Friday, August 10, 2018

Working Backwards

One of the hardest things for technology people to do is be succinct, replace the details with a story about benefits, and to ask for the sale.  After all, isn't this what marketing and sales people do?  Perhaps it's a surprise, but that is what you need to do if you hope to get a technology project, new product or new way of doing business, approved by a senior management team.

And please be brief!  It's not that senior managers have short attention spans, they need to get to the bottom line and make a decision.  Your job is to help them do that.

Each semester, I ask students to prepare a presentation for a mock senior management team.  Masters students know how to do the research and write the effective paper.  The goal of a senior management presentation is different.  It's about making the "ask," the bottom line decision you need them to make to proceed, and that's based on how much it will cost, how long it will take and how many people we need to commit to do it. Along the way, it's good to identify the benefits we will realize, the risks the organization will be taking to do this, and how you plan to mitigate those.  All of this should take less than 15 minutes with 10 slides plus Q&A.

Senior managers will want to know you are competent (what are your credentials and have you done this before) and that you've done your homework.  The 30-page report is impressive; it's not likely anyone will read it... beyond the executive summary.

A student team did a fine job talking about their research and the conclusions of their study.  When it came time for the Q&A, the CEO said, rather bluntly, "What the hell are you asking me to do?"  That's not the likely response to a presentation in an academic environment.  But it is what you should expect from a CEO, whether from a corporation or nonprofit organization.

A CEO told me once, "I can't use the students schools a graduating today; it takes me too long to retrain them."

"Retrain them how," I asked?

"To be able to talk with customers, manage a project with a diverse and dispersed team, and get to the bottom line of things!"

So to learn effective presentations, we start with the bottom line and work backwards.  That way, we are keeping the end goal in mind.  Here are ten slide headlines for a hypothetical project, in reverse order from an approved and funded proposal:

  1. The ask - what Senior Management Team decision are you asking for?
  2. Time and cost - how much time will it take to complete your project proposal and at what cost (one-time and recurring)?
  3. Risks - what risks are there to your project's success and what are the mitigations you see?
  4. Benefits - what benefits accrue from going with your recommendations; what's the value proposition?
  5. Your recommendation - Among the options, which are you recommending?
  6. Options - what are the alternatives you studied and the pros and cons of each
  7. Approach/method taken - how did you go about your investigation, sources consulted, tested conducted, etc.
  8. Assumptions made - what is the scope that you narrowed, what is your scenario?
  9. Problem - what problem are you trying to solve? what are the key questions you are trying to answer? 
  10. Intros - who are the members of your team and what are your credentials?

Everything else may be important, but it is appendix.  Now reverse the order.  Go.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Friday, June 1, 2018

BLIND SPOTS: When it Comes to Data, it’s About the Conversation

The following post was initially posted on LinkedIn.

During my 40 years in IT management, I often encountered people who were great computer scientists. But they couldn’t hold a business conversation with a group, let alone senior managers. We often had to provide special coaching to teach these bright, dedicated professionals how to describe technical opportunities in “normal” English.

This inability of IT professionals to have consultative conversations is a common problem in business --and it’s likely to get worse.

As we journey further into the data-driven age, corporations are facing a looming shortage of university graduates trained in data science. That alone is a concern.

Meanwhile, those who already are, or soon will be, working in the corporate world may be able to speak fluent algorithm and statistics -- but they can’t explain how they use data to their non-data-science colleagues responsible for strategic planning, training, reports, sales, and so on.

This forms a gap between technical skills and communication/consultative skills in the workplace. It is a disconnect between data science-speak and soft skills that are basic to business life. I call this disconnect “blind spots.”

As an IT professional and a now a faculty member at the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI), I am keenly interested in this growing problem, which can affect graduates’ marketability as much as the corporate bottom line. In fact, addressing these gaps is key to my role at UMSI. Among my responsibilities, I teach a class on IT Leadership & Management

As I was preparing my curriculum last year, I attended a Gartner CIO Summit in Toronto. Gartner, Inc. is a leading research and advisory firm that focuses on technology.

