Consulting Services: Strategic, Pinpoint, Turnkey

This week I’ve been pondering how to communicate the value proposition for some new consulting services. They are not really new, i.e. we’ve done them in parts for many years, but newly packaged and aligned so that they can deliver better end-to-end results.

What differentiates a consulting organization? I think it’s the ability to deliver services that are:

  • Strategic: Address the big, hard-to-solve challenges that an enterprise faces and that have short-term deadlines and long-term implications. Produce lasting change (new enduring capabilities and platforms), not just temporary relief.
  • Pinpoint: Tackle these challenges in a lean/mean way that produces clear deliverables and measurable results without a lot of overhead. Demonstrate value in small chunks that build on previous successes. Adapt/pivot as needed based on the results of each task.
  • Turnkey: Offload much of the effort and stress from the customer/client. Fill clear gaps in the customer’s skill set. Enable leaders and staff to focus on operational excellence, running today’s business while tomorrow’s is being invented.

In a sense, these value components are the antithesis of what most companies fear (rightly) about consultants:

  • Over-hyped consulting engagements that exploit hot topics and buzzwords, produce lots of smoke (appearance of activity), but little heat/light (enduring progress/results). Strategic initiatives that leave executives asking “What did we get out of that investment?” and staff wondering “Whose brother-in-law works for that consulting firm?”
  • Large footprint ever-growing initiatives that seem designed to drive up the consultant’s billable hours while “boiling the ocean”. Develop a “plan for plan for a plan” and never get to committed decisions and real execution. Principal consultants who vanish after project launch, leaving a junior team in place and the meter running.
  • High maintenance consulting teams that sap time/energy from internal leadership and staff and negatively affect current operations. Consultants who don’t take an ownership stake in the problem and shirk accountability for results.

At Decision Driven® Solutions we are trying to be the former and replace the latter. To accomplish this, we take a long-term learning cycle view of our own capability development process, a beneficial feedback loop in which real-world Experience in delivering services enables our team to improve our Service Delivery Platform, leading to better-focused and more effective Services for future clients.

services-strategic-pinpoint-turnkey

We think of our Service Delivery Platform, as consisting of three enablers:

  • Unique Decision Driven® methods: Understanding of how decisions create the value in any enterprise and power business, innovation and engineering processes.
  • Decision Patterns: Ability to frame any strategic situation as a Decision Breakdown Structure (DBS), a set of loosely-coupled questions that demand answers. Use this DBS as a framework to manage complexity, stimulate innovate, guide evaluation and execution and align the strategic roadmap.
  • Software Tools: Decision Driven® Solutions Framework (DDSF), our third generation Decision Management tool suite that exploits decisions patterns and supports rich traceability between decisions and stakeholder needs, requirements, solution architectures and project plans.

Our platform didn’t invent itself; it was born out of:

  • Decades of experiences in helping clients tackle hard problems in Business Strategy, Innovation/R&D, Systems Engineering, Product Development and Process Improvement.
  • And decades of discovering thinking patterns and information architectures that cut across diverse industries and technology domains.
  • All multiplied by a continuous learning mindset that harvests lessons learned from every engagement and makes sure that the platform can deliver such knowledge in actionable and easy-to-visualize form.

I’m interested in hearing from organizations who have used consultants for strategic initiatives in the past. What additional characteristics do you seek in your trusted consulting partners?

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Team chemistry

I was reminded this week of the importance of team chemistry. Even though I can document and decompose the functions that any team must perform and explicitly model the roles played by each member and the interactions among them (think N-Squared Diagrams), that model is always missing something. The essence of the team is always more than the sum of these elements.

teamchemistry

Because teams are made up of individuals with values, histories, personalities, free will and the ability to learn/adapt, I doubt if there is cause-effect or state model that can confidently predict the outcome when team A is launched against project X or mission Y.

If you’re leading a team when tackling a grand challenge, you will likely accomplish more by encouraging the team to be creative and aim high against shared goals than by micro-managing the team’s internal processes. Foster ownership of the key decisions and collaboration and continuous learning as the team’s foundation.

There will be early indicators of success:

  • Individuals respect one another and value each other as human beings regardless of their titles, capabilities and performance.
  • Individuals seek the welfare of other team members above themselves. They don’t see the team as a zero-sum game or their teammates as stepping stones.
  • Individuals can laugh at their own foibles and failures. When they (frequently) poke fun at each other, they have their own limitations in view.
  • Conflict is over issues that matter and debates are over the pursuit of facts or high-confidence estimates, not pet peeves and personality traits.

While I believe that certain management techniques (e.g Top Ten Decisions List) can contribute to team success, the biggest contributors are the individuals who make a daily choice to labor hard, learn well, have fun and seek team results above personal advancement. They will do that because they have developed character and integrity as a result of their daily life/work decisions; this character is expressed as personal values and habits that will make the team outperform their individual contributions.

