Delivering Change

When you think of great products, what do you think of? Products that have altered the way office jobs are done (excel, outlook, DropBox), or changed the way we interface with computers and technology (iPhone). Hearing from the VP of Product at recently was an opportunity to hear from the head of one of the most impactful products present in the market today, as evidenced by the impact on politics around the


French president responding to petition

globe. This presentation concerned the organizational tools that the team at used which led to the successful creation of an entirely new product line, circa 2011, to support a major shift in‘s business model.

The problem facing was that the revenue source had been a pure B2B model, which was no longer viable. Meaning that the grass roots petition platform that exists today did not exist. It became clear to the leadership of the organization that the business model was no longer feasible and had to be changed due to external market factors. Nick (VP of Product) led this effort from the product side and by using a few different concepts and methodologies successfully led the team to create the product line which made what it is today.

Problems Faced

The main internal problems that the company faced in developing an entirely new product line were the following:

  1. Speed of Delivery: Slow progress towards product completion
  2. Alignment: Getting the organization to work in the same direction
  3. Focus: Inability to make meaningful progress towards the goals that have been set

In order to confront this problem, there were a few different tools that were utilized by the team at that stood out to me. The team  utilized some of the obvious efficiency levers, like automating tasks, but the strategic/organizational decisions are the most interesting.


As a previous product owner, one of the main frustrations regularly encountered was the inability to make forward progress due to all of the work needed to “keep the lights on” as it’s commonly phrased. made the conscious decision to focus solely on creating new features for a limited and focused period of time. That means no fixing of features that break (I assume other than P1’s). No devops working performance tuning. The whole organization fully focused on features.

One of the anecdotes shared that stuck with me was when it was mentioned that two college hires ended up working on a feature with the CTO. When you have an entire organization aligned behind a single goal, the ability to have people naturally move across, up, and down traditional power structures to achieve that goal seems to be a huge gain in creating innovative solutions. In addition to having more deliveries towards that single goal, the fact of the matter is that also comes the ability to see the pain points and what other teams are dealing with/issues they have.

Once the avalanche was done, Nick mentioned how devops had a much better understanding of the issues facing the application development team due to the fact that these devops developers had been doing feature work on the application. With this understanding they were then able to take these learnings and implement solutions that were able to make big impacts within the organization.

Shots on Goal

Anyone who has worked in an agile environment should be aware of this, but the affect that this had in the organization is worth mentioning. Specifically how deliberately this discussion was had with leadership. What Nick realized is that they were entering an entirely new market. Knowing this, he knew that it was unlikely that the organization would be able to accurately predict what features the new consumers would adopt in their product line without releasing many features and finding out what worked.

To that point, Nick organized his team to focus on flexing their speed muscle, as opposed to quality. Why deliver 10 perfect features when you could deliver 100 working features and have a much higher chance that the organization will strike gold? That strategy led to multiple success in the new product line, and an ability to conduct and test experiments faster than they thought possible under the previous paradigm which tried to achieve both speed and quality. When a team is focused on an immense effort, making demonstrable progress is usually one of the hardest/most difficult things. By focusing on speed, much faster feedback loops were enabled, with some of these features contributing to more than 20% revenue growth from the new product line.


Objective and Key Results methodology. Google used it. Intel used it, and countless other organizations. It’s not reasonable to think that an organization can deliver an entirely new product line and business model without complete organizational focus. Using OKRs was able to create a clear focus. As a result the teams were able to deliver on what is meaningful and impacts the bottom line, as opposed to working towards multiple objectives and goals that cause people to tug and pull against one another.


Great book which provides a history and overview of OKRs

Working in multiple organizations, I’ve noticed that people don’t know what to do when their are too many goals. Having the ability to walk into a room and point to a single goal means that the organization is more easily able to coordinate and implement. When there is no clear goal unnecessary road blocks, and fiefdoms tend to spring up and lead to the organization pulling in different directions getting in front of the accomplishment of organizational goals.

Operating teams using the above three strategies worked for Using some of these strategies has worked for other large and small organizations, and from what I’ve seen thus far in my career, could be used in many other organizations to transform the way products are delivered and impact the bottom line.

What Should Documentation Be?

The problems Business Intelligence organizations solve in organizations are generally the same. Pull some data out of somewhere, synthesize the data, analyze it, then create a picture of what is happening, what is going to happen, or what has happened. Working in small and large organizations, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a variety of different processes used to deliver these insights. These range from the overbearing, and associated documentation that crush people’s productivity, to the lightweight that creates quicksand beneath teams feet through the lack of knowledge transfer.

Seeing the overbearing and the extremely light weight, there’s one conclusion I’ve arrived at concerning documentation…

Document as Little as Possible



Relevant literature

Don’t commit time to things that aren’t creating revenue or helping the business. Looking at IT projects, there is no doubt that the more documentation that there is, the less value there is. The perfect example came about when having a beer with a former co-worker.


It was brought up that the process at the company we both previously worked at had documentation that took longer to create then coding, testing, and implementing the change. Additionally, this painstakingly crafted documentation that the engineer had to spend time tracking down information for didn’t result in documents that would be useful to the team doing the work going forward. The process decreed that you must document X, Y, and Z in order to deploy the change/implementation so that’s what was done. The fundamental truth is that the “…benefit of having documentation must be greater than the cost of creating and maintaining it.”

Some people believe in the exact opposite of over documentation. Nothing should be documented. The code/implementation should speak for itself. This may work when you have a small size IT application the will always be managed by the same group of individuals (which likely won’t happen). Once you reach an application spanning multiple servers, teams, and databases the expectation for the code/implementation to “speak for itself” in a timely manner to those who have to report and get analytics out is unreasonable.

