Month: October 2013

A missed opportunity for Geospatial

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I have a Corvette that I like to work on for fun and relaxation. It gives me an excuse to learn something new and an opportunity to hone my troubleshooting skills. It can be a fun way to spend a few hours on a weekend.

A few weekends ago I was looking for a few parts for a small project. This was spur of the moment and really didn’t need to be done now (as the car will be stored soon for the winter). I found the parts I needed from a single company, but then something strange happened.

This website had my address, knew the two parts that I wanted, but failed to make the process easy and almost lost a sale. I needed to manually check five different store locations to see if they had both parts. In this case two of the five did. One store was about 5 miles from my house and the other about 20 miles away.

Just think how helpful it would have been for this website to use the data available (i.e., inventory and locations) and present me with the two options or better yet default me to the closest store and note the other store as an option. Using spatial features this would be extremely easy to implement. It’s the equivalent to the “Easy Button” that one office supply uses in their commercials.

Now, take this example one step further. The website makes things quick and easy, leaving me with a very pleasant shopping experience. It could then recommend related items (it did, but by that time I had wasted more time than necessary and was questioning whether or not I should start that project that day). The website could have also created a simple package offer to try to increase my shopping cart value.

All simple things that would generate more money through increased sales and larger sales. It would seem that this would be very easy to justify from both a business and technical perspective, assuming the company is even aware of this issue.

I frequently tell my team that, “People buy easy.” Help them understand what they need to accomplish their goals, price it fairly, demonstrate the value, and they make the rest of the sales process easy to complete. This makes happy customers and leads to referrals. It just makes good business sense to do this.

So, while geospatial technology might not be the solution to all problems, this is a specific use case where it would. The power of computing systems and applications today is that there is so much that can be done so fast, often for reasonably low investment costs in technology. But the first step getting there is to ask yourself, “How could we be making this process easier for our customers?”

A little extra effort and insight can have a huge payoff.

Lessons Learned from Small Business Ownership

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Picture of a man next to a sign that says "grand opening"

I learned many valuable lessons over the course of the 8+ years that I owned my consulting business. Many were positive, a few were negative, but all were educational. These lessons shaped my perceptions about and approaches to business, and have served me well. This post will just be the first of many on the topic.

My lessons learned covered many topics: How to structure the business; Business Goals; Risk; Growth Initiatives and Investment; Employees and Benefits; Developing a High-Performance Culture; Marketing and Selling; Hiring and Firing; Bringing in Experts; Partners and Contractors; The need to let go; Exit Strategies and more.

In my case these lessons learned were compounded by efforts to start a franchise for the consulting system we developed, and then our expansion to the UK with all of the challenges associated with international business.

It’s amazing how more significant those lessons are (or at least feel) when the money is coming out of or going into “your own pocket.” Similar decisions at larger companies are generally easier, and (unfortunately) often made without the same degree of due diligence. Having more “skin in the game” does make a difference when it comes to decision making and risk.

Businesses are usually started because someone is presented with a wonderful opportunity, or because they feel they have a great idea that will sell, or because they feel that they can make more money doing the same work on their own. Let me start by telling you that the last reason is usually the worst reason to start a business. There is a lot of work to running a business, a lot of risk, and many expenses that most people never consider.

I started my business because of a great opportunity. There were differences of opinion about growth at the small business I was working for at the time, and this provided me with the opportunity to move in a direction that I was more interested in (shift away from technical consulting and move towards business / management consulting). Luckily I had a customer (and now good friend) who believed in my potential and the value that I could bring to his business. He provided both the launch pad and safety net (via three month initial contract) that I needed to embark on this endeavor. For me the most important lesson learned is to start a business for the right reasons.

More to come. And, if you have questions in the meantime just leave a comment and I will reply.  Below are some of the statistics on Entrepreneurship that can be pretty enlightening:

Bureau of Labor Statistics stats on Entrepreneurship in the US

Forbes article on Entrepreneurial Activity

Connecting the Dots Faster

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Picture of bridge with many lights representing dots.

When I started consulting an experienced consultant told me, “The best Consultants are experts at becoming Experts.” I started my consulting career with that goal in mind.  After a few years realized that, “Good consults are people who can learn enough quickly to ask intelligent questions and then connect the dots faster.” This is a great skill for anyone to have regardless of the industry or business.

It’s impossible to be an expert at everything. I believe that it is important to have great depth in a few areas (true expertise), and breadth of knowledge in many areas (enhancing context and insight). Both types of knowledge alone are valuable, but combined they add a dimension that I believe allows a person to be far more effective and potentially much more valuable because it leads to having the ability to pick-up on the dependencies and nuances that others miss.

