Agile Business

Agile Business 

There is a lot of great articles and evidence to support the principles of agile development. It is capable of being more responsive to customer requirements and has the ability to develop better product faster.  There is also evidence that agile marketing techniques can deliver better results than traditional marketing, especially when they embrace and respond to Inbound marketing techniques. However the picture is not complete. Should the whole organisation not behave in an agile fashion to maximize potential? I call this principle ‘Holistic Agile’ (HA).

Smaller companies, where everyone wears many hats, are inherently holistic. It is one of the main reasons they move faster than their larger competitors. Indeed, this is one of the major reasons they win business.  Larger companies tend to have more process in place and greater resources but the smaller companies are more responsive to customer requirements, it’s because they are agile.  The larger businesses try and become more responsive by putting agile in part of their business, development. However, can they be truly responsive unless the whole organisation embraces this rhythm?

At both ends of the spectrum these businesses are generally far from optimal. I believe it is because there are still disconnects in the organisations and they would benefit from a move towards a more Holistic Agile approach.

Agile methodologies allow an organisation to test and flex product ideas and generally get them to market quicker.  However, the business development cycle is still more like the diagram below.

It is generally quite linear and the folks on the chain tend to wait for input from the previous before commencing or completing the task.  This also promotes the ideas of silo based budgets and management lines of demarcation.

The model that I think is required should look more like this:

In this model all functional department work in parallel on the product being produced. To make this work is not simply a ‘product managers’ job to tie together the pieces of the organisation but a full organisational commitment to the process. This means you need to overhaul your complete strategy and they way you report and measure your business.

One agile technique that works very well is the idea of a slice. A slice builds a team containing front end, business layer and integration and builds a complete ‘end to end’ slice of technical functionality. This means that the executive team and the customers can engage early in process and can explore realistic scenarios. This allows for quicker flexing and direction changing if necessary. Why do we not do this across the whole business?

To make this work, the management team must put in place a structure, which accepts ‘this is the way we do things around here’. This culture would not only be exciting for the people working in the business but I think would give enormous business advantage.

The question is, how many companies are capable of doing this. The larger companies tend to be layered in the calcium of quarterly reporting and investor packs. The smaller companies too busy surviving to build in the philosophy.

My top three tips for organisations that want to try this are:

  •  Building a product business is everybody’s job.  Do not hand off the responsibility to anyone individual, not even the CEO (who should be involved). Instead create an enthusiasm about they way in which your company attacks this task.
  • Create bite size slices of business functionality. A business slice will have a measurable outcome; It will have a technical feature which has an associated marketing story. It will have a target for leads generated and prospect meetings held. In short it will have an associated ‘mini-business’ plan.
  • Regular Show and Tell. Nothing paints a picture better than a demo. Make sure the CEO goes to these, it will motivate the team. A great way to tie the business strands together, make sure all parties are represented, although keep the numbers low. Do it later in the day and maybe have a Pizza afterwards.

 

Wicked Web

The importance of you website cannot be underestimated. This little article pokes a bit of fun at the practices of many companies.

Whilst the subterfuge might be necessary, it really pissed Dave off. He had changed trains twice and had made sure he left his mobile phone at home. Not having his mobile with him was enough to make him shiver. But here he was at last. He looked across the café and there was Terrance, eyebrows raised and a smug smile on his face. Dave walked over.

‘What have you got for me today? ‘ said Dave. He sat down and flicked open his laptop.

Terrance smiled and began ‘Today, my friend, I’m going to tell you about the Internet and in particular how the Spikes use it to control global commerce.’

Dave looked up, nodded then created a new document. ‘OK, lets go.’

Terrance began, ‘Have you ever wondered why so many companies go bust.’

He paused.

‘Did you know that 50% of all  businesses fail in the first two years ?  Now, technically the reason why most fail is of course  because they run out of money. But the Spikes certainly help these failures along and one of the main ways they help them fail is via their websites.’

‘How so?’  said Dave.

Terrance grinned, thought for a moment then began. ‘You know there are only three purposes of a website.  Ecommerce, to enhance a companies’ credentials and to generate leads. Lets not worry about the first one; the Spikes already control Amazon et al.  However to make the smaller guys fail they encourage really bad habits that cause the smaller companies websites to become ineffective.’

‘Have you ever heard the expression “form over function”?’  Dave nodded.

‘Have you also noticed how most websites look the same these days? Typically they look better and better every year. They are normally responsive design, simple background images, funky fonts, great pictures and easy to use. In fact they are gorgeous.’

‘So why is that a problem?’ said Dave.