It was the perfect place to talk about needs and gaps with CIOs and their trusted advisors. One comment provides the economic context: “The universities can’t graduate data scientists fast enough for the 10x growth in demand.”

Other comments I heard only added to this theme: "Technology is not the problem; people and culture are the challenge." CIOs need to hire “collaborative facilitators.” Data science students have the technology skills, but "they need to know executives’ questions before asking the questions of the data." “Data scientists are statistics magicians and super coders, but they lack domain (business) expertise.”

And finally: "Students need to learn compassion."

You get the idea.

These comments put things into some perspective. If the demand for data scientists is far outpacing the supply of new graduates, and the required skill set is becoming more consultative, something has to give. Salaries and starting bonuses may skyrocket, but that’s not going to meet the need. Neither is more tech skills.

Informed by all of this, I assigned to my master’s students this past year to prepare a corporate-style presentation of a technology-based project proposal and present it to a panel of senior manager volunteers. I wanted to test what I had been hearing.

The results were mixed. Some student teams struggled with a focused, executive-style presentation. Other teams were able to navigate it -- with some practice and coaching. Their biggest challenge was converting a conclusion into an “ask”—a call to action, decision and commitment from their audience.

In contrast, teams with students who had prior consulting or corporate world experience fared much better. That underscored my concern: Real-world experiences are doing a better job teaching the communications skills than educational institutions.

This means we educators need to figure out the best way to prepare students for the workplace. We have many excellent professors and guest speakers at U-M. I have sat in their classes and I have watched their online presentations. We often model the communication and consultative skills our students need.

We need to teach what we do well in the better classes we teach, on campus and in our online courses. We are passionate, animated and adept at getting new and even difficult concepts across to our audiences. We also know how to be consultants with our students. We are our own case studies. We need to be more explicit about how we do this, so that students learn not only by observing, but also by learning the theory behind good communication and then practicing it in business and other settings.

While it is essential to train students to code with the latest tools, we cannot neglect communication and negotiating skills, and even psychological sensitivity. Organizations should be able to require these skills rather than having to provide remedial training.

Meanwhile, if we want to teach the soft skills effectively, we need to take our own advice: Go to business leaders, analysts and academic designers for answers – and hold the kind of discussion we need to model for our students.

I look forward to the ensuing dialogue.

Edward Happ is Executive Fellow at the University of Michigan School of Information in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Friday, July 28, 2017

Hot Button Values

I was recently cleaning some old folders on my laptop to make room for the new.  (No matter the  model purchased, I always seem to run out of hard disk space.) I came across a memo that I updated from time to time for my team when I was CIO.  This edition is from 2006, when I was at Save the Children.  It still rings true for me, which means it's likely part of my values that endure across the years of  change.

Now that I'm teaching in the fall at U. of Michigan I thought I'd look at this through the lens of leading a class of students and research projects.  My sense is that it still applies.  What are your thoughts?


To:           IS Managers
Date:       April 17, 2006
Subject:  Hot Buttons

What Gets Recognized and Rewarded? Here are my management and work values:

1) Work hard, with passion
  • Enthusiasm and high energy are contagious
2) Be on-time
  • Set deadlines and make them
  • Raise the "red flag" early about projects running late
  • Call, or email in advance, changes in your schedule
  • Make up missed time, on the honor system
  • Do what it takes to deliver results, with self-directed flex time as the guiding principle
3) Don't waste mistakes
  • Screw-ups are OK; they're an opportunity to change and improve something
  • Be able to say: 
          a) What went wrong,
          b) What you changed so it doesn't happen again,
          c) How you're going to be faster fixing it if it does occur again.

