A to Z of Project Management

Think Oak!, Mark Conway, Project Management

Most business leaders are acutely aware of the dynamic nature of the business and economic environment and more so today than ever before. Every organisation big or small has to take into account priority, time, resource allocation, scope and budget of each project within their organisation. It is only if these factors are well managed with consistent project management processes, that business will  thrive and get good results. So, to effectively meet the dynamic nature of projects, great project management is a must in business. Delivering a quality service or product is seen as the mandatory obligation for business survival.

In this A to Z of Project Management, I’d like to focus on some of the more critical areas of focus for Project Managers and those working on complex projects.

A – Acceptance Criteria

Acceptance criteria are the specific set of conditions that must be met before a project has been considered completed and the project deliverables can be accepted by the customer, be they internal or external. Normally the acceptance criteria should be outlined in specific detail and signed-off before work on the project has commenced to ensure that all parties are in agreement.

Acceptance criteria are typically used on projects where the customer is paying for specific deliverables or for the completion phases in a project.

You should ensure that the acceptance criteria that are developed, are appropriate to the deliverables, are binary (either acceptable or not acceptable), are measurable, and tied to payments (whenever appropriate). Customers are refuse the sign-off on the deliverables for two legitimate reasons; either the project results have not met their needs, or they themselves were not clear about their needs. By working towards a clearly defined set of acceptance criteria before you start working on your deliverables, you will be protecting yourself, your project team, and your organisation.

B – Business Case / Benefits Realisation

Before the Project: The purpose of the business case is to outline the rationale for undertaking a project, and to define the parameters and management factors involved in the project itself such as time, quality, cost, resources, materials, benefits and timelines. It provides the project manager with a tool to guide the design, management and evaluation of the project.

The business case serves three purposes: it provides the project manager the opportunity to think through the project in a systematic, step-by-step manner; explains why the project should be undertaken; and provides a framework for completion of the project on time and on budget.

During the project: The business case should be updated to reflect actual costs incurred and any changes to forecast costs and benefits. This information can be used by the Project Board to assess whether the project remains viable and to take decisions accordingly.

At project closure: The updated business case should be handed over to whoever is going to take long-term responsibility for delivering the benefits.

Benefits realisation stage: The business case will be used as the baseline against which to measure achievement of the actual benefits and to inform any resulting decision-making. A Benefits Realisation Plan produced during the end of the project should be used to establish what each benefit should be, the units it should be measured in, the optimum timing for measurement, the method of measurement and responsibilities for realisation and measurement.

C – Critical Path Activities and Analysis

Critical path activities are the project tasks that must start and finish on time to ensure that the project ends on schedule. A delay in any critical path activity will delay completion of the project, unless the project plan can be adjusted so that successor tasks finish more quickly than planned.

D – Delivery Success

Delivery success has got to be the number one goal for a Project Manager. Below are 3 key areas that I believe are the keys to delivery success (apart from you being a fantastic project manager, of course!)

1. Comprehensive Planning

Comprehensive planning sets up a project for success from the start. All stakeholders should be on board during the planning process and always know in which direction the project is going to go. Planning can help the team to meet deadlines and stay organised. Good planning not only keeps the project team focused and on track, but also keeps stakeholders aware of project progress.

This first step in the project process allows for a reliable and realistic time-scale to be created. Assuring accurate time for cost estimates to be produced and for clear documentation of milestones and deliverables will make things much easier as the project progresses. A proficient plan details all resource requirements and doubles as a warning system. If task slippage is at risk, then a warning system will provide clear visibility of what to expect.

Use the best planning tools possible to help you and utilise lessons learned from previous projects to help you avoid those common pitfalls in planning

2. The Right People

Without the right team in place, any strategy and plan has the potential of completely falling apart. Because of this, the core project team, expert resources, suppliers and key stakeholders should be part of the team from the outset. All of those involved must have commitment to the group, share similar visions for the projects and strive for overall success.

Project managers can face serious trouble if inadequacy is present within the team. Inept leadership or an out-of-sync team can send a project towards failure. It is important to assign the right people to each aspect of the project and make sure that they are working well together. Additionally, the entire team should be completely informed and involved in order to have the most successful outcome, which means that communication has to be a key priority.

3. Communication

Keeping open communication within the team is absolutely essential. When working under a specific timetable, it is important that the team remains well-informed. If a problem arises on one part of a project, it can negatively impact other parts as well. Communication should also be focused internally within the organisation. Listening to stakeholders and paying attention is a very important ingredient for success.

Good communication also includes knowing when to say no. A project team should never promise anything they know they can’t deliver. Saying no in the beginning could save unnecessary problems later. Always be honest about what your team can do and when it can be done by.

It is the project manager’s job to ensure that everything runs smoothly on a project, but having a great project manager doesn’t guarantee a successful project outcome. The entire team paying attention to key factors is what will help lead the project to true success. This success will then lead to proactive, organized project plans and an increase in quality of all future projects.

E – Executive Support

The importance of obtaining executive management support for business critical or customer projects cannot be underestimated as the executive sponsor is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the project.

In numerous studies it has been identified that:

  • The most successful projects have quality executive sponsors with expert vision and  prompt responsiveness
  • Projects with inspirational executive management support outperform projects that lack inspiration
  • Visionary executive sponsors who enlighten their team have a higher rate of success.
  • Strong and decisive executive sponsors increase the rate of project success
  • Teams that have small and large accomplishments celebrated by executive management continue to meet and exceed project expectations
  • Most failed projects lack quality executive support.
  • Non-responsive or mediocre executive support increases the chances that a project will experience overruns or failure.
  • Assigning project accountability to executive management substantially increases the chance of a successful outcome.

F – Finances

Step 1: Understand and check your budget

The first step towards managing your project finances is to understand the budget you are working to. Don’t necessarily accept the budget to be 100% accurate. I would always advise a thorough review. You need to forecast the total amount of people, equipment, materials and other expenses, needed to deliver the project. You then need to work out when in the project plan, these expenses will take place. By doing this, you can get a picture of your “project cashflow” which tells you the amount of money you need for every week in the project. Hopefully the budget will match the forecast. If not, you’ll need to escalate to your sponsor quickly and before you commence the project in earnest.

Step 2: Contingency

Understand what level of contingency budget you have to work with, if any. This is additional funding that can be used to deliver your project, if you need it. Few Project Managers actually do this in advance, but if you have almost completed a major deliverable and you suddenly run out of money, then that contingency funding might “make or break” the project. You are always in a better position to get contingency funding before you need it, rather than asking for more cash when you’ve already overspent.

Step 3: Tracking

The next step after setting your budget and securing contingency funding is to start tracking your daily spend on the project. You need to track every expense that occurs. Ask your team to notify you of any expenses incurred.

Step 4: Realignment

If you anticipate that you will start spending more than your budget, you have 3 options available to help you stay within budget:

  1. Re-forecast your expenses and present a new budget to your Sponsor for approval.
  2. Start reducing costs immediately. This means spending less to get the same job done. Or alternatively, see if your Sponsor will agree to a reduced scope, so that you have less to produce for them.
  3. Start using your backup funding to get you through the crux of the project.

Step 5: Cashflow Management

Make sure you always have enough funds available to cover your spending over the months ahead. Cashflow management is about managing the cash needed to deliver your project. So, on longer projects, ensure your Sponsor has approved the next 1-2 months of work ahead of time, and that the funds needed to manage the project have been made available. Then track the spending of that funding every week.

G – Governance

All projects involve decision-making and stakeholder relationship management at different points in the project life-cycle and at a variety of different levels. Governance provides the framework for such decision-making. The project governance arrangements must be designed during Project Start-up and will usually be a tailored blend of the basic requirements mandated by your organisation and any specific arrangements to meet the needs of a particular project. The tailoring will depend on such things as predicted benefits, cost, urgency, complexity, risk and type/quantity of stakeholders.

Project Governance provides a framework within which to manage and should cover:

  • Initial and continuing justification of the project
  • Setting up an appropriate management organisation
  • Establishing a framework for decision-making (roles/responsibilities/authorities)
  • Ensuring sufficiently thorough plans are prepared and updated as necessary
  • Implementing a stakeholder management strategy
  • Putting in place a quality management strategy
  • Setting up and operating a project monitoring and control regime
  • Managing uncertainties (threats and opportunities)
  • Managing problems and changes

H – Highlights / Lowlights and Other Reporting

Every project manager understands the importance of project reporting. Throughout all phases of the project, specific information needs to be communicated to the sponsors and key stakeholders. In a typical project, the milestones for reporting are determined in the beginning, or initiation phase, of the project. These reporting timeframes and expectations are located in the project initiation document. Clear communication is critical and will make the project manager’s job easier, as well as help the project succeed.

Project management reports can come in all shapes, sizes, and forms, good and bad.  A good project management report can set a team apart and provide valuable information to sponsors.

Regardless of the project, at least one project management report must be submitted regularly by the project manager. Often-times these reports can be as simple as updates on how the project is going, since many upper-management personnel are not interested in the details of a project. They are strictly interested in knowing that the project is on schedule and on budget and can often be a simple Highlights / Lowlights report.

At other times, they’re more detailed, involving usually six key metrics: meeting scheduled deadlines, cost, use of resources, scope changes, quality control and taking action. Most of your reports will fall into the latter group. But, they will probably all come in different formats.

Your audience is particularly important when writing a project management report. Some people will want more information; some may want less. You may have a large audience or a smaller one. Sometimes the people who are reading the reports have different technical abilities and levels of knowledge. In such cases, you should gear your writing for a wider audience. There will also be different requirements for when project reports are due therefore, it is good to get this information beforehand.

Most customers and managers are not interested in narratives and prefer reports to be around one page long. Many project management reports are simply yes and no answers with brief descriptions. You will have questions like the following: “Did the project start on time?” “Is it on budget?” or, “Are there any issues that have arisen?” As stated, when approached with these type of situations, the person receiving the information is only looking for short answers in addition to the yes or no response.

I – Initiation Document

Have you ever been part of a project where not everyone has the same view of where the project is heading? This lack of clarity can breed confusion: People start pulling in different directions, building up unrealistic expectations, and harboring unnecessary worries and fears. While it’s normal as part of a project to put the detailed plans, controls and reporting mechanisms into place, how do you get everyone on the same page to start with?

This is accomplished by creating a Project Initiation Document (PID) – the top-level project planning document. In it, you bring together all of the information needed to get your project started, and communicate that key information to the project’s stakeholders. With a well-put-together Project Initiation Document, you can let everyone understand where the project’s heading from the outset.

Your Project Initiation Document does the following:

  • Defines your project and its scope.
  • Justifies your project.
  • Secures funding for the project, if necessary.
  • Defines the roles and responsibilities of project participants.
  • Gives people the information they need to be productive and effective right from the start.

By creating a PID, you’ll answer the questions: What? Why? Who? How? When?

J – Juggling Priorities

In today’s work environments where multitasking between numerous tasks is the standard, resources often tend to over-commit by multitasking. When a resource multitasks, all tasks will take longer than if they were done one by one. If a resource works concurrently on two tasks of 5 workdays, chances are he or she will take more than 10 workdays to complete both tasks due to the effort required to “change gears”. Furthermore, the resource will most likely meet its local objectives by doing the easiest task first and the most difficult tasks last. Not always the smart thing to do!

In most organisations, when the project objectives are in jeopardy, functional managers will reassign their resources to have them prioritise their tasks in accordance with project objectives. Shorter project lead times and multitasking explain why resources working for their best interests constantly have to switch to working for the best interests of the project.

K – Kick-off Meeting

The initial stages of a project can make all the difference to its overall success, so the kick-off meeting needs proper planning and consideration.

There are four key principles for good kick-off meetings:


Productive kick-off meetings require good preparation, and your aim is to find the best ways to generate ideas and gather opinions from your attendees. In fact, don’t see it as a meeting at all – see it as a workshop. Design various exercises which guide your team members through the key questions and problems relating to the project. But keep your agenda flexible. Depending on the content that is generated, the discussions and the mood of the room, you might need to change things around on the day to keep the creativity going.


You might be inclined to only invite the key decision-makers to your kick-off meeting, but you’ll limit your project’s potential if you only hear the views from the top. A true collaborative approach is to bring in everyone who will be involved – from strategy to delivery – to shape the project. They’ll contribute valuable insight from their position, as well as getting a clearer idea of the bigger picture for their own knowledge. The exercises you design will be to ensure that everyone has a chance to provide their views.


One aim of the kick-off is to build the team’s energy and motivation around the project, and another is to make it practical. In her post “How to Increase Group IQ“, Annie Murphy Paul, wrote how the most effective teams discuss how they’re going to work together as well as what they’re going to do. Allocating some time to ask people to reflect on what works well (and not) in collaboration will help them to set up better working relationships.

Attendees will also need to come away with a clear idea of what’s happening next and their involvement in this. Ideally, rather than just distributing the meeting’s minutes, the raw notes will be analysed and developed into a document that the team can work from.


An effective kick-off meeting will be a highly collaborative experience and good facilitation makes the difference to this. Your role on the day is to encourage contributions from everyone and guide the meeting/workshop without getting involved in the ideas generation yourself. If you think this will be difficult because you are too close to the project, think about using another facilitator. You’ll need to listen and reflect back key points, organise ideas and identify themes on the spot, find out attendees’ motivations for being involved and develop this into common goals.

