Yeah, Let's Be Successful!

One of the truths that organizational leaders and teammates sometimes forget, is that group success is predicated on individual success. I often refer to the well-worn baseball analogy: to succeed, a baseball team requires both teamwork in the field and individual achievement at the plate.

So what does this mean for you?

I recently read a brief article by Geoffrey James that lists 10 excellent questions for us to ask of ourselves every day. By asking these questions and pushing ourselves towards positive answers, we may generate success in our own lives which will, by extension, create greater success in our professional lives.

That sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me!

So what’s Kelcey & Co.‘s angle in all of this? None really. Our core goal is the success of our clients and business partners. So if this information helps you to succeed, well, we count that as a win, too.

When Work Gets Personal

As smaller organizations, we do not have quite the same concerns in regards to personal technology and services in the workplace. That said, it would be shortsighted and potentially damaging to not at least give the issue some consideration.

Concerns might center on issues of productivity (too much Facebook usage), security (copying organizational documents onto personal, non-encrypted USB drives), or infrastructure (all those Pandora streams chew up bandwidth).

Coming up with hard and fast policies might be a bit daunting and in fact may be overkill. However, at a minimum, a general set of guidelines should be established and reviewed annually. This ensures that everyone knows the game plan, and provides a baseline for discussion, because the tools are gonna keep changing.

The Value of Training Volunteer Staff

In recent months, we’ve had several conversations with our clients on how to properly quantify the value and return on investment for training their volunteer staff. You have a person in your organization who receives zero monetary compensation and yet, you are preparing to provide a dollarized service or benefit for this person. How do you calculate the value of that training?

The value of the training is not necessarily a function of the dollarized compensation of the individual. Instead, it is based on the increased value that is acquired by the organization. Here’s a simple analogy: I have staff member A who is responsible for accomplishing task B. By providing additional training, staff member A can now complete task B in 50% of the time with 50% of the defects. So, therefore, my productivity rate rises from from 1.0 to 4. I’m now getting four times the end value from that same person. The fact that they are volunteer staff is irrelevant.

Although quantitative measures are valuable, there is a much broader perspective that should be taken into account. As Peter Drucker wrote, “organizational volunteers should not be seen as just simply volunteers, but more appropriately as unpaid professionals.” By providing training, the organization recoups a win in terms of increased productivity and efficiency. However, the organization is also compensating its unpaid professionals with additional skills in addition to other non-monetary compensation (e.g. good feelings for helping out the community, for giving back, for supporting a cause in which they believe, et cetera). So training for volunteers makes sense from a dollar standpoint, as well as from an organizational standpoint.

Lastly, there is always the concept of organizational bonding and “stickiness.” When we provide this additional training to our unpaid professionals we are also taking a step in increasing that person’s fealty, loyalty, and connectedness to our organization, and thereby simultaneously attacking some of the other long-term issues of organizational management, such as retention and turnover. Not only do we become a more efficient and effective organization, but we move closer to being able to sustain that level of performance for the long-term.

And who would have thought that teaching someone how to use Microsoft Excel could be so valuable?

The Value of Planning

General and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The same can be said for any organization, regardless of size. While there may be a certain allure to flying by the seat of one’s pants and being hyper-reactive to the needs of the community, the environment, or the market, true success typically is the result of quality planning. What do we mean by quality? Well, in order to truly capture the value of planning, you need a few things. Particularly, you need to know what you are planning for.

When dealing with clients, we typically talk of a hierarchy of plans. What we are focusing on is the fact that there are plans that help you lay out your organization’s future at multiple levels. We often talk about a strategic plan, which perhaps looks at a two to five year scheduling horizon, depending on the nature of the organization. And underneath our strategic plan, we typically look at what are called tactical plans, which may be 6, 12, 18 month plans. But we don’t stop there. We also identify additional plans focused on specific activities of the organization: a communication plan (how are we going to communicate with our stakeholders?), a technology plan (what is the technology that we envision as our enabling component for our implementation?), a financial plan, a staffing plan, et cetera.

Now, that is not to say that one should spend a copious amount of time trapped in a never-ending cycle of planning and analysis, because plans are just that: a strategy for dealing with the future. However, by simply identifying what plans are valuable and appropriate for your organization, you can then take incremental steps towards capturing the value of those plans. For instance, if our organization has a long-term strategy to increase our client service portfolio twofold, we would then look at what we need to do this year to accomplish that. And as we look at that, I might say, “Well, we’re going to need a more robust customer resource management tool so that we can better manage our communications with our clients. We’re going to need to figure out a communication plan: What do we need to say? How do we need to say it? Who needs to be saying it? What is the frequency? We need a staffing plan. Who do we have on board today, and whom do we need to get on board? How does the training build up? How do we increase the skills of these people?”

