Career

Never Panic!

Posted on Updated on

Regardless of your position or role, panic is not a good problem-solving tool. It is especially bad when you are in charge of people, or when you are brought in for your expertise. Panic leads to a myopic view of the problem, and that hinders creativity.

The point in my career when this became readily apparent is when I was working for a small software company. We had a new product (Warehouse Management System) and were launching our third deployment. This one was more complicated than the rest because it was for a pharmaceutical company. In addition to requirements like refrigeration and lot control, there was a mix of FDA-controlled items requiring various forms of auditing and security as well as storage areas that were significantly smaller than previous installations. It was a challenge to be sure.

A pictures of three ice cubes, stacked, and melting slightly.

During this implementation, a critical component, “Location Search,” failed. There were about 10-12 people in the “war room” when my boss, the VP of Development, began to panic. He was an extremely talented person who normally did an excellent job, but his reaction began negatively affecting the others in the room. The mood quickly worsened.

Partly because I did not want to be stuck there all weekend, and mostly because I wanted this implementation to be a success, I jumped in and took over. I asked my boss to go out and get a bunch of pizzas. Next, I organized a short meeting to review what we knew, what was different from our prior tests and asked for speculation about the root cause of this problem. The team came up with two potential causes and one potential workaround. Everyone organized into three teams and we began attacking each item independently. 

We ended up identifying the root cause which led to an ideal fix a few days later, as well as a work-around that allowed us to finish the user acceptance testing and go live the following day. A change in mindset fostered the collaboration and problem-solving needed to move forward.

But, this isn’t just limited to groups. I was a consultant working at a large insurance company where I was on a team redesigning their Risk Management system. We were using new software and wanted to be sure that the proper environment variables were set during the Unix login process for this new system. I volunteered to create an external function that was executed as part of the login process. Trying to maintain clean code, I had an “exit” at the end of the function. It worked well during testing but once it was placed into production the function immediately logged people out as they were attempting to log into the system.

As you can imagine, I had a sinking feeling in my gut. How could I have missed this? This was a newer system deployed just for this risk management application so there were no other privileged users logged in at the time. Then, I remembered reading about a Unix “worm” that used FTP to infiltrate systems. The article stated that FTP bypassed the standard login process. This allowed me to FTP into the system and then delete the offending function. In less than 5 minutes everything was back to normal.

A related lesson learned was to make key people aware of what just happened, noting first that the problem had been resolved and that there was no lasting damage. Hiding mistakes kills careers. Then, we created a “Lessons Learned” log, with this as the first entry, to foster the idea of sharing mistakes as a way to avoid them in the future. Understanding that mistakes can happen to anyone turns out to be a good way to get people to plan better and then keep them from panicking when problems occur. 

Staying calm and focused on resolving the problem is a much better approach than worrying about blame and the implication of those actions. And, most people appreciate the honesty.

Understanding the Real Issue using Root Cause Analysis

Posted on

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.

Photo by Ryan Miguel Capili on Pexels.com

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.

Using Themes for Enhanced Problem Solving

Posted on Updated on

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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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?

Sales Success for the Individual Contributor

Posted on

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.’

Are you Thinking About Starting a Business?

Posted on Updated on

The last post on Starting a Business was popular so I thought that I would share a very key lesson learned and then provide links to previous posts that will provide insights as you move forward with launching your own business. If you have any questions just post them as comments and I would be happy to reply.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a great deal of uncertainty and opportunity. For many, now is the ideal time to explore their dream of starting a business and jumping into the waters of entrepreneurship. That can be exciting, fun, stressful, financially rewarding, and financially challenging, all within the same short period of time. 

Being prepared for that roller coaster ride and having the ability and strength to continue pushing forward is important. Something to understand is that “Things don’t happen to you. They are the Direct Result of your own Actions and Inactions.” That may sound harsh, but here is a prime example:

When I was closing my consulting business down I trusted my Accountant and Payroll company to handle all of the required filings for Federal, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Colorado – something they stated they would handle and I accepted at face value. Both companies had done a great job before so why would I expect any less this time?

About nine months later I started receiving letters from Ohio and Colorado about filings due, so I forwarded them along to the Accountant and Payroll company. In my mind, this was “old business” and was being handled, plus I had moved on. It was probably just a timing error, something easy enough to explain away.

Skipping forward nearly three years, I had been threatened by the IRS and the Revenue Departments from both Ohio and Colorado. I started with a combined total of nearly $500K in assessments. Slowly that dropped to $50K, and then to $10K. I spent countless hours on the phone and writing letters trying to explain the misunderstanding. It wasn’t until I finally found a helpful person in each department that was willing to listen and told me specifically what needed to be done to resolve that situation. My final cost was around $1,000. I was relieved that this fiasco was finally over.

For the longest time, I blamed both the Accountant and Payroll Service for these problems. Ultimately I realized that it was my business and therefore my responsibility to understand the shutdown process – regardless of who did the actual work. I would have saved hundreds of hours of my time and several hundred dollars by simply gaining that understanding in the beginning.

I was not a victim of anything – this situation was the direct result of my own inaction. At the time it just did not seem very important, but my understanding of the situation and its importance was incorrect and I paid the price. Lesson learned. It was my business so it was still my responsibility to the very end.

Below are the other links. You don’t have to read them all at once, but it would be worth bookmarking them and reading one per day. Every new perspective, idea, and lesson learned could be the thing that helps you achieve your goal a day, week, or month sooner than expected. Every day and every dollar matters, so make the most of both!