Just think – How much more effective a salesperson is that understands technology and project management concepts when working to demonstrate fit and create a sense of urgency. Or, an Attorney that understands the complexity of service offerings and delivery – enhancing their ability to construct agreements that are highly protective yet not overly complex or onerous. Or, a programmer that thinks beyond the requirements and looks for ways to improve or simplify the process.  Extra knowledge helps with the big picture understanding, and that often leads to providing more value by “thinking outside the box.” Additional knowledge and skills almost always help us become more effective, regardless of what we may be doing.

Increased knowledge, combined with a desire to do amazing things, creates opportunities to make a huge and immediate impact. Sometimes it is because you are asking the questions that others may be thinking but simply cannot articulate in a clear manner. It helps you see the gaps and holes that others miss. And most importantly, it helps you “connect the dots” before others do (often many months before something obvious to you becomes obvious to others). A large consultancy once used the phrase “seeing around corners” as their attempt to make this concept tangible.

So, if you buy into the concept that knowledge is good, the next question is usually, “What is the best way to learn? People learn in different ways so there really is no one single best way to learn. Understanding how you learn best will help you learn faster.

I’m a fan of reading. A good book may reinforce ideas you already know, may introduce you to a few concepts or ideas that seem like they could help (giving you something to test), and often present many ideas that you know or feel just won’t work. Just don’t become one of those people who changes their beliefs and approach with every book they read (or what I refer to as “The book of the month club manager.“)

I’m also a fan of hands-on learning. The experience of doing something the first time is important. Keeping detailed notes (what works, what doesn’t make sense and what you did to figure it out, work-arounds, etc.) enhances the value of that experience. It’s amazing what you can learn when you “get your hands dirty.”

What about formal education? I’ve never been a fan of the person who wants to get a degree in order to get a promotion. There are certainly some professions where education is critical to success (often through legitimacy as much as anything else). My advice to people is to work towards a specific degree because it is important as a personal goal, and because it could possibly help you get a different or better job in the future. I will never criticize anyone for learning, going to school, or getting another certification or degree.

My personal belief is that the best way to get ahead is to learn the position, innovate, optimize, and then deliver incredible results. You won’t “knock it out of the park” every time, but those “base hits” will help you score and ultimately win.

This is not to say that formal education is bad, because I don’t believe that at all. I was working on my MBA at the same time I was expanding my consulting business from the US to the UK. I had a concentration in International Business, so I could apply many things I was learning right away. This bit of serendipity both enhanced my learning experience and helped me make better decisions that had real implications to my business. The funny thing was that I was actually working on that degree to raise the bar for my own children, so for me this was just a bonus.

There are also other great ways to learn – ways that are only require an investment of your time. There are many good free online courses. If there is something you are interested in learning or need to know more about, there is almost always a place to find free or low cost training. These are great investments in yourself and your future, and may help you learn to connect those dots faster.

Below are links to a few good free learning websites. Do yourself a favor and check them out. And, if you know of others leave a comment and recommend them to others.  Enjoy!

edX

Khan Academy

OpenCulture (directory with content from multiple sources)

Open Education Database (directory with content from multiple sources

Alison

Diamonds or just Shiny Rocks?

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During a very candid review years ago, my boss at the time (the CEO of the company) made a surprising comment to me. He said, “Good ideas can be like diamonds – drop them once in a while and they have a lot of value. But, sprinkle the everywhere you go and they just become a bunch of shiny rocks.” This was not the type of feedback that I was expecting, but it turned out to be both insightful and very valuable.

For a long time I have held the belief that there are four types of people at any company: 1) People who want to make things better; 2) People who are interested in improvement, but only in a supporting role; 3) People who are mainly interested in themselves (they can do great things, but often at the expense of others); and 4) People that that are just there and don’t care much about anything.  This opinion is based on a working and consulting at many companies over a few decades.

A recent Gallup Poll stated Worldwide only 13% of Employees are “engaged at work” (the rest are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”).  This is a sad reflection of employees and work environments if it is true. Since it is a worldwide survey it may be highly skewed by region or industry, and therefore not indicative of what is typical across the board. Those results were not completely aligned with my thinking, but was interesting nonetheless.

So, back to the story…

Prior to working at this company I had run my own business for nearly a decade, and was a consultant for 15 years working at both large corporations and startups. I am used to taking the best practices learned from other companies and engagements, and then incorporating them into our own business practices to improve and foster growth.

I tend to take a systemic view of business and see the importance of having all components of “the business machine” optimized and working in harmony. Improvements in one area ultimately have a positive impact in other areas of the business.

While I was trying to be helpful, I was being insensitive to the fact that my “friendly suggestions based on past success” stepped on other people’s toes, and that was creating frustration for the people that I was intending to help. By providing simple solutions to their problems it reflected poorly on my peers. In hindsight this should have led to increased collaboration among the executive team.