Again, the point is that in the end, we’ve developed a rather detailed road map that will allow us to execute on a daily basis, ensuring that we are on the road to eventual strategic success in the long run. As President Eisenhower said, “Planning, as it turns out, is pretty indispensable.” And what is also indispensable is having a partner who can help you flesh out those plans to a level appropriate to your organization and your goals, and more importantly, stand by you and support you in implementing those plans to success. That’s Kelcey & Co..

Training as Strategy

1) Since the strategic goals are not mapped to the enabling activities, the organization would have no way of understanding how much they should invest in training, where they should spend those training dollars, or how to identify the return on investment when looking at the resulting operations.

2) By leveraging existing staff that “know” the tools and processes, the organization limits itself to known capability boundaries. In other words, the staff performance will never exceed the current limits. By scoping out a training plan that clearly identifies the skills and capabilities required to achieve the vision, the staff can identify previously unknown capability gaps and enhance their skills accordingly.

3) An organization that relies on the heroic capabilities of a small set of individuals as opposed to documented processes with detailed training plans has simply pre-planned an operational failure. People leave organizations all the time. If your organization has relied on their heroics as opposed to training and processes, trouble will be at hand, but the challenge was foreseeable.

So if training is strategic, what is the best approach to developing a strategic training plan? We suggest the following approach:

1) Take a classic systems engineering approach to your strategic plan to understand the processes, tools, techniques, intellectual capabilities required to achieve the goals outlined in your plan.

2) “Stack” your plan. Identify the capabilities that are foundational to others and obtain those skills first. Also identify key personnel who have training skills. It may be possible to leverage a “train the trainer” approach which will allow you to simultaneously achieve faster dispersion of new skills and develop deeper team integration and interaction.

3) Identify your “camping spots.” All organizations have programmatic and operational realities that may interfere with any training plan. So define the acceptable “training levels” where your organization can “camp” while attending to other activities. This ensures that you can capture incremental value concurrent with your training plan implementation.

In summary, do not take training lightly. While it may seem inconvenient to have staff offline for a few hours or even a few days, the strategic payoff will make it worth your while. And as your organization becomes more successful, you will only have one question left: “why didn’t we do this sooner?”

The Importance of Linking Strategy to Tactics

In today’s business and nonprofit worlds, it is ever more important to properly and continually link your organization’s strategic vision to its overall tactical implementation. It has become especially critical because the tools and technologies are changing rapidly, while our expectations of work place capabilities are changing as well.

Here’s an example: If your strategy is for your organization to be “fully deployed,” meaning members of your organization are constantly out in the community interacting with your clients, your initial thought might be “we need to have a technical infrastructure capable of supporting those people.” Obvious topics of discussion are cloud-based information services, voice over IP phone systems, etc.

But that’s only the technical part of the solution.

You also need to re-evaluate your processes and examine how decisions can be made in a near real-time manner with a highly distributed organization. Your “front line” may only have asynchronous communication with your top-level decision makers. Therefore, there are additional questions that you need to ask of your organization. For example, do your processes push decisions as low as possible within your organization, or do your processes assume that everyone is within the same office area and that your senior staff can make decisions by simply walking down the hall?

You also have to consider issues such as recruitment and training. Your organization’s recruitment activities need to ensure that you are identifying and retaining individuals that can work in a distributed structure, that are self-starters, and who exhibit a high degree of self-discipline.

You need to think about how you are going to provide continuous training, not only for major efforts such as large programmatic activities, but also on ongoing organizational activities and tools. How are you going to incentivize them to ensure that they continue to develop their professional skills in an environment where you are only face-to-face once a week?

These tactical questions are connected directly to the success of your strategy. It does not matter if you have a three person organization, thirty people, or more than three hundred. This approach is valuable and necessary, and it is worth the time for your organization to sit down and start this conversation.

I say “start the conversation,” because frankly, for successful organizations, the conversation never ends. And of course, your goal is to become a continually successful organization.

So What if you Can't Reach the Right People?

So even a consumer products giant like P&G is modifying its marketing strategy to incorporate more aspects of social media? Does this mean that your community-based organization needs to do likewise? Of course not.

The real message is that how you communicate must be realistic when you consider your audience. If your target is teens, then MAYBE going heavier on social media is the right play. But what if those teens are primarily low income and non-native English speakers? They might still be as connected, but now you need to have a multilingual component to your social media strategy (similar to one you might already have in place for your traditional media).

