Category Archives: Business Analysis

How do you know when you’ve done enough?

The other day someone asked me an interesting question:

How do you know when you’ve done enough analysis?

I’m not really sure how to answer that one.

Sometimes you are forced to stop when you run out of time. But if time is your only guide you risk ending up  with something too vague to be implementable. Which means someone has to make quick and dirty decisions about how to implement it. And that’s a fast route down a short road to a lack of business buy-in. A short road too many of us have been forced down by sponsors who care more about delivery than quality or by project mangers who confuse analysis with planning on the one hand and specification on the other. No bitterness here, then.

The perfectionist’s answer is that you stop when you’ve nailed down every last detail. But that way another kind of madness lies.  Over-specification produces inflexible processes which cannot accommodate the unexpected. Remember those early web forms which required “Zip Codes” to be numerical, and therefore couldn’t be used by people outside the USA? Over-specification also infantilises the people using the process, which may or may not be a good thing. And it can give you processes or requirements that are just plain wrong unless the detail has been provided by practitioners.

But it’s usually lumpier than that because there’s never time for infinite detail. The bit that’s easy ends up being over-specified but the hard stuff is still vague, as exemplified by my favourite systems diagram:

Good work - but I think we might need just a little more detail right here

Good work - but I think we might need just a little more detail right here

This of course is why we use tools like use cases and swim-lane diagrams to impose standards, drive out that ambiguity and ensure we have detail where we need it, but not where we don’t.

In the end it’s a judgement call. You use your tools, consult the business, trust your developers, empower your users, and deliver on time.

In the words of Albert Einstein:

Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Make everything as simple as possible but not simpler. Albert Einstein.

The song that’s been driving through my head as I type this is Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, which is eerily appropriate in so many ways. The difficult thing, as Jackson himself illustrated so clearly, is to know when enough is enough.

Murphy’s Law and the NHS Spine

I am very conflicted about the NHS spine.  This is (will be) the computer system whereby all patient records are stored in a single system and available to any appropriate NHS worker in the UK.

As a cynical IT professional, I laugh in the face of quotes like this:

The NHS Care Records Service uses the strongest national and international security measures available for storing and handling your information.

Ha ha!  I chortle. Tee hee.

I am sure they do use the strongest etc, etc.  But let’s face it, it’s going to leak like a sieve. Health service staff are not particularly IT savvy. There’s professionalism and an awareness of patient confidentiality on the one hand, and there’s keeping your notes on a USB stick and having your handbag nicked on the other.  There’s IT policy mentioned in your induction day, and there’s using someone else’s log on because yours isn’t yet activated and the patient’s going to die (or the Daily Mail will dance with glee) if you make the wrong decision in the next 3 minutes.

One Nation under CCTV - Banksy, photograph by unusualimage

One Nation under CCTV – Banksy, photograph by unusualimage

But a far greater worry is the scope creep that surrounds any government technology. Of course they shouldn’t use our medical records to vet public sector job applications.  Of course they shouldn’t create an MRB check like a CRB check to ensure that people with – I dunno – chronic mental illness don’t get jobs as clowns (all that working with children and animals…)  Of course they shouldn’t let the anti-terrorist bunch trawl through to find whatever it is they look for these days.  Of course they shouldn’t. And of course they will.

So Ha ha! I say again.

But…

A lack of joined-up medical record-keeping kills.  I don’t have the stats, I don’t even know what audited stats exist, but hospital medics of my acquaintance assure me that a lack of vital and timely medical histories is a killer. And you only have to talk to anyone with a chronic condition to glimpse the exhausting grimness of having to explain their history to whoever it is they’ve landed in front of this time.

So… do I allow this privileged position to ease me out of the data danger zone? I am relatively healthy and check No, No, No, No on life insurance forms. Not being on the database won’t kill me. If I turn up in A&E what they see is what they have to deal with because there’s nothing nasty in my medical history.  And I am very well aware of how hard security is to achieve (I’m an IT worker in the financial sector). And I am old enough and cynical enough to know that if great big databases are there, they will be used by self-serving governments. Do I opt out at no risk to myself because Big Data is Evil and Should Not Be Encouraged?

Or should I support the health service’s laudable attempt to save lives not to mention reducing wear and tear on the patients’ patience, even though that will only encourage Big Government?  It’s a nice gesture, and with my nice clean bill of health when the CID looking for a sex killer search through the database for local nutters prescribed nonutterherein there is minimal risk to precious me.

What would Pastor Neimueller do?

What would he wish he had done?

I find this a tough ethical call.

When words are not enough

This is a simple plea for mixed teams and visual tools.

I once asked a friend if he dreamed in colour or black and white, and he said ‘neither, I dream in concepts’.   By contrast with both of us, many post-modernists  seem to believe that thought can only be verbal, but that way madness lies: The only validity of 1+1=2 is as a representation of words, and ‘one plus one equals two’ is a social construct.  Oh dear.

