

This taught me to take a rather cynical attitude towards most consultants.

In hindsight, the fault was not with the consultants – it lay with our organization. Our onboarding process was lackadaisical at best. Once onboard, we didn’t manage them properly. We were too willing to accept substandard work and insufficient effort. It was our duty to be informed consumers and we weren’t. We should have demanded better. Caveat emptor isn’t just something that you learn in a high school business class, it’s a principle that’s worth following.

That was then; now I find myself in a rather peculiar situation. I have gone over to the dark side. I am one of them – a consultant. I feel a little bit like I’m living the Talking Heads ‘Once in a Lifetime’; asking myself, “Well…How did I get here?”

That’s question has a long answer and it’s not all that relevant. What’s more important to me is determining what it means to be an effective consultant? What are the best practices that I should follow in order to have my clients look back on the engagement and feel my fees were a good investment and not an unnecessary expense?

I’ve concluded that the best way to ensure that I’m viewed as an asset is to imagine I’m a client and ask myself what behaviours I would like to see in a consultant who works for me. What do they need to do to demonstrate in order for me to trust their judgement? What would make me want to re-engage them on another initiative? I’ve arrived at six. (What you won’t find in the list are attributes like honesty or an ethical nature. These are necessary – not having them is a dealbreaker.)

1.    Know your client

Financial institutions all over the world have ‘know your customer’ regulations in place. Part of the reason is to ensure that money laundering activity isn’t taking place, but a more important reason is to ensure that the services and products being recommended to the client are suitable – this isn’t possible without the appropriate information being gathered first.

Consultants need to do this as well.

You need to understand both the client and his business. In most cases they aren’t looking for you to be a business expert, but they do need someone who has a fundamental understanding of their business, its basic operation and the environment in which it operates – regulatory, competitive and the like.

You also need to be able to look at all of this from the client’s perspective. Understanding the client and the business situation that they find themselves in is a prerequisite for a successful engagement.

Having a degree of empathy towards the client isn’t a bad idea either.

Understand that most clients want a relationship and they want the relationship to be based on a mutual sense of trust between you and the client. It requires a great deal of trust on their part to allow someone to change how their business operates, regardless of whether it’s the organizational structure, process or technology. Trust is one of the keys to success, and you won’t get to trust without a relationship.

If I am undertaking a change initiative, the outcome of which will have consequences to both me and my organization I need to have a relationship with the individual with whom I am working; I need to trust them. In the long term, the relationship may actually be more important to me than the actual work, because it’s likely that the relationship will endure after the change initiative is finished. I want a relationship. I need you, the leader of the change initiative, to have a really clear understanding of what I want (and perhaps more importantly, what I need). I need to know that you are operating in my best interests.

Know your client in order to develop a working relationship based on trust.

2.    Be transparent

Clarity is important. In this age of political correctness there is the pressure to take pertinent facts and couch them in language that obscures their true meaning. Problems become ‘opportunities’ or ‘challenges’, defects become ‘bugs’ or ‘glitches’ and failures become ‘opportunities for learning’. (It makes my head spin sometimes.) Avoid the temptation to obfuscate; instead, be as crystal clear as possible. Report both good and bad news objectively, dispassionately and accurately.

This is also an excellent way to build trust. Be transparent for long enough in both your reporting and your behaviours and over time the client will learn to trust in you completely. Be transparent in your actions.

You also need to demonstrate transparency in your motives. It’s reasonable to make recommendations that may result in additional work in the future as long as those recommendations are made in the best interest the client and their organization. The client may even welcome them if they are closely aligned with this vision for the future. What they don’t need are proposals for work that is speculative or seem to be a make work project to keep you employed.

3.    Act in a way that inspires confidence

For me, a consultant needs to demonstrate three characteristics for me to have confidence in them: aptitude, attitude and availability.

Aptitude is skill set and expertise. This is quite likely why you were hired in the first place; you have demonstrated that you have the knowledge of how to do the work and the proficiency to actually get it done. Just remember you don’t know everything (and that the client doesn’t expect you know everything) but never say the works ‘I don’t know’ without immediately adding ‘but I’ll find out’ afterwards.

There are few things that can erode a client’s confidence faster than not having the right attitude. While a consultant is with client they need to demonstrate that the initiative they are working on with the client is the most vital thing they are doing. Even if the engagement is small and straightforward and you could do it in your sleep if it is important to the client – it needs to be important to you. It’s actually much easier to demonstrate engagement on an initiative that is a challenge, because it makes you work harder, employ more of your skills and likely take more of a directive leadership style. A positive attitude towards the initiative reinforces to the client that they made the correct decision in hiring you – an indifferent (or worse) attitude says the opposite.

Finally, be available. You need to give the client the ability to engage you according to their needs, not yours. This may mean a few calls at inopportune times, but in the long run it builds the trust and relationship between you and the client. You don’t need to be their nursemaid, but making yourself available outside of the agreed to times just strengthens the relationship.

(How not to act – a true story. We had engaged a consultant to make a recommendation on moving forward with a certain software package. When it came time to review the draft findings, a bunch of us gathered in a meeting room with the consultant. The content of the report was fine, but about 15 minutes into the meeting it the consultant’s phone rang. He answered the phone, began talking (it was clearly another client), gets up and leaves. He came back in about 5 minutes, issued a brief apology and started back into the findings like nothing had happened. At that point how confident was I that he was working in my best interests?)

4.    Build an enduring partnership

In a partnership people cooperate in order to advance their mutual interests.

The client’s primary interest is to get the initiative completed successfully, but what is the consultant’s primary interest?

It’s tempting to say that it’s the delivery of the initiative, but I actually believe that that’s a secondary concern. I feel this way because I think that, in general, if the engagement has been structured properly and all the due diligence has been done the outcome should never really be in doubt. (If neither of those have been done then both the client and the consultant are taking on a lot of risk).

The primary interest of the consultant should be the next engagement, and the engagement after that, and the engagement after that. Don’t think that the client doesn’t want the same thing, because he does. Sourcing a consultant can be a time consuming task; His life becomes easier if he has a ‘go-to guy’ that he can engage when needed. Be that guy (or gal) because it makes your life easier too.

5.    Find the right solutions

There is a multitude of solutions for every problem. Some will be great, some will be good and some will be questionable at best.   It’s your job to sort through the options and recommend the right solution to the problem at hand. But what makes a solution ‘right’?

Minimize complexity. Complexity is a killer because it isn’t a one-time cost. The costs associated with complexity endure long after the change initiative is complete; they become a permanent fixture on the bottom line of the organization. Strive for simplicity. Make the solution as simple as possible but not necessarily simple.

The right solution is both scalable and extensible.   Prepare for success; make sure that your solution can handle additional volume and a broader scope.

The right solution is cost effective. I have worked on some change initiatives where the cost was not really a consideration; there seemed to be an endless bucket of money. One would think that removing cost constraints would make the change initiative easier but that’s not necessarily the case. What tends to happen is that avenues get explored that should remain closed; money starts to be spent on efforts that are speculative with little payback, resulting in an overall loss of focus. The right solution gets lost in the noise of all the less-right (or downright wrong) solutions.

Lack of funds is equally troubling. Even if the right solution is found, the tendency is to take shortcuts and pare back the functionality until the solution is hobbled; the objective of the initiative becomes ‘spend as little as possible’ rather than focusing on the value that the investment will generate.

