When the line between good manners, the truth and effective management become a bit blurred….

Pinocchio learned the hard way about telling the truth
Why are there some instances when we find it so hard not to lie?

I’m sitting in the doctors surgery waiting for my regular MOT & wondering idly if I’m going to catch a cold from all these folk coughing & sneezing. Many folk know each other, either neighbours or regulars to the surgery as is often the case amongst a certain age group. As each arrival sits down they ask ‘how are you doing today?’ politely & their acquaintance replies ‘oh not so bad thanks…’ & proceeds to discuss their recent ailments & mishaps on holidays. I can’t help but wonder what it is that makes us still ask how someone is doing if they are sat in a doctors surgery, & what makes the replies so positive when they clearly aren’t.

At one point a gentleman about to leave the surgery bumps into an acquaintance coming through the door. ‘How are you?’ the person entering asks with a smile.. ‘I’m at the doctors so how do you think?!’ is the curt retort. I wanted to cheer, but it seemed rude!

We do this all the time at home, work & play. There’s a certain etiquette & set of manners which seems to make masking the truth a more polite & acceptable way of behaving. I am a strong believer in good manners & I certainly have no objections to the door being held open for me by anyone, man or a woman, but there are times in the work place where honesty really would be a better policy.

Here are a few of my honesty bug bears which can hamper projects:

  • Being scared to give negative feedback – too often the success of a product is hampered because honest feedback wasn’t given early enough. This can be due to a number of reasons including someone’s position within an organisation (we have a kind of inbuilt warning system that prevents us criticising the boss!), not wanting to offend the creator, not feeling confident enough to speak out, but in almost all cases there is a way to provide feedback that is constructive and still polite even though it may appear negative. An example of this could be if you spot an issue with the layout of a webpage which could affect the usability of the site then it is important to raise this early as reworking it later can cost time and money, and it’s totally possible that nobody else has spotted it. If you raise it and it’s been considered and the end result is still the same then at least you understand the thought process behind it.
  • Identifying real reasons for wanting something (aka ‘the hidden agenda’) – this is all too often the case if organisational politics get in the way of working well as a team, and sadly it’s often the case if there are organisational restructures under way. This is often not really lying it’s just not telling the whole truth, and often it is totally understandable in the delicate employment climate we are living in. However, unfortunately, as a project manager it can be very difficult to ensure a quality end delivery if you don’t understand the whole picture. Often by bringing out into the open the real reasons for wanting something an approach can be found which will take this into account and is less likely to affect the end quality.
  • Talking about money (what’s my budget/what will it cost) – this is a particularly British curse. When I was travelling around Asia I discovered the  joys of bargaining and it was an accepted culture that both parties haggle and meet in the middle and everyone is happy with the outcome. However we are not good at haggling in the British culture, possibly because of a competitive spirit, and I suspect possibly because money is so often a taboo subject, but in all honesty I don’t know why. Never the less this often results in long drawn out conversations about what the cost will be for certain work where both parties are trying to ‘win’ – either by paying less than they wanted or charging more than they expected. Recently I had a very refreshing experience where I was liaising with someone who was really pushed for time to agree a cost. So in order to speed things up I was told a fixed budget and asked to come back with an approach which meant I could fit within it. I was then able to come up with the most efficient way to get them the most amount of work in that budget. It may have felt slightly awkward and not in normal every day etiquette to begin with but with both of us being up front and honest we were able to get the best out of the arrangement for both parties.

There are plenty more instances where it’s deemed acceptable not to tell the whole truth in a work situation and I suspect that a bit more honesty would actually be helpful. Have you any good examples or ‘bug bears’ where a bit more honesty rather than perceived good etiquette would have helped you to deliver something a wee bit easier? I’d love to hear about them.

Waterfalls and the need for agility

Steall Waterfall
A classic waterfall can be made easier to navigate with a bit of agile thinking!