Bearing these four principles in mind, a few small changes to your project kick-off can make a huge difference.

L – Lessons Learned

Everything learned from previous projects, whether they were successes or failures can teach a project manager, and people working in project teams, important lessons. Individual project managers usually do learn from their own previous experiences, but are these “lessons learned” shared with others within the project team or within the same organisation? If they are shared, do other project managers apply the lessons to their own projects?

Capturing lessons learned from projects is key for any organisation. Unfortunately, project teams are usually moved quickly from project to project and capturing lessons learned is never a priority. To ensure efficiencies over time and development of best practices, it is essential to capture lessons learned on your projects.

In looking at lessons learned, many times we find things like – should have had a better schedule, or better budgeting, or more communications, spent more time on requirements, etc. All of these things relate to how we do the work, not what we work on. Talking about how things get done or working on how things get done does not, in and of itself, get anything done. This is one of the reasons so many people hate planning – planning is not doing and we all like doing.

M – Milestones & Inch Pebbles

Milestones are events within a project plan that marks the completion of a group of tasks with significance to some other group inside or outside the project. Milestones are often represented in planning tools as a project task without a duration.

Milestones are associated with key deliverables. Crucially the achievement of the milestone must represent “confirmation that the deliverable is fit for purpose”. Many projects allow milestone achievement to be recognised at publication of an unverified (not checked to ensure the development process was followed faithfully) and unvalidated deliverable (i.e.not checked to ensure completeness and accuracy). The value of project planning and tracking is severely undermined if milestone recognition is faulty.

Inch-pebbles are the smaller steps towards a milestone that assist the project manager in assessing if milestone achievement is progressing to plan. Inch-pebbles represent concrete steps (no pun intended) towards deliverables, for example requirements interviews completed or first draft document published.

N – Name and Shame Process

Unfortunately, in today’s climate of doing more with less, project members are often not full-time on a project and they often have very busy ‘day jobs’ as well as the tasks to deliver on your project. Even the best project managers sometimes struggle to use their powers of persuasion to get members of their project to deliver their tasks on time. In my career, I’ve always tried to advocate the 3 strikes process.

Strike 1 – the first occasion of non-delivery

You as the Project Manager have a discussion with the non-performing team member and emphasise the importance of the project, the strategic value and importance to the organisation, and the impact, financial or otherwise that the lack of activity has or will cause the project. Get agreement with the team member on remedial action and put a communication agreement in place, so that if there is a future risk of non-delivery or forced changes in their priorities, you will be informed well in advance of the deadline that there is a problem, so that you might be able to do something about it.

Strike 2 – the second occasion of non-delivery

Assuming that the second instance of non-delivery is a ‘surprise’ and you hadn’t been made aware of a potential slip, then a conversation with the individual and their manager is appropriate. A discussion around communication, priorities and future delivery needs to ensue.  An agreement with the team member and their manager should be reached on meeting project deadlines, and implications spelt out. The sponsor of the project should also be made aware.

Strike 3 – the third occasion of non-delivery

At this point you may have some difficult choices to make, and depending on the priority of the project within the business and the severity of the impact, you will need to consider replacing the individual with someone internally or externally (potentially at a higher cost) and delaying project delivery, which may incur further cost and other impacts such as new revenues, reputation damage or both.

O – Operational Acceptance Testing

Whether internal or external it is critical that the end to end processes for operational teams on the receiving end of a project launch have been tested and documented and that the resources involved within these processes have been fully trained and have signed off on any changes to ways of working.

Depending on the complexity and sensitivity of your project to the ongoing operations of your organisation or customer you may require a significant period of testing or parallel running to ensure that the ‘customer’ is comfortable to go fully live. All of these tests and acceptance criteria will of course have been fully agreed, well in advance of the testing taking place!

P – Planning

Fail to Plan, then Plan to Fail as the saying goes!

A Project Plan can comprise many elements, depending upon the project type, scope, technology, resources and other key project parameters.

In truth, the delivery plan should only be produced once the full scope of the project has been agreed. In some environments, this should be formally approved by the appropriate authority Sponsor / Project Board. It must also be examined rigorously from the perspective of risk . Key strategic project decisions are the most important we make on projects, and have the maximum capacity to influence risk, both positively and negatively. An example could include the partners or suppliers involved on the project – always a potential for risk.

As a minimum, a project plan should contain an analysed project schedule, a resource plan that is driven by the schedule (i.e. changes to the schedule are automatically reflected in the resulting resource plan). These elements are often referred to as the first principles of project management – sadly, these first principles are too often overlooked. The output of this phase should contain or in a sense summarise the results of all planning decisions, including risk mitigation and planning. Ideally it should also be based upon estimates that do not rely upon single point estimates of time and effort alone. Such approaches typically produce a plan that has limited probability of being achieved – something that is often refered to as the ‘happy path’….which often leads to a road of misery for Project Managers and the Project Team!

Planning must include the identification of risks to any aspect of the delivery process or the planned benefits – these can be commercial, organisational, political or any other type of risk – there are often many risks outside of those that relate to the technical aspects of the project. It is typically as sign of weakness of risk management if the only risks that have been identified are technical. Risk mitigation strategies and actions should then be developed and incorporated (integrated) into the mainstream plan.

The plan must also contain relevant processes and activities to assure that all quality targets of the projects are achieved. Again, in many circumstances this will result in an important work stream in itself.

Together, all the work streams or statements of work collectively define the scope of work of the project. In many environments this will be managed via formal change control.

The plan should be formally reviewed by all core team members and relevant stakeholders, for completeness and validity. This is then published and often referred to as the baseline plan.

The best plans also build in sensitivities, based upon those risks identified, so that a worst case, especially from a time and cost perspective can be recognised and mitigated.

Q – Quality, Cost, Time

The three most common primary objectives in project management are lowest cost, highest quality and shortest time. Very often the gain in one of these objectives needs a compromise in the other.

Time is the available time to deliver the project, cost represents the amount of money or resources available and quality represents the fit-to-purpose that the project must achieve to be a success.  The normal situation is that one of these factors is fixed and the other two will vary in inverse proportion to each other. For example time is often fixed and the quality of the end product will depend on the cost or resources available. Similarly if you are working to a fixed level of quality then the cost of the project will largely be dependent upon the time available (if you have longer you can do it with fewer people).
The astute reader will be wondering what happens when two of the points are fixed. This is when it really gets interesting. Normally this occurs when costs are fixed and there is a definite deadline for delivery, an all too familiar set of circumstances. Then, if the scope starts to creep you are left with only one choice – cut functionality. This more common than you might think, in fact its more common than not!

Top tip – The Sponsor / Board should ALWAYS be involved in formal changes to any of the ‘Holy Trinity’ – This is not a Project Manager decision to make.


RAID is an acronym which should be at the forefront of your mind if you are a project manager. RAID stands for Risks, Assumptions, Issues, and Dependencies.


A risk is any specific event which might occur and thus have a negative impact on your project. Each risk will have an associated probability of occurrence along with an impact on your project if it does materialise. An example of a risk might be that a change in legislation could mean you will have to redo some of your project and this will impact the schedule by x and cost y. As project manager it is your responsibility to ensure a Risk Management Process is undertaken, managing and mitigating risks, along with ensuring risks are routinely and effectively communicated with your stakeholders.


An assumption is something we set as true to enable us to proceed with our project or program. Typically this happens during the planning and estimation phase of the project. As an example of an assumption, during the early planning phase we might assume that we have access to skilled engineers throughout the entire duration of the project. By making this assumption it enables us to produce our plan. If this assumption turns out to be false then the project is negatively impacted. Because assumptions can turn out to be false and impact your project adversely, it is your responsibility as project manager to monitor and manage all assumptions so minimal impact to the project occurs.


An issue is anything which arises on your project which you have to deal with in order to ensure your project runs smoothly. Issues differ from risks in that they exist as a problem today, unlike risks which might turn into issues in the future. An example of an issue might be that a key project resource has left the business and it may take a number of weeks to bring in a replacement resource.


A dependency exists when an output from one piece of work or project is needed as mandatory input for another project or piece of work. An example of a dependency in a building project might be that the architectural diagrams need to be complete before the foundations can be laid. Managing inter-dependencies is critical to ensuring projects, regardless of their size, run smoothly. As project and program managers it is your responsibility to record, monitor, and manage these dependencies.

S – Scope

The primary purpose of project scope management is to ensure that all the required work and only the required work is performed to complete the project successfully. This is accomplished by defining and controlling what is included in the project and what is not.

To define a project scope, you must first identify the following things:

  • Project objectives
  • Goals
  • Milestones
  • Tasks
  • Resources
  • Budget
  • Schedule

Once you’ve established these things, you’ll then need to clarify the limitations or parameters of the project and clearly identify any aspects that are not to be included. In specifying what will and will not be included, the project scope must make clear to the stakeholders, senior management and team members involved, what product or service will be delivered.

T – Testing & Training

In my experience these are the two areas of a project that get squeezed following any quality, cost or time compromises. They are also the two areas of a project that, if not carried out effectively or at all, will cause a project to fail or to be delayed. These two areas need to be as rigorously planned upfront as any other part of the project and any contingency built into the overall plan.


There are so many different types of testing that it would be difficult to come up with a comprehensive list. Additionally, each type of testing typically has a number of variants that have been developed based on the team creating the testing strategy. However, the most common types of testing used by a majority of projects are:

Unit Testing – refers to the testing of individual software components as they are completed. This type of testing is typically completed by the development team.

Integration Testing – refers to the testing of components as they are combined or integrated together. This ensures that each component that has been tested on its own operates correctly when it is used in conjunction with the other components that it is designed to interact with. This is particularly important for client/server and service oriented architecture systems.

User Acceptance Testing – refers to testing that is performed by the user or end customer of the system or process as a condition of approval. User Acceptance Testing is where the user/customer ensures that the final application or product meets the agreed upon requirements. This is also why traceability of requirements throughout the entire Analysis, Development, and Testing life-cycle is so important.

Functional Testing – refers to testing the features and behaviour of an application to ensure that it coincides with the functional software specifications provided. This type of testing is also referred to as black box testing because it completely ignores the internal workings of the program and focuses only on the outputs as a result of the specified inputs and execution steps.

Usability Testing – refers to testing the ease in which users can learn the application, as well as the users’ efficiency and productivity while using the application.

Performance Testing – refers to testing performed to evaluate whether the system, product or process meets the documented performance requirements. Performance Testing ensures that the system, product or process will support a specified number of users / activities while still maintaining specific service level agreements (SLAs). This type of Performance Testing is also called Load Testing. Additionally, during Performance Testing, often it will be required to test the limits and determine the maximum number of concurrent users that can be supported before the system fails. This is referred to as Stress Testing.

Regression Testing – refers to testing a portion of the application that has previously been tested following a modification to ensure that the original functionality still works and behaves per the specification. While Regression Testing really just means to go back and re-test, it typically refers to Functional Testing.


Depending on the project you are managing, you may need a significant amount of training for end users, particularly if the project is introducing new software, systems, hardware or significant changes to working processes.

Whilst it is advisable to employ training professionals as part of your team, as a Project Manager you still need to ensure that the training is carried out effectively, in a timely manner and that this is signed off by the client.

Top Tips:

  1. Plan your training effort up-front, ideally as part of the business case. Know who needs to be trained, to what level and what skill levels are required to carry out the training.
  2. Tailor the training. Know your audiences and ensure that the training is pertinent to their role and department in the organisation. One size doesn’t fit all.
  3. Create Super-users. By investing extra time with a number of ‘Subject Matter Experts’ within the client or team, you can reduce the amount of in-life support you will have to cope with, as the majority of user error can be dealt with ‘in-house.

U – Understand Your Scope, Your Budget, Your Timelines, Your Team & Your Customer

As a project manager, if you can have a deep understanding of these 5 areas, you’ll be well on the way to delivering successful projects. An unwavering focus on Time, Quality and Cost, tied with a great working relationship with your teams and your customer will ensure that you keep on top of any risks and issues to your project.

V – Virtual Teams

Virtual teams are increasingly prevalent in today’s world, and a great deal of high quality information exists on how to work effectively as a team. As well as the economies that can be achieved from virtual teams, this style of project offers great potential for harnessing talent from many locations. Managing a virtual project team can be richly rewarding, and requires many of the same core competencies as managing a co-located team, with the added element of being highly sensitive to communication styles and ensuring appropriate styles are used depending on the occasion.

Watch out for future posts on virtual team working.

W – Waterfall and Agile Projects

Waterfall Project Management

Project managers traditionally identify a number of steps to complete a project, which typically must be completed sequentially. In traditional project management there are typically four stages:

  • Requirements
  • Planning & design
  • Implementation
  • Completion

Not all projects will include every stage, but most projects include elements of these stages, sometimes repeatedly as one activity relies on the completion of the last. Most complicated projects require many more stages than this, which could include:

  • Conception
  • Initiation
  • Analysis
  • Design
  • Construction
  • Testing
  • Production/Implementation
  • Verification
  • Maintenance

It’s called the waterfall method because tasks are completed sequentially..

It is widely accepted that the waterfall development model works well for small, well-design projects but can fall short in bigger, less well-defined projects that may change over time. The waterfall model originates in manufacturing and construction, where project are well-defined and after-the-fact changes are extremely costly and often impossible. It was when this model was applied to software development that its unresponsive nature became a flaw.