And the generation of value is really the ultimate goal. The right solution articulates the value clearly and starts to realize that value as soon as possible.

The right solution cares about quality. A long time ago (1972!) there was a TV commercial for Fram oil filters; the tagline was you can pay me now or you can pay me later.


It’s like that with many software projects. Defects that should have been addressed as part of project are just deferred and they become operational issues that cost more and taken longer to fix than they would have if they were just fixed when they should have been. The right solution minimizes defects before the solution is implemented, not after.

6.    Demonstrate the value you bring

The best way to demonstrate your value is by succeeding – by delivering the initiative as planned. However, I don’t think that’s enough – success should be the minimum target that you aim for.

Here are some other ways you can demonstrate your value.

Display a sense of urgency. Time is money and it’s your job to help the client move forward whenever the tendency to procrastinate sets it. Sometimes it’s hard to close doors; the fear of making the wrong decision can paralyze the entire process so that no decision ever gets make. Allow some time for sober second thought but keep things moving.

And, somewhat paradoxically, be patient. Whenever an organization is undergoing change the stress level of the staff increases. Even small changes can ramp up the level of anxiety to intolerable heights. Your advantage is that you have done this before and lived to tell about it; by displaying patience and calmness you can help diminish their fears and help them refocus on the tasks at hand.

Take the opportunity to teach and mentor. This is a value-add that is extraordinarily easy to accomplish. Either the client or one or two of the staff will be eager to learn how to do what you do; take the time to explain your thought processes, maybe even delegate some of the work to them. Teachable moments abound on every consulting engagement; take advantage of them.

Finally, go above and beyond. Do more than is expected – there are no rules against delivering extra value to the client.

Six behaviours. I actually started with eleven; I was able to distill them down to a smaller number the more I thought about it. But I was unable to get to fewer than six. I was actually hoping to be able to reduce it down to one or two behaviours but in retrospect that wasn’t reasonable. There isn’t a single best practice that a consultant can follow to ensure success; the typical consulting engagement requires a larger toolbox than that. But supplementing your consulting methods with these six behaviours will go a long way to ensuring success.

photo credit: iammikeb via photopin cc

CRM for Fun and Profit: A Primer

CRM for Fun and Profit: A Primer

How your organization can leverage relationship management to drive growth and profitability

So … you are thinking about implementing CRM, or you’ve decided to implement CRM (or maybe it’s been decided for you) but you are not sure where to begin. There are any number of software vendors that would love the opportunity to sell you their software right now (because it’s their quarter-end now and the deals are just too good to pass up and the software is all you really need and could you sign right here please?). In this case resistance is not futile; politely decline, take 15 minutes and read on to get a better understanding of what lies ahead. CRM (Customer Relationship Management) has been part of the business landscape since the mid-1990s. The initial offerings were little more than enhanced contact management systems but in the twenty years since then both the philosophy and technology of CRM has matured and evolved to the point where CRM can be considered a mature offering; it represents a viable business strategy for an organization to follow.

Objectives of CRM

Any discussion of CRM would be incomplete without a reminder of the primary goal of the typical business: it exists to make money. Implementing CRM requires a significant investment in people, process and technology; the end result needs to deliver sufficient revenue to offset the initial investment and the continuing operational costs. CRM doesn’t necessarily make sense for all companies. If you are selling low-cost commodity items to the general public, like laundry detergent or a pound of butter you probably don’t need to establish a relationship with your customers (nor are they likely to want a relationship with you). But it’s different if you are selling a higher value, customizable product or service, like a financial product, a car or a vacation. There is value in understanding your customer and using that understanding to establish a long-term relationship. The fundamental objectives of CRM are twofold:

  • The first is finding the right customers and establishing long-term relationships with them. CRM is not particularly concerned with the value obtained from a single transaction with a customer; its objective is to develop enduring relationships and drive revenue and generate profit over a lifetime of transactions with the customer. Customer retention is paramount; customers are viewed as assets rather than just the buyer on the other side of the single transaction.
  • The second objective is increasing revenue through obtaining a larger customer ‘share of wallet’ – building a broader, more profitable relationship. In addition to increasing the length of relationships, CRM also strives to expand the breadth of relationships by more fully engaging customers and having them utilize a fuller range of the total goods and services provided by your organization (or by a partner organization).

It is critical to note that the value derived is mutual. Your company receives revenue, but the customer receives something valuable in return. He deals with a company that understands him (sometimes almost anticipating what is needed), actions requests promptly and accurately (following up when required), and treats him in a way that reflects the value and importance of his business. Following the principles of CRM allows your organization to provide to the customer the type of experience that he values. (Just a note: I know there are organizations that aren’t driven by profit, such as government agencies, not-for-profit, charities and the like. CRM can make sense for them too by ensuring that they deliver their services to their customers as effectively and completely as possible.) CRM became a very popular buzzword in the early 2000s, but most companies that implemented it were unable to fully realize the potential of CRM. Significant investments were made in tools and training, but few companies changed their organizational philosophies and strategies to align with a CRM approach. This need – to move away from traditional strategies towards those that are more customer focused – is the biggest barrier to the adoption of strategic CRM. If you take away anything from the document it needs to be this: CRM is a class of technology products but it is also a business philosophy that requires significant and fundamental changes to your organization to implement fully. But it can (and in many cases, should) be done.

The Fundamentals of CRM: 8 Factors to Consider

Before you look at CRM as a business philosophy you need to consider the fundamentals.

1.   It’s about the Customer

At its very core, CRM focuses on engaging with customers on a one-to-one basis. The goal is to satisfy the needs of the customer, but this also gives your organization the opportunity to better understand who customer is, what they value, how they wish to be engaged, their opinion of your organization and perhaps even what the competition is offering. Every contact with the customer is an opportunity to engage them in a deeper/more complete manner. CRM is a very long term strategy; one where time is measured and success is determined over the period of years and decades rather than months and quarters. In following a CRM-focused strategy, the organization must move from a product-based volume selling approach where the focus is on short term results to a strategy that concentrates on delivering what customers want when they want it over a much longer term. This approach – mass customization at the level of the individual customer – requires that an organization:

  • understand the needs and preferences of each customer
  • provide personalized offerings
  • provide ‘a perception of value’ (or value proposition) to each customer
  • retool technologies and processes to support CRM
  • partner with organizations that share a CRM-based business strategy
  • not have the need to maximize the profit from each individual transaction

Achieving this requires a complete rethink of how the organization operates. What culture needs to be in place for a relationship based approach to succeed? Ultimately there are two prevailing characteristics: it is patient, and the customer relationship is the primary focus of the organization. Sales, distribution, product – all remain important but are viewed through the lens of the customer relationship. At a one-to-one level, CRM is about ensuring that each and every customer feels that they have a personal relationship with your company; that the person on the other end of the telephone line (or web chat, text message or email) knows who they are, how they like to be engaged and understand what it is they need. CRM enables this by providing to its users a deep and comprehensive understanding of each customer. This degree of intimacy cannot be achieved without leveraging technology. The CRM application, the internet and communication capabilities (such as portals, email, telephone, web chat and social networking) can all be deployed and exploited to aid in establishing long-term, mutually profitable relationships with customers. One of the key differences between today’s environment and that of twenty years ago is the internet. The internet and the ‘always connected’ society changes everything and provides you with two opportunities: the ability to inexpensively create and execute marketing campaigns (that can range from mass marketing to large groups to selectively marketing to individuals), and increased access to information, both for your organization and for your customers. Organizational websites now allow a level of access to information and data that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, and the advent of social media has added an additional dimension (as well as additional complexity) to the customer/company relationship. CRM allows an organization (through better understanding of their customers, their preferences and their history of interactions) to leverage the internet to better (and more completely) engage their customers, in both outbound and inbound interactions. CRM is about defining who the ‘right’ customers are for your organization. All customers are not created equal; segmentation of customers into logically related groups is essential for successful relationship marketing and servicing. Once this is determined, you can define how those segments will be served. (It is worth noting that customer needs and expectations are a moving target, and as needs and expectations shift your organization needs to respond accordingly.) Customers should be valued based on the current value they bring to the company plus the potential future value that they can be expected to deliver. The criteria used to create the segments are unique to each organization, but I believe there needs to be at least 4 segments:

  • Which customers are our ‘best’ customers – who do we focus on?
  • Who are our average customers – can we promote them?
  • Who are our less than average customers – how can we better engage them?
  • Who are our worst customers – who do we fire?