Suggestions and examples that were intended to be helpful had the opposite effect. Even worse, it was probably just as frustrating to me to be ignored as it was to others to have me infringe on their aspect of the business. The resulting friction was very noticeable to my boss.

Had I been an external consultant, those same ideas (“diamonds”) may have been considered. But as part of the leadership team I was coming across as one of those people who were just interested in themselves (leaving “shiny rocks” laying around for people to ignore or possibly trip over).

Perception is reality, and my attempts to help were hurting me. Luckily, I received this honest and helpful feedback early in this position and was able to turn those perceptions around.

What are the morals of this story?

First, people who are engaged have the greatest potential to make a difference. Part of being a business leader is making sure that you have the best possible team, and are creating an environment that challenges, motivates, and fosters growth and accountability. 

Disengaged employees or people who are unwilling or unable to work with/collaborate with others may not be your best choices regardless of how talented they may be. They could actually be detrimental to the overall team dynamics.

Second, doing what you believe to be the right thing isn’t necessarily the best or right way to approach something. Being sensitive of the big picture and testing whether or your input is being viewed as constructive was a big lesson learned for me. If you are not being effective then consider that your execution could be flawed. Self-awareness is very important.

And third, use your own examples as stories to help others understand potential solutions to problems in a non-threatening way. Let them make the connection to their own problems, thereby helping them become more effective and allowing them to save face. It is not a competition. And, if someone else has good ideas, help support them through collaboration. In the end it should be more about effectiveness, growth, and achievement of business goals than who gets the most credit.

While this seems like common sense to me now, my background and personal biases blinded me to that perspective.

My biggest lesson learned was about adaptation. There are many ways to be effective and make a difference. Focus on understanding the situation and its dynamics in order to employ the best techniques, as that is ultimately critical to the success of the team or organization.

To Measure is to Know

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Lord William Thomson Kelvin was a pretty smart guy in the 1800’s. He didn’t get everything right (e.g., he supposedly stated, “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”), but his success ratio was far better than most so he did have useful insight. I’m personally a fan of his quote, “If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.”

Business Intelligence (BI) systems can be very powerful, but only when they are embraced as a catalyst for change. What you often find in practice is that the systems are not actively used, or do not track the “right” metrics (i.e., those that provide insight into something important that you have the ability to adjust and impact the results), or provide the right information – only too late to make a difference.

The goal of any business is developing a profitable business model and then executing extremely well. So, you need to have something that people want, then need to be able to deliver high quality goods and/or services, and finally need to make sure that you can do that profitably (it’s amazing how many businesses fail to understand this last part).  Developing a systematic approach that allows for repeatable success is important. Pricing at a level that is competitive and provides a healthy profit margin provides the means for growth and sustainability.

Every business is systemic in nature. Outputs from one area (such as a steady flow of qualified leads from Marketing) become inputs to another (Sales). Closed deals feed project teams, development teams, support teams, etc. Great jobs by those teams will generate referrals, expansion, and other growth – and the cycle continues. This is an important concept to understand because problems or deficiencies in one area can manifest themselves in other areas.

Next, understanding of cause and effect is important. For example, if your website is not getting traffic is it because of poor search engine optimization, or is it bad messaging and/or presentation? If people come to your website but don’t stay long do you know what they are doing? Some formatting is better for printing than reading on a screen (such as multi-column pages), so people tend to print and go. And, external links that do not open in a new window can hurt the “stickiness” of a website.  Cause and effect is not always as simple as it would seem, but having data on as many areas as possible will help you understand which ones are really important.

When I had my company we gathered metrics on everything. We even had “efficiency factors” for every Consultant. That helped with estimating, pricing, and scheduling. We would break work down into repeatable components for estimating purposes. Over time we found that our estimates ranged between 4% under and 5% over the actual time required for nearly every work package within a project. This allowed us to fix bid projects to create confidence, and price at a level that was lean (we usually came-in about the middle of the pack from a price perspective, but the difference was that we could guarantee delivery for that price). More importantly, it allowed us to maintain a healthy profit margin that let us hire the best people, treat them well, invest in our business, and take some profit as well.

There are many standard metrics for all aspects of a business. Getting started can be as simple as creating some sample data based on estimates, “working the model” with that data, and seeing if this provides additional insight into business processes. Then ask, “When and where could I have made a change to positively impact the results?” Keep working and when you have something that seems to work gather some real data and re-work the model. You don’t need fancy dashboards (yet).

Within a few days it is often possible to identify the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that are most relevant for your business. Then, start consistently gathering data, systematically analyzing it, and present it in a way that is easy to understand and drill-into in a timely manner.  To measure the right things really is to know.