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Understanding the Real Issue using Root Cause Analysis

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Too often people, including Consultants, spend time trying to solve the wrong problem due to having incomplete or incorrect information. Once I was investigating a series of performance problems and unplanned outages that were assumed to be two separate problems. As I gathered information several people provided anecdotal stories of anomalous behaviors in a variety of systems, speculation about the “real problem,” and discussions about “chasing ghosts” during previous attempts to resolve the problem.

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I remember stating that I was there to solve a real problem having a serious negative impact on production and that it was not my intent to chase ghosts or do anything else that would unnecessarily waste time. Next, I outlined the approach I would use to make a Root Cause determination, and that we would reconvene to discuss the real problem and potential solutions. A few people scoffed and felt that this was a waste of time and money.

The process followed was simple, structured, and logical. It took everything that was known to be true and mapped it out. I looked for patterns, commonalities, and intersections of systems and events. Within two days my team and I had identified a complex root cause involving multiple components, which we demonstrated would reliably reproduce the symptoms that our client was experiencing. From there we worked with their teams to make minor network changes, system configuration changes, and several small application changes.

By the end of the second week, they were no longer experiencing major slowdowns or unplanned outages. Each outage cost this company tens of thousands of dollars in lost sales due to the time-sensitive nature of their product. Within one week they had recovered the cost of hiring me and my team. What stuck with us was how many really smart people “believed in ghosts” and failed to focus on the information that they already had.

A few years later we decided to create a white paper to potentially help others in need of a simple structured approach. Below is a link to that white paper, which was written by one of the top people on my team. We received very positive feedback at the time so it seemed that this could potentially still be useful today. Please take a look and let me know what you think.

Innovations “Iron Triangle”

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The concept of an Iron Triangle is that along each side of the triangle is one item that is constrained by the items from the other two sides. In Project Management this is often referred to as a triple constraint. This identifies the fundamental relationships (such as Time, Cost, and Scope in Project Management) without addressing related aspects such as Risk and Quality. It provides a simple understanding of both requirements and tradeoffs.

Triangle with a flame in the middle and edges listed as heat, fuel, and oxygen.

Yesterday I spoke with Dave Mosby, an impressive person with an equally impressive background. He related Innovation to Fire, noting that in order to create fire you need fuel, oxygen, and heat. He added that they need to be in the right combination to achieve the desired flame. What a brilliant analogy.

Dave stated that for Corporate Innovation to succeed you need the proper balance of Innovation, Capital, and Entrepreneurship. I found this enlightening because his description substituted “entrepreneurship” for “culture” in my existing mental model. While the difference is subtle, I found it to be important.

As noted above, simplified frameworks do not provide a complete understanding. But, they do help understand and plan around the foundational items required for success. Mapping this to past experiences I was able to gain a better understanding of things that did not move forward as desired, and what I could have done differently in order to be more effective.

One idea was to create a fault-tolerant database using Red Hat’s JBoss middleware. We had a Services partner willing to create a working prototype, tune it for performance, document the system requirements and configuration, and package it for easy deployment. They wanted was $10K to cover their costs.

At the time I did not hold a budget of my own so created a purchase request supported by a logical justification. It modeled potential revenue increases for database subscriptions based on the need for a failover installation, as well as growth from potential expanded use cases. This was a slam dunk!

In my mind, this was simple as it was “only $10K,” and I had funded many similar efforts when I had my own company. But that’s the rub. I viewed these efforts as investments in understanding, lessons learned, and growth. Not every investment had a direct payoff, but nearly each one of them had an indirect payoff for my company. It was an entrepreneurial mindset that accepted risk as something required for rewards and success. I now see, many years later, how reframing my proposal as a way to foster innovation and entrepreneurship could have been far more effective.

It is never too late to gain new insights and lessons learned. And, a slightly different perspective on an important topic provided the understanding that should help with positioning projects for success in the future. And this flowed from a discussion with an interesting person who has, “been there, done that” many times.

Using Themes for Enhanced Problem Solving

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Thematic Analysis is a powerful qualitative approach used by many consultants. It involves identifying patterns and themes to better understand how and why something happened, which provides the context for other quantitative analysis. It can also be utilized when developing strategies and tactics due to its “cause and effect” nature.

Typical analysis tends to be event-based. Something happened that was unexpected. Some type of triggering or compelling event is sought to either stop something from happening or to make something happen. With enough of the right data, you may be able to identify patterns, which can help predict what will happen next based on past events. This data-based understanding may be simplistic or incomplete, but often it is sufficient.

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But, people are creatures of habit. If you can identify and understand those habits, and place them within the context of a specific environment that includes interactions with others, you may be able to identify patterns within the patterns. Those themes can be much better indicators of what may or may not happen than the data itself. They not only become better predictors of things to come but can also help identify more effective strategies and tactics to achieve your goals.

This approach requires that a person view an event (desired or historical) from various perspectives to help understand:

  1. Things that are accidental but predictable because of human nature.
  2. Things that are predictable based on other events and interactions.
  3. Things that are the logical consequence of a series of events and outcomes.

Aside from the practical implications of this approach I find it fascinating relative to AI and Predictive Analysis.

For example, by understanding the recurring themes and triggers you can monitor data and activities proactively. That is actionable intelligence that can be automated and incorporated into a larger system. Machine Learning and Deep Learning can analyze tremendous volumes of data from a variety of sources in realtime.