What topics require some type of “long-form” communication? Maybe social media only serves as the gateway to other web-based content or triggers the delivery of printed materials.

What this means for you:

Your organization should be careful not to just blindly jump on the social media bandwagon, but to take a more nuanced approach and understand how it fits into your overall communications strategy. Then, as you create content, you should be using tools on the backed, such as SharePoint, to archive and index that content for future reuse (never pay for the same road twice).

To disagree with Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the message: the message is the message. Ensure that your message is getting heard, but make sure you are also managing your intellectual property at the same time.

Need someone to talk this through with you? Drop us a line and let’s chat.

Leveraging the Telehealth Model for Local NPOs (Regardless of What You Do)

The major healthcare organizations are looking to leverage the capabilities of telehealth systems to reach more clients and capture greater efficiencies. Is this model relevant for local organizations, even those not in the health care industry? You bet it is!

In brief, telehealth combines videoconferencing with additional sensor information and user input to allow a medical professional to interact with a remote client. Using the same operational model, it becomes clear how local organizations can be using similar (and significantly less costly) equipment and processes to serve part of their client base.

What Does This Mean for You?

Beginning with low cost voice over IP (VoIP) solutions like Microsoft Lync or Skype, it is possible to bring basic videoconferencing into your operational mix. However, by also leveraging simple web-based tools such as surveys or collaboration services such as Office365, it is possible to have true bi-directional interaction with your clients and strategic partners.

In an era where time is scare, any opportunity to fully participate with stakeholders without incurring the time impact of crosstown travel, should be given strong consideration. And if this increases stakeholder participation, so much the better.

Being successful requires that you use all of your strength. And Kelcey & Co. is part of your strength, too. So give us a call so we can get you on your way.

Right Technology for the Task

Many of us are familiar with the concept of Maslow’s hammer, which states that if all you have is a hammer, most of your problems look like nails. However, in an organization, that is a critical mistake. Typically, organizations will take an approach of “we have the tools that we have, and let’s make them work.” However, we also only know how to use only some of the tools that we have, so our solutions must fit those tools. The reason that those two challenges continue to confront the small organization is twofold: First, smaller organizations tend to have a smaller set of technical resources from which to draw on. Second, the staff within the organization may have limited training on the full scope of capabilities of those programs, or has advanced training on certain applications but that skillset has lain fallow for quite some time. One of our key strategies when working with smaller organizations is to, as always, first understand the problem, but then ask this simple question: “Ceteris paribus, what tool or class of tool is appropriate to solve this problem?” We don’t ask that in terms of what is the current flavor of the month tool? We ask what is the best tool appropriate to an organization of this type and with this set of strategic and tactical goals?

For example, an organization plans to do a simple survey of its key stakeholders. Perhaps this is a 25 question survey, a mix of qualitative information and captured using a Likert scale, and some pure quantitative information as well. Now, if that organization tended to be a socially driven community- based nonprofit, the tool name that might pop up would be SPSS. If that organization were more of a quantitative-based organization, a tool name that may pop up might be SASS, or Minitab. However, if the only purpose of this survey is to do very simple quantitative analysis, some measures of correlation and measures of variance, why not use Microsoft Excel, and the built in statistical tools? Beginning with Office 2007, the number of rows and columns are theoretically infinite, so dataset is no longer a primary concern. The tool is readily available on most users’ desktops, and very simple to use in relation to our output. Now, does that say that SPSS, SASS, or other tools are never required? By no means! That is not what we’re saying.

In fact, Kelcey & Co. maintains our skill sets in a rather robust and deep set of analytical tools, including all of the tools provided by Palisade Software. We do so specifically because some data analysis needs additional levels of robustness and flexibility and capability that, while it may be available in Microsoft Excel, it is not tactically feasible to use that tool. The outcome of this is that the organization has the tool to do the job on site. Additionally the organization can either work with a trusted partner, such as Kelcey & Co., or develop that capability in-house using the tool that is evergreen within their environment, and therefore, minimizes the chance of skill degradation. That’s just one example, using quantitative analysis. The same types of examples apply in communications, strategic planning, tactical planning and implementation, metrics gathering, program management, et cetera. The key point is that there are a number of tools out there, and an organization should not limit its options simply because of the tools that are currently in the toolbox, nor should it acquire new tools based simply on reputation and fad. The right tool for the right task, at the right time. More importantly, the right partner. That’s Kelcey & Co..


