Category Archives: questions

Case Study: Creating a SharePoint service

This post was written in 2010 or 2011, but sat in my drafts folder for a couple of years. Enough water’s passed under enough bridges for me to dust it off and publish it now.

I was reminded the other day how important it is to get the questions right when I caught up with a pal at the Contractors Reunion Ball1.

He told me how the right answer to the wrong question had produced internal tension within a service delivery team for over a year so that the service they delivered scored ‘6/10 – could do better’ but no-one could work out why.

This is a story about SharePoint. All you really need to know about SharePoint is that anyone who runs a blog can understand how to set up a SharePoint site. Rocket science it ain’t unless they make rockets out of widgets these days. However there is a huge difference between doing it and doing it well and hereby hangs the tale.

The service team’s job was to help the people who used SharePoint in the organisation to get the most out of it.  They provided the skills to bridge the gap between having an empty SharePoint site (a site address, a welcome page, a place to store documents and another to store pictures) and a fully configured SharePoint site which is more or less whatever you want it to be.

Two levels of service were clearly needed and during the year this story covers, the team discussed what these two levels of service were.  Were they

  • templated sites vs custom-build sites
  • off-the-shelf vs bespoke
  • off-the-shelf vs configuration
  • standard sites vs project work
  • simple vs complex

The service went live with two services based on a couple of customer scenarios or use cases.

  • collaboration and
  • gateway

A collaboration site would be a place for a team to work together, co-ordinate holidays and manage their workloads.  A gateway was much more one-off, it would be a mixture of shop-front, shopping basket and check-out.  The team expected to be able to deliver a collaboration site and walk away from it, but they knew that gateways would require weeks of consultation, configuration and user-testing.

However more and more people asked the collaboration team for advice because – guess what – they wanted to do do other stuff with SharePoint like publish process documents or whatever. So the team ended up with three de facto services

  • delivering templates
  • one off consultancy
  • gateway projects

This meant that the team were delivering a stellar service but failing to meet their yearly objectives and their work wasn’t recognised because they couldn’t report it to the service owner.  It also messed up who reported to whom within the team.  Meanwhile, the customers of the service were confused because there was no formal way to ask for the advice they needed.

The team muddled through, as teams do.  There was an intermediate service design built around the way the sites were actually used, which was more or less like this:

  • collaboration templates
  • document repositories
  • gateway projects

But the tension was still there because highly skilled customers were building their own gateways and customers with cash but no staff wanted fully-finished templates.

Despite that, the team played for a while with an even fuller offering based around more customer scenarios (use cases) but still it didn’t work.

Eventually, it dawned on my pal that the distinction wasn’t what the customer wanted SharePoint to do, it was what they wanted the Team to do, and there really were just three services:

  • Empty template with some rules, standards and help files
  • Occasional advice and QA
  • Full delivery

The problem, he said, was that the wrong questions were asked. He jotted them down for me:

  1. What does the organisation want SharePoint to do?
  2. What templates can we create?
  3. What skills do we have in the team?
  4. How complex are the customer requirements?
  5. What does the customer want SharePoint to do?
  6. What does the customer want us to do?

He said that it wasn’t until they had got to question #6 that they could finally create a service that was fit for purpose.  As I rather cruelly said to him, ‘ask a silly question you’ll get a silly answer’ and as he replied, nursing his hangover the next day, ‘hindsight’s a wonderful thing’.

1 – Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Mr and Mrs Net-Developer and their daughter Dot…. Net-Developer.

I guess you had to be there.

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Re-validating the wheel

Crop Circle Swirl (image in the public domain)

Crop Circle Swirl (from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a bit of fun for a Friday. Somewhere deep in our genetics there’s obviously a need for answers.  I should give that a capital A really.  Somewhere deep in our genetics there’s obviously a need for Answers.

Answers are good: when you know the answer to a question you can move on to the next one.   That’s how progress works, by not reinventing the wheel. Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, and all that.

However, there is a danger in this.  Sure, no-one wants to waste time re-inventing the wheel but we should certainly revisit the blue-prints every now and again.  If we didn’t, we’d still be burning witches because we’d settled for a crude and inaccurate answer to the question of why a single woman might prefer to live by herself.

There’s a sequence of thinking that goes something like this:

We don’t have an explanation for crop circles…

… so we say “it’s a mystery” meaning we haven’t yet found the answer …

… which is an un-answer: it is an unanswered question to ponder or to research or to put on one side until more data is available …

… but people don’t like un-answers,  so they answer the question, saying “it’s a Mystery” (meaning aliens or ley lines or the Ancients) …

… and the question’s been answered and doesn’t need revisiting because it is a done deal …

… but it’s a non-answer which shuts down debate …

… so when we get more knowledge, and it turns out to be two blokes and a plank of wood …

… only some of us say “ah, the mystery is solved” while others say “No, no, no! We knew the answer already.  It’s a Mystery”.

The difference between answers and non-answers is invidious.  They can be hard to tell apart because they both feel like closure.  The wheel’s invented. Nothing to see here. Move along now.  By contrast, un-answered questions itch and scratch and nag and gnaw away at us; and that’s good, that way progress lies.

Many invalid assumptions are based on non-answers masquerading as answers. We have to check that the wheel we are using has an axle in the middle. Questioning those assumptions helps us root out the non-answers. But it is uncomfortable because we then have to live with those itchy, scratchy, nagging, gnawing un-answered questions, and keep them open, keep on asking them, possibly for ever. We have to be willing to live with not knowing all the answers about what Tim Minchin calls ‘this beautiful complex wonderfully unfathomable natural world’.

Ach, he puts it much better than I do, and this is the Friday Fun that I promised you, though I worry about the red wine and the white carpet.


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