‘Well it’s not a problem in itself, but the design is typically controlled by a certain part of the business. For most smaller businesses, the creative team are normally external and are motivated and driven by design. The designers will probably drive a mini cooper, design on an IMac, love Casablanca etc. In short they love good design probably more than they love the function of the site. ‘

‘Now, this is not in itself an issue, but it is a work of genius that the Spikes promote. They never discourage good design, but they make sure there is a gap between the designers motivation and the business needs. In short the messages that should be used to try and generate more leads are often lost in this gap. Even more than this they leave the impression in the mind of the CEO that the website is OK because the web team are all over it.  The reality is that what the CEO knows as the businesses core strengths are often not represented on the website. ‘

‘How many websites have you visited and don’t understand what the business does. This happens all the time and results in a huge loss of lead potential for the business. Companies try hard  to get people to visit their site. But, hey presto, when they do they visit they do not recognize that the company can actually help them.’

‘Sorry, I don’t understand, what do you mean? ‘ said Dave.

‘Well. Surely the purpose of most businesses is to help their customers. It must be. But, if you look at most websites they tend to speak more about the owner of the web sites rather than problems of their customers and prospects. They are self-obsessed. They will talk about all the great products they have, their companies’ offices, the brilliance of their staff and so on. It is the wrong focus. But hey, they do it in a really pretty web site!’

‘The prospect is forced to search around to see if this company can actually help them. Now this might work if the prospect was already known and directed to the website by one of the companies’ staff. But even so it would be better for the prospect if they saw their problem on the website along with how with company actually solves the problem.’

‘It’s even worse for product companies. Now most of them know that they should be selling benefit over feature. But do you know what, they do the exact opposite. There will be a list of products that the company sells along with funky names and icon’s. Products that the company is very proud of, but the visitor to the site has no idea of what benefit it would bring them.’

‘Often this is even on the home page !‘ He whispered.

Terrance smiled.

‘In addition the copy is normally given by a technical resource and is copied verbatim onto the website. So the poor prospect is faced with a barrage of words like: framework, cloud, federated, big data etc. etc. They have no idea what it means for them, they are lost and typically seek the solace of a trusted brand. So, yet again the Spikes keep control and another company is on the train heading to oblivion!’ Terrance paused.

‘So there you have it. By promoting really bad messages really great products and services never see the light of day.’

Dave typed a bit then stopped. Looking directly at Terrance he asked ‘How do the Spikes control this behaviour, surely this is in the hands of the management of the company.’

‘Great question! They do it in many ways. Firstly, they create a number of operational issues for the business, like shortages of cash, performance problems etc. that put the team into firefighting mode. They then engineer changes to market conditions that affect the value of the company’s proposition. The management team reacts. But in doing so they lose sight of their strategy and forget to focus on the customer, as they are too busy surviving. The net result is that shabby web sites are allowed to flourish which permeates the problems of cash etc. It’s brilliant really.’

Dave sat back. It was true. If businesses kept a focus on their customers’ problems and offered great solutions they could change the game. But alas, unless they kept reminding themselves of this and reacting with their strategy, the situation would not change.

He sunk back into his chair and though.

Lose Money

If you buy the wrong thing or do the wrong thing you are wasting money.Most organizations are far from efficient and most do not even know where money is being lost.

 

The Ideal Machine

This article is not about the money you are wasting on travel or even the fact that you don’t switch the lights out when you leave the room. I’m sure there are loads of places your wasting money on things like that, this article is about the real money you lose when your internal processes are not optimised. I also think, that the reason why more than 96% of all software firms have fewer than 10 employees, is partially due to them not optimising or even implementing processes.

So if you are running a small company and dream of running a bigger one, read on !

My experience is that companies are generally far from optimal. In short, they waste money and squander opportunity. Many are not even aware they are doing it. So I thought I’d give my quick heads up on where I think companies have the best opportunity to reverse this loss into a profit. In the spirit of all good storytellers, I’m going to attempt to fit my observations into a metaphor for your delight and delectation.

I remember a lecture once about the ‘Ideal Machine’. For those of you who don’t remember, an Ideal Machine is a hypothetical mechanical system where energy and power are not dissipated through friction, wear or other deficiencies. I started to think, if a business were an ‘ideal machine’, where would I look to see where energy (money) was being lost. So, I took the analogy one stage further and asked myself how is energy lost in a machine. The main losses are to light, sound and heat. So I’ve decided to use these three losses as an example way of introducing loss in a software business.