I was out walking at the weekend and the huge amount of rainfall on Saturday night resulted in some spectacular waterfalls on the Sunday, reminding me of a blog I’ve been meaning to write for a while now about my thoughts on the different types of project methodologies.

There are many methodologies for delivering projects, from the traditional Waterfall methodology to the increasingly common Agile approach. Even within these general categories there are specific approaches such as PRINCE 2, APM or SCRUM. There are many people who are firm advocates of one approach or the other, and amongst the project management world I have heard much debate about the pros and cons of each.

Before starting work with various organisations it is not usual for me to be asked about which approach I use, and I will often be advised as to the methodology that is in place at that organisation and which needs to be followed. Though I do believe a consistent approach should be employed across an organisation, or at least a programme of work, so that everybody is working the same way and can understand what is going on; I am not someone who believes that any particular methodology or approach should be employed rigidly within an organisation, nor that it should follow a text book example to the letter.

This may sound like I’m sitting on the fence but this is not the case, it is just that I prefer a more practical approach. I prefer to use a methodology that best suits the organisation, the project and the team who will be delivering it, and if it’s possible to do this within an existing framework then that would certainly be the approach I would recommend.

Never the less I find that in the Digital World there are a specific set of challenges that occur in project delivery which need flexibility and agility to be overcome, however if a purely agile project approach were to be followed then it may conflict with an organisations need for clarity on scope (what is being delivered), timescale (when it is being delivered) and cost.

A diagram of how a more agile waterfall might work
One way of making a classic waterfall more agile

For many organisations the idea of not having a signed off set of requirements, timescale and budget up front is not something that they can easily take on board. However the nature of delivering large scale digital projects does not lend itself well to a purely waterfall approach; a website is not a static entity in that the site is likely to be constantly changing throughout the project, even if this is just purely in terms of content, and these changes risk impacting the way that the end product looks and works if they are not considered frequently throughout the main delivery.

Increasingly, therefore, I am finding that a hybrid approach to delivering projects – where a more traditional waterfall methodology is combined with prototyping and iterative project delivery (a more agile methodology) – is the better way to balance the needs of the technology providers with the business owners.  This more agile waterfall model can take many forms but for me the key is in understanding the business requirements up front, alongside the costs and timescales which may be constraining factors, then working on the solution with all parties (designers, developers and the requestors) in a manner that ensures that if changes are required throughout the build they can be incorporated as early as possible with minimal impact on the overall objectives. By constantly reviewing the delivery with everyone there is less chance of surprises and less chance of the end delivery being unsatisfactory.

I’d be interested in your thoughts. Do you think the days of running a strict waterfall methodology for digital projects are over? Are you an advocate of an agile approach? Or do you too think that the answer lies between them both and will be different depending on the need of the organisation?

If you’d like to know more about reviewing your project methodologies, or need support with a digital project then contact Saja Ltd we’d love to help


Is the increase in ‘DIY’ templated sites a downward spiral for user experience?

I had a call from a client last night who had encountered an issue with their website. Like many small business, or clubs & organisations, they set up and look after their own WordPress site; the sites don’t need a lot of technical knowledge to run and come with good user instructions for setting them up. In many cases this approach can be a great way for start ups to get themselves online simply and effectively, the CMS style interface is normally fit for purpose and to begin with they do not need anything more sophisticated, but periodically they encounter an issue which requires a little bit more technical support and this is often when I get a call.

For small businesses who don’t have in house IT or digital support, using a dedicated agency or support company to run their website can be expensive and isn’t always practical or cost effective. A fully supported digital solution may be something that they may aspire to in the future but often I speak to people who are just looking for help setting something up that they can run themselves. Supporting businesses who are looking for advice on how to set up their website, and providing support packages for small websites who are looking for sporadic pieces of technical advice to resolve issues such as those my client experienced yesterday is something I get a lot of satisfaction in providing. In these instances I know that I am making life easier for those that I’m working with, saving time and money for them, and often I can add value to the user experience of their digital presence at the same time or can work with the organisation towards their more long term strategic goals for digital users.