Agile Project Management

The agile project management model, or flexible product development approach, and is most commonly used in software, website, creative and marketing industries. In this approach project managers see a project as a series of small tasks defined and completed as the project demands, in a responsive and adaptive manner, rather than as a pre-planned process.

Agile project management’s flexible and interactive characteristics are highly relevant to the industry where it was created – software development. It’s thought that this technique is best used on small projects, or projects that are too complex for a client to understand before testing prototypes. It’s also highly appropriate for teams of professionals who work together on a daily basis. It’s much less likely to be an appropriate methodology for teams that are based in geographically disparate locations/time zones, where it probably makes more sense to implement the waterfall method.

Choosing between models can be difficult, so if you’re struggling with this question, ask yourself the following questions;

How stable are the requirements?
If the requirement of a project are likely to keep changing, its best to use iterative approaches such as agile, as it provides a framework in which new requirements can be accommodated once the project is underway. Using waterfall methods is like playing snakes and ladders; you can move forward but you can end up back at the start if the brief changes.

Are project teams working closely together?

If project teams are located far apart, coordination of work needs to be relatively detailed to avoid confusion and wasted time. In this instance Waterfall is likely to be the most appropriate method, offering clear deliverables and project milestones and dependencies. Working closely together with close communication is a key part of the agile approach, which changes and is molded each day by customer requirements.

What are the critical resources?

When projects require unique, specialist skills or equipment and these resources are not immediately available, good planning is required. If this is costly or difficult to organise, it’s important to ensure that the resource is fully utilised during its scheduled usage. For this Waterfall is a better approach, as each milestone must be completed before the project can proceed to the next stage. This will help to ensure that critical resources are used minimally and efficiently.

X – eXpectation Management

Accurately mapping expectations requires skillful listening and the ability to decipher what’s meant, not just what’s said on projects. Don’t be afraid to enlist senior management to ask questions on your behalf. As you begin to understand your stakeholders’ expectations, they will fall into two groups: realistic and unrealistic.

Realistic expectations still need managing. Make sure you can fulfil them — then make sure the stakeholder knows you are meeting them. Your communication plan must present the right information to the right stakeholder in the right manner.

Unrealistic expectations are more difficult to manage. They are unlikely to be met, and when you fail to achieve the “impossible,” the project will be deemed a failure. Fortunately, expectations are not fixed, but exist in a person’s mind and can be influenced or changed.

The key to shifting stakeholders’ expectations is to provide new and better information.

Developing a communication strategy that brings the right information to the stakeholder’s attention in a believable fashion is a subtle art. This is particularly tricky when advising upward with the goal of changing senior managers’ expectations. (I’ll write more on this in my next post.)

Y – Your Role as a Project Manager

The skills required for a successful project manager come from every discipline. Some are basic interpersonal skills while others are more technical. Some of these skills are learned only by experiencing success and failure in managing projects.

Here is a further breakdown of some of the skills required to properly and efficiently lead projects and teams to success:

Personal Skills

  • Team work – knowing how to listen, share, cooperate and learn together as a team
  • Positive attitude – important for difficult times incurred along the way throughout the process
  • Ability to clearly articulate expectations – clearly define what is expected of team members and define expectations on your deliverables to your management
  • Manage by example – project managers must be straightforward and knowledgeable in all dealings.
  • Be direct – do not overpromise and under deliver

Technical Skills

  • Technical knowledge and skills required to complete the project
  • Depending on the type of project it may be certain computer programs and software languages

Management Skills

  • Critical thinking
  • Decision making
  • Negotiation
  • Growing and sustaining a high performing team
  • Managing budgets, costs and expenses of the project
  • Project execution and control

The skills required are many and varied. A project manager must be prepared for all situations and be able to manage uncertainty and change in a less defined environment. A project manager must lead by example and motivate all parties involved. The project manager must strive to further develop and enhance their skills so as to continue leading their team to success.

Z – Zero Hour – Go / No Go

The decision to go-live with a project is one of the most important decisions in the project life-cycle and getting it wrong can jeopardise the success of the entire initiative. Whilst the Project Manager is always under pressure to deliver within schedule, sometimes it is prudent for them to step back and delay go-live rather than risk the consequences of project failure. Project Go Live decision should be taken only after thorough confirmation of following:

  • Sufficient user training
  • Adequate product testing
  • Stakeholders approvals
  • Any security activities tested and complete
  • Resolution of critical defects
  • Mapping workflows and exceptions
  • Business processes documentation and understanding
  • Interfaces integration & validation
  • Successful data migration & validation
  • Ongoing change management mechanism
  • Testing of backups and disaster recovery
  • Clear accountability for ongoing support

So, well done for getting to the end of this A to Z! I hope you found it useful, and as always would love to hear any feedback.


Coal to Diamonds – Raising Team Performance

Rebuilding an underperforming team or department is a huge challenge. The issues you will face from the team could include low morale, rapid staff turnover and high absenteeism levels. The managers involved could alsoCoal to Diamonds have poor leadership skills, which is likely to hinder not help the situation. If employees are uncertain about their own future this can have a further negative affect and will make matters worse. A manager in this situation could feel so overwhelmed by all the problems that they will stick their head in the sand and hope it will go away.

A team needs to analyse its structure – how it works, what its strengths and weaknesses are and the role each individual plays within it. You need to get quickly to the root cause of problems and plan remedial measures to implement quickly. Self awareness plays a huge part. People often don’t know how other members of their team see them. One manager might see himself as an assertive leader but in reality he is an autocratic dictator. He in turn might have a low opinion of the quietly spoken people. Everyone needs to appreciate that both types of people are essential to the success of the team. It relies on three factors:

• Self and team awareness – identifying individual’s strengths and limitations

• Recognise different contributions – teams bring together complementary skills and experience

• Plug the gaps – modifying behaviour brings enhancements to the team.

One factor that differentiates “dream teams” from “teams from hell” is a strong platform of understanding. Self awareness and an awareness of other people’s style are crucial if a team is going to reach more ambitious performance goals. There needs to be an acceptance that WE have a joint problem and WE need a joint strategy to tackle it. Differences are not good or bad, better or worse. A High Performance Team will be aware of the work styles of the different profiles and that each contributes to the team in its own way. Each member must recognise their own limitations and recognise that there are people on the team who can do things better than themselves. People need to cover the bases they are good at and concede to others where they are better. Teams fail because of mismatched needs, unresolved conflict, personality clashes and lack of trust. All these can be addressed through understanding and recognising how each person in the team behaves and responds in different situations.

Improving the self-awareness of your managers and key people will create a strong platform of understanding from which more ambitious performance goals can be achieved. Highlighted below are 6 ways that you can begin to raise team performance:

1. Resist firefighting

When you start a turnaround process, there will be no shortage of people telling you what the problems are and how to fix them. But you need to form your own views, so immerse yourself in the culture of the department, watch it in action, spend time with managers, talk to people and sit in on team meetings. The problems of any failing department will involve people, processes and technology. While success depends on addressing all three, people are the most important and you need to ensure that all members of the turnaround team recognise this. Highly motivated and skilled people will make poor processes and IT work, but the best technology and processes available will still fail if people lack the appropriate skills or motivation.

2. Get the buy-in of all involved

You need to be open and honest with people to get their buy-in. Remember that no one understands a service like the people who actually deliver it. It’s not change agents, managers or consultants who turn things around, but the staff themselves. If you can engage most of them, you’ll have a powerful force for change. Try to win employees’ confidence by listening to their concerns, rather than coming in with a one-size-fits-all change methodology. Ensure any action plan you introduce takes account of concerns, as well as performance and service issues. Discuss the action plan with people in the department and monitor progress, ideally through staff opinion surveys. At this stage it is also a good idea to identify internal champions – people with a can-do attitude who will support you in driving through change.

3. Turn managers into leaders

You need to get the department’s management team on side. Retaining and developing existing managers sends out a positive message, whereas replacing them is risky, expensive and time-consuming. But resistant managers can subvert the change process and there are times when you must be prepared to make difficult decisions. Managers of failing departments need to accept some responsibility for the past and overcome their resentment at others being brought in to fix the problems. While it is important to learn from the past, you need to get them focused on the future and help them to develop new skills and regain confidence. Identify development needs and use external help where you need specific expertise. Managers can feel swamped by multiple reporting lines and targets and may need help in prioritising what’s important. You should also encourage new habits. Get them to leave their desks and offices to engage with the wider team. With a little support, the changes can be dramatic.

4. Empower managers

Failure fosters a blame culture where managers become fearful of making decisions. This does not make problems disappear. On the other hand, bad decisions, though best avoided, can be great learning experiences. Boost managers’ confidence by giving them a chance to test decisions before taking them. Some will only need a little support and encouragement; others may need help to recognise all the implications of a proposed course of action. Encourage courage: managers must learn to make difficult decisions and see them through. Once they have done so and recognise that they have done the right thing, their self-esteem will grow and they will start acting less like the managers of a failing department and more like their successful colleagues.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate

You can’t communicate too much. Use different methods and tools to put out clear and consistent messages that relate back to the overall action plan. If you are part of a team, all members will have some responsibility for communication, but it is critical for you to retain a high-profile with your team. Face-to-face communication is best. You need to demonstrate that you are making an effort to meet people at times that are appropriate to them – for instance, by fitting in with shift workers rather than expecting them to stay after hours. Complement meetings with newsletters, team briefings, emails and via collaborative tools such as SharePoint or Yammer.

6. Celebrate success

A reputation for poor performance can become self-fulfilling. Other departments may have concealed their own failures by blaming yours. Talented people will not want to be associated with a department that is seen to be failing because of the risk to their careers. People can’t take too much failure. It is therefore important to break the cycle of bad news and give them something to celebrate. Publicise good news: the first praise in months from a happy client; another department saying “thank you”; a delivery ahead of schedule; or a real change in performance. You can create your own good news by introducing a person or team of the month award. Over time, as the situation improves, you’ll have much more to celebrate – and a department to be proud of.

I hope you have found this post useful and as always would love to hear any feedback or your experiences.

A to Z of Customer Experience

A to Z Customer ExperienceI would define ‘Customer Experience’ as:

‘How customers or prospective customers perceive their interactions with your organisation’

Customer experience encompasses every aspect of an organisation’s offering – the quality of customer care, of course, but also advertising, packaging, product and service features, ease of use, and reliability. How can you drive a consistently good and improving Customer Experience for your customers or prospects?

In this A to Z I’ll give you some of the answers and some tips from Think Oak!

A – Attitude

I could start and finish this post with ‘A’ for Attitude.

Not many people wake up in the morning and say “Today, I want to make life miserable for our customers.” Yet every day, employees at all levels of organisations make decisions that end up frustrating, annoying, upsetting or losing their customers.

Changing people’s attitude is much harder than teaching them new skills. It is much easier to get staff to do the “right” things when you have hired people with the “right” attitude and who have a history of behaving the “right” way.

You need to recruit people who understand that the aim in business is to have profitable customers who stay with you for a long time and, therefore, who realise that looking after existing customers so that they come back again and again is the Number One priority.

Dealing with employees with the wrong attitude also needs to be a high priority for you as a leader. Tough conversations and ‘attitude’ management are a must if your are serious about a great customer experience.

B – Behaviours

I’m a raving fan of all things Disney, and Disney takes behaviours and training extremely seriously and they do it very well. So much so that their methodologies are used in many other companies and organisations around the world.

Disney has ‘Cast Member’ and ‘Management’ behaviour guidelines that they have recently updated and rolled out across their theme park employees and managers:

The Disney Service Basics

  • I project a positive image and energy
  • I am courteous and respectful to all guests, including children
  • I stay in character and play the part
  • I go above and beyond

The Disney Leader Basics

  • I demonstrate commitment to cast members
  • I know and manage my operation, and I teach it to cast members
  • I lead and monitor cast performance and operational improvements

Within each ‘Basic’ behaviour lay some underpinning ways of working / behaviours that are expected from all employees:

As an example, within ‘I go above and beyond’ are principles such as:

  • Anticipate needs and offer assistance
  • Create surprises and Magical Moments
  • Provide immediate service recovery

Almost wants you to become a customer straight away!

In summary, consider the following:

What behaviours are central to your Brand Vision?

Do your people know, understand and embrace these behaviours?

What are you doing every day to embrace your organisation’s behaviours and set an example to your people?

How do you drive collective positive energy around your organisation’s behaviours and more importantly are you hiring, developing and firing on behaviours?

C – Customer Centric Culture

How many company vision statements state something along the lines of, “We put the customer at the heart of our business…” and how many companies truly organise themselves around the customer?

I would advocate 5 steps to get you started:

  1. Talk to customers yourself as often as you can and not about your products and services – Get to know their business and their priorities and challenges
  2. Talk to your customer facing people just as often – sales, customer services, cash collection, engineers and so on. What barriers, issues, challenges, ideas, compliments and complaints do they get from customers
  3. Get your people whether customer facing or not to talk to customers at least once a month and if not talk, listen in to customer calls
  4. Make ‘Customers’ a standing agenda item in ALL meetings
  5. Elect some Customer Champions from your best people and get them actively engaged in your most important projects championing the voice of the customer above all else

D – Delight

There’s a difference between consistently meeting customer expectations and delighting customers, and the outcome is the difference between a satisfied customer and a promoter – a ‘Raving Fan’.