My team at Decision Driven® Solutions is such a team; I’m blessed to labor with them.

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A foundation for great thinking

Last week I was asked what I do for a living. Rather than give a long explanation concerning Decision Management and Systems Engineering consulting, I went with the short version, “I teach people how to think” and followed it tongue-in-cheek with “It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!”.

Actually, its a great job, a blessed privilege, lots of fun and the ticket to continuous learning on my part.

That exchange reminded me that I’ve been consulting for over 30 years; half a life and three/fourths of a career. Thirty years ago, I was immersed in the roll-out of Kepner-Tregoe (K-T) Problem-Solving/Decision-Making (PSDM) workshops/skills at a large defense contractor (since renamed/resold/merged multiple times). I had been exposed to the K-T Rational Processes early in my career, used them extensively as an individual in my first engineering job and had gained a reasonable mastery of the basic human thinking skills that they represent. My passion for systematic thinking convinced my new boss (Director of Manufacturing Engineering) that such skills could make a difference in his workforce of 300 engineers and technicians.

If you’re unfamiliar with K-T precepts, I’ll summarize:

  • There are four fundamental thinking patterns/processes (SA: Situation Appraisal, PA: Problem Analysis, DA: Decision Analysis and PPA: Potential Problem Analysis) by which knowledge workers successfully address their job concerns.
  • These patterns are not theoretical; they were discerned by observation across many industries and job roles.
  • Mastery of these systematic thinking building blocks can greatly improve the effectiveness and efficiency of individuals and teams in any work situation.
  • The ability to do great thinking is a skill that can be taught.

foundation-for-great-thinking

In March of 1986 I attended a 12-day PSDM Bootcamp that deepened my understanding of these processes and how to communicate such skills to my peers. In May, 1986 I taught my first PSDM workshop to the Manufacturing Engineering management team. By the fall of 1986 I was teaching 2 workshops a month, coaching my students in the use of their new skills on the job and helping to build systematic thinking techniques into the company’s business and engineering processes. A consultant was born!

The K-T framework is essentially a set of questions that frames the issues/concerns in any situation and creates an efficient “knowledge pull” from the stakeholders and contributors. Because it’s independent of any type of business or technology domain (and works just as well in our personal lives), this also implies there is a universal information architecture for human thinking. That leads the possibility of knowledge patterns and software tools that expose these patterns. Most of what I’ve done in the Systems Engineering and Decision Management fields is simply the refinement of these patterns and tools, accelerated by the rapid learning cycles that come from seeing any situation as some combination of SA, PA, DA and PPA.

From K-T I also learned how to avoid lot of bad thinking habits:

  • Failure to separate concerns
  • Diving into detail
  • Jumping to cause
  • Jumping to an alternative

In three decades of business, engineering and innovation consulting, I’ve seen my share of movements, frameworks and methodologies (TQM, CMMI, Six Sigma, Lean, Agile, MBSE, Business Model Canvas, …). All of these promote useful concepts; but none of them simplified my world as much as the four elegant K-T Rational Processes that lay a foundation for great thinking in any situation. Many of the proponents of these frameworks seem to exhibit the bad thinking habits that I learned to avoid.

What’s been your experience?

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Simplicity

Three events this week have me focused on the theme of simplicity. On Tuesday, I participated in a panel discussion hosted by the INCOSE Crossroads of America chapter in Indianapolis. We fielded multiple questions about the practice of Systems Engineering, including two that addressed how to simplify Systems Engineering for small companies and those with limited exposure to its holistic thinking methods. The common thread in our answers was the need to focus on the essential information required by the process, not the process itself.

On Thursday, I spent the day in Chicago at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) viewing a dizzying array of new industrial technologies. I’m helping the research team at Connected Factory Global “boil the ocean” of Factory Automation (aka Industry 4.0 or IIOT) using our Decision Driven® Solutions Framework. Our goal is to produce a lean/mean pattern of factory automation needs, requirements, decisions and solution architectures that can help small/medium manufacturers take advantage of these new technologies. In essence, we’re trying to simplify, shortlist and inform the decisions they must make to stay competitive.

On Friday, I read David Long’s excellent post on Where to Leverage Simplicity (and Where Not To). David provided numerous ideas on how to simplify complex problems, while maintaining sufficient integrity/rigor of thinking to successfully resolve them. One statement stood out:

“If we are to truly understand the problem and craft a system solution, we must capture the full breadth and richness of problem and solution. This requires broad and rich concepts, both in the information we consider and the nuanced interrelationships.”