However a recent flux of adverts on the TV for the ‘build your own website’ solutions that come with hosting providers, has left me wondering whether or not a surge in small business websites being set up by non digital experts may have a detrimental effect on the over all user experiences online. I have been lucky enough to work with many digital experts in my career to date, some are experts at writing for the web, some at user experience and/or design, some at coding, some at digital marketing, but rarely do you find someone who is an expert at them all. I have always maintained that my skill is in a general understanding of these fields but also, most importantly, the ability and knowledge of the need to bring together the experts as required and help to co-ordinate their work. So, if lots of websites are being created using generic tools by people who are not considering the overall digital experience of their user, then will the experience be degraded in the future? Or is it possible that this area will become self policing and there will be a greater understanding everywhere of the importance of communicating effectively online?

As someone who still periodically encounters garish sites set up in old style HTML with unfriendly colours, bad spelling & grammar, and poor image choices, I can only support tools that help novice website builders create sites that are easier to use and more pleasing to the eye. This has to be good for small business and organisations who cannot always afford to pay for a site to be developed from scratch. However in my experience getting guidance from an expert with areas such as labelling, site structure and cross linking will more than pay for itself in terms of customer retention and value in the long term.

What do you think: are you encountering poor web design on a more frequent basis or do you think the increase in the number of templated sites is improving the overall user experience online?


Achieving your goals by breaking them down: it works across the field.. and on the track!

The other day I blogged about how I’d been impressed by the teamwork by the British team Sky in the Tour de France, and how it could be applied to business situations. This morning I watched a fantastic interview on BBC Breakfast with Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s Performance Director, where he was discussing the methods he’d used to help the British Olympic cycling team to their current success in London 2012.

The interview was focussing on recent reports and queries in the International press as to how the British team has managed to be so successful across the board with cycling, questioning if they are using special kit. Dave’s response could have been the response of Project Managers and Coaches in any field:

“We start by analysing the demands of the event we want to win. We then prioritise because we know we can’t win everything. Then we look at where we are today and see the gap between where we are and where we want to be and how we can get there… “

This could equally read as follows:

  • Identify the goal
  • Identify the requirements to meet that goal
  • Prioritise the requirements
  • List the tasks required to meet those requirements

Once you have this information you can plan and adjust your plans as required to keep you on track for meeting that goal, and most importantly keep your team motivated and keep monitoring performance to ensure you are on track. It’s a mantra I repeat almost daily in my work and an approach which has been used time and again to ensure success.

Dave Brailsford also made a great point about focussing on the little details to get what he referred to as ‘marginal gains’

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of an improved it by 1% and put it back together again you will get a significant increase.” …

“There’s fitness and conditioning but there are other things that might seem on the periphery like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are going away and training in different places, hygiene.” …

“They’re tiny things but if you clump them all together it makes a big difference.”

In the digital and technology world I have worked on projects where performance was critical to the success of the application. By ensuring each bit of code, each piece of the application is as efficient as it can be this helps to ensure that as a whole it works better. I’ve also worked on projects where time and a delivery date was a critical factor, by finding ways to deliver each individual element in the most efficient way, if you have 6 or 7 elements to a project and you manage to deliver each of them 1 hour quicker than expected then you have saved a day.

Dave Brailsford referred to himself as a conductor and the team of coaches and athletes as musicians :

“With the Olympics (as well), it’s been a big challenge but I’m an orchestra conductor, we’ve got fantastic cellists, violinists and drummers and we’ve got fantastic coaches.”

I love this analogy and again it works beautifully in terms of running projects: the Project Manager is the conductor and the team working on the project are all playing their part to make the music come together.

The reason that Team GB cyclists are doing well in the Olympics? In my opinion: The Olympics were their goal and they have been working as a team to deliver this goal rather than anything else. In fact most of the funding in the UK has been specifically Olympics driven. This is why some of the athletes didn’t necessarily perform that well over some of the events earlier in the year, those events were milestones on the way to a larger more important goal and it’s quite possible they didn’t want to peak too early.