The best customers, those that provide the best total value to your organization, are the customers that should receive the best value in return. Remember Pareto – 20% of your customers drive 80% of your revenue. You need to decide what you are willing to do differently for high value customers. For the high value segment you could create an exclusive product, a custom website or perhaps provide concierge service with shorter turnaround times or better loyalty rewards. Customer care is the true ‘value-add’ of relationship management; it’s what can determine the success (or failure) of the entire customer experience. It goes beyond the transactional nature of customer service activities to the determination of what needs to be done, again on a one-to-one basis, to make the products and services more attractive to each specific individual and to increase the bond between them and your organization.

2.   Customer Measurements

Proper segmentation of customers can only be achieved once the required metrics have been established and a measurement program is in place. The prerequisite to achieving this is sufficient performance data. Your organization needs to be able to measure the performance of each channel and of each customer. CRM captures a great deal of data – interactions with the customer, administrative events (e.g. a bill payment or a change of address), personal data (preferences, demographic, financial and psychographic) and relationship data (how the customer relates to other customers [e.g. households or sales teams]). On an individual level this data provides you with the necessary information to tailor interactions with each specific customer – to engage the customer in the way that he wishes to be engaged. On a macro level, once all this data is aggregated you can interpret the information and perform detailed, complex analyses and data mining activities to uncover nuggets of knowledge that would otherwise remain hidden, and then leverage these insights for the benefit of your company and the customer. CRM relies heavily on analytics for gaining knowledge and insight about their customers as well as the effectiveness of their operations. Successful analytics requires data (organized in a manner that is conducive to analytics) as well as the necessary expertise to perform the analysis efforts. Neither of these is easy to come by; establishing an analytical capability typically requires a significant commitment. Fortunately analytics is an area where an organization can start with simple measures and evolve to more complex approach over time. The analytics effort can include such metrics as:

  • Developing simple trends based on single factors like geography or product
  • Analytics that look at the profitability of individual customers and accounts
  • Analysis of customer behaviors and the factors behind the customer’s decision making process.
  • Differentiation of service delivery for different customer groups (for instance, through a customer segmentation strategy)

One of the key metrics is customer satisfaction, although ‘satisfaction’ is probably not a descriptive enough term. A typical customer expects to be satisfied; successful relationships are not likely to be built if satisfaction is the target. Organizations need to exceed satisfaction and move towards building customer loyalty. Part of a successful CRM effort should concentrate on moving your customers towards developing an affinity with your company and brand. It’s much harder to lose a loyal customer than one who is merely satisfied. Measurement is a two-way street – you also need to allow customers to measure your organization’s performance. The ability to listen to customer feedback and capture their views and opinions is a basic capability of CRM. The explosion of social media and of customers who are more than willing to proffer their opinions, is a logical starting place. The challenge is to rapidly triage the information that is captured and act decisively on those that will have the biggest impact to the customers as a whole.

3.   The Value Proposition

The value proposition that you offer to your customers is another key fundamental of relationship management. The development of the value proposition – what you are promising to the customer – needs to consider numerous questions, including these eight:

  • What products and services do our customers want (and how much are they willing to pay for them)?
  • What products and services will we choose to provide?
  • What investment are we willing to make in people/process/technology to support the creation and delivery of products and services
  • How can provide these products and services?
  • What scale is required?
  • What level of quality will be provided?
  • What value does the customer receive, and what value do we receive?
  • How do we demonstrate the validity of the value proposition?

4.   Capabilities

In order to deliver on the value proposition your organization need to develop a suite of capabilities to support the delivery of its chosen products and services. The capabilities of an organization need to be marshaled around meeting the expectations of the customers and fulfilling the value proposition. The capabilities question is one that needs to be asked very early in the CRM process. Following a CRM approach is not inexpensive, and an organization needs to decide how much of an investment it is prepared to make. It is better for your organization to focus on a limited set of capabilities and deliver them very well than to choose a wide breadth of capabilities and deliver them in a mediocre fashion. (An alternative approach to CRM is to approach it tactically, but more on that later). Capabilities include business processes. Developing processes that are ‘CRM-friendly’ is different than conducting a traditional process reengineering effort where the focus of the effort is the design of efficient functional processes. The intent of a CRM focused process is to deliver maximum value to the individual customer; the process needs to be intelligent enough to recognize what the customer values and flexible enough to deliver it. The primary goal of CRM processes is not concerned with delivering maximizing efficiency (work deliver per time unit) but on delivering effectiveness – maximizing the value exchanged during the interaction. And CRM processes are designed to facilitate the measurement of cycle times and the performance of individuals or groups. Capabilities also includes technology. CRM is also about computing, and it’s a complex undertaking. The CRM system itself, the integration of multiple supporting applications and data sources, storage of large volumes of data, the development of portals that allow customers access to information, the mining of data and the associated historical and predictive analytics are the primary areas where investments in computing technology are required. It’s definitely not trivial. Which comes first, the technology or the processes? It’s really an iterative approach. When using commercially developed software, in virtually every instance it makes most sense to build the business processes around the capabilities of the technology rather than adapting the technology to the business processes. But before the software is acquired it’s necessary to define the business processes in sufficient enough detail to ensure a good fit between how the business expects to run and how the technology can support it. Once the software is acquired the business processes are optimized to leverage the capabilities of the software. This approach results in processes that are streamlined, efficient and tightly integrated with the technology. Procuring software without a clear understanding of the anticipated business processes is a recipe for disaster. Software can (and should) be configured to deliver the ideal end user experience, but customizing software is something that should be avoided at all costs. When software is customized it is actually being modified to perform a task that it was not designed to do, and results in highly modified software that requires significant cost and effort to support (and has likely strayed from the upgrade path). Configure to your heart’s delight but customize at your peril.

5.   Organizational Considerations

Organizations that focus on CRM move customer information as close to the front line as possible and provide the individuals who interact directly with customers the ability to make as many decisions as possible without need for approvals or the handing off of the request to more senior staff. The move from order taker to decision maker is a shift of significant proportions. Your organization will have to look at all aspects of human resources, training and talent management to make this transition successful. (Be prepared; not all your staff will be able to make the necessary transition.)