Combine that with Semantic Analysis, which is challenging due to the complexity of taxonomies and ontologies, and now that system more accurately understand what is really happening in order to make accurate predictions. Add in spatial and temporal data such as IoT, metadata from photographs, etc. and you should have the ability to view something as though you were very high up – providing the ability to “see” what is on the path ahead. It is obviously not that simple, but it is exciting to think about.

From a practical perspective, keeping these thoughts in the back of your mind will help you see details that other people have missed. That makes for better analysis, better strategies, and better execution.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Interesting Article about ADHD and Creativity

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This “pocket” story is from Scientific American, originally published on March 5, 2019. The Creativity of ADHD.

Over the years I have found that some of the most interesting, creative, and effective CEOs have ADHD-like tendencies. The strange thing is that they may not even be aware that they have it. Hyperfocus can be incredibly effective when attached to a driven person.

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Below are links to a couple of posts that make these concepts and their benefits tangible:

Divergent Thinking

Conceptual Expansion

Just examples of why it is best to look beyond labels, lay your preconceived notions to the side, and explore the potential that each and every individual can contribute. The best managers and leaders tend to have this ability.

And if you want to take that a step further, let it guide you on finding the best approach to teaching, coaching, and motivating the people on your team. It may take a little extra effort but the results are amazing.

Sales Success for the Individual Contributor

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Let’s start with two of my favorite personal quotes:

“Luck is what happens when Preparation meets Opportunity.” – Seneca, Roman Philosopher.

“Become the person who would attract the results you seek.” – Jim Cathcart, Author of “Relationship Selling”

Why are those quotes important? Because they point out that you are responsible for your own success.

Picture of a hand holding several twenty dollar bills

Great companies with great products or services and great management teams make it much easier to be successful, but anyone who is prepared, curious, focused, motivated, and has a system that they follow can become successful anywhere.

My experience has shown the following to be true:

  1. Without preparation and understanding of your prospect, their customers, and their competition you are unlikely to succeed. This understanding provides the foundation for asking relevant questions to both understand the real need and to effectively qualify a deal in or out.
  2. Most sales occur because a Product or Service solves real and immediate business problems, or ties into strategic business initiatives.
  3. Your early goals should be around getting the meeting, having real discussions, understanding problems from your prospect’s perspective (including the terminology they use to describe those problems), and helping them describe what success “looks like to them” and why that is important (logically and emotionally). At this stage, you are learning and positioning, not selling.
  4. Deal qualification is an essential skill that enables you to focus your time and efforts where you are most likely to succeed. The faster you are able to “qualify out” a prospect that is not a good fit the better it is for you and that prospect. Eternal optimism is not a plan for filling your pipeline.
  5. If you have a supporting team then make sure that everyone understands the situation, their role and contribution to success, and what you want them to focus on. Never assume that things will just fall into place on their own.
  6. Have a repeatable process to track activities, measure progress, and identify the best next steps. Remember, “To measure is to know.” (Lord Kelvin)
  7. The sale is not over until your new Customer is happy. Become their internal advocate within your own organization and you will be rewarded with the customer’s trust, loyalty, and repeat business.

Ideally your Sales Leadership Team has defined a Sales Strategy, created a couple of repeatable Sales Plays and compelling supporting materials such as: Success Stories; Case Studies; ROI and TCO charts; brief but targeted Demos; and realistic Product Comparison information for internal use. These become the foundation for repeatable and scalable success.

But, if that is missing then collaborate with your peers, seek guidance from your leadership, and get creative. Remember, you are ultimately responsible for your own success so don’t allow things to become excuses or a crutch. In the words of the Buddha, “There are three solutions to every problem: Accept it, Change it, or Leave it.”

To help ensure success you will need to follow a Sales Methodology. Here is a link to a good high-level overview from Spotio.com. I’ve used several and there are pros and cons to each. None of them effectively addresses the successful progression from:

  1. Initiation, Understanding, and Qualification.
  2. Defining a compelling Solution and successfully positioning it against the competition.
  3. Closing the Sale, which is an area that many salespeople fall short.

The sales methodology that I personally believe is one of the easiest to use and most effective is MEDDIC. It is a Deal Qualification process, which is more encompassing than a simple Lead Qualification approach. The biggest blind spots are that it fails to address these four key areas:

  1. Influencers within a buyer’s organization. Knowing who these people are and what their biases may be will allow you to direct various resources towards each, and ideally provide a multi-threaded approach for each and every deal.
  2. Incumbents and the sentiment towards those vendors and their products. This is key to not wasting time on an opportunity that you would be unlikely to win.
  3. Related/Adjacent needs. Being able to tie success to multiple areas provides leverage and increases the value of your solution.
  4. Timeline/Urgency. This allows you to work backward from milestone dates for efforts like typical lead times for Legal and Purchasing, Integration Testing, QA/QC, Training and Documentation, etc.

Being prepared, creating a common vision of success that is based on the outcome rather than the approach, being responsive, and developing relationships and trust based on knowledge and a desire to help are easy ways to differentiate yourself from many lesser salespeople. Invest in your skills, set aggressive goals, and always hold yourself accountable for your own success.

Do this and you will become part of the 20% of any sales team that ‘moves the dial.’