Monday, October 16, 2006

Getting Personal with Personas

How do you get a large development team to make effective design and implementation choices? Often, it takes a short "walk in the shoes" of their most important audience, the user of the products or services they produce.

"Our R&D staff need to spend more time in the field!", is the oft-quoted postmortem remedy. And of course while everyone is traipsing about the planet, blowing travel budgets, the clock keeps ticking as nervous sales organization wonder who will create the next value-add improvement that they can sell.

Fortunately, there is a solution to the deadlock. The emerging practice of persona development has proven to be a great tool for accurately conveying a consistent set of user goals and behaviour to the implementation masses. Personas don't need to be fed, don't sleep, and will live inside of your development organization to continually help re-connect everyone with what's valuable to their users.

Not using personas in your context? Explore these links to get started:

Monday, June 26, 2006

Requirements - a False Sense of Security

The Challenge

In an industry with over 35 years of software engineering experience, it's amazing that we have failed to produce any significant breakthrough that improves the ability of executing successful software projects. The brightest minds have been humbled battling the tide of anarchy that persistently undermines the progress of their complex initiatives.

"Discipline and control", the gurus cry, will help curb our irresponsible creative surges. Envying their manufacturing counterparts, knowledge workers have reached out to embrace disciplines that have reduced the insanity while simultaneously eroding innovation and creativity beneath the weight of bureaucratic process and fragmented work distribution. In this protected environment, the "sigh of relief" eventually evaporates into a new level of panic, as emerging competitors run roughshod across existing markets with disruptive innovations.

Successful assembly and delivery of complex artifacts is ultimately driven by microeconomics. In the software industry, the emerging market value has become increasingly complex to analyze and the capability constructs similarly growing in complexity and interdependence. It is into this intersection of complexity and discipline that requirements engineering has been born, and to some degree helped extend the coping lifespan of adopting organizations.

Systems Architects have long used the practice of abstraction and information hiding to manage the complexity of large-scale implementations. Requirements engineering is an attempt to leverage these disciplines to articulate the market needs or ultimately value opportunities in a manageable, traceable fashion. It is a formal attempt to align opportunity value with construction cost. However, trying to reduce the interaction with the opportunity domain to a clear-cut API in the form of well constructed requirements is failing for several reasons:
  • Requirements create a dysfunctional buffer between the value context and the construction capabilities. This cripples the ability of creative problem solvers to contribute except at the highest levels of the process.
  • Requirements fragment the value context in an attempt to facilitate a work break-down and scope determination. The risk of value dilution increases often resulting in unnecessarily complex or irrelevant implementations.
  • Requirements are underpinned by a contract based process, built on a philosophy of control and protectionism. Companies are crippled through an inflated time to market and the denial of using early corrective value validation, placing too much faith on the ability of the requirements process to communicate value effectively.
The intent of the organization is to profit from the intersection of value opportunity and contribution capability. Requirements convert value opportunities into non-negotiable statements, which it presumes can be fulfilled by the rigorous application of predefined capabilities.

The Solution

The journey out of this dilemma, is both simple and difficult. It requires a new or transformed set of skills and a change of corporate mindset. First let's focus on the activities needed for success:
  • Clearly understand and communicate opportunity value to all contributing levels of the organization.
  • Effectively envision and validate capability early and often.
Organizations have used the following methods to break the stranglehold and generate a new capacity for accelerated value innovation:
  1. Powerfully push context as deep as possible into the design and construction domains.
  2. Rapidly and iteratively test design possibilities with the opportunity domain stakeholders.
Tools and practices for driving context deep into the organization include: stakeholder analysis; rapid ethnography and persona development; context diagrams; business process diagrams and storytelling.

Tools and practices for connecting design possibilities include: early design prototyping; iterative design checkpoints and feedback; agile construction practices and multi-disciplinary design teams.

Companies like IDEO and Google have demonstrated the success of these approaches. We too need to relinquish our safety nets and grasp the new paradigms of innovation for success in the emerging market. As Gary Hamel, considered by some as “the world’s leading expert on business strategy” states, "Innovation is the only cure for the debilitating hyper-competition that drives margins ever downward."