Do the Math

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Regardless of organizational size or operational domain, today we live in a data-driven world. That means that almost every organization is going to need to collect, analyze, decide, and act based on some amount of data, be it large or small, anonymous or customer-specific. The challenge to a small organization is that while you may have staff that fully understands analytical rigor and responsibility, as well as the tools and techniques required to build quality data collection and analytical instruments, they probably have neither the time, nor recent relevant experience in doing so. Unfortunately, data analysis skills tend to fade with time, even though the core understanding of the usages and interpretation may not.

That’s where Kelcey & Co. comes in. Since we work with numerous small businesses and community-based organizations, ongoing data analysis of all types are a regular part of our operations. So, whether it’s pure quantitative data analysis, or the development of much more focused qualitative surveys based on Likert scales, we can help you not only design the correct tool, but also crunch the numbers, support you in interpreting those numbers, and then finally be there as your implementation partner when you are prepared to execute on a new or revised strategy. As we learned early on in school, when it comes down to understanding what’s going on, you have to do the math. And in this case, maybe you should let us do the math for you.


If You’re Going to do Social Media, Do it Right

As Mary Poppins told Jane and Michael Banks, “well begun is half done.” But when it comes to social media, half done is a disaster in the making. And why is this so?

Well, as this article points out, social media users have high expectations. If your organization claims to be using social media tools, your stakeholders will take you at your word and expect you to deliver on your promises. With our new methods of online communication, reports of poor social media performance by your organization will propagate across an individual’s network of friends and colleagues much faster than you can say, “oops!” So remember: plan and execute, but be thorough and complete.

Success = Being Smart + Being Social

In Andrew Razeghi’s article in Fast Company, he lays out the case that creativity alone does not ensure success, but that it also takes social skills to unlock the full potential of an individual.

Andrew compares the relative personal and professional success of Nikolai Tesla and Thomas Edison. But I think the underlying lesson also holds true for entire organizations. Being known as “the team with answers” but also being known as “the team that’s difficult to work with” is an ultimately fruitless endeavor. You need to ensure that your organization not only has the tools for technical success that can be quantified, but also has the inherent capabilities to be engaging, collaborative, and innovative, which will ultimately lead to long-term success.

The Changing Structure of Modern Organizations

Take a look at this article. “According to a survey of some 300 Fortune 500 companies, the number of managers reporting directly to the CEO has doubled, from an average of 5 direct reports in 1986 to an average of 10 today. The growth is driven almost entirely by an increase in the number of C-level ‘functional’ managers, rather than by an increase in general managers. These days, along with the CEO and the general managers, top offices are teeming with specific titles such as chief financial officer, chief marketing officer, chief technology officer, and chief human resources officer.”

OK, but what does that mean for a small organization or community-based nonprofit organization? I think it points at two key issues: how do you divide and manage your work, and how integrated your toolset needs to be.

Typically, a nonprofit organization begins with an organic organizational structure that has roughly three defined roles: executive leadership, programmatic management, and financials. Depending on organization size, there may be “dual-hatted” individuals at first, but as the organization matures, the roles are divested to other individuals.

As the organization grows (hopefully) and the programmatics become more complex, this role may be further decomposed. Additionally, other core services may be created, such as marketing and outreach, fundraising and foundation management (separate from the core accounting functions). At this point, an organization needs to consider how “flat” or “peaked” the org structure should be.

The attached article argues that companies are adding more of these functional managers into their structures. So the question is, should you? And if so, what does that mean?

The answer is actually easy. It depends. (Yes, I know that’s a cop out, but stay with me for a moment.)

The decision rests on numerous points, and I do not pretend to cover all of them here. Depending on the robustness of those underlying activities, it may or may not make sense to create new roles and disaggregate some of the related tasks and responsibilities. But the interesting part (at least for the purposes of this post) is the business technology that lies underneath.

Small organizations have a tendency to go with brand leaders for domain-specific solutions (note that I did not say “best of breed,” since that is often not true). However, they might have failed to focus on key selection criteria when making those purchases, specifically integration and collaboration capabilities. Just as Metcalf’s law describes the theoretical value of networking, we can take that same insight when considering our internal information and its use and relevance in the enterprise.

To be a bit more specific, the easier it is to move information across our functional boundaries, the greater the potential for improved executive level decision making as well as greater understanding across the functional areas.

Easy, right? From a conversation standpoint, definitely. If a small organization understands the links between financial management, program execution, and executive leadership, then that organization may go far. Executing this vision on a technical level can be straightforward, or challenging, depending on the specific realities of the organization. That said, the potential value gain makes the exercise worth considering.