Time for some good news. The types of information/relationships required to understand any complex problem, bound the problem, decompose it into manageable set of decisions, make those decisions and successfully implement the solution chosen is known and stable, i.e. will never change. The remaining challenge is one of emphasis (e.g. the level/timing of effort applied to requirements, decisions, risks, etc.).

I’m clearly in the camp (hence the Decision Driven® brand) that believes that decisions are central and that a decision pattern creates a knowledge pull that highlights the essential information without lots of process overhead. There are still lots of information types and relationships to consider when designing a product/system, but if you get your top 10 decisions right, your chance of success skyrockets.

simplicity-starts-here

The enduring challenge that I see is that business leaders and engineers (in general) who could benefit most from Systems Engineering/Thinking are not trained as information architects. Showing them a lean-but-comprehensive information model that could help them simplify, focus and understand the essential knowledge they need (i.e. ask the right questions) will likely produce the opposite effect.

“That’s too complex/hard! It has to be simpler than that!

I’ll just draw up what I want in PowerPoint and run some numbers in Excel.”

We all want and buy multi-functional products that simplify our lives and work. But the thinking that creates such elegant and powerful solutions is necessarily complex.

What are your thoughts on how to overcome this challenge?

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Reverse Engineer to go farther/faster

We all like the thought of continuous forward progress, accelerating onwards and upwards toward a strategic goal or outcome. But many times our march to the future is best served by a tactical pause in which we consolidate our gains, check our bearings, clear our thoughts and equip ourselves for the next phase of our journey.

reverseengineering

As a consultant, I’m often in the position of recommending that the first step in any customer engagement is Reverse Engineering. That can be a difficult sell; the customer wants immediate progress toward their worthy goals. My challenge is to convince them that a few hours or days of taking a fresh look at their problem through a new lens will lead to faster and better outcomes. That’s easy when the customer has just had a shocking revelation and recognizes that they need to pivot; more challenging when they are comfortably unaware of the perils they face.

In our case, Reverse Engineering means to mine/analyze current strategy, product or project artifacts (documents, presentations, spreadsheets, plans) and stakeholder memories for the implicit decisions buried within them and map these decisions against one of our proven decision patterns. That mapping invariably exposes many important decisions that have been overlooked, conflict or where the customer team is divided on the way ahead.

We call our Reverse Engineering service a Decision Blitz. The great majority of this service happens offline; we cap it off with a face-to-face session or e-meeting in which the decision model is refined/validated, open decisions are prioritized and a plan to inform and accelerate these decisions is developed. With this Decision Baseline established, we move into Forward Engineering mode and start coaching our clients through the critical decisions that will shape their future success.

Part of our decision prioritization process includes considering the Decision Impact, the size of the negative impact that a bad choice might have on overall project success. Decision Impact can often be estimated in terms of “dollars at risk“, i.e. the difference in value created between the selection of a superior, innovative alternative and picking a “lemon” that requires significant rework when its shortcomings are exposed.

Regardless of the status of your new business launch, strategic initiative or product development project, I encourage you to invest in a Decision Blitz to put a second set of impartial eyes on your current plans. The cost/effort is minimal; the potential payoff is huge.

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Product Scoping Decisions

If you have been around Product Development or Systems Engineering long enough, you could write some horror stories describing how feature bloat killed a great product. Regardless of your product development methodology (waterfall, lean startup, agile, etc.), every product has a pattern of product scoping decisions that are the essential, common tool that provides focus to your solution.

ProductScopingDecisions

While depicting these decisions as a funnel or series of screens isn’t a perfect metaphor for a set of interacting decisions that may be made in parallel, you get the point.  The product development process should start early to say NO! or NOT NOW! to many ideas about what the product could be/do and say YES! and WHEN! to a very focused-subset of these alternatives.  These decisions should be data-driven to the extent that is possible to gain customer and end user validation of key concepts and assumptions.

Of course, you have already made a set of business scoping decisions (Vision, Value Chain Strategy, Target Markets, Positioning, Product/Services Portfolio) to get to this point on Product X.  Now you are ready to define the scope of this product from the viewpoint of the customer.  That starts with an understanding of the customers’ unmet needs, perhaps expressed as jobs-to-be-done and associated pains-to-be-relieved and gains-to-be-created.  Your task is to transform these unmet needs into a lean-mean set of features delivered in a product that these customers want to use and are willing to pay for.

Your first decision, Use Cases to Support, will whittle down the list of potential jobs-to-be-done to a manageable high-priority set that will give your customer new ways of living and working.  For each use case that you choose to address, you may evaluate your Value Proposition against the status-quo and potential competitors.  This will ensure that your solution provides enough differentiation to catch and hold the attention of potential customers and overcome the inertia that makes the status-quo, do-nothing alternative their default course of action.