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Communication Bridge: Picture my Business

Each year, millions of dollars dissipate via projects that provide little residual value to their sponsors and end users. The source of the problem: an ever-widening communication gap between complex business needs and convoluted technical capabilities.

Yet there is hope. One of my favourite bridging devices is a powerful visual modeling standard called Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN). Currently undergoing acceptance by the OMG, BPMN aptly crosses the chasm, clarifying business value and contextualizing technical capability through the following characteristics:
  • Uses a common modeling language, easily understood by business and technical stakeholders
  • Facilitates efficient process knowledge sharing for Business to Business (B2B) applications
  • Addresses problems with previous attempts in using "software oriented" UML notation for business modeling
  • Provides round trip engineering with XML based business processing languages like BPEL4WS
Download an HTML version of the BPMN specification from Visual Paradigm, or use their process modeling tool to explore how BPMN can impact your current project communication and planning challenges.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Crossing the Starting Line

What does it really take to successfully launch a new business? In this extraordinary interview with Amar Bhidé, author of the book The Origin and Evolution of New Business, the editor-in-chief of Inc. Magazine draws out some incredible truths from the research done by Dr. Bhidé.

Here are some highlights from the article summarizing 10 years of study that fly in the face of conventional wisdom:
  • Most successful startups began without any innovative idea or product, with no specialized training and with relatively little capital.
  • Critical success characteristics for entrepreneurs are: tactical creativity; adaptability and salesmanship.
  • Successful entrepreneurs are very tolerant of ambiguity and find opportunities in uncertain "me-too" market niches, where they can offset risk to customers and other partners.
  • The characteristics that propel a new business to initial success must shift to strategic planning and risk taking if the entrepeneur wishes to take the business from "good" to "great".
Read the full article at:

Monday, May 08, 2006

Open Sesame

An Open Door

The Internet has created radical new facilities for individuals to collaborate independent of geographical and economic constraints. Riding on the wave of this capability, is the growing phenomenon of open source development and services. This altruistic, voluntary trend is impacting the economics of software production around the globe. Although some would trivialize these attempts as insignificant, many others are jumping through the open door of opportunity.

How do organizations make money from open source software? This ZDNet article summarizes how:
  • Selling related services such as packaging and documentation
  • Selling support services
  • Creating custom licenses for particular customers
  • Producing proprietary software that integrates with an open source system
Of course, the product mixing strategy requires specific due diligence for an organization to ensure that they do not compromise the open-source licensing with their proprietary distribution. Here is some helpful advice from the folks at InfoWorld:
  • Don't use open source code directly in your own code
  • Don't modify open source code to implement proprietary needs
  • Consider using open source and binaries to safeguard against inadvertent code mixing
  • Choose open source projects that are active, well matched and standards-based
  • Be sensitive to target market bias towards open source components and usage
Leave Your Baggage at the Door

The brave new world of collaborative contribution requires a significant shift in strategy and implementation. Simply seeing open source as a low-cost software solution is a sure recipe for economic failure. Here are some paradigm shifts that underpin success in this brave new world:
  • Partners, not customers. One of the most difficult shifts is moving from a traditional supplier-consumer mentality towards adopting the reality of an organic community. Customers need to be viewed as partners, consumers as contributors and users as designers. This is the most significant conceptual bridge to cross. The strategic impact of this view is critically enabling, touching every facet of organizational design. Traditional roles are radically morphed as the contributing community participates in all business processes from definition through development to testing and support.
  • The community is alive. Both complexity and innovation can rapidly accelerate relative to the health of the collaborative community. Community productivity is encouraged through empowerment: sharing information; encouraging the development of personal knowledge; rewarding performance and distributing power. Leveraging the community is a matter of influence, not management.
Walk on Through

Whether you wish to increase your personal impact, or want to capitalize on economic opportunities, you must be deliberate in stepping through the open door. Understanding the rules and dynamics of the emerging open source economy must underlie your exploration. Here are some starting points:
  • Study success stories in the open source community.
  • Contribute to an open source project or an open community.
  • Review and experiment with innovative support facilities.
  • Develop relational ties with community members.
  • Explore communication and knowledge sharing capabilities.
Keep moving. History will doubtless prove that many were left out in the cold by hesitating at this door of opprotunity.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Beautiful digital Mind