I challenge this doctrine that the Word is god.  When I want to work out how things relate to each other I find words are completely useless. They are are ok for communicating concepts (sometimes) but often I find them bad for uncovering concepts, and they are next to useless for working out how things relate to each other.

Years ago I learned a consultancy or counselling exercise whereby you or the client list(s) all the factors on 3x5s and the client organises them in groups on a table.  It is great for aggregating things together.

The house is a mess, the dog has fleas, the kids are in trouble for losing their home-work, and you’re broke because you’ve been buying lunch at work all month.

Write ’em on cards and put them all on the table along with everything else, and suddenly there’s the Eureka moment: the common thread is being short on time.  Deal with that and the other problems melt away.

But until you get the chance to move them around and play them off against each other, you think you’ve got dozens of impossible little problems, instead of one or two larger  ones.

There are many variations on this, and it’s used formally in a lot of project planning workshops for grouping activities into work-streams and blocking them out in time.

The pure gold in this approach is its value in working out the relationships between things.  You can do  on whiteboards, you can do it with cards, you can do it with post-its.  These days I am lazy, so I do it in PowerPoint or Visio. The point is that it’s a process, you won’t arrive at the finished diagram in five minutes, but the very activity of moving things around, like blobs in a lava lamp, will enable your thoughts to coalesce and clarify.

This isn’t just a post about tools, though. It’s saying that there are some conclusions you will never arrive at if you stick to words.  It helps to understand how your team think.  NLP divides thinkers up between the auditory, the visual and the kinesthetic.  I am increasingly doubtful about this, and find it more useful to place them within a venn diagram with circles for the numerate, the verbal and the visual.

Get one of each on your analysis team and so long as there’s no explosion, you will really be cooking with gas.  And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you get stuck on a problem, change  your tool.

Style, set and match

Why are sets of things so much more soothing than hodge-podges that don’t match? Sometimes it seems that anything is better in identical sets, from crockery to triplets to Christmas tree decorations.  It’s so fundamental it seems odd to ask ‘why’?

We discussed this as I decorated the tree last week with my very un-matched collection of decorations acquired a few at a time.  It’s been one of my pre-Christmas tasks to buy attractive or unusual tree decorations each year since the mid 1980s.

Some of my very un-matched decorations

If you read decorating magazines, then you’d think that Christmas trees had to have a theme. Thus:

Winter Frost Collection

Winter Frost Collection – follow link to Christmas Central

That makes perfect sense for corporate trees, but I have a friend whose tree is always that coherent. She’s the sort of gal – she’ll paint her nails on Thursday so it will match the shoes she’s going to wear on Saturday. There is no denying that Christmas trees like hers look much better than ones like mine, which is full of random stuff bought on my travels from Sainsburys to China and back. Mine’s not stylish: it’s barely in focus. But that’s phone cameras for you.

The question I’m asking though, is WHY do we find my mish-mash disquieting? What is it that makes us prefer sets and themes? We do, oh we do; it’s infuriating for example when a publisher changes the style of an author’s book covers when we are half way through buying their books.

At the far end of the un-matched aesthetic there lurks surrealism.

Q: How many surrealists does it take to decorate a Christmas tree?
A:
Fish

Quite.

If this effect of liking things matching and orderly is not limited to the visual, then it is presumably the underlying reason why Mozart and Vaughan Williams are more sweetly accessible than Stockhausen and Penderecki.

When you stop to think about it, it is peculiar, this preference for things to match, and the almost physical disquiet when they don’t is really odd.  Every answer I’ve arrived at so far has been circular: we dislike it because it’s unsettling, it’s unsettling because it unsettles us, it unsettles us because we dislike it.  And so on. It’s intrigued me for years.  Ants and bees have a strong sense of orderliness of course, but when we consider primates do we find that chimps and orang outangs prefer their fruit the same size and arranged in straight lines? Maybe we do. I’d like to know.

Ach, I could draw unsustainable parallels between this desire for homogeneity and the drive for standards, this being a business-related blog and all, but they’d be tenuous.

Instead I’ll leave the question open, and take the opportunity to note the turn of the year with the solstice today, and wish you a happy break and a better, more prosperous and more peaceful 2010.

Two ways of anticipating events

Different people respond to change in different ways, and here is a pair of responses which I’ve not seen discussed in any of the Change literature I have come across.

Fore-warned is fore-armed

Or

Don’t trouble trouble, till trouble troubles you

I like contingency plans: for me the big benefit of thinking ahead of major change events is that action is not driven by emotion.  Instead, it has been thoroughly thought through ahead of time.  If things are uncertain, then one may need several well thought-through plans: if there’s any good cheese in the Farmer’s Market we’ll have a cheese-board, otherwise I’ll make crème brûlée.