4) Say what you mean, do what you say
  • Honesty and integrity are fundamental to a team; there can't be mutual trust without it
  • Say what's on your mind (keeping problems inside is a good recipe for ulcers)
5) Take ownership
  • Admit mistakes, take responsibility
  • Say what you're going to do to improve
  • “Sign-up" and commit to get things done
6) Propose solutions
  • Identifying the problem is only half the job; “no problem identification without recommendation.”
  • When you have a problem to solve, take time to think about and suggest possible solutions to discuss
  • Avoid complain mode and "dive-bomb deliveries;" keep ownership of the problem.
  • That way we problem solve as a team, instead of hosting a gripe party.
7) Be frugal
  • Handle time and expense records as if they were your mother's checking account
  • Look for a low cost solution that doesn't lose quality
  • Travel as if it's your credit card and bank account
8) Continuous Improvement
  • Everything can be better the next time
  • Check your work for quality, accuracy --you are your own QA department!
  • Take initiative to constantly learn new things
          o Build prototypes
          o Test hypotheses
          o Dig into things with some research and analysis
          o Have a "book-of-the-month" (CD, seminar, etc.) mentality

9) Think positive
  • Look for the bright side, the silver lining, the prize at the bottom of the box
  • The glass is not half-empty, it's half-full
10) Play hard
  • Have fun with everything you do
  • Foster a rich sense of humor (it's the best antidote for stress!)
  • Play seriously - play is work: it's the key to innovation
11) Teamwork
  • Respect your neighbor
  • Hold inclusive meetings: every opinion counts
  • Solicit all participants input; “no wall flowers!”
12) Bias for Action
  • Meet, discuss, build consensus.... but then take action and “do something!”
  • End every meeting with a clear understanding of who will do what by when
  • Look for the pragmatic solution; “80% solutions are good enough.” “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
  • Planning is good, but so is humility: “50% of what you need to know is learned by doing;” so get started!
13) Service orientation
  • Take the time to help somebody get something done
  • Take the time to teach - help others become self-sufficient
  • Treat other departments as if they are your customers, as if they are writing your paycheck.
14) Servant Leadership
  • The management pyramid is upside down - managers serve their people
          o Help remove obstacles
          o Champion causes up the line
          o Get people what they need to get the job done.

15) Keep Score
  • “Teams that don't keep score are only practicing”
  • Gather data, run the numbers, prove the difference, “move the needle” forward

Of these 15, my top "hot" buttons are these 4:

#1 Bias for Action
  • Meet, discuss, build consensus.... but then take action and do something
  • End every meeting with a clear understanding of who will do what by when
  • Look for the pragmatic solution
  • Keep score
  • Deliver!
#2 Service orientation
  • Take the time to help somebody get something done
  • Take the time to teach - help others become self-sufficient
  • Treat other departments, vendors and each other as if they are your customers
          o As if they are writing your paycheck

#3 Take ownership
  • Admit mistakes, take responsibility
  • Say what you're going to do to improve
  • “Sign-up" and commit to get things done

#4 Play hard
  • Have fun with everything you do
  • Foster a rich sense of humor (it's the best antidote for stress!)
  • Play seriously - play is work: it's the key to innovation (prototype everything)

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Digital Divide and Context

A few things happened in the past few days that surprised me.  First, was hearing that in Detroit, just 45 miles from the University of Michigan campus where I work, 40% of the population do not have access to the Internet[1].  For the past 15+ years, I’ve been focused on the digital divide in developing countries, places like sub-Sahara Africa.  Now it is an issue in my backyard.  How can that be? The age, class, and community differences for US Internet access have narrowed over the past 15 years.[2]  Is Detroit an American anomaly?

Second, at a conference on University of Michigan and Detroit programs, an anthropologist cited that Detroit has one of the largest populations of unbanked citizens in the US, 20%, nearly twice the national average of 11%.  That’s citizens without a checking or savings account[3].  It’s a cash culture; credit and ATM cards are a foreign currency.