I've long been fascinated by the effective use of Wikis to incubate and nurture research and information organically. Exposed to the power of Google search and the breadth of information on the Internet, everyone struggles with how to best interface their brain with the informational waterfall. Common approaches include:
  • Bookmark mayhem - bookmark everything and then try to organize your bookmarks
  • Tagging - a more flexible, generic style of bookmarking
  • Gross capture - using cut and paste methods to copy verbatim information for future reference, hoping you can find it later.
  • Wikis - value add contextualization to referential information in a searchable knowledge incubator.
I was recently reminded of how crucially interdependent I have become on my personal Wiki in light of the number of projects that I'm juggling. I had switched to Microsoft OneNote for a couple of months, attracted to the ease of drag-and-drop capture from the Internet. Additionaly, OneNote automatically includes a reference to the original web site. Media and text can quickly be dumped into this flexible framework. A researcher's dream come true!

As time wore on, I began to realize that my OneNote knowledge store was decreasing in utility. I started to notice that the structure, although flexible for organizing info, fragmented rather than converged the information I was searching for. More importantly, the value of the knowledge store was degrading due to the lack of "Information Transforming Friction" or "ITF".

A world without friction would be very appealing for producing efficient energy, but makes walking next to impossible. Similarly, "frictionless" knowledge capture is very enticing but soon becomes another useless information heap. I believe there is an optimal level of ITF that results in increasing both the quantity and value of a knowledge store. The magic of a Wiki is that it achieves something very close to this optimal level.

If the ITF is too low, one rapidly builds (and quickly abandons) an information junk pile. If the ITF is too high (document controls and lengthy or complex publishing processes), the result is often a compilation of obsolete information that creates an excellent knowledge facade, but provides very little practical impact.

So, I have now happily returned to my customized version of TiddlyWiki (pictured above), and once again am thankful for the power of optimal ITF to thrive in the information jungle.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Incubating Online

One of the key challenges of facilitating business startup ideas is having an effective, low-cost virtual collaboration capability. Emerging out of the Web 2.0, AJAX enabled Internet services is an exciting number of innovative offerings. I've been using several of these sites in managing virtual communications and projects. Not only are these tools effective, but they are also free!

Here are three sites I've been using:

Airset is a collaboration environment centered around calendaring. They provide a convenient tool to synchronize with my Palm, allowing full control over which appointments are shared based on categories. You can readily create multiple groups and easily manage merged views. The system includes the ability to selectively share contacts, to do lists and traditional discussion forum tools. The service is free with no published limitations. The system does not include any collaborative editing or filesharing capabilities. I use this system primarily to coordinate schedules with family members and as a convenient online backup for my Palm data.

37 signals is the creator of base camp, and effective and fairly powerful collaboration environment centered around project management. The level of project management is fairly simple, reduced to managing milestones and shared task lists. The free version of the service includes calendar views, a collaborative editing environment and forms. The free version allows you to manage only one project. If you upgrade, you get additional features such as filesharing, timekeeping and multiple project management. I use this system to manage virtual business startup projects.

ZohoPlanner is a very flexible collaboration environment centered around collaborative page editing (enhanced Wiki). Pages can be created, shared and organized to manage projects, to-do lists, appointments and shared files. The service is free with no published limitations. The site also allows direct contribution via e-mail, with each page having a unique e-mail address allowing you to add information remotely. The company also provides a free collaborative editing environment called ZohoWriter. I have not yet played enough with these products, but plan to use them on an upcoming project.


There is significant momentum in various companies offering Office-like applications online. The current trend is to offer more more capability for less and less cost. This is definitely an opportunity for consumers, however, one should always be careful when storing critical data on servers that you do not own. Having multiple copies ensures continuity in the event of a lockout or business failure of your favorite online collaboration resource. There is also rumored that Google is entering the fray and will compete directly for the online collaboration market. From observing the current trends, it would appear that there is a bright future for vast improvements in managing virtual teams at very little cost.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Getting Things Done with Gmail

I've been long fascinated with David Allen and his "Getting Things Done" methodology. David has spent the last 20 years coaching executives on how to get their lives organized and more productive. Life in the information age requires the dual skill set of coping with an overwhelming amount of incoming data and managing a large volume of critical activity. A quote from the book sums up the challenge:

A paradox has emerged in this new millennium: people have enhanced quality of life, but at the same time they are adding to their stress levels by taking on more than they have resources to handle.

