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


Building a website: Should you be asking what it costs or what it’s worth?

One of the most common questions I’m asked when I meet potential new clients or even when I just happen to mention what I do is: How much does it cost to build a website? This is normally followed by a statement such as “I don’t need a big site such a few pages” or “I’ve been quoted £3000 for a website, it seems a lot”.

Should you be asking about cost before value
Costing up a website can be bewildering so ask for skilled help

The fact that this is such a difficult question to answer but such a simple one to ask is no doubt the cause of many a headache of web development agencies all over the country. The fundamental challenge with the question lies not just with the ‘How Long is a piece of string’ nature of the question, but around the perception that creating a web page is easy because there are so many tools out there which provide templated solutions..  (I’ve blogged on the pros and cons of this before)… and to some extent, yes, it is easier than ever to build a website but this doesn’t mean it will add value to your organisation.

The harder question is how much is a good website worth to your organisation. A well designed website won’t just drive traffic but it will turn visitors into customers and generate sales and/or revenue for your organisation. A poorly designed website may have the opposite effect. The skill is not always in the building a site but in the thinking behind it and the bringing together of many talents to grow your business online.

Bob the Builder
Whether it’s Bob the Builder or your local plumber you expect to pay for qualified skilled tradesmen, building a website is no different

If you were to ask a plumber to fix a leaky pipe or sort out your boiler you would be paying a skilled tradesman for their time at a cost which could range from £30 per hour to £60 or more per hour depending on the job being done. e.g. a job requiring a CORGI qualified plumber is likely to cost more. It is very similar in the world of building a website.

To illustrate the costs of building a site a bit better let me give some ball park figures for the staff costs for a small site with no added gadgets or e-commerce functionality:

– a web designer can cost between £200-400 per day depending on experience (and location!), this equates roughly to a rate between £25 and £50 per hour. It can take anywhere between 1 day and a week to come up with and agree concepts for a small sized site (depending on the subject matter & complexity). Averaging this out a cost could be £800 – £1000

– This then needs to be built and depending on whether you want a site you can update yourself, and the level of analytics etc you want behind it, this could be between 1-3 days or more, but let’s say it’s just a simple site and £500

– You then need text, images and the site to be tested before you can even think about going live. Say another £100-£200.

Without even thinking about the cost of pulling the above work together, or non staff overheads you’ve spent approx £1500… and this doesn’t even look at the cost of items which would really add value to your site such as

  • user journey mapping.
  • a strategy to help you maximise value from your website.
  • content written by a professional copywriter.
  • cost of graphics tailored for your website.
  • functionality to encourage users to return or transact on your site such as blogs, e-commerce functionality, or discussion boards.
  • mobile compatibility
  • ongoing measurement & analysis of visitors using the site, and recommendations as to how to get more value.

All of these things take more time than that listed above, and all of a sudden spending £3000 on a well designed, functional website which you can keep up to date yourself and which will encourage people to do business with you seems like it might be cheap!

When businesses are struggling with recession, and start up organisations are struggling to find money to get off the ground I can understand that spending any money on building a website can be difficult. However, I would argue that it doesn’t matter how much or little you spend on your website if you don’t get value out of the end result; the first step is to ask what a website can do for you and then approach an expert to find out how to make sure that is what happens.

To get advice on how your website could be adding more value contact Saja Ltd

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!

How do you use your Intranet?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Intranets this year. The question is coming up more frequently with clients as to how to use Intranets to lower costs, and improve employee engagement; and the one word which keeps coming up in one form or another is Collaboration. How do you get turn your Intranet into a tool which employees both want and need to use on a daily basis, and one which they use for working with other employees?

Collation of Intranet tool images
Collaboration seems to have been the buzz word of 2011. Much in the same way that Social Media has really taken off and become a key tool for businesses to talk to their customers, it seems that Social Media type tools are being increasingly used to engage and communicate with staff. Bulletin board and twitter style update tools that spring to mind which are focussing on this niche are yammer and present.ly but it still seems to me that these one-line Facebook style updates provide just one channel and you can’t rely on all employees wanting to to engage in this way. Often they will be trying to find or communicate information regarding policies or procedures which are better housed in a document library or sent only to certain individuals.

Back in 2001 I worked with Phones4u when John Caudwell hit the news for banning email. I have no idea if he was the first big business man to hit upon this concept, and he certainly hasn’t been the last – in fact Atos recently declared a ban on all internal emails. In principle there is a sound argument that emails are distracting, prevent people from doing their day to day job, and that people overly rely on it for all communications, when often picking up the phone and talking is a far better way to get a resolution. However in truth, like with bulletin or discussion boards this is only one channel and it is about using it in the correct way. Email is a very efficient tool for confirming actions & minutes, sending contracts & agreements or providing notifications of events. Where email fails it is frequently because it is being used instead of conversation. The Inbox fills up and the important notifications get missed. However, in today’s world of overcrowded diaries,  flexible hours and working in different locations and different time zones, an alternative mechanism for conversation than face to face meetings is still required.

For the past decade or so I think it’s fair to say that Intranets have most commonly been used as a broadcasting tool and document repository; with sales messages, staff policies, organisation charts, structure changes and staff bulletins being the key purpose of the site. Unfortunately over time many Intranets have become clogged with information, with fewer people keeping them up to date and relevant information becoming increasingly more difficult to find. More recently Intranets have been plugged into more interactive tools such as HR systems, time management systems or Management Information Systems. However there was still largely a disparity between the types of interaction: interaction between users and Intranet tools, and interaction between multiple users.

Increasingly though organisations are spotting this gap. The fact that employees are having to move between email, Intranets and various interactive tools is being seen as a barrier to efficiency; and so there is a desire to bring the systems together and the line between which mechanism to use when is becoming increasingly blurred. When you look at systems such as IBMs Connections software which links email to a social media type interactive bulletin/discussion board, and can also host content managed web copy and documents or when you look at the various ways you can use Sharepoint tas a web publishing tool for both pages and documents, and where you can not only publish documents but feedback on them and introduce version control – then you start to realise how joined up Intranets could really become.

It is great to see more organisations looking to technology to improve efficiencies in this way. Too often I think Intranet projects are given lower priority as they are not seen to bring in the value to organisations that more commercial e-commerce based web projects could bring. However I do think that before any business embarks on this road it’s important that they go back to basics and identify the key requirements:

  • Who do staff need to communicate/interact with to do their day to day job?
  • What tools do staff need to do their day to day job?
  • What information does staff need to do their day to day job?
  • How are you going to train staff as to which elements to use for which types of communication and then ensure a culture of correct use is followed?

If you start to get too carried away with the technology, or don’t invest the time and therefore forget to ask these key areas, then I fear that no matter what solution is put in place it will ultimately grow into another example of an Intranet which ultimately is undervalued.