“People are the key to any relationship. Business is still people, but these people must be supported by technologies and processes to multiply their capabilities and make them even more effective ….The people at the front lines should have the ability to communicate with customers in a manner that recognizes them, remembers their contact history, understands the current customer issues, predicts anticipated behaviors and suggests appropriate responses, solutions or suggestions. Increasingly, the front-line people are becoming consultants, working with customers to add value to their company. This is a marked departure from historical practice and requires recognition, reward and incentives that support this redirection.”

Ian Gordon, ‘Relationship Marketing’

It also requires that organizations modify their structure to support CRM. Rather than having traditional product managers it may be necessary to organize by customer segment and have managers for each of these segments, or perhaps to change the focus of acquisition efforts to concentrate on finding customers who most closely match the profile of an ideal customer; not necessarily just someone who wants to make a purchase. No process or technology will provide the anticipated benefits unless trained staff is available to do the work. CRM is a complex undertaking, and the people, process and technology must work in harmony to deliver a customer experience that meets the expectations of both the customer and your organization. This can’t happen without thorough training at initial implementation time (as well as when new hires are brought on), supplemented by periodic refresher training. In conjunction with the training, the appropriate supports need to be in place to reinforce the training. This includes processes, rewards, and recognition for individuals who actively advocate and promote the building of relationships with customers, co-workers and partners. All this requires leadership. The leaders of a CRM-focused organization need to ensure that the organization stays true to its strategy. While strategy defines what your organization will do, perhaps more importantly it also defines what your organization will not do; it is the responsibility or the leadership to ensure that new opportunities that arise but fall outside of the adopted strategy are either not pursued, or are acted upon with a full understanding of the impacts on the existing strategy.

6.   Profitability, Value and Cost

Profitability of your organization is normally driven by two variables: growth and the efficiency of its operations. While neither of these variables is exclusive to a CRM-based approach, the strategies that you follow in pursuit of profitability will shape your adoption of CRM. These include:

  • Controlling the cost variables associated with the people, processes and technology as closely as possible
  • Developing and deploying new and improved products and services (and ensuring that the customers are engaged in the design)
  • Establishing new revenue streams – new channels and partners
  • Servicing customers in the appropriate manner in order to maintain the required persistency and retention
  • Terminating the relationship with low value customers

7.   Collaboration and Integration

CRM is about collaboration – bi-directional interactions between an organization and its customers. It’s conversational. Customers want their needs met and concerns addressed. We live in an age where information is king and access to that information is demanded. Customers expect visibility into internal processes that in the past were hidden from view. (Imagine ordering from Amazon and not being able to track your order.) This visibility is the new norm and it will require that you open up internal processes to customers in ways not previously considered. And it goes beyond sharing of transactional information; customers want to contribute in to such efforts as product design or the provision of new or improved services. The explosion of social media and the willingness of people to share their opinions is something that organizations can benefit from. When the customer speaks the organization needs first to listen and then to act. Regardless of the channel employed (which may include e-mail, webchat, SMS, IVR, social media and in some cases regular mail or a face-to-face interaction), when a customer engages an organization some action needs to take place. The key is to reduce the time of the decision cycle as much as possible to allow the action to be performed real-time and if not real-time then as quickly and transparently as possible. (How quickly? That’s determined by the service levels that you have defined.) At an enterprise level, CRM can help reach across departmental and functional boundaries in order to provide complete solutions to customers. It aligns customer touch-points so the customer experience is consistent across people, departments and even organization. By capturing and sharing all customer interactions you develop an ‘institutional memory’ that gives all employees an understanding of a customer’s history. There are three perspectives on collaboration that need to be considered:

  • Internally, within teams and across teams
  • Externally, with customers
  • Externally, with partners

The collaboration must extend beyond the customer relationship into secondary relationships – your partners and suppliers – and the potential of providing value-added services. From your organization’s perspective, who actually provides the product and/or service is immaterial as long as the organization continues to own and manage the relationship with the customer and can derive some value from it. From the customer’s perspective, their relationship continues to be with a single organization – the delivery of products and services by third parties occurs transparently.

8.   Manufacturing and service capability

The rapid development of new products or services is a prerequisite to meeting the needs of your customers. Bringing a new product to market in a timely manner is essential to successful CRM, as the product design should be driven, at least in part, by the needs and requirements of the customers. Ideally, the product development process should be efficient enough to allow the customization of specialized products for specific customers or customer segments. The same holds true for service capabilities. Again, customization is key – the ability to adapt the service process to the needs of the individual or segment being serviced is a prerequisite for the success of CRM.

Non-Strategic CRM

In looking at the previous 8 considerations maybe you’ve lost your appetite for taking a strategic approach to CRM; it’s quite a lot to handle. Perhaps for your organization taking a tactical approach makes more sense. It still requires that you establish the necessary capabilities for CRM but represents a much smaller commitment in both time and money than a strategic approach. There are several fundamentals of CRM that are more tactical in nature and could be implemented independently of a larger CRM strategy. One reason for taking this approach is to deliver value to the organization in the short-term and demonstrate some ‘wins’ to the business stakeholders and CRM users.

Customer Segmentation

You can easily apply simple segmentation rules to your customers. At a tactical level, the main benefit of doing this is the provision of different levels of service to the different segments, most notably lower cost service to lower value customers.

Capture of all customer interactions and events

Tracking of all customer interactions and events and capturing this information in a CRM allows all employees (subject to security and privacy considerations) of an organization to have a 360º understanding of that customer. Of particular importance is being aware of other dealings that the customer has had with the organization. From the customer’s perspective, this prevents the need of the customer to re-educate the organization about past interactions and requests on every new interaction and help for a relationship to be established between the customer and the organization, not between the customer and a specific employee in the organization. Capturing historical data also permits the running of simple analytics independently of a larger business intelligence effort.

Rapid and accurate fulfillment of customer requests

Although ‘one and done’ was the mantra of the original CRM implementations, what is more important is the rapid and accurate servicing of requests. Many customer requests that appear simple on the surface are more complex underneath, requiring a multi-step workflow to complete. CRM can ensure this happens by accurately capturing the request and then orchestrating the workflow required to properly complete the request.

Measure and continuously improve

Using CRM to capture all interactions with all customers allows an organization to accurately measure its service times for every customer facing interaction. These measurements should be used to determine where bottlenecks exist within business processes or staffing levels and to then readjust the process accordingly. Depending on the granularity of the data, it is even possible to measure the performance of departments, teams and individuals.

More complete service

CRM allows the delivery of more complete and individualized service. It’s all about understanding as much as possible about the customer. Knowing what the customer wants and, perhaps more importantly, how the customer wants to be engaged allows an organization to hit each individual customer’s ‘sweet spot’ and drive engagement and loyalty.


CRM allows for the establishment of a relationship between a customer and an organization; what is essential is that the relationship be long-lasting. By determining the variables that establish customer loyalty and putting programs in place to leverage this loyalty, CRM can increase the ‘stickiness’ of relationships. Even tactical CRM requires a substantial commitment of money and time; it’s not an initiative to be undertaken casually. Regardless of the approach taken, CRM can be the path to higher revenues, more (and more loyal) customers and increased profits. It’s worth thinking about; your customers are waiting. Just remember, it’s about far more than buying software, no matter how attractive the price.