David's methodology, abbreviated as GTD, involves the following disciplines:

  • collect everything explicitly, outside of your head
  • process your inbox quickly, regularly and thoroughly
  • decide outcomes and the next actions every time you review new information
  • do quick actions immediately
  • delegate, schedule or defer tasks to appropriate contexts
  • break complex tasks into projects
  • do a weekly review of all actions

Although this appears to be an unhealthy obsession with tackling the daily grind, it has an amazing side effect. By getting the maelstrom under control, you create time for innovation, learning and framing larger goals. These activities then reinforce the impact of not only "Getting Things Done" but "getting the right things done".

The Right Tools for the Job

Although Dave uses a low-tech implementation example in his book, GTD is much more fun when you mix in a variety of high-tech tools. I have experimented extensively by combining handheld devices, Wikis and various software packages to optimize my GTD experience. The key is not to get lost in the technology, but to consider the context in which you primarily work.

Since I spend most of my time interacting with e-mail, I was quite excited to find this innovative article by Bryan Murdaugh. Bryan demonstrates the power of Gmail deployed as an effective information and activity manager. After reading it, I migrated my implementation and am quite pleased. A few items in the document are somewhat obscure and a bit confusing, but the concepts are very effective.

If Gmail is one of your significant workspace contexts, I recommend using this map for an exploratory productivity excursion of your own.

Monday, January 16, 2006

An Alternative to Anarchy

Chaotic Behaviour

When faced with complexity, many organizations and individuals resort to primal behavior. The queasiness of being out of control often generates these symptoms:
  1. Baby Throwing (along with the bath water). Wholesale abandonment of what was not working along with what was starting to work. The greater the sense of panic, the more frenetic the thrashing between various strategic initiatives. Each of these cycles is often accompanied with a fresh crop of executive managers.
  2. Paralysis. Lack of confidence in decision-making. A despair-ridden death march as profit margins slowly vaporize and innovative opportunities flit by ungrasped.
  3. Fascism. Charismatic leaders riding the waves of popular paranoia for personal benefit for questionable agendas. The shifting sands of complexity provide poor footholds for accountability and objective measurement.
  4. Cynicism. Change fatigue and the inability to connect with meaningful purpose often rapidly diffuses a creative workforce, stifling innovation and fostering attitudes that accelerate the state of deterioration.
Is there an alternative to this entropic spiral? Is it possible to navigate the perils of complexity with hope and constructive leadership? I believe so.

I obtain my optimism is from a variety of sources. One is my own experience of creating productive micro-environments in the face of some of the challenges described above. The other includes a variety of encouraging leaders and expert observers that provide practical advice for navigating the fray, and principles for thriving in the midst of chaos. Here are a few of these sources.

Dave Snowden and the Cynefin Centre

The Cynefin Centre is a non-profit entity that has emerged from the IBM research Center on organizational complexity. Dave Snowden provides some significant insight into effectively managing complex environments outlined in his paper "Multi-ontology Sense Making: A New Simplicity in Decision Making."

In this article Dave identifies four quadrants in the landscape of management:

  • Process Engineering - Ordered, rule-driven environment.
  • Systems Thinking - Ordered, principle-driven environment.
  • Mathematical Complexity - Unordered, rule-driven environment.
  • Social Complexity - Unordered, principle-driven environment.

His main point is that by understanding the management context, you can effectively select your management approach. For unordered, complex contexts, typical of the environments described above, Dave suggests that the key management skill is sense-making, the ability to monitor and assess emergent actionable patterns.

In socially complex environments, Dave recommends a management methodlogy that is summarized by the acronym ABIDE: Attractors, Boundaries, Identities, Dissent, and Environment. The objective is to get executives thinking about how to establish an environment and manage attractors (qualities or entities that encourage productive interaction toward overall goals) and remove barriers (the conditions that interfere with productive interaction), focussing on personal identities and appropriate intervention. This is contrasted with traditional approaches of trying to use deliberate practices of goal setting and mission statements to manage in this context.