Customers expect to have their requirements met. It’s a hygiene factor. You expect your local ATM to work and have money in it. You expect a company to know your spending history when you have a query. You expect your hotel room to be clean when you have an over-night stay. When this isn’t the case you may move your customer from satisfied to a detractor, who is very likely to leave you over time and tell others about their dissatisfaction.

A satisfied customer is likely to leave you at some point for pastures that little bit greener. A promoter, a Raving Fan, will not. They will be loyal and they’ll talk about you positively to whoever will listen.

How to delight a customer will vary widely depending on your products and services, but always be looking for the edge, differentiators that matter. Get your people to do the same.

I would suggest two areas to think about:

  1. Fix the things that cause your customers to call you or cause them pain. Be easy to do business with. I’ve been an Amazon customer for over a decade now, and I’ve had to call them once and that was nine years ago. I literally spend thousands of pounds a year with them and they are so easy to do business with. I’ve never once understood a fuel or electricity bill and consistently feel frustrated with the whole industry. The day Amazon start selling fuel and electricity, I’ll move!
  2. Find ways to delight – it could be as simple as a free cookie on check-in like Double Tree by Hilton or a full valet when you take your car for a service. They stand out….for now. Finding ways to keep raising the bar in customer experience for your industry will ensure you maintain and grow market share as well as increased share of wallet.

E – Engage, Enrol and Enthuse Employees

You can have the best Customer Experience strategy and tools in the world, but without the understanding, buy-in and passion of your employees your strategy is worthless. Please see a previous post ‘Communicate or Fail’ for some top tips!

F – Fail Fast

Don’t get me wrong, failure isn’t a good thing, but procrastination in getting a new product out of the door or not doing something because you haven’t got all the data isn’t a good thing either. Allowing yourself to try new ways of working, marketing, new products or service enhancements in a small way, and finding out quickly what works and what doesn’t from a customer perspective will help you to fail fast, tweak your proposition and try again. Once you’ve discovered what works in your marketplace you can then widen this out further and invest more energy and money into being successful AND providing a better a customer experience.

G – Goals, Objectives and Measurement

If you’re a regular Think Oak! reader, you’ll know my passion for having goals, objectives and that you must measure progress against them. This is especially true of Customer Experience. Many organisations large or small, think that if you hire the right people and put in the right processes that Customer Experience will take care of itself. Wrong. If Customer Experience is to be truly part of your organisation’s DNA, then you need to have at least one strategic objective embracing it with underpinning goals that are regularly measured and an owner whose ‘raison d’être’ is to live customer experience. For some organisations this is where accountability stops. For Customer Experience to be embraced by everyone and for an organisation to be truly customer centric, at least one of everyone’s personal objectives should be around improvement of the customer experience.

H – Heroes

Heroes, your high-performing customer facing employees, can have a huge impact on Customer Experience, and when nurtured and recognised can truly accelerate cultural change in an organisation.  When a company celebrates sales, they sell more – but perhaps at the expense of delivery issues.  When it celebrates product management, new products come out quickly – including those without customer demand.  But companies with a great customer experience use the customer feedback to understand their level of customer satisfaction, and then celebrates those who engage customers at a superior level. Who are the often unsung proponents of customer experience in your organisation? Is it the receptionist, whose sunny disposition brightens up the day of every customer the speak to? Is it a security guard that always goes out of her way to be accommodating for unexpected customers arriving at your car park? Is it a sales person that goes the extra mile to ensure that the customer gets what they’ve paid for on the day they’ve been promised it?

Find these people and make them an example of ‘what we do around here’ and what good customer experience looks like. Tell these stories in company emails and newsletters. Reward your heroes and put them through further development, give them new opportunities to shine and you’ll be amazed at the halo effect these people have in your organisation in a short period of time.

I – Industry Insight

Keeping abreast of what competitors and industry thought leaders are doing and saying is crucial in order to stay ahead of the game with your customer experience.

If we look at the demise of Comet or Jessops as an example. Today’s fast-paced retail market demands an environment that provides shoppers compelling reasons to buy in-store and to convert that sale. By offering too little information on products and poor employee training, retailers like Comet force customers in-store to use their smartphones to check reviews, product specs, and inevitably competitor and price comparison websites. All too often this approach will result in the customer leaving empty-handed and looking to purchase elsewhere.

To survive, high-street retailers, as well as other industries, must operate as a cost leader and adopt a genuine integrated multi-channel approach. They must think about how shoppers want to buy and to be treated – Apple’s showroom approach is a great example of an engaging environment and people that enhance brand loyalty.

J – Joined up Experience

In today’s ‘hyper-connected’ marketplaces, customers can interact with your organisation in multiple ways. They expect a certain level of service using each of those channels – if they tweet to your service department, they expect a response within seconds or minutes. If they email you, they expect a response within the day or sooner. And so on. They also expect you to know who they are when they contact you, how many of your products and services you use, how much you spend with them and ideally know why you might be calling them. How do you ensure that you deliver your brand values across all of these different media with the right customer experience for them as individuals?

Even though most companies have created systems to address most of these channels and touchpoints, they often created them independently, making it difficult to maintain consistency and know what happened in other interactions to improve the next interaction. This often results in duplicative systems and processes, which are not only inefficient, but also costly. The lack of a seamless dialogue between the customer and you across all touchpoints creates customer frustration, which results in lost sales and lower customer satisfaction.

K – Knowledgeable

Unlike the customer of a decade ago who did not have easy access to product information and multiple avenues by which to locate and purchase products, the customer of today can easily access information, compare prices and formulate product or service questions in the comfort of their home, office, train or local coffee shop.

Today’s customer wants the convenience of researching and making purchasing decisions without having to leave their home or office. Does your web presence allow them the ability to acquire enough knowledge about your product or service to make a purchasing decision? Is it possible to make a purchase right now? Twenty-four hours a day? On the other side of the world?

Because your customer has the ability to perform their own research regarding your product or service, they expect your employees to know even more! Have you ever asked questions regarding a product or service only to feel that you knew more than the employee? Your customer expects your employees to be experts. Are your employees trained properly? Do they know the history of your company? Do they know how your products are made? Materials required to manufacture the product? Can they provide comprehensive answers regarding your service concept? Are they familiar with your competitor’s products/services and how they compare to your offerings? When today’s customer interacts with your company, they want assistance from  competent,  knowledgeable employees.

L – Listen, Think, Do and Learn

This 4 point plan is very effective in ensuring you keep focussed and continuously improving your organisation’s customer experience.

Listen – Capture customer feedback and sentiment as often as you can, wherever you can. Obviously regular formal research, is very useful (See A to Z of Marketing), but any interaction with a customer is an opportunity to capture information that could be useful to your organisation.

Think – Gathering information and reporting it to ‘management’ is all well and good, but without analysis, thought, insight and recommended action, it’s pretty useless. Certainly from a customer’s perspective. This is not a one-off activity!

Do – Once you’ve listened and thought, you need to act on this insight. What are you going to do differently? You need a plan, you need to execute against it and you need an owner to drive it through.

Learn – Any changes you make to the customer experience need to be measured and improved upon which takes you back to Listen – get feedback on your changes. Has the customer experience been improved? By how much? For which customers?

M – Moments of Truth

Jan Carlzon, former President of Scandinavian Airline System (SAS says, “A Moment of Truth is a chapter in which the customer comes into contact with any aspect of the company, however remote, and thereby has an opportunity to form an impression.” Each customer contact is a unique, unrepeatable opportunity for a company to differentiate itself from the competition. Every decision should be made with the customer in mind and viewed as another opportunity to make a favourable impression. Unfortunately, failure to satisfy a customer on any Moment of Truth will quickly destroy the customer’s memory of good service. On the other hand, getting it right can erase many if not all the wrongs that the customer previously experienced.

N – Net Promoter Score & Customer Satisfaction Measures

Net Promoter Score (NPS) is used by many of today’s top businesses to monitor and manage customer relationships. It is a useful measure of the likelihood of successful WOM (Word of Mouth / Word of Mouse) of your customer base (see W). I would argue that it is only one measure of customer satisfaction that you should be measuring, as by itself does not give you the breadth of detail you’ll need to address any issues that arise.

NPS is calculated from a single loyalty question, “How likely is it that you would recommend this company to your friend or colleague?” Based on their rating of this question using a 0 to 10 likelihood scale where 0 means “not at all likely” and 10 means “extremely likely,” customers are segmented into three groups:

Detractors (ratings of 0 to 6)

Passives (ratings of 7 and 8)

Promoters (ratings of 9 and 10)

A company can calculate its Net Promoter Score by simply subtracting the proportion of Detractors from the proportion of Promoters.

A successful Net Promoter program includes several factors that work together. Although NPS is useful, the most prevalent cause of failure in Net Promoter programs is the inability of the organisation to go beyond the metric and build out a complete operational model with NPS as its centerpiece. The breakthrough in Net Promoter comes from shifting the entire program from a research model to an operational model and embedding it in the business.

O – Online Experience

As the online channel has evolved, the customer journey has become more complex, and we’ve seen customers exert increasing power and influence over their relationships with brands. I could and will write a whole post on ‘Everything E’ in the coming weeks, but will outline 3 core areas of focus that you should think about for your organisation’s online strategy.

First, realise that it’s no longer acceptable to deliver a one-size-fits-all online customer experience. Instead, you must demonstrate that you know your customers by providing them with a relevant and personalised online experience that takes their preferences, behaviour and past history with your brand into account.

Second, understand that social networks like Facebook and Twitter have raised customers’ expectation levels for online interaction both on and off of social networking sites. To fulfil these expectations, provide your customers with an online experience that makes it easy for them to interact socially with your brand by incorporating user-generated content capabilities such as ratings, reviews or comments into your web presence.

Lastly, with the widespread use of mobile phones and tablets, the online experience is no longer restricted to the traditional web presence accessed on desktops and laptops. Instead, today’s customers are taking the online experience with them wherever they go in the form of a mobile phones, tablets and televisions.

P – Personalise where possible

As I stated earlier, making an experience a personal one for a customer, can really drive customer loyalty and customer recommendations.

Personalisation isn’t simply a case of adding a customer name to the top of an e-mail. It’s now possible for organisations to communicate with their customers about their individual interests and preferences.

The degree to which the experience is able to be tailored towards the needs of the individual and reflects their particular circumstances will vary by market. Customers of Amazon have long marvelled at how the recommendation engine is able to find items that seem to particularly appeal to them as individuals are then able to set a delivery date that meets their requirements for time and cost. Regular customers at the Ritz Carlton love that their favourite drinks and snacks are already in their bedroom when they arrive. Almost every customer I’ve met of the bank First Direct is a Raving Fan. Why? Well they’re treated as individuals, they feel listened to, their issues are resolved first time.

Q – Quirky but Quality

Innocent drinks are now hugely popular in the UK and sold in 14 other countries around the world. When they started selling smoothies, this was not the case. The founders sold them at music festivals whilst holding down full-time jobs. Their founding mission was to serve their customers high quality natural, fruit ‘smoothie’ drink prepared with the best quality raw materials within an affordable price and gradually increase their market share every year. At the heart of the business was a quality, healthy product that did people some good.

Innocent Drinks are known for their quirky, tongue in cheek approach to branding and marketing. They nurture a ‘friendly’ image – Instead of printing the normal small print list of ingredients, Innocent instead print their text in a larger font and include jokes and other amusements in their lists of ingredients. An example, from the blackcurrant flavoured spring water drink, is the inclusion in the ingredients list of ‘1 woolly jumper*’. Following the asterisk gives the reader the word ‘baa’. Sheep are not, of course, an ingredient in the drink. This is one example from hundreds they’ve incorporated into their brand and culture to make them a brand that customers want to be associated with.

R – Relationships

If you haven’t worked it out yet, business is all about relationships. The depth of relationship is proportionate to the loyalty of your customers, the deeper the better. Below I’ve outlined the Think Oak! 6 levels of Customer Relationship:

Mark Conway, Think Oak, Customer Relationships

S – Single View of a Customer

In today’s hyper-connected world, customers can interact with a brand, through multiple channels. They do not split their dealings with a brand into experience by channel, they just experience ‘the brand’ as a whole. It is true that some channels will be stronger than others within a brand’s marketing mix, but the strength of the experience is weighted by the weakest channel across customer interaction. For the single customer view, this means that brands must focus on a unified customer experience and appreciate the role of the individual within that process. The quality of each channel must be consistent whether Facebook page, Twitter stream, mobile application or sales assistant in the retail outlet, and the focus should always be towards the customer.

Investing in the tools and technology to make this happen will give you the return on investment several times over, especially as many of these tools are much more readily available and affordable than ever before.

T – Technology can help, but only so much

Competing in the ‘Age of the Customer’ relies heavily on your ability to deliver technology that improves the customer experience.

In order to deliver this, you must understand your customer experience ecosystem – the complex set of relationships among your company’s employees, partners, and customers that determines the quality of all customer interactions.

With constant technological advances, businesses have a variety of ways to instantly transform the way their customers interact with their businesses. For example, you can use social media for real-time communication with your customers or adopt a customer-relationship management system to manage customer preferences.

Here’s the catch. Your people need to understand that the importance of capturing, cleansing and using the information in the systems. Technology can help, but you need well-trained and motivated teams to truly transform your customer experience.