Alan Baker is the President of SpitfireInnovations.com, a boutique consulting firm based in Toronto, Canada. He has led or directed projects (including CRM implementations!) that modernized technology, re-engineered business processes, improved organizational effectiveness, introduced processing efficiencies, won awards and spurred and accommodated remarkable growth.

photo credit: hz536n/George Thomas via photopin cc

How to make better decisions

How to make better decisions

Can a fighter pilot can teach us something about decision-making? For a long time I viewed a decision as a point-in-time event. It seemed pretty straightforward – gather the pertinent facts, consider them and then make the decision. I was much more concerned that the decision was made rather than how it was made; any delay in making a decision would impact my project schedule and I sure didn’t want that to happen. Over the years I learned to better prepare the decision makers, and I learned to build some slack into the schedule around decision milestones. It wasn’t until I looked back at some of the decisions made, by both myself and others, and realized that while some very good decisions were made, there were quite a few that were sub-optimal, and other decisions were just plain bad. I wondered if following a generic decision making process or framework could improve the quality of decisions. This brings us to John Boyd. John Boyd was a fighter pilot who served in the Korean War. He was also a mathematician, an aircraft designer, a military analyst, a historian and a philosopher. His accomplishments include being:

  • Widely acknowledged as being the best fighter pilot in the history of the USAF
  • An air-to-air combat tactician
  • Directly responsible for design of the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F-18 Hornet
  • Indirectly responsible for the design of the A-10 Thunderbolt
  • A military strategist – one of the primary planners of Desert Storm (the 1991 invasion of Iraq)
  • A major contributor to the study of decision theory

His work on decision theory started when he looked at the outcomes of aerial dogfights between the American F-86 and the Russian MIG-15 in the later stages of the Korean War. In comparing the two planes, the MIG-15 had a higher top speed, a greater operational ceiling and a better turning ratio; three capabilities that should have stacked the odds in favour of the Russian plane. But the actual kill ratios were close to 14:1 in favour of the American plane. An easy assumption to make was that the skill of the American pilots was the deciding factor, but that not the case. The study concluded that there were two design elements of the F-86 that resulted in the lopsided results: a bubble canopy and a fully hydraulic control system. The bubble canopy gave the pilot better visibility and allowed him to gather more complete information before he made a decision. The hydraulic control system allowed the plane to react more quickly to the pilot’s commands once the decision was made. The combination of better informed decisions and accelerated execution resulted in devastating superiority in combat situations. Boyd continued with this train of thought; over the ensuing years he developed a decision support construct that he called ‘The OODA Loop’. It’s also known as ‘the decision cycle’. OODA is an acronym for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. Boyd’s belief was that decision making occurs through the execution of a series of iterations through this loop, where the decision-maker repeatedly evaluates his situation, makes decisions, acts and re-evaluates and continues until the outcome is reached. His focus was on military matters and more specifically on fighter pilots; he was documenting the optimal process that a pilot should follow in determining his circumstances, gathering and evaluating information, determining the proper course of action and taking it. Success was determined by the validity of the information, accurate evaluation and rapid decision making and execution. It’s sometimes simplified into a diagram that looks like this: OODA Loop Unfortunately this diagram is a gross over-simplification. (It also looks an awful lot like Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.) When Boyd finally got around to drawing the diagram, it looked like this:

Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:OODA.Boyd.svg

Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:OODA.Boyd.svg

The first time I saw this model I wondered if it could be applied to projects or to change management, particularly transformational change. Is there a business application? One thing that is apparent is that the OODA loop is misnamed; it’s not a loop, it’s a network of loops that connect each of the stages in various ways. Another thing that may not be so apparent is that the model is much more reactive than proactive. The goal of the OODA loop is more tactical than strategic. It’s not used to define and attain specific objectives – used it’s to increase the quality of decisions and the speed with which they are made. And it’s worth noting that while it has a military heritage the terminology leans more to the scientific method (which is appropriate, because Boyd used such varied sources as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem in the development of his theory).


The observe stage is fairly straightforward – it’s gathering information about the current situation. It looks at the environment, external information, internal information – I would call it a ‘current state model’. From the military perspective it’s concerned about what both you and your enemy are doing. From a business perspective it’s more about your organization’s vision, strategies and capabilities, the marketplace and what your competitors are doing. Think about the contents of a SWOT matrix – that’s the type of information that needs to be collected. One of the challenges of the observation phase is making sure that your observations are complete and ensuring that you are focusing on the correct information.


At one level the orientation phase is equivalent to the traditional analysis phase of a project or change initiative; it can be viewed as a situational analysis. However in Boyd’s model it goes deeper than that; it becomes a complex assessment or interpretation of the observations previously made, viewed through several different lenses. He realized that our analysis is distorted by our previous experiences, our heritage, traditions and value systems. They act as screens that filter out some of the information. Care must be taken to ensure that information isn’t filtered out for the wrong reason. The OODA model requires objectivity; it’s required to cope with our inherent biases and predispositions. This ensures that all information is considered, even that which doesn’t necessarily fit in our world-view. Ultimately, the goal of this phase is to analyze all the information and synthesize it into one or more actionable plans. Here’s a personal example.   My first car was a used 1971 Datsun 240Z. When it ran it was a great little car. Unfortunately it spent far too much time not running; it was spectacularly unreliable, in need of constant repair and was a colossal (and expensive) headache. I was not that sorry to see it go. Fast forward thirty-three years. I’m shopping for a new car. Do I go into a Nissan dealership? No, I don’t. Even after all that time the memory of the 240Z causes me to deselect Nissan. It’s neither reasonable nor rationale, but there it is. The amount of time spent in the orientation phase is another critical consideration. Too little time and the analysis and synthesis efforts are not adequately informed, leading to unreliable scenarios. Too long a time (‘analysis paralysis’) and the observations lose their validity; too much has changed between when the observations were made and when they were acted upon, resulting in scenarios that address the wrong things.


The decision phase is just that; choosing the best scenario from those that were developed. The criteria could be anything and may include a combination of risk/reward, ROI, time to market or any other of a host of variables. It’s considering how your enemy (or competitor, marketplace or maybe even your own organization) will react to the change and then picking the scenario with the best fit. What I find interesting is that Boyd has used the word ‘hypothesis’ in conjunction with the word ‘decide’. To me this implies, in a manner similar to the scientific method, that the decision needs to be tested. It predicts an outcome but the results need to be examined in the next phase before the decision can be considered correct. And this in itself is interesting, because it’s been my experience that individuals and organizations don’t normally test their decisions; they just assume that the decisions are correct and continue as if they are, sometimes even after it’s apparent that they aren’t!


The act phase executes the decision. It’s testing the hypothesis and evaluating the result. It is only after action has been taken that the correctness of the decision can be properly evaluated. This evaluation as well as all the other information gathered during the execution of the cycle are captured for use in the next iteration; this closes the loop and either completes the cycle or beings the next execution. There’s one other aspect of the model that’s worth examining – ‘Explicit Command and Control’. In the military these could be considered the chain of command and rules of engagement; in business they are organization charts, regulations, policies, procedures and operating principles. Sometimes command and control has the effect of short-circuiting the decision cycle by limiting the solution space and reducing the number of possible scenarios. If can also cause problems by micromanaging and overcontrolling, or by abdicating its responsibility and not managing. Command and control also monitors execution of the decision cycles to make sure that things are progressing smoothly. It’s important to note that there is not just one decision cycle occurring at any one time; there are any number of decisions cycles occurring simultaneously. I visualize them almost like a stack of pancakes.   Everyone is involved in a cycle – from the general down to the private (or the CEO to the mail room clerk). Part of command and control is ensuring that these concurrent cycles are aligned and are executing in harmony.