The Importance of Starting With Good Project Requirements

One of our standard mantras here at Kelcey &Co.: it all starts with good requirements.

For almost every project that we take on, we follow a classical Systems Engineering approach where we spend a significant part of the early project defining the requirements, otherwise known as “what this process/tool/database is supposed to do.” Failure to follow this process almost always leads to insufficient outcomes and unhappy stakeholders.

So why doesn’t everyone do this?

Well, first off, there is hubris (I know–stones and glass houses!). It is easy to begin seemingly small projects by saying “I know what I want and I can figure out what I need to design, build, or ask a developer to create without ‘wasting time’ planning and documenting requirements.” But statistics show that an overwhelming number of projects fail this way.

Other (unacceptable) reasons include:

– Time perceptions (“We don’t have time to get the requirements done.” But you will find the time to fix the mistakes?)

– Unawareness (“I didn’t know that I should have written requirements.”)

So what does this mean for you?

Even if you can only take a single project hour to do so, document your requirements and share them with the stakeholders. This will give them an opportunity to say “why does the system/project/process need to do that?” Or conversely, point out missing requirements. You will have saved yourself a chunk of rework in the future and taken some potential disappointment off the table.

Want some guidance in how to create great requirements and implement solid project planning and management? Kelcey & Co. is the requirement that can make that happen for you.

Know Yourself as a Leader (and Make Sure Your Team Knows You)

I have recently been writing about the importance of leadership, especially in small organizations and community-based nonprofits. It is important to remember that I am talking about leadership, as opposed to simply management. Of course those roles often go hand-in-hand, but leadership does not require a formal title and can cross organizational boundaries.

To this point, I was recently thinking back to the example of Howard Lutnick in the days after September 11th. (NOTE: The related video contains some powerful images and memories from that time. Be ready.).

What the video shows is a leader who stepped to the plate under the most extreme circumstances.

The part that continues to have the most impact on me is how he explicitly states that he wanted to close the doors and mourn the loss of their families, but his remaining team insisted that they get back to work. What I take from this is the tight relationship between followership and leadership as well as the idea of stewardship. The organizational culture was strong enough where the employees had the strength and expectation to tell their leader what they needed of him, and Howard had a strong enough sense of stewardship to not shirk the mantle of leadership.

Hopefully, none of us will ever be forced to face a challenge in this way, but are we leading today in a manner where we are building cultures that can withstand this type of challenge? Are we committed enough to our organizations (and here I mean the people, not the name on the building) to make the hard decisions and take the tough challenges required to see our teams through the darkest hours? One would hope so.

A key aspect of this type of leadership is that it requires a rather comprehensive effort on the part of the leader. We need to be mindful and empathetic, but we may also need to make difficult, challenging, and potentially unpopular decisions under less than ideal circumstances. Issues such as honesty, forthrightness, clarity, and humility all come into play.

So what’s the right answer? Yours will be different than mine, but you do a great service to yourself and your organization by pre-considering these questions so that you are prepared when your clarion sounds. Be ready.

Care About Your Team as Much as You Care About Your Clients

A recent article indicates that as the market recovers, colleagues who may be working below their skill/pay grade may look for new opportunities. This has special significance for the community-based nonprofit, since this may impact both paid and volunteer staff.

While the reasons for leaving are relatively well known, with money often leading the list, it is important to recognize that compensation is only part of the equation. Workplace environment, dedication to the organization’s mission, and growth (personal and professional) are also significant parts of the equation.

So what to do?

We would propose two strategies. First, have a standardized nominal professional growth plan for all of your positions. This does not mean that the receptionist that you hire today will be your Executive Director tomorrow. Instead, it shows your junior team members that there is a path to the top, provided that skills are learned, experienced gained, and opportunity exists. Attached to this growth plan, we would suggest that you identify the relevant training that is available for these team members. This might be a healthy mix of free online offerings, low-cost community-based training (such as those provided by the Ventura County Community Foundation), or more formalized, instructor-led education, including formal academics.

By taking this approach, you will have provided both a path for growth as well as the resources needed for attainment.

But not everyone is going to stay with you forever, nor should they. Birds fly regardless of how comfortable the nest is. Therefore, you should have solid roll-on/roll-off processes in place which would include transition plans. These might be as simple as bulleted lists detailing what a person in a new position needs to be come familiar with in the first 90 days or what artifacts and information needs to be shared in the final two weeks before someone moves on.

Don’t forget, the time for strategic thinking and action is before you need it. In other words, maybe you should drop us a line now.