So, what’s being proposed in this rant? The only useful documentation that I’ve seen documents the “Why” and the “How”. Everything else doesn’t create value for the organization, as the cost to maintain and develop the documentation is too high.


Creating a BI Product entails connecting the business process to an application(s) or database(s). Depending on the environment that you’re working in, Inmon, Kimball, or something else entirely, you need to know the answer to why things in your system exist. The “Why” is important not only from a high leadership level, but also at a low technical implementation level. The “Why” statement done at the low level helps to ensure that a team is using previously created tools and implementations as designed. And if a change is made that goes against the original “Why”, it is intentional and by design.

As an example, working on the Vehicle Profitability by VIN project, the Data Architect created both Inmon (3-NF) and Kimball (dimensional reporting) structures on the project. The “Why” was made extremely apparent through documentation, so the teams knew how to use the current implementation to achieve their goal in the best way possible.

Are you importing new invoice data? That should go into the wholesale invoice structure so that it flows up in the existing fact that contains the revenue information for vehicles which our reports feed from. Why? Because we want a single source of truth for vehicle revenue.

When documentation providing the “Why” for technical implementations exists, it makes adding on and changing the existing processes and assets easier. As opposed to re-inventing the wheel over and over.



basic data flow diagram

So after we know why something exists, the other piece that is useful for documentation is the “How”. The “How” shouldn’t be step by step instructions, it should function like a high level map. Data Flow Diagrams are a great example of “How” documentation that I’ve found useful for Business Intelligence products. Armed with the Data Flow Diagram and the “Why” of the design, team members who need to report on, extend, maintain, or refactor a system will be able to make informed decisions.



Make It Useful

At the end of the day, documentation gets in the way of creating code/analysis/direct business value. So the argument for spending time creating documentation is hard to make when someone hasn’t experienced the pains associated with lack of documentation. Lack of architecture that makes sense, misreported numbers, time wasted building processes that do exactly what existing processes already do.

Without documentation, maintaining and using a system or process as intended is impossible. With documentation that is accessible, searchable, and focuses on the “How” and “Why”, organizations can make smart and informed decisions of where to spend time, how to tweak things, and how to get value from their assets.


A Framework for Innovation

Creating change. A fun subject, and an admirable goal according the American Ethos and the media our society has spawned. Even though the innovative ideas may go against the grain or the way that things are currently being done, many consider it a virtue to pursue


The macro effect of innovation on a company

them. With so much positive emphasis on innovation in our culture, why is it so difficult?

There thousands (if not millions) of reasons why this is the case and I couldn’t hope to answer in a short blog post. Looking at the reverse of that, “how do successful innovations occur?” many insights are available. There are many theories with many names, but reading many of these there is a correlation across the different materials which boil down to two things from what I’ve found and read.

  1. Let people know how the innovation will effect them
  2. Make things easy for the people who are going to be using the innovation

Switch lays out the best framework (in my opinion) for accomplishing these two goals.

Framework for Change

The basic idea is conveyed through the idea that every person can be pictured like a rider on a top of an elephant going down a trail. In order to change where the rider is going to end up, there is the ability to alter three things. You may have guessed it. We can change the rider, the elephant, and the trail.

The Rider: In the idea of the rider and the elephant, this is the logic. Everyone has logic (although some riders may be weaker than others) that helps to form how they behave. The rider’s the part of the person who when starting a new habit, like running in the morning, will cause people to set an alarm.

the-rider-the-elephant-and-the-path_50290b0771b02_w1500.pngThe Elephant: Emotions and subconscious drive. At the end of the day, the elephant dictates where the rider is going to go. The average ~150 pound rider will only be able to control a 13,000 pound animal for so long before coming exhausted.

The elephant is the reason why the planned morning run will be cancelled by multiple pushes on the snooze button. The  elephant is also the reason why people work 90 hour work weeks and are excited to do so.

The Path: The final component for creating change is the external environment in which every individual operates. These are the external forces which effect behavior. Shaping the external forces and how they act upon elephants and their riders, getting the rider to move towards the desired end location.

All in all, it’s pretty straightforward right? Well, it is definitely much easier to conceptualize and talk about then it is to implement. So many people fail, myself included, to implement all three at the same time, leading to great ideas being dropped to the wayside.

For those who want to change things for the better, hopefully this framework can help you get to actualization of innovation.

Why is IT Always an Issue?

“IT sometimes forgets that we are a car company, not a tech company.”

I’m not quite sure how many people have heard a similar statement from clients (replace car with any product). Never before had I heard a statement that so neatly wraps up the issues and frustrations that I believe many people have with IT.

IT ComicWhat’s the core of the issue? IT is seen as a blocker and difficulty rather than an enabler. Why can’t things be simpler, or easier? Why does it take so long to do what I do now in excel with a few clicks? These are all valid questions. The easy answer? You don’t understand what we are accomplishing here and the implications of what you’re asking, delivered in an appropriate tone.

At the end of the day results are what matter. There isn’t a 100% clear solution to the issue of IT organizations and departments consistently not meeting expectations, but in order to keep clients and customers happy there is one clear action that can be done. Communicate with the client and don’t surprise them with bad news. There are countless articles on how to solve this communication divide and deliver bad news, but at the center of any project or product people delivering intangible software products need to shift the conversation from “can’t be done” to discussion of what can. At the end of the day, explaining how something can’t be delivered is not a conversation that will create a situation where any part wins. What will, is establishing realistic and deliverable goals that will assist in solving the pains of the client.


Clear communication from IT

IT may not be the business of a company, but IT should be the ones opening up new paths for a company to walk down. Not obfuscating the path to a smarter and more efficient business.