Speed – The Key Factor

The key to success is speed. The OODA loop must be executed rapidly. In the military application of the OODA loop, the key to victory is getting inside your adversary’s decision cycle; making him react to what you are doing until he is unable to continue, at which point he is defeated or quits the field. Victory favors the side that can recognize changes in a dynamic environment (Observe), analyze and synthesize appropriate responses (Orient), choice a response (Decide) and execute it (Act) and do so rapidly and decisively. It’s no different in business. Organizations that can adapt to dynamic situations and that can execute their plans rapidly have much greater likelihood of success.

Projects and the OODA Loop

What do we need to consider if we want to implement a decision making model like the OODA Loop in our own projects or change initiatives? When we observe, we need to observe as completely as possible. Capturing just a subset of the available information provides a false sense of confidence and will likely result in problems as the process moves forward. It’s a lot like the parable of the blind men and the elephant; you may understand part of the situation but you will never perceive the complete whole. When we orient, we must continue the holistic approach and take a comprehensive look at all the information that is available, including our own perceptions and biases, and build one or more plans of action. In doing so we triage the information, deciding what is essential (and should be retained) and what is irrelevant (and can be discarded). Make sure that outlier information is not discarded just because it is an outlier; make the decision to discard information a conscious one and not just a convenient one. Decision balances the risk and reward of the plan(s) of action and selects the best option. The longer the decision takes the higher the risk; what we have observed may no longer be true, the conclusions of our analysis may be based on incorrect information, the plans developed may not be addressing the correct issues. And in order to manage risk the decision should almost always be tested in a controlled environment before being implemented in a more widespread manner. Then we act – quickly and decisively. Allow me to go off on a tangent for a moment.   In his book Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, Gary Klein describes a study that was performed on the decision making by firefighters; specifically the process that captains used to decide how best to fight any given fire. The assumption was that the captain would develop multiple approaches and choose the best one. But that’s not what happens. After arriving at the scene the captain quickly assesses both the fire and the resources he has on hand; based on his assessment he immediately constructs a single plan that he believes to be best. He then takes this approach and tests it mentally. If it passes he immediately implements it; if it fails he tries to adjust the approach to compensate for the failure, and if he cannot he constructs a new approach, continuing the iterations until he arrives at an acceptable approach. Klein also documents at least one situation where a volunteer firefighter brigade spent 3 days trying to extinguish a refinery fire before calling in professionals.   The professionals put out the fire the next day. Based on this, I think it’s valid to assume that expertise is a requirement for effective decision making. Working with an individual who has experienced similar situations is a tremendous asset to the decision making process. They have learned what is material and what isn’t and can add their knowledge to the information gathered and the analysis and synthesis performed. Their expertise allows them to recognize conditions and qualities that may otherwise go unnoticed. This knowledge doesn’t even have to reside in an individual; any formal ‘body of knowledge’ can fulfill the same role. Finally, speed. The decision process needs to be executed with a sense of urgency. There are constraints to how fast the process can be proceed, but to be successful those constraints can’t be administrivia, bureaucracy or individuals who, for whatever reason, are unable to make a decision. Decision making is serious business. In a military setting good decision making can be a matter of life and death. In business it could mean the success or failure of your career, your project or, in some extreme situations, your business. Good decisions are more likely to happen if a decision-making process is followed; any framework is better than none. I think John Boyd’s OODA loop is worthy candidate for your consideration. John Boyd died in 1997 at the age of 70. He was buried with full military honours at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Interested in learning more about John Boyd? Can I suggest: The John Boyd Compendium – http://dnipogo.org/john-r-boyd/ The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security by Grant Tedrick Hammond Boyd: the fighter pilot who changed the art of war by Robert Coram photo credit: mrBunin via photopin cc

Push: Encouraging the growth and development of others

Push: Encouraging the growth and development of others

Sometimes the only thing missing is a little push.

Once upon a time, many years ago in a small rural town the time had come for the spring fair.

It was an annual event, a celebration of both the end of winter and the coming of the growing season, with its long days and heavy labor. The spring fair had everything that you typically associate with a spring fair; there were games, there was good food and cool drinks; iced tea, lemonade, and perhaps even an ice cold beer if you knew who to ask. The fair was held in a meadow on the bank of the large river that flowed by the town.

On the day of the fair people began arriving early. There were tables to set, tents to pitch and games to organize, but mostly there was time to renew old acquaintances and revel in the glory of the spring; a spring that seemed especially beautiful, as the winter had been long and cold.

The weather was perfect. It was a day not unlike those that we remember from our childhood – a warm breeze, a bright sun in a sky of robin-egg blue, a few wisps of clouds but none that threatened rain. The only reminder of the winter was the river.

Normally it was peaceful, but the winter’s snow had been heavy and spring was late. The run off was considerable that year, and the calm river was now full of currents and rapids. The river was angry, and mothers and fathers warned their children away from the river. But as the day wore on the watchful eyes of the parents were distracted, and the wonders of bluebells and frogs and turtles called to the children; for some the siren song was just too loud to ignore. It wasn’t long before a few of them were scrambling along the river bank in search of whatever treasures they could find when suddenly a young girl named Rebecca lost her footing and fell in. She was immediately swept away in the icy flow. Her mother (or maybe it was her sister, I can’t remember) screamed “Rebecca’s in the river!” and all the townspeople rushed towards the riverbank. It was chaos, yelling, screaming; only those right beside the riverbank were able to see. There was no doubt it was Rebecca – her long blond hair could be seen clearly in the dark, cold, swirling water. You would think someone would go in after her but that was not the case. Very few people in the town knew how to swim; it was a skill that wasn’t really required by a farming life. You could see the frustration, fear and impotence etched on their faces as they stood there, transfixed by what was happening.

Then there was another splash; a young man was swimming out into the river! A few people recognized him; his name was Tom, a farmhand who came to help with last fall’s harvest and stayed over the winter, doing odd jobs in the community. Not many knew him well, as he was quiet and reserved and generally kept to himself. But now he was the center of attention. He swam like an Olympian, cutting through the heavy current, reaching the girl in seconds. Grabbing her with one hand, he made his way back to the shore with the girl safely in tow. He reached the riverbank, passed Rebecca into the arms of the onlookers, and collapsed, exhausted. The crowd went crazy! What courage! What bravery! What selflessness! Had the townspeople held an election he would have been acclaimed mayor. Slowly the young man, shivering and covered with mud, raised himself up onto his knees and looked up into the crowd. They all went quiet in anticipation of what he was about to say. He cleared his throat and gasped, “All right, who in the hell pushed me!”

An excellent question. But here are two better ones: why did Tom need to be pushed, and why did the person who pushed chose Tom?

Why do people need a push? I’ve thought about this question for a long time; at first glance there seems to be a whole host of why reasons why individuals remain passive when what is required is decisive action, why they defer instead of deciding, why they procrastinate instead of moving forward. But when you start to separate the symptoms from the root cause if becomes clear that the reason people choose not to act is a simple one.

It’s fear.

And I think it’s fear at a very primal level. It’s not necessarily goal-related; it’s not just the failure of achieving the objective. It’s what our family and friends (and enemies) are going think when our failure becomes common knowledge. It’s what the failure will do to our self-image. It’s trying to figure out how we could possibly cope with the failure and deciding that that version future is too bleak to imagine.