Just a thought.

Relevant Predictions for Community-based Nonprofits

I was reading the slideshow that’s linked to this post and thought, “Wow! This is spot on for our community-based nonprofit clients. They just don’t know it.”

 Whether or not it’s acknowledged, every organization engages in Business Process Management (BPM). Sure, sometimes it is executed as “that’s Jim’s job and he has it down to a science,” but I think we all inherently see the danger in this approach.

 Nope, true BPM, at the highest level, is knowing (and documenting) how you run your organization and deliver products and services, and the related technology layer that enables you to do so effectively and efficiently.

Not doing that you say? Well, you should, and these ten predictions help to underscore why. I’ll directly address a few, but I’m always free to chat about the others as well.

Let’s start with prediction #5: “Product distribution will become more complex requiring better management tools.” I interpret this to say, if you are a community-based organization, you realized long ago that issues must ultimately be addressed holistically. You need to not only take ownership of the services that your organization provides to the community, but also have a high degree of awareness of other related, supplemental, and potentially conflicting services being provided in that same community. Therefore, you have rich communication and collaboration processes and networks to ensure that your organization has an appropriate level of “situational awareness.”

So how are you managing that? As you execute your processes, how are you ensuring that your team is executing against your established best practices? How are you capturing and archiving all of the collaboration communication and decision making that occurs? How are you aligning and managing external activities, such as information requests and submissions to local, state, or national organizations? How are you capturing and reporting the metrics so you can answer the age-old funder’s question: How are you doing?

Let’s take a look at another prediction: “The domination of BYOD culture (“bring your own device,” i.e. all those smartphones and tablets) will change the way CIOs manage IT and maximize the business value of tech.”

For the community-based organization, this is an opportunity to increase service and communication capabilities at minimal or low cost. For example, by using a communications backbone, such as Microsoft Exchange, and deploying Outlook Web Access as well as providing for connections by smartphones, an organization can ensure that all of its team members can communicate from any location at anytime. Have an iPhone or Android-powered device? You’re good to go! Have a tablet with wifi (or a nearby Starbucks)? You’re ready to roll.

Now consider this: if you add Microsoft SharePoint, your team not only has full communication capability from anywhere, but they also have access to their shared or personal files as well. No more “can you find document X and email a copy to me?” Consider the operational value of this type of efficiency and flexibility.

So take a look at the other recommendations and see how you can turn them into opportunities to serve your clients and communities better. And give us a call so we can give you a hand.

What Mary Poppins Can Teach You About Systems Engineering

Two confessions: Number one: I am a bit of a systems engineering geek. Number two: I love Mary Poppins. If you have a kid (or even if you don’t) and you haven’t seen Mary Poppins, then shame on you. Get on it.

While watching Mary Poppins for the nth time, I suddenly realized the wonderful example of a system engineering lifecycle that’s built into the first act of the movie.

Trust me; I am not wasting your time! But just in case, I've made a clip so you can watch all of the relevant scenes in just a few minutes (and hopefully whet your whistle to see the whole movie).

The first lesson that the movie highlights is the difference between buyer requirements and user requirements. We tend to think of them as being the same, but for many products, we can easily differentiate between the two (as a dad who has taken his teenage daughter clothes shopping, I assure you that the buyer and user requirements can be at odds). In this case, Mr. and Mrs. Banks decide to place an ad for a new nanny. We know that these are requirements, because as Mr. Banks picks up the phone and asks for the London Times, he begins his advertisement by stating, “Wanted – no, required….,” and then proceeds to list the design and performance requirements for the nanny.  

However, shortly thereafter, Jane and Michael come down with a list of their written user requirements. It’s important to note that Jane and Michael’s requirements are significantly different than the buyer’s requirements as elucidated by Mr. Banks.

Here is the important part: Considering the concept of operation of this “system, we can see that the two requirement sets are actually complementary. What is the role of the nanny? We can infer that it is to raise Jane and Michael to be good people. Mr. Banks has his requirements which he feels will yield that result, as do Jane and Michael. Two different requirement sets with the same goal are not necessarily contradictory (although in this case, Mr. Banks could not disagree more.)

One common occurrence during the design process is that the end user may not be impressed with the initial system concepts. As we know, the design process is iterative, and the initial concepts, although providing the required capability, may not meet the users qualitative or aesthetic (technical and/or physical) needs.

However, the design process is iterative and eventually a preferred system concept is selected, in this case none other than Mary Poppins.

When Mary Poppins actually meets George Banks, she begins the requirements verification process.