U – Understand Customer Needs and Desires

The ability to understand and share the feelings of customers is essential to providing better customer experiences. If you understand your customers, you’ll be well equipped to give them exactly what they need. Here are 3 specific ideas that you can use to engage with customers to build a deeper level of understanding.

1. Share customer insights

Customers share their experiences with companies all over the Internet. It’s likely you’ll need special technology to mine through thousands of social media posts, product reviews, e-mails and so on, but doing so can help you gain insight into what your customers think/feel about your organization. Collect and share this data with everyone in your company and talk about ways you can use it to improve customer experience.

2. Become a customer

Mystery shop yourself and your competitors and track your experiences. Walking a mile in your customers’ shoes is the fastest way to gain insight into their perspective and how they experience your organisation first hand.

3. Create a life-sized map of the customers’ journey and walk through it

Make a detailed illustration of your customers as they travel through different parts of your organisation. Map out their experiences. Have employees walk through the customer journey, describing and discussing what they see from the perspective of a typical customer at any given touch point. You’d be amazed at what you’ll find!

V – Values

Do you have Brand Values in your organisation? Are they customer focussed values? More importantly do your people display these brand values? If you answered no to any of those 3 questions, you have some work to do.

See previous Think Oak! post – Strategy AND Culture For Success

W – Word of Mouth / Mouse

More than at any time in history, Word of Mouth and especially Mouse is having a huge influence on purchasing decisions and behaviour of customers and prospects. Whether as a consumer or a business decision maker, I seek the opinion of those I trust before I make a purchase decision. Do you know who influences your customers and where? How do you influence these influencers?

Whether offline or online, you need to understand who these people are and who they’re connected  to. I would really recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘The Tipping Point’ to understand the power of the Maven – the information specialist, and the Connector – a human social hub, the people who know everyone and have large personal, business and social networks.

X – Xtra Mile Experiences

What can you and your people do to go the Xtra Mile for your customers? To get your creative juices flowing, I’ve listed just some of the ways others do that little bit Xtra:

  • Some restaurant chains offer you a free drink or free dessert if your table isn’t ready when you arrive
  • Complimentary Choc-Ice to watch your in-flight movies on Virgin Airlines
  • Stay at a Disney Hotel and you can enter an hour earlier to the theme parks
  • Zappos have removed all the barriers to buying shoes online. They offer free shipping and free returns
  • Tiffany provides (in addition to the little blue box) free lifetime cleaning of your rings

The above examples are ‘processes’ to deliver that little bit extra. What about the non-standard Xtras? Empowering and training your employees to make their own decisions to sort customers’ issues out allows them to create Xtra Mile moments of their own. Check out ‘Stories that stay with you’ from Ritz Carlton

Y – Yes it matters!

By now you should realise, if you didn’t already, that Customer Experience matters. You can differentiate on customer experience and you should! It should form part of your organisation’s strategic objectives, it should be front of mind alongside growing revenues, managing costs and pleasing your key stakeholders, because whether you like it or not, customers are stakeholders in your organisation – without customers, there is no organisation.

Z – Zero to Hero

Even the best organisations get it wrong sometimes. How you recover from a customer-affecting issue can mean the difference between a customer being a vocal detractor and a promoter of your organisation.  In my experience there are several steps you should follow to turn a situation around – BALANCE:

  1. Be Proactive – The best way to avoid a problem becoming a disaster is to be proactive. Build monitoring into your processes so that you can quickly find the route-cause of problems when they occur.
  2. Act Quickly – Don’t wait for an army of customers to complain about the same issue before your start to act. Reacting quickly to a problem might mean you can contain the problem to a small number of customers. Ensure that you have built training and escalations into your problem resolution processes so that decisions can be made quickly.
  3. Listen to Customers – Ensure that you listen to your customer.
  4. Apologise – Effectively communicating empathy and apology throughout the service recovery can rebuild customer relationships and trust. Assure your customers that their problem is important to the company and that it will be addressed.
  5. Neutralise the problem
  6. Communicate – If the problem cannot be resolved quickly, keep the customer updated on progress at regular intervals until it’s resolved.
  7. Exit Effectively – Once the problem is resolved, give the customer the best explanation you can, compensate them if appropriate and give them the confidence that this will not happen again.

When you resolve failures quickly and effectively, acknowledge and apologise for the problem, and then respond to their critical need, most customers will pay you back with continued or increased loyalty, goodwill and even perhaps, repurchasing.  Even major service failures are opportunities to show the reliability of your customer support functions and provide the most positive experience possible, moving you from Zero to Hero!

I hope you enjoyed this A to Z, and as always would love to hear your feedback and stories of great Customer Experiences!

A to Z of Product Management

A to Z Product Management

Product management can be a complex and often misunderstood discipline in business. In reality Product Management in its broadest sense, touches every part of an organisation that sells products and services, and everyone has their part to play in the product life-cycle to ensure that customers get the best possible experience and your organisation benefits from growth and profitability.

In this A to Z I’ll be covering some key processes, tools and terminology to help you understand the world of Product Management.

A – Ansoff Matrix

Ansoff’s matrix is a useful 2 x 2 grid to help you determine your product and service strategies. Within each segment there is a differing level of risk. The four elements are:

Market penetration – This involves increasing market share within existing market segments. This can be achieved by selling more products/services to established customers or by finding new customers within existing markets.

Product development – This involves developing new products and services for existing markets. Product development involves thinking about how new products can meet customer needs more closely and outperform those of your competitors.

Market development – Finding new markets for existing products. Market research and further segmentation of markets helps to identify new groups of customers.

Diversification – Moving new products into new markets at the same time. It is the most risky strategy. The more an organisation moves away from what it has done in the past the more uncertainties are created. However, if existing activities are threatened, diversification helps to spread risk.


B – Business Case

A key part of product management is development of compelling business cases. Without buy-in from senior management to engage resource, money and time, your product is not likely to become anything other than an idea. You need to convince decision makers in your organisation that your product has a market, that people will buy it, that you can sell it and that the return on investment will be more than if the money, time and resources were used elsewhere. Compelling business cases have the following ingredients:

  1. Executive Summary
  2. Strategic Fit
  3. Marketplace Analysis
  4. Product Description
  5. Go To Market plan
  6. Financial Analysis
  7. Operational Impacts
  8. Risks, Assumptions, Issues and Dependencies
  9. Project Plan

C – Customer Needs Analysis

Before any product is designed, developed and launched, it is crucial that you know what customer needs will be fulfilled by your product.

Understanding customer needs is not necessarily an easy task however. Unfortunately, determining the real needs of a potential customer is not as simple as asking them what they want. Many people are unable to clearly articulate their most pressing and compelling product or service requirements because determining how products could or should be improved is not forefront in their mind.

To learn what your customer really needs, you must watch them and talk with them. You must be sure you understand their concerns and overall business issues. Only by thoroughly understanding the broad environment your customer lives in on a day-to-day basis, as well as their specific and detailed issues and concerns, can you apply the creative efforts necessary to design a compelling solution that will be successful.

An approach starting to become more widespread in industry is to conduct in-depth customer research throughout product development and to treat potential customers as participants in the new product development process.

D – Definition Document

In order to develop the right product, everyone involved has to know what you’re developing.  The initial document that spells this out, or is at least supposed to, is a Proposition Definition document, or one with a similar name.  The intent of such a document is to define the features and functions of the product to be built.  At the early stage of a project, this is generally a fairly high-level definition, specifying in fairly broad terms what the product is and does, the types of customers that will use it and potential market size.  Its intent is to provide sufficient information for the requirements to be taken to the next level of specification.  When not done at all, a project will proceed with no real sense of direction.  When done poorly (which happens all too often), it gives only a vague sense of definition and/or direction, leaving what the product really is open to individual interpretation, which is dangerous when working in larger multifunctional teams.  When done reasonably, this document gives a clear definition to all of what the product is.  When done really well, it not only defines what the product is, but also what it isn’t.  By defining what a product isn’t as well as what it is, it prevents people from heading off-track in directions that were not intended.  All efforts should be made to provide a really excellent product definition document, clearly defining what the product is, and what the product is not.

This proposition definition document sets the foundation upon which the product will be based.  A firm foundation provides a stable platform to build upon; a flimsy foundation leads to a platform that can later collapse.  All key departments – Marketing, Product Management, Sales, engineering (including development, test/quality assurance, usability, performance, technical documentation, etc.), customer support, field engineering, business development, manufacturing, finance, and others should be involved to ensure their unique viewpoints are properly represented.

E – Evaluation Gates

During the product development process there should always be some evaluation gates where stakeholders are involved in evaluating progress and permission to proceed:

1. Idea screening

2. Concept screening

3. Business analysis

4. Product testing

5. Analysing test market result

6. After-launch assessment (Short term)

7. After-launch assessment (Long term)

Using these evaluation gates help product developments conform to strategic intent, stay on track and realise the intended customer, operational and financial benefits.

F – Forecasting

Forecasting sales of your new product is not an exact science, but I’ve highlighted below the methodology I’ve used in my career to build up a view before submitting a business case.

  1. Determine the total size of a desired market, which is called the total addressable market
  2. Decide what portion of that market the product can penetrate, or the attainable market share
  3. Work out the number of units or the volume that the sales team can commit to sell
  4. Calculate the number of units that can be produced / delivered
  5. Determine realistic pricing for the product and how that pricing will vary over time
  6. Translate the sales and demand forecast into a realistic budget for the product

G – Governance & Getting things done!

Aside from the New Product Introduction Process (See ‘N’) which will help in stage gating new products, it is hugely important that the senior management team are behind your product development and it’s priority in the organisation. Without this backing, you will spend a huge amount of time fighting for resource, agreeing priorities and re-agreeing them, and slowing your overall project down.

All product developments should also have a senior management sponsor and ideally a project manager (or at least someone on the team with that role) and regular project board meetings to keep the development on track and to expedite any issues. Ideally your key suppliers should be represented on the board.

Your key stakeholders need to be communicated to regularly with project updates, deviations to plan and escalations in order to keep momentum and deliver your new product on time, to quality and to budget.

H – Help Sales to Help You

Sales people are a great source of feedback during all stages of the product life-cycle. They’ll give you feedback on what customers are asking for, the barriers to them selling a particular product or service and also views on how they would like to be remunerated! Building strong relationships with sales people is always a good idea, but by involving them early in a new product development will get them on board and excited about your product way before you launch it. If they’re good, they’ll start talking to customers early and start building pipeline.

A note of caution: Don’t let your sales people start selling your new product until you are very clear and confident with your launch date! Customers get very annoyed when they’ve committed to buying something and the launch is delayed 6 months or longer.

I – Innovation

Innovation is rarely about solving an entirely new problem. More often it is solving an existing problem in a new way. Neither is innovation the sole domain of a product manager or senior management. Ideas can come from anywhere inside or outside of your organisation. The trick is to spot a good idea when it comes.

Many organisations have mechanisms for capturing, filtering and taking the best ideas to a ‘concept’ stage. Once an idea has been registered as having merit, resources are assigned to investigate the marketplace, the opportunity, the business and customer benefits, the likely costs, timeframes and resources required to develop the product.

J – Just In Time

In the 1970s, when Japanese manufacturing companies were trying to perfect their systems, Taiichi Ohno of Toyota developed a guiding philosophy for manufacturing that minimized waste and improved quality. Called Just In Time (JIT), this philosophy advocates a lean approach to production, and uses many tools to achieve this overall goal.

When items are ready just in time, they aren’t sitting idle and taking up space. This means that they aren’t costing you anything to hold onto them, and they’re not becoming obsolete or deteriorating. However, without the buffer of having items in stock, you must tightly control your manufacturing /logistics processes so that parts are ready when you need them.

When you do (and JIT helps you do this) you can be very responsive to customer orders – after all, you have no stake in “forcing” customers to have one particular product, just because you have a warehouse full of parts that need to be used up. And you have no stake in trying to persuade customers to take an obsolete model just because it’s sitting in stock.

The key benefits of JIT are:

• Low inventory

• Low wastage

• High quality production

• High customer responsiveness

K – Kaizen

Kaizen , or ‘Continuous Improvement’ is a policy of constantly introducing small incremental changes in a business in order to improve quality and/or efficiency. This approach assumes that employees are the best people to identify room for improvement, since they see the processes in action all the time. An organisation that uses this approach therefore has to have a culture that encourages and rewards employees for their contribution to the process.

Kaizen can operate at the level of an individual, or through Kaizen Groups or Quality Circles which are groups specifically brought together to identify potential improvements.

Key features of Kaizen:

• Improvements are based on many, small changes rather than the radical changes that might arise from Research and Development

• As the ideas come from the employees themselves, they are less likely to be radically different, and therefore easier to implement

• Small improvements are less likely to require major capital investment than major process changes

• The ideas come from the talents of the existing workforce, as opposed to using R&D, consultants or equipment – any of which could be very expensive

• All employees should continually be seeking ways to improve their own performance

• It helps encourage workers to take ownership for their work, and can help reinforce team working, thereby improving worker motivation

L – Launch

The launch of a product or service needs a GREAT PLAN:-

G – Go To Market Plan

R – Reference Customers

E – End to End testing

A – Advertising Materials

T – Trained Employees

P – Processes Documented

L – Legal Documentation

A – Approval from Stakeholders

N – No Go / Go Decision

M – Marketing Plan

See previous post on A to Z of Marketing

N – New Product Introduction Process

Key to development, launch, management and retiring of products is the New Product Introduction Process. There are many variations of this process, most centre around the following core steps:


O – Operational Processes

A key part of any product development is the creation of, or enhancement to, operational processes. It is crucial that and End to End process review is carried out for the new product or service and the department owners document, sign-off on and embed any changes to their ways of working.