We do a risk versus reward calculation in our heads and the answer we get is that it’s too risky. The issue is that we misperceive the risk; we ask ourselves what could go wrong and we enumerate all the ways we can fail and tally up the consequences. This is not a bad thing to do; it would be foolish to proceed in virtually any venture without some assessment of the risk. Looking both ways before you cross the street a reasonable, pragmatic precaution to take. The problem arises with our assessment of the likelihood of the risk. We almost always overestimate the chances of the risk actually occurring; to paraphrase Winston Churchill, we become a hostage to the ‘sum of all our fears’. In the end, we let fear win and we chose not to act; we remain passive and let our future be decided by the vagaries of fate instead of by our own actions. When fear paralyzes us we become catatonic and unable to move. Like Tom, we stand on the riverbank knowing that we could be the difference but are unwilling to commit. And our opportunity flows downstream until it disappears from sight.

We need a push.

We need someone to help us overcome our fear, break our immobility and move us forward.

Look at the people with whom you work. Is there anybody in stuck in a rut? Anyone capable of more than they are delivering? Do you see anyone in need of a push?

And what is a push, exactly? It is this: It is giving someone the opportunity to be successful and then helping them succeed. It’s removing the fear that’s holding them back. It’s being their safety net. And it’s easier than you would imagine.

Four Prerequisites for an Effective Push

There are four simple prerequisites that need to be in place before you can give someone an effective push.


The first is aptitude. Make sure the individual has the innate skills and talents to do what is required. This isn’t a training concern; it’s a question of making sure that the opportunity matches their talents. It’s unfair to put someone in a position where they have no familiarity with the job at hand.


The second is attitude. The individual must want the opportunity, and they need to believe that with your help they can be successful. They don’t necessarily need to recognize that they need a push (but it helps). They need to acknowledge, or at least hope, that they are capable of bigger and better things. The recognition is key; they need to possess a desire for growth and achievement.

Availability (Them)

The third is availability. This is simple but it can be easily overlooked. They need to have time in their day to address the opportunity. If someone is already working 40 hours a week the chance that they’ll be enthused at the prospect of working another 30 or 40 hours on a special opportunity is pretty slim. Allow them to focus a significant portion of their time on the opportunity at hand – reassign some of their current tasks or put the tasks aside for the time being. Demonstrate that you consider them an asset and that you (and the organization) are willing to make an investment.

Availability (You)

The forth is also is availability: yours. For a push to work you need to be able to coach and mentor the individual. Sometimes it’s as simple as listening and giving advice. (Sometimes it’s as hard as listening and not giving advice!) This is where the ‘safety net’ aspect of the relationship comes into play. Give them as much independence as they can handle while continuing to hold them accountable for the outcome. It’s a lot like helping your child learn to ride a bicycle; knowing how fast they can progress is an art, not a science. It takes some trial and error but eventually you both get the hang of it. Soon they’ll be off riding on their own through the neighborhood (and you’ll have a whole new set of worries!).

With any luck they will succeed in the endeavor. Celebrate their success. If despite everyone’s best efforts the endeavor does not succeed, learn from the failure and recognize their efforts. And if the effort was not there, accept that your judgment was flawed and you picked the wrong person. Learn from it and move on.

Pushing works. Try it – show someone that you have faith in them and then give them the opportunity prove you right. Be prepared to be amazed at the results.

And what became of Tom, the reluctant hero who needed a push?

After reading a draft of this post a cynical friend of mine remarked that no good deed goes unpunished, and that Tom probably caught a chill from the cold water, developed pneumonia and died. I prefer to think that things worked out a little bit better than that.

Tom’s reluctant heroism caught the eye of a young lady whose father happened to own the local bank. Her name was Margaret. She was smart, pretty and determined; Margaret and Tom wed the following summer. Her father took his new son-in-law under his wing and taught him the banking business, giving him his lead most of the time and a gentle push when he need it. Tom started at the bottom and learned as he went, and after a number of years became the manager, and eventually the owner. He always treated his customers fairly and honestly, and in time was widely regarded as the best banker in both the town and all the surrounding counties.

No one ever owned up to pushing Tom. As for Rebecca, her ordeal was quickly forgotten and she grew up straight and strong and true.

And they all lived happily ever after.







Photo Credit: wizardhat via Compfight cc

Project Manager or Project Leader?

Project Manager or Project Leader?

I have a pet peeve that I need to vent about; it’s about the title ‘Project Manager’.

I just can’t stand it. It’s not really all that descriptive of all that you are being asked to do. I think it minimizes the scope and focus of the role. You are a Project Leader.

To me, the word ‘manager’ denotes something akin to an administrator or a bureaucrat. There’s nothing wrong with being a manager. I was a manager for a long time – it was a difficult role. Proper management of a project is critical, but on most projects you are doing far more than managing.

You are driving and implementing change. You are improving the customer’s condition. You are delivering value. You are leading.

Let me reiterate this – you are not merely managing. You are leading.

In order to be successful I personally believe that it is absolutely essential to understand what it means to be a leader of a project.

You are the CEO of the project. Or you are a general leading troops into battle. Or a great maestro conducting an orchestra. Or whatever. Regardless of the metaphor you chose, the salient fact is that you are in charge. You are personally responsible for the successful delivery of the project. You are accountable.

Project management isn’t just the management of tasks and activities on the project; it’s the leadership of the people who are working on the project.   Once you realize this the chance of you being successful rises by an order of magnitude or more.

You are a leader, as well as:

  • A manager
  • A mentor
  • A teacher
  • A student
  • A counsellor
  • An anthropologist
  • A task master
  • A choreographer
  • A facilitator
  • A problem solver
  • A negotiator
  • An envoy

You can never be a friend. You may have friends working with you on the project, but within the confines of the project they are not your friends. Remember that business is business.

There are other things you don’t want to be. A puppet. A marionette. A magician or fortune teller. And you don’t want to be a scapegoat. If you’re a truly a leader it’s unlikely that you will be any of these.

Leadership, Organization and Appreciation

The role of the project leader boils down to three separate and distinct responsibilities; the first is a leadership, the second is organization and the third is appreciation.


You can go into any bookstore and find literally hundreds of books that deal with the subject of leadership. It is up to you to decide how applicable they are to your particular situation.

From the project perspective my belief with regards to leadership is this: leadership is the ability to give direction in terms of what needs to be done to who needs to do it, as well as to provide guidance on how it should be done.

It is your responsibility as a project leader to drive out ambiguity and replace it with clarity; to replace uncertainty with certainty, supplant chaos and confusion with order and predictability.

You are responsible for the successful delivery of the project; you are responsible for that the methodology being followed on the project is sound and valid; you are responsible for ensuring that the development effort is complete.

One thing you are not responsible is the business outcome of the implementation – that is the responsibility of the project champion.


Organizing is also a core responsibility; it’s what people think of when you say ‘project management’. You have been hired to get things done. Getting things done is best accomplished by having a process or methodology to follow – this will help ensure that the journey as smooth as possible. This is more than a project plan; it’s ensuring that key stakeholders are available when required; that expectations are reasonable and that they are managed; that individuals’ vacations are taken into account; that documents are circulated and signed off in the appropriate timeframe as well as a myriad of other things. If you are making up the process as you go you are likely to fail.

People need to know the steps that the project is going to follow – the planned sequence of events. This is the document that everyone associates with project management – the project schedule.