“You are George Banks?”


“You do live at this address?”


“You did place an advertisement?”


I chuckle when Mary says, “Rosy cheeks: obviously.” (For those of you are paying attention, this is verification by inspection.) As she goes through Jane and Michael’s list of requirements, point by point, she states how each requirement is verified by her persona. Once Mary has concluded her review of the requirements, she defines the Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) period of performance needed to achieve customer validation: one week.

Then Mary departs to go up to the children’s room. It’s worth noting that when Mrs. Banks comes into the room, she speaks in the language of system validation. “Is she the one? Will she mold and shape our children?” In other words, “is this the right system?” She is not focused simply on the requirements (verification), but on the overall need that must be met. To which Mr. Banks responds, “Yes, I believe she will.”

So there you have it; basic systems engineering as taught by Mary Poppins. And after you’ve watched this part of the movie, I suggest you watch the rest of the movie.

Because frankly, it’s a really good movie.

Know When To Burn Your Boats

In 1519, Hernán Cortés, with about six hundred Spaniards, sixteen or so horses, and eleven boats, began the conquest of Mexico. Now, regardless of how you view this historical event, one leadership example of his has echoed throughout the years.

 He burned his boats.

And he was not the first to do so. In 711 A.D., Tariq ibn Ziyad did the same thing on the Iberian peninsula. Alexander the Great utilized this strategy during his conquest of Persia. In the Far East, in 207 B.C.E, Xiang Yu of China also chose this option. As far back as the Roman myth of Aeneas, we’ve heard stories of leaders burning their boats.

This raises a few questions. Namely: why use this tactic, and what can we learn from this as business leaders?

Well, first, let’s figure out the strategy behind this maneuver. The obvious explanation is that it removes the option of defeat. Oh, of course, you can still lose!   But, when loss equals probable death, this simplifies the process considerably. Retreat? Retrenchment? Off the table. So that’s a pretty motivating approach. Right?

Well, maybe.

This approach may not always work. Even though most of us are going to be leading within an organizational context in the business world, and not on the field of battle, we really need to understand what this option looks like in our modern environment. Frankly, we need to ask ourselves how many times we can try this and have it fail. We probably can’t fail too many times using this option and expect to remain viable in our modern environments.

So first, let’s ask ourselves if burning our boats is the appropriate move. Sometimes it’s OK to fall back and regroup. Other times, it’s imperative that, if we’re not ensuring success with this maneuver, at the very least, we’re removing the option of all other possibilities – which may be critical to a strategic implementation. We also need to consider the context and timing. Are we in a rapidly changing situation where, what seems to be a strategic decision now, may prove to be moot, irrelevant or plain wrong in a few days, weeks or months because of the fluidity of the situation?

We also need to consider what we really need. Do we need a total win? Do we need a delaying action? Do we simply need to get someone to the negotiating table so they’ll consider our point of view?

You also need to understand your people. Are your people behind you, or are they with you? If your people are behind you, they may have no problem watching you fail. They’ll follow the new leader and new regime just as easily. But if they are with you, they’re more likely to dedicate themselves to going to the mat and assuming all of the consequences of the decision with you.

Also, we need to be honest about the reasons for which you are even considering burning your boats. Is this about achieving the goal, or is this about you? Is it about machismo, being the top dog, the head honcho, the big Kahuna? Is it about proving your skill and your decisiveness as a leader? Or is it about honestly accomplishing that which propels your organization forward towards the next milestones and success?

Here are some examples. Let’s say we’re in a situation where our organization is adopting new processes and new tools in the workplace to support new relationships and responsibilities. For a context like that, you ideally need 100% compliance, you need everyone on board, and you also need to ensure that all options and optional pathways are foreclosed. We can’t use your processes if we don’t have 100% compliance, because we will spend considerable resources correcting the willful noncompliance. Our tool set cannot achieve full value if we are not fully implementing it in a consistent manner. Therefore, without complete compliance, we would be committing ourselves to ongoing additional O&M expenses unless we get everyone on board.

In such situations, I think I might want to burn my boats. I may want to remove all old process documents from our corporate process library. I may want to shut down my old tools and services in order to force the new services – again, assuming a reasonable and well thought-out migration strategy is part of this.

But what if I’m trying to accomplish a goal like culture change? If I’m trying to take our organization from who we are to who we want to be, maybe incremental change is what I need to be seeking. Perhaps I need to look to influence my key thought leaders and have them amplify my message. Now, I don’t want this to go on forever. All good change is time bound. But I also may have very little credibility in saying, “This is who we were yesterday, and this is who we are today.” Organizations – like large ocean going vessels – do not turn quickly. In this case, I am better off not using my boats as kindling.