Light

I‘m going to use light as a great metaphor for vision. If your team does not understand the vision, strategy or direction of the company then they will not be optimal in their endeavors. For example: The company does not have a strategy to differentiate it from its competitors, therefore they never do. The marketing team produces the wrong set of messages, as they do not understand the strategy and objectives of the company. The wrong thing gets built; sometimes, even though people know it’s the wrong, they figure it’s not their responsibility. The development team feels dis-engaged with the business as they only have visibility of development tasks therefore great ideas are never captured.

Sound

I think this is a great metaphor for the loss of energy that happens when a company does not internally communicate well enough. Members of the team feel dis-engaged, as they are ‘mushroom managed’ and don’t feel included in the companies’ vision. The development team builds features that are not relevant to the target market. The executive makes incorrect strategy decisions as their view of the market is flawed, even though the sales and marketing team could have told them otherwise. Sales team fails to win a deal because it does not understand that a current benefit exists or cannot get effective input from marketing and development on a sensitive bid.

Departmental targets reduce trust between departments and encourage personal protection over company benefit. The net results are that folks don’t mention things that they know to be wrong.

Heat

Internal friction or politics generate useless noise that reduces the benefits a company can produce. Good examples of this are: Department work in Silos’ with little concern for their colleague success. A lack of trust builds up and teams tend to work in isolation. Hidden features in the product are not converted to benefit statements because the marketing team did not know they existed or where planned. The wrong features are development because of an overwhelming and uncontrolled demand from the sales team. No one cares about what is being built and staff attrition rises. The business is not somewhere people want to be. It’s just not any fun.

OK, I’m going to stop the metaphor now. The point I’m trying to make is that an effective and efficient company is one where all the parts join up properly. It is an inclusive environment, which understands that the people on the top of an organization need to be connected to the people at the bottom. Even more it understands that one of the most expensive and effective parts of any business is the people who work there. However, little attempt is made to connect the business and as a result opportunities (and key staff) are lost.

What can be done

The most important part of any business is to identify a product or service that adds value to their customers and differentiates it from its competitors. However it is really common that strategy does not include either of these parties in their definition. Incidentally, by strategy I am not talking about vision or mission statements but more about what the underlying strategy of the businesses is.

A good strategy will put blue water between you and your competitors and delight your customers. But if you don’t have one or have not communicated it to your team your chances of successful execution will be limited. So, number one thing is, determine what your strategy is. However, bear in mind that your strategy may be wrong. So test it often. If it is not working, change it. The quickest way to determine if it is wrong is to include your team and collect information from them.

The next thing is to set up an appropriate structure to ensure that necessary information is collected and distributed to your business. Be inclusive. Your team will respond well and are likely to stick around longer if they feel they are part of the journey of the company. Make your machine more efficient by tightening the connections of the various parts of your company. A loose machine will lose money!

How do I lube my joints

For me, the key objective is to get the whole team working in the same direction. They will feel better If they feel included in the direction of the business and will be more effective if they know what direction the business is heading. So a few things, some more obvious than others :

  1. Your working environment: Physical walls create emotional barriers. If it is possible to have an open plan-working environment, then have one. People are tribal, if you put people in a room they will become the tribe of the room ! This makes it harder to get people to communicate effectively. Have break out area’s (with free tea, coffee and maybe a wee biscuit) and meeting rooms but try not to have offices.
  2. Build a governance structure: Now I know all the young companies hate meetings and any kind of structure. The reason why you are so successful is that you just get on with it. I’m a big fan of this. I also know that the bigger companies tend to have too many ineffective meetings, it’s used as an excuse to seem busy. So somewhere along the line you will move from doing nothing to nothing doing. Be honest with yourself and re-evaluate what is working and what is not. But test yourself to see if you have enough structure in place to keep the business informed and aligned to your purpose. It’s a constant struggle but a necessary one. However, of all things please ask yourself if you are being totally re-active or if you have an end goal in mind and are truly trying to reach it. If not, you need urgently to set yourself a new target. If you do reach your target, then also be aware of the ‘now we have arrived syndrome’, that’s the one where you settle back into your own comfort zone and stop testing yourself and growing. Again, in this situation, work out where you are going next and re-communicate.
  3. Have a strategy: If you have not sat down and worked out your strategy and how you are going to achieve it, do it now. By the way, a mission statement is not a strategy. A strategy will understand how you are going to attract customers and how you will differentiate between competitors. Saying something like “being best in the world” on it’s own is meaningless. Once you have agreed the strategy make sure the objectives to achieve this are known and communicated. Also make sure they are kept front of mind and current, often they will be lost to operational issues. A good way of doing this is with a balanced scorecard (see Kaplan and Norris, Harvard Business Review 1992).
  4. Revisit your strategy: Guess what, you might have chosen the wrong strategy. If it is not panning out, then change it. You will have a better chance of knowing if is not working by looking into the future as well as the past. Are your original concepts still valid, has the world changed? The best way to know this is to listen to your own people and what they are hearing from the field, don’t cut them out. This means you will need to invest time to work out what communications strategy and governance works for your organisation. No matter what you are doing you need to keep internal comms alive.
  5. Walk about a bit: If you are in a management position you should walk around your company a bit. Do it regularly so folks are not shocked. Talk to people in an informal way, tell them stuff if you are given the opportunity. Use your emotional intelligence sensors and try to pick up the vibe. How your team feels will have a direct result on how your customers are being treated.
  6. Try to keep the secrets to a minimum: It’s often the case that managers think people are not in a ‘need to know’ situation. As a result they keep secrets, particularly to do with the performance of the company. I believe this is a mistake. If things are not looking good then your team are the people who need to fix them. Not telling them won’t help. If things are good then it’s probably because of them. Keep them informed, the decisions they make are guided by the data they have.
  7. Communicate all the time: You need to work out your meetings schedules etc., and you need to have good and optimal meetings but make sure you over communicate.
  8. Thank you all the time: Great performance is a great chance to give a public thank you to an employee. Not only will this raise the morale of the employee and their team, it gives a great opportunity to re-enforce why what they did was good. This re-enforcement will probably have an affect on the customer and your strategy; so don’t waste the chance to praise where possible. It is also a great way of helping to keep those great guys working in your company.