Every project should have a set of agreed upon ground rules that all parties consent to – rules that define the general accountabilities of the group. Think of them as operating principles for the project. Things like turnaround time for document approvals, how much notice is required for a meeting, what responsibilities meeting attendees have – at a minimum it’s no more than a couple of pages worth but having these rules documented and agreed to at the start will eliminate a great deal of anguish later in the project. But it’s also needed to ensure that the eventual outcome to be reached at the end of the project (or phase, or task) is understood and agreed to by all the stakeholders.

It is important to never lose sight of the fact that you are really an intermediary who is representing the needs and desires of the project champion and the larger organization. You may be a general but the project champion is the commander in chief.

There is another aspect of understanding that both you and your team need to keep in mind. You and your team are engaged in important work that is going deliver benefits to the organization that has hired you. The project is actually a secondary concern. It is a means to an end, and the end is the delivery of the expected benefits. It is very easy to get lost in the details and the day-to-day concerns of the project and lose sight of why the project is actually being undertaken. A well-conceived project will always have a clear line of sight to the value it will deliver, and that value should never become secondary to the execution of the project. If the value isn’t clearly apparent at all times then it’s an indication that there are some fundamental flaws in either the construction of the project or that the raison d’etre of the project has not been well thought out.


Appreciation is a word with multiple meanings. In this case we are using it to denote totally different connotations.

In the first sense, appreciation is used to mean ‘understanding or comprehension’. As the project leader, it is your responsibility to understand the status of the project at all times. The state of the budget and the schedule, who is assigned to what task, upcoming milestones, when the next major deliverable is due, and so on, and so on … there is a myriad of details that must be tracked and reported on. It’s up to you to ensure that it all gets done. It’s also up to you to ensure that everyone else appreciates just exactly what is required of them, as well as when it is required.

In the second sense, appreciation denotes gratitude and thanks. This is closely aligned with leadership; you should always recognize the efforts and contributions of your team. You will only succeed if your team delivers. It is very easy to take them for granted. Don’t.

At the end of the day the terminology might not matter all that much. What really matters is your attitude and actions; whether you call yourself a project manager or project leader is immaterial. Do you see yourself as someone who is executing a project, or someone who is delivering value through the execution of a project? It’s a small shift in perspective but sometimes a small change makes a big difference. Try taking the latter view; you may find that you’ve become a leader.

I’m through venting. Thanks for your indulgence.

PS. I don’t hold out much hope that these views about project leadership are going to catch on. After all, the term ‘project manager’ is entrenched in the business world. You can get an MBA in project management or become certified in project management, but in project leadership? Not so much. And in looking at my CV, in my list of previous roles you’ll see that I was a project manager, not a project leader.

PPS. But should I ever work on another project, I will do my best to not just manage, but to lead.

 photo credit: Sky Noir via photopin cc

Bridge to the Future – a stellar example of forward-thinking design

Bridge to the Future – a stellar example of forward-thinking design

Let’s talk about another bridge.

It’s about a mile and a half north of the Queen Street Bridge.  Its official title is “The Prince Edward Viaduct System”.  It was completed in 1918, and like many public works projects of that time it was named after a royal. Its namesake, Prince Edward, was the Prince of Wales at the time; he was destined to become King Edward VIII. He was also destined to abdicate the throne and lived most of the rest of his life in exile in France (where he was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer). Prince Edward and his story feel like ancient history; maybe this is why virtually all Torontonians know it as ‘The Viaduct’.  These facts by themselves do not make this bridge important.

The bridge was needed to connect central Toronto with its eastern boroughs. It took a while for the general populace to warm up to the idea; the most contentious issue was the cost.  There were multiple referendums before the construction was approved in 1913. The Viaduct spans the 600 yard wide Don River Valley. The valley is a product of the last age of glaciation. What used to be a ranging torrent is now really just a creek; the present day Don River is only about 20 yards wide, gently flowing south towards Lake Ontario before it vanishes into the Toronto docklands. Again, these are interesting facts but by themselves do not make this bridge important.

A recent addition to the bridge is a structure called ‘the Luminous Veil’.   Despite the ethereal sounding name it has a sobering purpose – it’s a suicide prevention barrier.  Over the years people intent on committing suicide seemed drawn to the Viaduct, so much so that it became the second most common location in North America to commit suicide (the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco has the dubious distinction of being the most common). The Veil has been very successful at preventing suicides at the bridge, but sadly the numbers across Toronto haven’t declined; studies have shown that people have found other bridges. The Luminous Veil is important for what it represents, but it’s not what makes the bridge important.

The reason it’s called a ‘viaduct’ is that the bridge is constructed of a series of concrete and steel arches that is reminiscent of a Roman aqueduct. The road surface manages 5 lanes of traffic; underneath the roadway is a dual rail line that is used by Toronto’s subway system.  The Bloor-Danforth subway line runs east-west across the city; it opened in 1966. The Toronto subway system is not as extensive as those found in other cities like New York, London or Paris, but it is absolutely essential in helping the city function. Over 1.5 million passengers are moved by Toronto transit every day and many of them travel on trains that cross the Viaduct.

It’s not until all the facts are tied together that the significance of what the bridge represents becomes evident. Just to summarize – construction of the bridge completed in 1918. The design of the bridge included a capability for rail traffic. The Toronto east-west subway line opens in 1966.  What is important is this: The designers of the bridge incorporated a feature into the design a full 50 years before it was required.

They accepted the additional cost in order to create something that had no current utility but had an incredible future value. When the subway line was constructed the Viaduct required next to no modification to accommodate the subway. (Let’s give them credit – their names were Edmund Burke and Thomas Taylor.) 

This is in stark contrast to what happens today on the average business project. The goal seems to be to minimize costs at the expense of functionality; it’s been my experience that most people, especially business leadership, are much more comfortable with removing features in the name of cost-savings than they are with adding features and adding to the expense.

The word ‘expense’ is at the root of the problem. Money spent on change can be viewed as an expense or as an investment. Unfortunately in today’s environment the former view is predominant, and like any expense the preference is to make it as small as possible, or eliminate it altogether. Investments, on the other hand, have the goal of generating value – you are paying now for a potential future return.  I think what we need are more leaders who can see beyond the cost of change, and instead look at the value that it will generate, even if that value is not realized until sometime in the future. Although 50 years is probably too long a wait!

The future is notoriously hard to predict. There are no guarantees when it comes to organizational change; it takes a degree of courage to invest your company’s money (not to mention your reputation) on a course of action where the outcome is not certain. But the risk can be managed. Do your research. Be reasonable in your assumptions. Temper expectations. Have contingency plans.  Assemble a good team. These are all prerequisites – ignore any of them and you are no longer investing, you are gambling.

And let’s be honest – sometimes the investment doesn’t pay off.  The Rosedale Valley Viaduct is the next bridge in the system, and if you stand underneath it and look up you will see the same rail lines but you won’t hear the rumbling of subways.  These lines aren’t used; use of the bridge required a turn in the line that was just too abrupt for modern subways. They would have worked for streetcars (which is probably what the designers had in mind). In this case their investment didn’t realize any value; a new bridge had to be constructed to accommodate the subway.

What about you? Are your change initiatives considered an expense or an investment? Have your investments paid off? Feel free to share.

One more thing. Suicide is not a topic that most people like to talk about but talking can help. If you are suffering emotional distress or are in crisis and want to talk call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The number works in both the USA and Canada.

photo credit: Toronto Public Library Special Collections via photopin cc

Optimization WordPress Plugins & Solutions by W3 EDGE