So there you have it. Something to think about. If drastic action is critical to your organization’s success, burn those boats. But remember this: as the leader, burn your own boat first.   If you can’t bring yourself to do that, then maybe it’s not time to burn the boats at all. Maybe you need to consider other pathways to success.

What A Butter Knife Can Teach Us About Component Reuse

Consider the butter knife: a piece of metal, thin and flat at one end, slightly rounded at the other. It’s designed to spread...well, butter on a baked good. Now, of course, the original requirements document for the butter knife has been long lost to history, but it's easy to see how spiral development could culminate in such an elegant and purpose-specific tool. And yet, at one time or another, we've all used a butter knife for entirely different purposes. Perhaps as a screwdriver, maybe to help loosen the top of a jar, as a light-duty pry bar, or as a shim. (I can only assume there are additional uses as well.)

This illustrates some very interesting ideas in terms of product re-engineering, bottom-up design versus top-down design, and probably most significant for today's engineering world, product re-use. If we were to look at a butter knife and consider all of its potential uses as witnessed in the environment, could we even come up with the original requirements for that object? Probably not. The idea that it was designed simply to apply butter or jam to a baked good seems laughable. But if we were to consider it from a top-down standpoint, and consider that we wanted the end system, product, sub-system, or component to be flexible and reusable, I doubt that the process that drove us to create the butter knife would in and of itself define all of its potential uses.

Keep in mind that although we are discussing a physical object here, to some degree the same ideas apply to software development as well. While designing a purpose-built CSCI or CSC is straightforward enough, when we consider its reuse, we are limited in terms of our own visionary capabilities and in re-engineering the usage of those CSC's or CSCI's. While the object may be able to provide the capability required for our secondary or tertiary projects, there is no guarantee that we would fully understand the original requirements that created that object (unless we take special care to preserve those requirements and the corresponding traceability).

Why is this important? Well, let's consider the role and responsibilities of the systems engineer at the fundamental level. The systems engineer is responsible for the emergent properties of the system, right? Those properties are ours - we own them. And yet, if you are designing a system/subsystem/component, CSC, CSCI's, etc., it is fundamentally inconceivable that you can have a prior understanding of all of the emergent properties and capabilities that your component or subsystem will enable. You can't because some of the enablement may be secondary, tertiary, or combinatory. You can only begin to understand potential capabilities to be enabled in terms of potential future systems (and by definition, alternative CONOPS that necessitate those systems.)

Therefore, when thinking of reuse, we must try to force ourselves to think in terms of “capability enablers and contributors” and not just pure “capability provision” alone. Oddly enough, this seems easier to do with larger subsystems, but with smaller subsystems, the challenge is that “enabling” in and of itself becomes a system property as two or more components are jointly engaged.

Conversely, if that component is reused in a bottom-up or a reengineering type effort, again, we have limited ways of fully understanding how that reused component will fully create emergent properties. Case in point: house wiring. Think back to when, for a very brief moment (late 1960’s through the 1970’s), aluminum wiring was used for some residential wiring in the United States. Aluminum wiring for residential use seemed to be a perfectly plausible reuse of a known technology. The aluminum wiring, the power outlets, and light switches were all known quantities and perfectly capable of meeting the requirements appropriate to their part of the “home power system.” However, when combined into a single system (using established methods), the aluminum wiring enabled a negative emergent property (e.g. overheating and fires).

Of course, we can always say that by simply understanding Metallurgy 101, “thou shalt not mix dissimilar metals,” the emergent properties could have been identified and managed (via additional system-level requirements), but I would posit that the discovery of this issue was something different (after all, these were smart folks). The focus was on the reuse of a component for a specific result (good electrical transmission quality and lower cost than copper) without fully considering the enablement of new emergent system properties. So what's the takeaway? The takeaway is that predicting reuse under all circumstances is exceedingly difficult. When reuse is planned within a specific construct (e.g. product lines), methodologies, capability, and emergent properties can be fairly well known, planned for, and more importantly, capitalized upon. However, when forecasting reuse in terms of an unknown future, the challenge becomes much more difficult and even hazardous. This therefore requires a deep and abiding understanding and execution of systems-level thinking and systems engineering as a discipline, as well as the rigorous implementation of any discipline-specific engineering that is appropriate to that system, subsystem, or component.

And remember: a butter knife is the exact same thing as a screwdriver – except, of course, when it's not.