In addition it is important to understand any changes to departmental KPI’s and headcount before launch and that everyone impacted by the product launch is trained to a sufficient level prior to launch.

Post launch, it is also important to invest some time in ensuring that any teething troubles are ironed out quickly and any tweaks to process are documented and people retrained where appropriate.

P – Proposition

The traditional marketing mix consists of four major elements, the “4-Ps of marketing”. As defined by Philip Kotler et al. (1999):

  1. Product: “Anything that can be offered to a market for attention, acquisition, use or consumption that might satisfy a want or need. In includes physical objects, services, persons, places, organisations and ideas.”
  2. Price: “The amount of money charged for a product or service, or the sum of the values that consumers exchange for the benefits of having or using the product or service.”
  3. Promotion: “Activities that communicate the product or service and its merits to target customers and persuade them to buy.”
  4. Place: “All the company activities that make the product or service available to target customers.”

All of these elements have their specific place in any company’s marketing strategy.

The 7-Ps of Services Marketing

In the context of services marketing, Booms and Bitner (1981) have therefore suggested an extended “7-Ps” approach that contains the following additional “Ps”:

  1. People: All people directly or indirectly involved in the consumption of a service, e.g. employees or customers.
  2. Process: Procedure, mechanisms and flow of activities by which services are consumed.
  3. Physical Environment: The environment in which the service is delivered. It also includes tangible goods that help to communicate and perform the service.

I would argue that all of these combine to become 1P, namely Proposition:


Q – Qualitative and Quantitative Research

See previous A to Z of Marketing

R – Return on Investment and other measures

Knowing your numbers following the launch of a new product or service is crucial. I have listed some of the more common Key Performance indicators below, but you may have others:

Marketing Performance:

Number of leads generated via channel vs target

Cost per lead vs target

Leads converted to sales vs target

Cost per sale

Sales Performance:

Number of sales per channel

Number of sales cancellations per channel

Number of disconnections / leaving the service

% of pipeline converted to sales

Order Intake vs forecast and target

Operational Performance

Net Promoter Score

Number of Complaints

% of orders complete with SLA

Number of customer service / technical support calls vs forecast

Financial Performance

Monthly revenue vs forecast and budget

Monthly Gross Margin vs forecast and budget

Average Revenue Per User or Customer

Total Operating Costs

Return on Investment


Before any product goes on the market, it’s advisable to carry out an effective market analysis known by the acronym SWOT – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Questions you should keep at the front of mind as you consider the SWOT for your new product:

  • What product/s are we selling?
  • What is the process we have in place to sell the product?
  • Who are the customers, who are the people interested in our product?
  • What ways can we deliver the product to the customers?
  • What are the finances needed to create and sell this product?
  • Who will oversee all the stages from having an idea, to having enough finance to complete the task?

Using a 2×2 grid and a selection of people from your organisation, really analyse where your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats are for your market and in particular for your new product or service.

Prioritise them and ensure that any mitigations / activities are built into your plan. Ensure your strengths are clearly articulated in the proposition and opportunities acted upon.

T – Third Party Relationships

In most product developments, you will need to work with third parties to supply goods or services.

The process begins by selecting the right vendor for the right reasons. The vendor selection process can be a very complicated and emotional undertaking if you don’t know how to approach it from the very start. You will need to analyse your business requirements, search for prospective vendors, lead the team in selecting the winning vendor and successfully negotiate a contract while avoiding contract negotiation mistakes.

The most important success factor of managing 3rd party relationships is to share information and priorities with your vendors. That does not mean that you throw open the accounting books and give them access to your systems. Appropriate vendor management practices provide only the necessary information at the right time that will allow a vendor to better service your needs. This may include limited forecast information, new product launches, changes in design and expansion or relocation changes, to name a few.

Another important factor in building relationships with third parties is trust. Be as open as you can with them and if at all possible incorporate the third-party in you new product development team.

U – User Acceptance Testing

In an ideal world, all projects would allow adequate time for testing. Project teams would plan exhaustive testing for each piece of system functionality and if they ran out of time then they would drop functionality from a release rather than compromise on quality.

With business systems, it’s virtually impossible to test for every possible eventuality. We must therefore ask ourselves what is the most important functionality that must be tested within the available timeframe. The obvious answer is – the business functions that the system will deliver and on which the project justification is based.

User acceptance testing should be performed by business users to prove that a new system delivers what they are paying for. Business users have the knowledge and understanding of business requirements that IT testers do not have. They are uniquely placed to accept or reject the new system – after all they have to live with the consequences.

I would also argue that customer testing is also useful during stages of some product development so that areas such as usability and ease of purchase process as well as FAQ’s are meaningful and so on.

V – Value Chain Analysis

The term ‘Value Chain’ was used by Michael Porter in his book “Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance” (1985). The value chain analysis describes the activities the organisation performs and links them to the organisations competitive position.

Value chain analysis describes the activities within and around an organisation, and relates them to an analysis of the competitive strength of the organisation. Therefore, it evaluates which value each particular activity adds to the organisation’s products or services. This idea was built upon the insight that an organisation is more than a random compilation of machinery, equipment, people and money. Only if these things are arranged into systems and systematic activates it will become possible to produce something for which customers are willing to pay a price. Porter argues that the ability to perform particular activities and to manage the linkages between these activities is a source of competitive advantage.

Value chain

In most industries, it is rather unusual that a single company performs all activities from product design, production of components, and final assembly to delivery to the final user by itself. Most often, organisations are elements of a value system or supply chain. Hence, value chain analysis should cover the whole value system in which the organisation operates.

A typical value chain analysis can be performed with the following steps:

  • Analysis of own value chain – which costs are related to every single activity
  • Analysis of customers value chains – how does our product fit into their value chain
  • Identification of potential cost advantages in comparison with competitors
  • Identification of potential value added for the customer – how can our product add value to the customers value chain (e.g. lower costs or higher performance) – where does the customer see such potential

W – Warranties, Service Levels, Terms and Conditions and Contracts

Whilst legal support should be always be sought when pulling together product conditions of service, it is essential that as the person leading a product development you have a clear view as to what the key conditions of service should be for your product or service. This area, depending on your industry, can be hugely complex and may end up being a critical path activity in your project plan, so it is key that you initiate this activity as soon as your proposition is fully defined.

X – X Functional Teams

Ok, I cheated. Cross-functional teams are key to the success of product management, probably more so than for any other business activity. Products cannot be developed successfully in isolation.

A highly effective cross-functional team includes representatives from across your organisation. Obviously, some people will be busier than others at certain stages in the process, but it’s important that you enrol the cross-functional team from the outset and keep them in the loop. Examples of represented areas in your organisation or even outside may be:

  • Project Management
  • Product Developers
  • Customer Service
  • Technical Support
  • Logistics
  • Information Technology
  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Pre-Sales
  • Legal
  • Finance
  • Suppliers
  • And you should consider having a customer or two on your team!

They will be the champion for their department, bringing information from their function to the product team. They’ll also serve as a product champion, communicating back to their department on the product development and what impacts there’ll be back in the department.

Y – Yield Management

Yield management is the process of understanding, anticipating and influencing customer behaviour in order to maximise yield or profits from a fixed and/or perishable resource. Examples of industries where this needs to be thought about as part of product management are:

Airlines, Hotels, Rentals, Insurance, IT and Telecoms

The core concept of yield management is to provide the right service to the right customer at the right time for the right price. That concept involves careful definition of service, customer, time, and price.

Z – Zappos’ Values

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ll have heard of Zappos. Zappos.com is an online shoe and apparel shop based in Henderson, Nevada. In July 2009, the company announced it would be acquired by Amazon.com in an all-stock deal worth about $1.2 billion. Since its founding in 1999, Zappos has grown to be the largest online shoe store in the world generating $2.1bn in sales in 2011

Zappos employees live by the following values, ones that the best product managers I’ve come across in my career live by too:

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

I hope you enjoyed this A to Z and would love to hear your Product Management stories and successes.

A to Z of Building a Winning Team

a-z team

Being part of a winning team is a great feeling! Building a winning team is hard work, but can be great fun with some amazing results! Below I’ve detailed Think Oak’s A-Z of Building a Winning Team:

A – Audit Abilities

The very first thing to do when you take on a team or you’re building a new one is to look at the skills you need to win, starting with yourself. What are you good at and where are you lacking? What does your management team need to look like? What types of roles do you need in your team? What skills are needed? It’s really important that you think about these things up-front, before you look at the people you have, are available to you or the gaps you need to fill. Once you’ve answered these questions at the right level of detail, you’ll be in the right position to look at your options.

B – Breakdown Personality Barriers

At any point in a team’s lifecycle there can be conflict. A difference in management or leadership style, a difference of opinion, personal enmity for one reason or another or simply a clash of personality. It’s really important that these are dealt with quickly and you find ways to resolve them without disrupting the team’s momentum. In my career, I’ve found it really useful to take people out of the work environment for a day or two to do some straight talking from the heart about your aspirations, motivations, concerns and ambition as well as taking time to relax and have some fun together.

C – Choose to Win

We all have choices in our lives, but it’s critical for the whole team to be behind your vision from the outset. Everyone needs to make a choice to be part of a winning team and all that it entails to get there. People that don’t want to get on the bus or want to stay along for the ride shouldn’t be given a ticket!

D – Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

It is extremely easy to spend inordinate amounts of time on things that don’t contribute to becoming a Winning Team or your end goal. Keep an eye out for them within the team and on yourself. If you find them, stop them immediately. If people are working on things that aren’t central to the plan, you need and they need to be asking ‘Why?’

E – Energy Management

Ensuring that there is high energy in your team at all times is not an easy task, but an important one for building a winning team. Effective energy leadership is the ability to read the energy of the group and then alter one’s own energy level to get the group to where it needs to go. You can see this at play in sports, or equally so in the classroom or in board meetings. If people are starting to get discouraged or disheartened, you need to step up, raise the energy level and bring more enthusiasm into the room. Quickly, the team starts to feel more optimistic, the energy of the group shifts up and success, and whilst not guaranteed, is much more likely.

F – Focus on Focus

By aligning everyone’s personal objectives to yours and that of the wider organisation you can ensure that people are focussed on the right tasks. Review performance against these objectives on a regular basis and ensure the objectives are SMART.

S – specific, significant, stretching

M – measurable, meaningful, motivational

A – attainable, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented

R – realistic, relevant, reasonable, rewarding, results-oriented

T – time-based, timely, tangible, trackable

Make individuals accountable for key deliverables and reward them for delivery.

G – Get Out of the Engine Room

Your people will not develop, unite or learn from their mistakes if you deal with every problem that comes up or, if you tell them what to do in minutiae of detail. As a leader you shouldn’t be in the engine room, except for the odd inspection. You need to be on the bridge watching for icebergs and pirates!

H – Help Each Other

The best performing teams in business watch each other’s backs. If they see someone struggling with a task, they’ll help. If one department is really struggling for resource they’ll offer another pair of hands. Passionately investing in other people’s success will ultimately raise their performance and that of their teams and ultimately the organisation. As a leader, a good proportion of your time should be spent coaching, supporting, developing and promoting the rising stars within your team. It strengthens your team, protects it for the future and motivates individuals.

I – Ignite Passion

Find out what motivates your people. We are all motivated by different things and a good manager and leader gets to know what motivates their people and tailors their communication style, delivery and behaviour to get the best out of everyone. Praise and recognition for success and cheering the progress goes a long way too!

J – Just Do It!

You can have the best business strategy and business plans, but they are little use if they are not executed effectively. Decisions deferred, reversed or not made at all will not drive your team forward.

K – Knowledge Share

Winning teams share information, and I’m not just talking Key Performance Indicators. They share best practice when they come across it, they share customer and competitor news, they share any lessons they’ve learnt from a project or product launch. By pooling collective knowledge within and across departments, the organisation can reap dramatic results.

L – Learn From Your Collective Mistakes

Things go wrong. Learn from them, fix them where you can, and move on. We can often spend ridiculous amounts of time brow-beating ourselves and others on things that went wrong. Spend that time working on ensuring that those mistakes don’t happen again by changing process, putting controls in place or ensuring that we watch out for those banana skins we slipped on last time. Should the same mistakes keep happening, you need to look more deeply into the problem and find a way quickly to resolve it – Change the process or system, develop the people or change the people.

M – Measure, Monitor and Manage

The key to long-term success for any winning team is measuring the right things, setting appropriate targets, monitoring your performance against them and altering course or taking action when required.

N – Never Give Up

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up – Thomas Edison

In a previous post ‘6 of the best…failures’ I talked about some famous names from all walks of life who persevered with their objectives to reach their goals. Building this ethos into your team’s behaviours will go a long way to driving success.

O – Organise Yourselves around Your Objectives

Many established businesses organise themselves in traditional hierarchies and functions – sales, marketing, finance etc. Sometimes, especially when changing course with your strategy, it is worth challenging team structures to ensure that they are still optimal to meet the strategy. Some businesses build multi-functional teams that are focussed on one particular project or programme at any time, allowing complete focus on delivery and then breaking the team up again on completion. This approach can have significant benefits over traditional team structures by focussing the right people on the right project with the right skills and motivation.