However there are many people who want to have all the facts laid out fair and square before making decisions about what to do and what not to do. They find thinking about hypotheticals too, well, hypothetical.  The big advantage of this approach is that by being open to happenstance, they can take advantage of the fresh raspberries and make Pavlova.

To take a more realistic example, I was discussing this with a professional breaker of bad news, a hospital doctor, and she said that her patients had one of two responses when she ordered tests:

What’s the worst it could be, Doctor?  I need to think this through before my wife visits.

And

Don’t tell me what it is until you know. I’ll deal with it when we know what it is.

What’s the practical application of this?

Firstly, add it to the lenses that you use with other people, so that you don’t consider it to be a sign of a character flaw or unprofessionalism if someone deals uncertainty in a different way from you.

Secondly, take it a step further and play to the person’s strengths.  I’d bet folding money that the first group work best with formal methodologies, governance, planning and delivery and that the second group prefer agile development, incident management, service and support.

Thirdly, accept that you cannot get the timing right with Transformation and Change communications.  If you withhold the big picture until the details are all worked out then you’ll annoy the first group, but if you signal things early and you’ll unsettle the second.

Who said it was easy?

The same again, but more so

My last post was unexpectedly timely. I was catching up on recent posts at Flowing Data yesterday and discovered that Google Image Swirl are working on much the same approach to Image Search over in Google Labs.

Being Google, it’s cooler, richer and far, far cleverer.  It also confirms my view that this method is good for situations where you want to hide the irrelevant stuff.

Here – have a go:

Google Image Swirl

Google Image Swirl

Enjoy.

Interactive Mapping – too cool a tool?

Some years ago, my friend Justin showed me a copy of Visual Thesaurus. I squealed with delight, which is always embarrassing at work. Click on the image below to see why.  (All the images in this post link to the examples, by the way).

Visual Thesaurus

Visual Thesaurus

Recently I came across an open source version of the technology underlying Visual Thesaurus at spicynodes.org.

What am I talking about?  Well, this is a way to present information so that people can explore it in a naturalistic way by clicking from concept to concept in an interactive ‘map’.  But seductive though it is, it’s  not always the best way to present information.

The Good

This approach is helpful when you want to hide the options you reject.  This can be with a rich and complex subject (the Visual Thesaurus) or a simple tree structure, as with the catalogue below.   It may not be the best choice for a catalogue but in this case I think it works.

A good example of the tool, used as a catalogue

This catalogue works well

It helps if the subject matter is well understood: this example covers the solar system and seems to have been abandoned, which is a shame.  If you click Sun > Mars > Phobos you realise what a neat explanation of the solar system this could be.

Solar System

Providing information on a familiar subject

The technology also lends itself to certain forms of artistic endeavour, I like this one in particular:

Poetry Site

A poetic journey

It’s also been used with reasonable success to  deliver Haiku

I think the technology lends itself to this sort of artistically guided happenstance, and I can certainly imagine an artistic installation along these lines.

The Bad

I looked at well over a hundred of these maps, and those the best. The worst are dreadful.

Do not use this technique if your users are likely to want to step backwards and forwards through the navigation.  This is how people navigate when they want to be sure they”ve not missed anything.  SpicyNodes own home page shows how exasperating this approach can be.

Spicy Nodes Home Page

Spicy Nodes own home page

Don’t use it when a simpler tool would do.  Whoever created the example below was on top of their data, but their information would be much better presented in the form of bulleted slides. Using the interactive map just makes it unnecessarily fussy:

Migrating Sales Online

A bulleted list would be better

Here we see how important it is to get the hierarchical structure right. The map below is an A-Z of the world’s nations. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have them organised by geographical region? If you want an A-Z list, then I think a simple A-Z list would be better and would take up less space.

A-Z of Nations

A-Z But is this the best use of the space?

And this is the worst scenario of all: a navigation tool for a web-site.  It actually subtracts value, because it takes up the whole page and makes it hard to view the content of the site in a logical sequence. It’s a relief to know the organisation concerned has a traditional side and top navigation structure.

Site Navigation

Site Navigation - high on gimmick and short on benefit

Finally, I wasn’t sure how to categorise this map (which I found fascinating, by the way).  It would make a good teaching aid but it’s not particularly good for conveying information.

Study Notes

Teaching Aid

So where does that leave us?

Firstly it’s clever but not necessarily helpful. In fact mapping something this way is only useful when people know what they want to find out and want to ignore everything else: if they need an even view of the whole subject matter then this is not the tool to use.

Secondly it’s good for a certain type of artistic expression; it wouldn’t surprise me to see something like this in a gallery.

And finally, creating this sort of map is time-consuming and you really have to understand your data well, and so do your users.

I struggled to think of a situation where this would be the best tool for presenting data so I decided to go the artistic route, and see if it added anything to the experience of the sort of poem with repeated lines.

Vilanelle - Dylan Thomas' Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas's Villanelle - Do not go gentle into that good night

I have to conclude that it doesn’t, but it was fun trying.


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