The third surprise came from the presentations at the conference.  Surveys and solutions were all touting digital delivery.  “Didn’t that risk losing the voice and participation of the population they most wanted,” I asked?  The “best” answer I heard, “we should distribute more phones!”  One of the professors went so far as to tell us how the computer science teams always start with repeated meetings with stakeholders asking them what they wanted.  “Technology came later,” he said.

What I came away with was a sense that the gap was a mindset gap. We really don’t get the local context.  If your frame of reference is that technology is what gets applied, that it’s the way you do things, have we really heard our audience?  For a population that is not connected, does not use banks or credit cards, I’d like to hear more about the non-technical approaches—at least until the digital divide problems are solved, and that means solving the cost and value barriers, before we suggest the next best app or web site.   Perhaps we can learn from the successes and failures in sub-Sahara Africa.  Who would have thought?

[1] Jim Kerstetter, “A Digital Divide in Detroit,” The New York Times, May 23, 2016, here:  and the companion article by Cecilia Kang, “Unemployed Detroit Residents Are Trapped by a Digital Divide,” The New York Times, May 22, 2016, here: .  The latter cites the 2013 US Census Bureau data for the figure.
[2] The Pew Research Center Report, “Americans’ Internet Access: 2000-2015,” June 26, 2015, states “For other groups, such as older adults, those with less educational attainment, and those living in lower-income households, adoption has historically been lower but rising steadily, especially in recent years. At the same time, digital gaps still persist.” Yet the racial gap is less than 10%, with 84% of all American adults using the Internet.  Here:
[3] This report supports the anthropologist's claim: Kasey Wiedrich, “New Data Reveals High Unbanked, Underbanked Rates in Localities across America,” CFED, December 3, 2015. Here:

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Monday, November 14, 2016

Connections for Good

Last week was the annual NetHope Summit.  It was also the US election.  I think that juxtaposition merits a closer look.  As humanitarians and conservationists we have learned to deal quickly and constructively with crises.  Here are three things we practice:

1) We go to where the crisis is.  When a disaster strikes, many of us are on planes heading to center of the storm within hours.  We carry equipment and know-how and are ready to help. Running for safety, shelter or solitude is not who we are.  We go to the fire.

2) We work together.  We know the strength of collaborating.  We do this with each other and especially with the the local people we serve.  We also work with a strong sensitivity to the local culture. Context matters to us.

3) We restore communications.  Connectivity is in our DNA.  People's need to communicate often rises above their need for food and shelter.  They need to know their loved ones are safe and to tell them they are safe.  They want to connect and help, and we help them do that.  We restore the voices of the broken and the lifelines of data.  We do not rest until citizens and responders alike are able to rejoin the conversation.

Imagine if we applied these principles at home, right now.  How might we behave differently?

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Friday, November 4, 2016

On NetHope’s 15th Anniversary

As we gather for the 23rd NetHope Summit in Atlanta, I’d like to adjust back the clocks to October 2001 for just a moment, when we held our first summit in San Jose. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but we just passed our 15th anniversary!

A few weeks ago, the Basu’s invited the founding members, sponsors, fellows and guests to celebrate this 15th anniversary[1]. The group again gathered around Dipak and Radha’s table to share a meal and talk about our dreams. I was not able to make it this time, but sent my greetings in a video from Lisbon, where I am on sabbatical. I wish I had been there to raise a glass of Dipak’s wine in a toast to our successful venture in collaboration.

I’d like to reiterate the three things I shared. First, not being there is in itself a positive message. It means that the organization carries on, surviving its founders. I note that among the list of attendees at the dinner in 2001, most have moved on to other places. A few remained with NetHope or rejoined from other organizations, but most went on to other sectors.

In Jim Collins words, we have become clock builders rather than time-tellers; we have built an organization that makes it possible for others to interpret the times[2].

Second, breaking bread together around a kitchen table is intimate; it's personal. NetHope has been about relationships from the very beginning. Our fundamental value of trust depends on our friendships. While the setting of a small dinner is casual, collaboration is anything but casual; it runs deep. We believe in it. It is something we return to again and again.