P – Performance Manage All of the Time

Don’t wait for a quarterly or half-yearly review to give feedback – good or bad. Many people need to know how they are doing every day – ask them what will help them most. Most people need feedback at least once a week. A few can get by with feedback once a month, but even for seriously capable high-level strategic people this is not enough.

R – Robust Dialogue

Being able to challenge team members positively is a key part of building a winning team. In winning teams, people trust each other to challenge ideas, ways of working and strategic plans. By being challenging of each other, for the good of the team and your customer experience, the team gets better. Challenging each other to gain personal advantage or to score points over one another are the signs of a losing team!

S – Set Out Your Expectations Clearly

A huge proportion of performance problems can be traced back simply to a failure to explain and agree expectations and/or a failure to understand and provide the help that the person needs. Don’t assume everything is understood and perfectly within people’s capabilities. Instead, take time to explain, check and ask until everyone concerned is happy and sure of what needs doing, how, and most importantly why.

T – Treat Everyone with Respect

I love this quote from Winston Churchill – “I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”

Whatever your level in the organisation, treat people as equals and with respect.

U – Understand Your Business

This may seem obvious, but I am frequently disappointed by people’s lack of knowledge of their business. Whether you’re on the front line in Marketing, Sales and Service or supporting these functions in IT, Finance or HR, you need to at least understand your company’s vision and strategic objectives. In winning teams, everyone knows these things as a minimum plus they know how their team is performing against Key Performance Indicators as well as what they’re doing to improve against them.

V – Values & Vision

In my view, these are the fundamental building blocks of a winning team. A shared vision together with values that are lived every day ensure that your team is heading in the same direction.

W – Win / Win

This is a personal philosophy, which I’m sure that many in senior positions will disagree on. I believe in openness, especially when it comes to recognition and reward. If the team does well, then the managers and leaders should be rewarded. Obviously levels of reward will differ according to responsibility and personal performance, but if the leaders are remunerated differently on different targets you will not get synergy in the organisation, and certainly not on a sustainable basis.

X – X Marks the Spot

X = the end result on your map – treasure! Whatever your winning team does, there will be an end goal – a successful product launch, a sales target, an improvement in Customer Satisfaction, improved production and so on. Your treasure map is your plan and your team’s focus is reaching the ‘X’ as soon as possible, and before anyone else! Your team need to have a copy of the ‘map’, understand how to read it in case they get lost, and know the importance of beating the competition. They should understand the potential pitfalls along the way, but you need to give them enough tools to make their journey possible and ideally enjoyable!

Y – Yell Success from the Rooftops

Celebrating and publicising success breeds more success, both within your team and organisation as well as externally. People like to associate with winners. You only need to see the number of Olympic medallists on TV at the moment to see that. Success, especially in today’s gloomy climate, is newsworthy, and will put your team and your business in the spotlight, for all the right reasons….and will hopefully bring you more business, and more success.

Z – Zigzag around Barriers

There is rarely a single solution to a problem in business. Winning teams find ways around problems that would leave other teams scratching their heads or giving up. Find out who your ‘Can Do’ people are and keep them close!

Hope you enjoyed this A-Z. As always I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Stop the Rot – Managing Poor Performance ~ Part 2

Managing Poor Performance, Think OakIn part 1 of this two-part post I covered the potential impacts of poor performance, the causes and your responsibilities as a manager. In part 2, I’ll be guiding you through a seven-step process to help you deal with a poor performer.

Tackling Poor Performance

Many businesses do have policies and procedures around performance management and I’m not suggesting you don’t follow them. However, I’ve found a more informal, coaching approach to improve performance works in the vast majority of cases. Only once this approach is exhausted would I move down a more formal approach and this is normally the exception rather than the rule.

1. Prepare

Before you engage in a meeting with your poor performer, ensure that you have a detailed understanding and examples of poor performance as well as the impact that this under performance has had on the team, your customers, the business, yourself and the individual. Also, think about examples of good performance and behaviour that the person has shown in the past.

By spending some time preparing for the meeting,  you will have had a chance to gather your thoughts, examine the evidence, think about the evolution of the relationship and mentally frame the meeting in broad and flexible terms.

2. Set up a meeting with context

You should set up a meeting with at least a couple of days notice. You should be very clear in explaining exactly why you are arranging the meeting, that you will be discussing their recent performance and that you would like to have a discussion around how you can work on an improvement plan going forward.

To help your employee prepare for the meeting, you could suggest s/he gives some thought to a few questions, for example:

• How successfully do the two of us work together?

• How good are our communications and overall relationship?

• Which aspects of your job do you find easiest?

• Which are you most comfortable with?

• And which do you find most difficult?

• To what extent do I help you perform?

• Are there things I do that make life more difficult for you?

• Overall what can we do to improve your performance, my performance, our joint performance and our relationship?

The Performance Meeting

3. Agreement with your employee on the symptoms of the problem

It’s really important that you and your employee agree that there is a performance problem and agree the specific examples of when performance has been poor, the impacts that this has had and the importance of getting back on track. Try not to get into the why’s and wherefores at this stage. We’ll come to that. Just get agreement that behaviours or deliverables were not at the desired standard required for your team and business.

4. Understanding the causes of underperformance

Together, you and your colleague need to arrive at a common understanding of what might be causing the weak performance. This step assumes the person will be willing to participate in a genuine discussion of his/her strengths and weaknesses. Very few people will see themselves as perfect and in no need of any improvement. However, some people do overestimate the quality of their work performance and are unaware of their weaknesses. A major reason for this is likely to be that their previous managers have been reluctant to confront the employee’s shortcomings. In the absence of past negative feedback an employee could be genuinely shocked by your feedback and tempted to reject it as biased and personal.

It might be useful at this stage to review the answers to the preparation questions you gave them in step 2 to tease out some possible explanations. Ensure that you also point areas of performance or behaviours that are good, or have been in the past and spend some time on these also.

This stage of the process can be emotive. Keep calm and spend time working through the detail if necessary. Don’t forget that you already have agreement that there was poor performance. If you can’t agree on the why at this stage, you may need to move on to offering some suggestions on a way forward.

5. Creating and agreeing an Improvement Plan

Find out what motivates the individual: People are motivated by very different things.  Find out what’s important to the individual and shape and ‘sell’ the development plan accordingly.

Fit development action plans to learning style: Different people learn in different ways and this should be considered when planning development.  Understand which is the best learning strategy for that individual and shape the plan accordingly.

Focus on development priorities: Don’t overload people with too many things to focus on.

Use a range of development techniques: Development doesn’t solely result from attending training courses.  The success of development efforts will depend upon picking the right blend of development activity for the individual.  Good development plans draw on a combination of learning, practice and reinforcement.

Ensure that the plan has SMART Goals and by SMART, I mean:

S – specific, significant, stretching

M – measurable, meaningful, motivational

A – attainable, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented

R – realistic, relevant, reasonable, rewarding, results-oriented

T – time-based, timely, tangible, trackable

Ensure that the individual owns their plan: Getting them to come up with ideas and to actually write the development plan themselves will ensure that they buy-in to the plan and feel that it is their own.

Make sure the plan is documented – either fully during the meeting or an agreed skeleton is produced during the meeting and an agreement that plan will be delivered back the following day.

6. Create Confidence and Commitment

A good manager wants their people to succeed. This stage is all about building confidence in the person and inspiring them to improve, to develop themselves and to take the initiative.  People with high levels of self-belief set themselves more demanding goals, show greater effort and persistence in trying to achieve, and cope better with stress and difficulties.

Put a lot of energy into encouraging the individual to develop themselves and improve. Spend some time making the individual believe they can turn their performance around. Offer structured support as part of the improvement plan, but tell them it’s their responsibility to deliver against it.

7. Follow up

You must follow up on the agreements made. You and individual will have agreed to make certain changes, perform certain actions and/or reach certain performance targets by a given date. The onus is on both of you to ensure maximum high quality communication occurs during the period of the agreement. Don’t wait until the end of the process to discuss progress. Ideally the agreed objectives will be specific enough and the communication process during the contract period effective enough that both parties will agree on the assessment of the outcomes.

By implementing timely follow-ups and encouragement throughout the process, you should start to see demonstrable improvement.

Should performance not improve during the process then you must then set the expectation of the consequences which would be a more formal process. Although this process was not part of your company’s formal process, the documentation produced and meeting notes would be able to used as evidence as part of most formal procedures.

You won’t always succeed in turning around poor performance, but by following these steps you will have given your poor performer every opportunity to turn performance around.

I hope you found this post useful. As always, I’ love to hear your thoughts and feedback.


Stop the Rot – Managing Poor Performance ~ Part 1

Managing Poor PerformanceEarlier this year the Roffey Park Institute published their excellent annual report – The Management Agenda. A staggering 46% of UK managers reported that poor performance is not tackled at all well in their organisation, rising to 60% in Public Sector managers.

So what do I mean by Poor Performance? Simply put, poor performance is the failure of an individual to do his or her job, or to do it at an acceptable level. As a manager, you have a responsibility to manage the performance of your people. If you have witnessed poor performance (including inappropriate behaviour), or you are in receipt of a complaint or grievance, you must address this with the people concerned.

Impacts of Poor Performance

In my experience, the impacts of under-performing individuals run much wider than the results of their own performance, or lack of them. Poor performance observed by a supervisor or manager is normally only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the issue and is only observed after a period of under performance already being noticed and talked about by members of the wider team.

If these behaviours or lack of performance  goes unchecked then the minimal implication for the manager who allows this to continue, is a loss of respect from the team he or she manages. Under-performance in key roles in your department could have a serious impact on you meeting your own department or business objectives, which may have wider personal or business consequences. If you are committed to performing at a high level, and if you expect high performance from everyone, then you as the manager must address poor performers and quickly.

By failing to address poor performance, you are sending a clear message to other team members that they need not meet their performance expectations and they should not expect any consequence for their unacceptable behaviour. Poor performance normally gets worse over time – rarely does it correct itself without action on the part of the manager or supervisor. Taking action against one individual does not lower morale amongst other team members. In fact, the opposite is often true. Often taking action leads to a more productive work environment.

Causes of Poor Performance

I firmly believe that no-one comes to work with a desire to fail. Although at times it may appear that an employee tries to perform poorly, most people actually want to do a good, or at the very least, an adequate, job. So why is it that people sometimes do fail at work? Poor performance can normally be attributed to one or more of the following:

  • Lack of clarity of the Why, the What and the How of their role
  • Lack of feedback and action from their previous or current management
  • Lack of skill, knowledge, or motivation
  • Inability to manage perception or pressure
  • Failure to prioritise
  • Conflict of personalities or styles
  • Over-promotion, where the person is actually out of his or her depth
  • Lack of resources, support, training or cooperation from others
  • Personal issues manifesting themselves at work

Given the cost of recruiting and training new people, helping under-achievers move  from poor to acceptable or better performance is almost always worthwhile.

Your Responsibilities as a Manager

Before moving into tackling the poor performance of your poor performer, you need to ask yourself some key personal questions:

1. Have I set out my performance expectations clearly? – If the person concerned doesn’t understand what is expected, it will be very hard, if not impossible, for them to meet those expectations. Providing clear expectations doesn’t necessarily require you to lay out precisely written, detailed instructions on every performance component. Generally, the question you should ask yourself is: “Would a reasonable person understand what was expected?”

2. Have I been having regular reviews with the poor performer and been giving them feedback? – Such feedback, both positive and negative, whether given in regularly scheduled meetings or in unscheduled discussions, is crucial to ensuring that expectations are understood. Frequent feedback lessens the likelihood that an employee will be surprised if it becomes necessary to take formal steps to resolve poor performance.

3. Have you provided the individual with the tools and training to do their job effectively? – What support have I / could I be giving to help raise performance going forward?

4. Is poor performance a new issue? – If the person in question has always performed adequately in the past, what has changed for them for their performance to dip? Is it a one-off mistake or has there started to become a pattern of events?

If you have answered these questions honestly and you answered ‘No’ to any of them, I would suggest that the poor performance starts with you. It’s never too late to start however!

In part 2, I’ll take you through a 7-step process to guide you through improving people’s performance.

As always, if you have any comments or feedback, I’d love to hear from you.

Avoid the Mushroom Culture – The Seven Deadly Sins

Mushroom CultureI’m sure many of you have heard people say – ‘They treat us like mushrooms. They keep us in the dark and feed us manure or nothing at all!’

Nothing stifles an organisation’s possibilities more than poor communication. Actually that’s not strictly true. Three things do – telling lies, partial truths or nothing at all.

In this post, I’d like to highlight some of the common pitfalls around communication or lack of it.

Common Communication Pitfalls – The Seven Deadly Sins

1. Not Communicating The ‘Why?’

As Simon Sinek says in his fantastic leadership book , ‘Start with why‘, he says ‘People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’. In your organisation, do your people know the ‘why?’ Do they know why they didn’t get a pay rise this year? Do they know why headcount needs to be reduced? Do they know why you’ve just restructured the organisation? Do they know why their job is important to the organisation? Do they know why your organisation exists at all? Do they know why customers buy from your organisation?

As Simon also says in his book, and I paraphrase – ‘Every single one of us knows what we do. Most of us know how to do our jobs, but how many of us know the ‘Why?”