If you focus on tightening up the gaps between your departments then I think you are well on the way to optimising your performance. I think that the reason behind most inefficiency in a business can be identified as an issue of communication. The issues of communication should be smaller for smaller companies but if you are being successful be aware that these issues lie just around the corner. It is one of the main failings of a company going from ad-hoc to needing to delegate, they assume folks will just get it. They won’t and you will have to work at it. So, my friends, get out there and start talking !

The roadblock’s will be there as you grow, but if you expect them you can remove them very quickly.

Hire Stars

Hire Stars

It is well known that the best people work for the best companies. But will they work for you ?

 

As the recession seems to be receding and confidence is improving, there are a lot of companies with very optimistic views on growth. But how are companies going to fuel this growth in the face of steep competition for key resources. I recently read the Scottish Technology Industry survey for 2013 (ScotlandIS). In it, analysis indicated that over 70% of the firms spoken to are planning to increase headcount.

It is also well known that there is a real shortage of skills to fill these positions. So, what are the top four things that firms should do in the face of having a shortage of staff:

Sack Someone

This first thing you should do is make sure that you have not put off any decisions regarding non-performing staff. If you are short of staff, then you may put off exiting employees who are not performing and will never perform at an appropriate level. This is a big mistake. It is not just about employing people, it is about employing the right people. To attract stars into your company you need to be an organisation that they want to be a part off. Non performance, if not treated, will spread and will discourage good people from joining you. People want to work in winning teams. If you have a non-performer then not only you will know this, but your work colleagues will as well. Your failure to act will not only reflect badly upon you but will discourage your team from performing at their top level.

Sack your Recruitment Company

There might be a tendency for some companies to take a shotgun approach when working with recruitment agencies. The arguments is, that as you pay them a similar amount, why not trawl the ocean by having more recruitment companies work with you. This is a mistake. You should seek to have meaningful relationships with as few a number of recruitment companies as possible. You want to hire the best people and keep them. If you form a lasting relationship with one or two recruiters then they will get to know you. They will also know that if they do not perform on your behalf then you will move elsewhere. Good recruitment companies know this and will be more effective when they understand your culture and requirements.

Be Creative

Don’t just run ‘same old’ adverts as everyone else (i.e. boring – java programmer wanted type ads). You need to advertise yourself as somewhere that great people want to work. It is widely known that, whilst pay and conditions are important, people are also motivated by great organisations If you have spent time on building a great environment that people want to work in you need to advertise this to the outside world. Use externals companies, like 60 Watt, who produced the ‘Nutters’ Advert, to help you stand out from the crowd. Graham Technology, a very successful CRM software company, ran this advert a decade ago , in similar market conditions, and recruited some of the best talent in the country as a result. People, already working in the business, liked being ‘Nutters’ and attracted their friends in too. Look Oversea’s The world is a more connected place. You can now easily outsource certain tasks to overseas companies or indeed recruit overseas. However, be careful to ensure you have also thought about the right way to control projects when working with oversea teams. My suggestion is that Agile methodologies (like SCRUM) with regular show and tell’s is a great way to do this as it is very reactive. Also, you should try and find someone who has done this before to help you navigate the different and important cultural differences you will experience.

 

(Thanks to Iain Hawk for the Nutters Advert)