One thing does strike me though, and it was a question which Dave Brailford himself wasn’t able to give a clear answer to this morning: How did they manage to be so successful in the Tour De France and the Olympics back to back in the same year? From what Dave said this morning winning the Tour this year wasn’t necessarily their primary goal, they had been targeting a win within 5 years, however it seems it is a rather nice piece of icing on the cake.. or in my terms a rather nice case of a project delivered early!

Pedalling the team message…

Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish racing for Team Sky in the 2012 Tour de France (ITV)
Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish racing for Team Sky in the 2012 Tour de France (ITV)

I’ve been following the Tour de France this year. In all honesty this is largely a defence mechanism as my husband & other half (OH to my twitter followers) is an ex racing cyclist and a huge fan. So with an air of ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ I have been reading online blogs, watching the highlights, reading the reports and trying to get my head around the ins and outs of the peculiar coloured lycra tops the commentators keep referring to! The key thing that has struck me more than anything else is how important Team Work is for the riders. To the uninitiated cycling can seem like quite a solitary sport, after all unless you’re on a tandem there is only one person pushing those wheels around; but the more I’ve watched The Tour this year the more I’ve realised what a shining example of being a team player these guys show.

Now, I apologise from this point onwards if I upset any Tour aficionados, as I’m sure I am about to hugely oversimplify concepts here, but it’s a great opportunity to show how you can match the team work principles from sport to the teamwork which makes businesses successful.

This year’s tour is being largely dominated by Team Sky. They have a clear goal: Bradley Wiggins to have the yellow jersey at the end of the race in Paris. They have a strong team full of cyclists with different strengths who are very capable of shining on their own, particularly if given a task which plays to their speciality strengths, however they all support and are working towards this team objective. To do this the team are cycling immediately in front of and behind Bradley, helping to ensure there is a clear route for the most efficient line, protecting him from the wind and other riders who may accidentally get caught up in a crash, and keeping up supplies of food and drink for the person they are trying to ensure finishes consistently closest to the front of the field. (for a great guide to the ins and outs of The Tour and correct Tour terminology I recommend this Telegraph article)

This year’s Tour De France has a long Time Trial on the second last day which it is widely thought that Bradley Wiggins will do very well in, and according to the pundits I am following it seems that if someone is to beat Bradley Wiggins then they need to get a significant time lead prior to this penultimate stage. The layout of the race has meant that with a strong team supporting Bradley they have been able to try and prevent a time lead occurring so far, and time is running out for their competitors. By recognising the strengths and weaknesses of the team they have been able to protect their leader so far and are continuing to work well towards their end goal.

The press has been making much fuss about Chris Froome being as strong, if not stronger, than Bradley Wiggins on certain stages this year, and as much fuss has been made in certain quarters about Mark Cavendish not being given a chance to show off his excellent sprinting skills this year. However interviews with Mark and Bradley and the team show that there is mutual respect of everybody’s skills and that the belief in the team goal has not changed. In a different event, a different year, or a different race the goal maybe different but in this race they all want one thing.

In many respects strong characters show themselves in every good team. If you look at a web development team then there will be people who are superb at database challenges, people who are great at front end user journeys, some who excel at making things look special and some who are good all rounders. In teams creating a marketing campaign there may be somebody who is good at ideas, somebody who is creative, and somebody who is good with figures and keeping things to budget. Often one of these jobs may appear ‘more important’ to the outsider who frequently only sees the front end or final product but in reality the end result would not exist if all the little bits were not there to support it.

In today’s press Bradley Wiggins has reiterated that he will work towards a team win whomever is the leader, and that leader should be chosen based on the strengths needed for the race.

Whatever the event, sport or business challenge, the key to a successful team is playing to the strengths of the team for each challenge and ensuring everybody understands and supports the end goal.

Allez Bradley!!!!!