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."