Once you have determined the unique value that you intend to deliver, you will translate that value equation into Use Case Flow or User Experience (UX) alternatives.  There may be many ways to deliver on your value promise, so this decision forces you to get specific on how you will change the user experience for the better, e.g. simplify their life or work. Because use cases can be modeled as a series of actions, this decision evaluates the efficiency and effectiveness of various flow alternatives.

Any product can be thought of as a way to provide new leverage or a level of automation to the end user.  This implies a Product Role decision that defines which actions in the use case will be enabled/supported by or accomplished fully in the product, rather than by the continuation of current manual user actions.  The result of this decision contributes (one use case at a time) to the overall Concept of Operations (CONOPS) for the product.

The final product scoping decision, Feature Set, translates all the use case actions that have been allocated to the product into groups of packaged features (configurable functionality for sale) and prioritizes the build-out of these features.  This decision creates the Product Roadmap which says YES! NOW! or YES, BUT LATER!

Of course, each of these decisions have a criteria pattern that represents the important factors to consider when evaluating various alternatives.  These criteria do the screening to kill off bad ideas that would bloat the product, drive up development costs and contribute little to sales or customer satisfaction/loyalty.

If you haven’t thought of the product scoping process as a set of explicit, pattern-based decisions, I encourage you to contact the Decision Driven® Solutions team at solutions@decisiondriven.com.  We would love to run one of your product concepts through this decision gauntlet in record time so that you can get on with the fun of building out a great solution.

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THINK-plan-DO-check

The human bias towards ACTION is very strong. But what distinguishes us from the beasts is our ability to THINK, i.e. envision a range of possible futures, evaluate competing alternatives and commit to a specific vision of the future before taking expensive or irreversible actions.

In its simplest maxim, we express these ideas as LOOK before you LEAP.  A more thorough statement is PLAN-DO-CHECK which adds the confirmation of whether the intended outcomes have been achieved or whether another iteration of the design/strategy is required.  However, I think even this proverb is flawed, at least if you take “PLAN” at its most common meaning, the layout of a set of steps or resourced tasks to achieve a result or create a deliverable.

The initial focus of any new endeavor should not be on the work to be done in the form of a To-Do List, Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) or project schedule, but rather the thinking to be informed, i.e. a To-Think List or Decision Breakdown Structure (DBS).

THINK-plan-DO-check

As a result, I recommend that you make a clear distinction between the THINK and PLAN steps, both in timing and level of resources/effort applied.  Thinking (decision-making) is analogous to selecting the DESTINATION for your next vacation.  This is 10X more important than planning, aka ROUTING.  If you pick a terrible destination, then the route you take there matters very little.  The destination represents a place or “end state” where new value is created and experienced; the routing is a necessary expense required to get there.  You want to increase the value experienced at the destination and reduce the time, cost, effort and complexity of the route.  Don’t start your next project by defining the work to be done, but rather the decisions to be made!

There is a second lesson that can be learned from the THINK-plan-DO-check model.  There is a lot of emphasis today on lean and agile methods for defining products and new businesses.  These methods emphasize the early, then frequent use of the CHECK step to validate assumptions (e.g. target users’ jobs-to-be-done, pains-to-be-relieved or willingness to spend) that are critical to product strategy, product design and business model decisions.  The CHECK step can be executed in the form of low-cost market experiments; adverse/unexpected results from such experiments may lead to iteration in a set of decisions and a “pivot” towards a different strategy or alternative.

As is typical of popular business trends, the pendulum may have swung too far.  Strategy or design iteration is not necessarily a good thing; it can be expensive to pivot.  The ideal scenario is that each strategy or design decision is made once and results in commitment to a viable alternative that represents the highest achievable value to the stakeholders.  That implies an efficient THINK process that has 100% first pass yield by asking all the right questions.  The ideal PLAN step would be simple and brief; to define a set of execution steps that realize the chosen alternative and manage the inevitable risks inherent in any such plan (protect the alternative from Murphy’s Law).

If you have great decisions and flawless execution, the CHECK step shouldn’t find any significant deviations from expected outcomes; the need for further iteration goes away.  Stated another way, the value-creating steps in any future-creating process are THINK and DO; the non-value-added steps (“necessary evils” to be driven toward zero) are PLAN and CHECK.

One final note, strategy/design iteration differs from elaboration.  Almost all significant creative endeavors require a “rolling-wave” decision approach.  You will make some critical decisions up front and then elaborate upon them in ever greater detail until all of your “How” questions are answered.  The rolling wave decision model also facilitates collaboration by enabling you to focus different contributors on the decisions that best match their expertise.

If you want some help changing the focus of your next project, the team at Decision Driven® Solutions has some great decision patterns to jump-start the THINK step.

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