When communicating any message, good or not so good, it’s hugely important to impart the ‘why?’. In my experience, people who are motivated, passionate, and really good at what they do, tend to understand the ‘Why?’. In fact I’d go further and say that I believe the ‘Why’ drives the passion and motivation. It might be a personal ‘Why’, but it will be there.

In today’s economic climate, most people understand that difficult decisions need to be made, but you need to tell them AND the authentic reason for them to buy-in to the message.

2. Communicating Too Slowly or Not At All

People assume the worst when they hear nothing. Good and passionate employees want to know what’s going on in their organisation, and beyond their department boundaries. They want some visibility into the organisation’s plans and where they fit within them. Senior managers who can’t  or won’t discuss their organisation’s goals, strategies, vision and performance are all but guaranteed to spend a great deal of time recruiting. Marketable top performers want to be engaged and involved and won’t stand for being left in the dark without the information they need to do their jobs well.

Just as damaging can be when senior managers hold out for so long on making an announcement that employees start walking the corridors for information. Very often, they are forced to draw their own conclusions (and often the wrong ones!) about the reasons for what’s going to happen or has happened. Perceptions about the company withholding information are often more damaging than providing the “negative” news in the first place.

3. Not Being Honest

The very worst you can do in communicating a message is to lie and only marginally better, to not tell the whole truth. You WILL be found out, and your personal credibility and /or that of your organisation will be damaged, possibly irreparably.

I will make a bold statement. Your people can handle it. You don’t need to couch your message in fluff or half-truths. If your organisation is publicly owned or the message or timing is sensitive, be as honest as you can be without breaking confidence or legislation AND when you are able to say something more, make sure that you do at the first opportunity.

4. One Size Fits All Communication

People process information differently. For some of us, we like to be walked through in a great level of detail in order to fully understand a change or a message. For others a quick email will suffice. For others they may need to hear the message a number of times before the impact of a change on them is understood. Organisations that send out a  single global email imparting important news are failing to get their message across and failing their people. A mix of communication channels need to be thought about carefully when delivering important news or change. Face to face communication is always best, but with the geographic spread of many organisations and service organisations with call centres and shift patterns, this may not always be practical.

I find that a mix of communication channels is the most effective. Further detail on communication channels can be found in a previous post Communicate or Fail Part 1 and Part 2.

5. Assuming Your People Wouldn’t Understand

Organisations don’t employ stupid people. If they do, that’s a whole different blog topic and a short-lived organisation! People have mortgages, children, debt, cars, bills to pay, personal challenges to deal with, bereavement, stress, relationship challenges…I could go on. They can deal with difficult messages. They may need support, but they can handle it! They are also very aware of when a message is being dumbed down or the full story is not being told. If you have a complex message to deliver, make sure that you consider how the message is going to land, what reinforcement might be needed, whether you need to engage with external agencies to help you and what you want and need the outcome to be.

6. Not Checking That The Communication Has Been Understood

I am astounded at the number of businesses that do not measure whether messages or change initiatives are understood, never mind effective. In some cases huge sums of money are spent on internal ‘campaigns’ that are completely ineffective at best or actually have a negative impact on the people that they are trying to motivate. It’s hugely important that all communications campaigns – either external or internal are measured. Even anecdotal feedback from across key influencers within your organisation will give you an indicator of how a message has landed and whether further work is required.

7. No Reinforcement Of Communication By Managers and Supervisors

The ‘Marzipan’ layer as I call it, is rife in many businesses and public sector organisations. Information often stops at the senior management layer and gets no further, at least not consistently if it does. It’s not news that managers are key to effectively delivering messages and engaging employees. When leaders and managers convey confidence to employees, they build trust, which can help stoke employee engagement. In many ways, managers and more importantly team leaders and supervisors are the face of the organisation for employees, vital for translating mission, values and strategy into behaviour and action.

The best companies recognise this connection and go beyond simply providing managers with information to pass along to employees. They prepare managers to move away from cascading corporate messages and toward sharing the meaning of these messages with their team – back to the ‘Why?’. This requires engaging with managers, listening to their reactions, supporting their personal change journeys and crafting content that can be delivered in a manager’s own voice.

By avoiding these 7 deadly sins you’ll have a much better chance of engaging your employees in change.

As always would love to get your feedback and thoughts. Until next time…

Think Oak! – Mighty Oaks From Little Acorns Grow

OakAfter nearly 2 years of blogging under the ‘Gung Ho!’ title, I’ve decided to have a little re-brand. I wanted to share my rationale with you rather than just change the name with no explanation.

Many of you that have been followers of Gung Ho! for a while, will know that I’m a Raving Fan of Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles’ book ‘Gung Ho! ‘ and wanted to use their teachings and insight into people and nature as a personal inspiration to put down my thoughts with a hope that people might find what I had to say of interest.

If I’m being really honest, I didn’t think that Gung Ho! would have been as popular as it has become nor did I believe that I would still be writing it! I’m now in a position that I want to start to build a more personal brand around my beliefs and values (plus I don’t want to get into bother with anyone’s legal team!)

So, in that vein I’ve decided to rename my blog to ‘Think Oak!’

Ok, that may need some explanation!

1. I love nature and for me the Oak tree epitomises the spirit of life. (Thus my other blog and passion Life Spirit)

2. Oak trees take a long time to grow and have small beginnings with the acorn, but have amazing strength, resilience and beauty much like how many of us aspire to be.

3. Oak in its natural form provides for its surroundings – shelter for plants, animals and humans alike; food for birds and animals; inspiration for painters, photographers, walkers and thinkers.

4. Oak trees have deep roots and provide stability to the environment around them

5. Oak in its altered form provides fuel, furniture, buildings, sculptures and most importantly barrels for making my favourite tipples of wine, whisky and bourbon!

6. The oak is a common symbol of strength and endurance and has been chosen as the national tree of many countries around the world, including England, the United States, Estonia, France, Germany, Moldova, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Wales, Bulgaria, and Serbia.

7. My father was Irish and I have deep roots, like the Oak. The Celtic meaning of the oak tree includes attributes such as:

  • Life
  • Strength
  • Wisdom
  • Nobility
  • Family
  • Loyalty
  • Power
  • Longevity
  • Heritage
  • Honour

I’m pretty sure that these are values that most of us aspire to.

8. Finally, having witnessed it a few times in my career, if people have the belief in themselves, a great idea, are prepared to take a risk and can deliver, even if they stumble along the way, they can become mighty Oaks from little acorns.

So, with that explanation, I hope you can buy-in to the new name. Not a whim, but a firm belief, that with a good roots (the right environment and encouragement), a strong trunk (belief system and support network), broad and strong branches (the right skills and behaviours), we are in a position to have longevity, deliver great benefits for ourselves, our colleagues and for friends and families and produce acorns for future generations to benefit from.

So, from now on, Think Oak!

Strategy AND Culture For Success

Culture AND Strategy for SuccessHow many times have you seen stories in the business press or seen first-hand within your business examples of failures and successes that have been put down to poor strategy OR the wrong culture?

One company that suffered the fallout of the strategy/culture collision is Kodak.

Kodak was not ambivalent about changing times, making repeated strong statements about where they needed to go, yet they didn’t appear prepared to steer their corporate cultures in that direction. Kodak’s downfall was blamed on its inability to make the leap to digital media, but Kodak had been positioning itself as a digital imaging company for more than a decade. Why was it unsuccessful?  At its core, Kodak was a chemical company whose culture embraced film coatings and processing. When digital media came along, Kodak re-branded itself as a digital imaging company, but the move took it further away from its roots, and company culture could not adapt quickly enough according to many articles written in the last 12 months. The likely re-financing of Kodak  and the sale of its patents and all or part of its document imaging and personalised imaging services likely means that a restructured Kodak would largely focus on commercial imaging, rather than the consumer business. I’m not convinced that this will be the end of their troubles.

Another, even more recent example, is the demise of Comet. Alongside Like Argos, JJB and Habitat, which have also announced closures of many high street stores in the last year, management continued to focus on the high street sales and not moved quickly or effectively to online sales and / or repositioning of its brand. Comet had a great brand and could have developed a strong presence online but did not execute an effective strategy to change its business model and culture with pace.

Conversely, Amazon has grown from the world’s largest book-store into the world’s largest retailer, and is now extending its brand to hardware (the Kindle family of devices) as well as enterprise cloud computing and storage.  Since it began, Amazon’s brand strategy and organisational culture have always been aligned with customer satisfaction, scale, and delivery.   This enables them to remain a global player, even in changing economic conditions.

There are also business commentators and writers that argue either Strategy is more important than Culture or vice versa. From my experience, I would argue that you absolutely require both in equal measure to build a sustainable, successful and profitable organisation giving great service to its customers.

In their book, “Execution – The discipline of getting things done” Larry Bossidy & Ram Charan say:

“When companies fail to deliver on their promises, the most frequent explanation is that the CEO’s strategy was wrong.  But the strategy by itself is often not the cause.  Strategies most often fail because they aren’t executed well.  Things that are supposed to happen, don’t happen.  Either the organisations aren’t capable of making them happen, or the leaders of the business misjudge the challenges their companies face in the business environment or both.”

If the corporate culture is incompatible with business strategy, objectives will not be met. Before changing the corporation’s strategic direction, top management should be prepared to reshape the organisation culture to fit the new strategy.

How do you ensure that these key strands are aligned?

What is your organisation’s culture?

Culture is an expression that suffers from a vague and loose set of definitions, often used conversationally to mean a myriad of things. Numerous business articles and papers refer to corporate culture in fairly simplistic ways, suggesting that it needs to be changed, without bothering to define what the “it” really is.

The more comprehensive our understanding of ‘it’, the greater the likelihood we can factor in culture’s impact on our organisations, and the greater the likelihood that leaders and others can anticipate its consequences.

1. Ask questions of your Leadership Team, your middle managers and your wider organisation

Start at the top and ask yourself some pretty basic, but fundamental questions. Some example questions might be:

a. Why is our organisation here? What do we do and how do we do it? A simple question I know, but I’m willing to wager that you get different answers from those you ask.

b. What are our personal values and those of the organisation? Don’t be afraid to dig beneath the surface. Keep asking the question ‘what else?’ to get to your core values.

c. What are we famous for?

d. Do our values and what we’re known for align with the strategy we have for our business today?

e. How is the organisation structured and which functions tend to ‘lead’ the organisation today?

f. What are the things stopping us from being a ‘Great’ organisation?

Once you have some clear AND agreed answers to these questions test them out with your wider organisation through a combination of surveys, face to face workshops and 121’s with key influencers within the organisation; by influencers I mean people at any level of the organisation that have significant positive OR negative impact with their peers or wider teams.

2. Analyse the results and refine or rework

Spend time analysing your results. Does the wider organisation agree with the Leadership Team on these key questions? You may get some different views! If you do, then you may have a bigger issue and a bigger hill to climb if you want to be successful. Dismiss this feedback at your peril.

Be prepared to go back to the drawing board if your Leadership Team’s answers are completely different to your employees. If there are broad and significant differences I would suggest bringing in a cross-section of people from across your organisation to work on it with you – These could become Change Agents you will need for the next stage of the process.

3. Agree on who you are, what you stand for and why you’re here.

Hopefully after a few refinements or a rework or two, you have got to a point where the Leadership Team, your management and a cross-section of your organisation have agreement on your culture, your values and how it is aligned or not with your strategy.

What does the culture of your organisation need to be to ensure execution of your strategy?

Now that you have a good view of how your organisation’s culture looks today, think about how you want the organisation’s culture to look, if everything were to be correctly aligned, and if you were to have the ideal culture that you know will support you in the execution of your strategy.

Using the same people and questioning process build up a view of what the future organisation looks like.

What needs to change – People, Process, System, Measurement & Behaviours?

Identify the differences between the today’s culture and tomorrow’s. Considering the organisation’s strategic aims, objectives and deliverables:

  • What cultural strengths have been highlighted by your analysis of the current culture that need to remain and grow?
  • What factors are hindering your strategy or are misaligned with one another?
  • What factors are detrimental to the success of your strategy?
  • Which factors do you need to change?
  • What new beliefs and behaviours do you need to promote?

Plan, Prioritise, Execute and Measure

Using your ‘change team’ that you have built up over the previous steps start to build up your plan of attack. Under the headings of People, Process, System, Measurement and Behaviours list out the initiatives and sub-initiatives required to affect the necessary change required to meet and beat your strategic goals. You might find a download of the  ‘The Need for Speed ~ Driving Pace in Your Organisation‘ series useful to help you.

Finally I would suggest 3 areas of focus to ensure that you succeed in aligning your Strategy AND Culture:

1. Executive Sponsorship – Build a coalition of top leaders focused on a set of culture priorities that are meaningful and important to the organisation, their own group and to themselves personally. Without this commitment, passion and belief from the top, your change initiatives have a high probability of failure.

2. Cross-Functional Team –  Engage senior and middle management in making changes to cross-functional processes to introduce more aligned behaviours and values. Build cross-functional teams to assess impact and learn together. Demonstrate success early. Again, ensure that people are fully engaged in the reasons ‘why’ the organisation needs to change and ensure that you get the most passionate people involved in the project.

3. Create momentum – by engaging more and more people, especially managers and supervisors, in shaping culture by design. Build capability. Create organisational energy by creating new ‘heroes’ and quick wins. Build in feedback loops for continuous learning.

As ever, would love to get your feedback….

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