Dave uses this story to illustrate his concepts:
Imagine organising a birthday party for a group of young children. Would you agree a set of learning objectives with their parents in advance of the party? Would you create a project plan for the party with clear milestones and empirical measures of achievement? Would you start the party with a motivational video or use PowerPoint slides? No, instead like most parents you would create barriers to prevent certain types of behaviours ("the bedrooms are off-limits"), you would use attractors (party games, toys, videos) to encourage the formation of beneficial, largely self-forming identities; you would disrupt negative patterns early to prevent the party becoming chaotic or necessitating the draconian imposition of authority. At the end of the party you would know whether it had been a success, but you could not define (in other than the most general terms) what that success would look like in advance.
Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor
Authors of "The Innovator's Solution"

I recently read this book and was impressed with the comprehensive research and helpful summary of key innovation principles. The authors paint a powerful picture of what it takes for organizations to continue creating and sustaining successful growth in an increasing complex environment. Here is a pertinent quote:
"A surprising number of innovations fail not because of some fatal technological flaw or because the market isn't ready. They fail because responsibility to build those businesses is given to managers or organizations whose capabilities aren't up to the task. Corporate executives make this mistake because most often the very skills that propel an organization to succeed in sustaining circumstances systematically bungle the best ideas for disruptive growth. An organization's capabilities become its disabilities when disruption is afoot."
A summary of key principles:
  1. Growth is essential for survival. Continuous innovation is essential for growth.
  2. Disruptive innovators can successfully displace incumbent competitors by attacking the bottom end of the market, and working their way upward. Powerful competitors are naturally motivated to ignore or run away from these disruptive opportunities.
  3. Disruptive strategies can target the low-end market or a new market of non-consumers, a market that has a latent demand for an emerging product or service.
  4. The value of the product is related to how much it helps a customer to "get a job done". Understanding the goals of the users drives effective marketing segmenting and avoid the critical overhead of overperformance.
  5. Companies need flexible and exploratory strategies, and high commitment, in order to successfully pursue nonconsumption opportunities (vacuum of unexpressed demand in the market).
  6. Architectures tend to value interdependence in order to optimize performance, or modularity in order to optimize flexibility. Interdependent architectures require well-integrated companies to manage the entire value chain profitably. Modularization allows innovation excellence in a value niche fueling significant growth in a "not good enough" market. However, once performance exceeds market requirements, the capability is quickly devalued and the innovation is reduced to a commodity.
  7. Rather than using architecture as a defensive mechanism, envision the entire value network and predict where the value will shift as various parts of the network mature. An example is the shift in value from the IBM personal computer to the Microsoft operating system module.
  8. Focusing on core competence is a sure method for short-circuiting innovation and strangling the ability to build a disruptive strategy. The authors write, "Competitiveness is far more about doing what customers value than doing what you think you're good at."
  9. Organizations often need to create alternate structures in order to effectively exploit disruptive strategies and opportunities. Failing to do so results in diminishing growth for sustaining activities. Disruptive innovators need to combine a deliberate strategic planning along with the parallel ability to develop in emergent strategy based on the disruptive activity feedback.
  10. Disruptive innovation is more apt to be sustained when the investment is focused on short-term profit, rather than long-term growth and share value. This creates the continuous stream of resources necessary for ongoing innovation and success.
The authors like to use the metaphor of how Wayne Gretzky plays hockey. Instead of skating to where the puck is, he has the uncanny ability to skate to where the puck is going to be.

Here is some final advice:
  1. Create strategies that existing competitors will be happy to ignore walk away from.
  2. Understand what the customers goals and values are. Organize yourself around this view of the market.
  3. Don't rely on your existing competencies. Work hard to develop competencies where the money will be made in the future.
  4. Value managers with effective problem-solving skills over those with proven track records in sustaining the existing business.
  5. Be impatient for profit. Keep growing so you can be patient for growth.
The Innovator's Solution is an essential handbook for helping innovation leaders understand how to practically apply the principles of sustained success in an increasingly complex global market.


Being successful in a complex environment doesn't need to be a crap shoot. There's a wealth of concrete examples demonstrating how companies have managed to thrive despite the challenges. Often these principles are counterintuitive to knee-jerk protective or survival strategies. Rather than panic, it is possible to change our mindset and behavior and achieve ongoing success in the face of complexity.