I can picture our small group standing in Radha and Dipak’s kitchen last month 15 years ago. And an amazing thing is that our founding group of 7 NGOs will soon be 50.

Third, affirming our founding hypotheses. From the paper I presented at Cisco in 2001, the founding hypotheses continue to hold true:
  1. We had to be able to solve the “last mile” problems faster, cheaper, better if we did it together. 
  2. We would be a much stronger partner to the technology companies, on whom we depend, if we came as a group rather than the one-off, hat-in-hand organizations we had been.
NetHope is a collaboration that works, and it is clear that we are better together[3]

The potential of our collaboration was something Cisco saw from the start. We owe them a word of special thanks. Things tend not to hatch without some incubation. Cisco was our first incubator. Cisco, Microsoft and other partners been there since the early years helping all our members, and those we serve, through the NetHope relationship.

At an early Summit, I asked John Morgridge, then Cisco’s Chairman, who sat on a number of NGO boards, what frustrated him most about nonprofits? His answer: “That they don’t work together more, like you are doing at NetHope.” Working together and collaborating more is something we bring both to our nonprofit sector and our corporate partners. Let’s not forget that.

More importantly, we have become the example on how to collaborate in the nonprofit sector and with corporate partners. We have set the bar high. That’s something to be proud of. We now have a broader educational responsibility. The NetHope method of collaboration is something we can and should share.

In Conclusion, I’d like to share something I wrote when reflecting about NetHope a few years ago:

“This is how NetHope was born. There was an obvious and shared need, a scarcity of resources, and a desire to be part of a larger group that could gain some real momentum."[4]

We can celebrate this. We make connections for good. As I imagine turning the clocks forward in the spring, I look with even greater expectation to the next 15 years.

[1] Our first Summit in October, 2001 was with founding members STC, WVI, CARE, MC, CRS, WI, CI; Cisco hosted us on their San Jose campus.

[2] Jim Collins, Building Companies to Last”, Inc. Special Issue—The State of Small Business, 1995, with the headline “Make The Company Itself the Ultimate Product—Be A Clock Builder, Not A Time Teller”, here:

[3] This is the title of my active book project, which you can read on-line, here: . For some entertainment, listen to Jack Johnson’s “Better Together”, with lyrics, here:

[4] “We Are Better Together”, chapter 5.1,

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Next Chapter

Dear Friends and Colleagues, 

I am pleased to announce that I have decided to take early retirement from IFRC. It's something I've planned carefully, with the welcome support of my USG over the past few months. 

I celebrated my 64th birthday last month, and mandatory retirement would be a year-away.  However, we completed our 5-year IT Strategy in 2015 and are in the midst of a strategy refresh process for 2016-2020. Under any scenario, I will not be here for its implementation.  If I were a new CIO coming into the IFRC, I would want a say in finalizing the IT strategy, and not be faced with reassessing it one-year into the plan; for IFRC, this would not be the best use of time and resources.  So the turn of this year was the right time to propose a new CIO come in earlier, finish the strategy work and own the new plan.

The CIO position has been posted on the IFRC job site. Please refer candidates here. (Note that the job closed on 21-June; announcements to follow by end-August).

My last day at office will be on Aug. 10th.  My wife and I will be moving to Lisbon until mid-December.  I will be working on finishing a few book projects and volunteering to help a colleague on a new NGO venture.  So the good work continues!

We look forward to being home for the holidays to celebrate with family and friends. Then the next chapter begins teaching at a university (still to be determined).   Thank you for your interest in and support of our IT and innovation work.  It has been an honor serve the RC Movement these past six years, and I have always believed that the best is yet to come.  So stay focused on the morning star. Best regards,


Edward G. Happ
Global CIO and Director of IT

“Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”  --Will Rogers, American Humorist

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"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."