Friday, January 22, 2010

Ignoring the big picture leads to bad weather and social media problems

Could you be a good marketing manager if you were told that you have to use outdated Instant Messaging applications (IM, remember?) instead of Twitter? Oh, and people don't really read them much anymore and there might be instructions but no one can find them.

How about if you were told that you have to manage a backwards division of several hundred people that all do the opposite of what you say and you have to learn to tell them exactly the wrong thing in order for them to do the right thing? That sounds like the world turned upside down.

People are using outdated processes that don’t work well. And we’re not talking just about social media. The way that people use social media today is outdated, ineffective, and sometimes completely backwards. The focus should be on a system approach rather than the piecemeal bulleted task approach of the “10 Things My Mother Told Me” style.

Ignoring systems causes problems

John Sterman, author of Business Dynamics, the jewel of system dynamics writing, thinks that leadership without a systems approach causes more problems than it solves. He notes that hard data backs up the idea that people don’t understand systems and people don’t naturally think about systems. People have to be taught how to think systems with models and how to ease in to doing it at first. And it also takes a person willing to be a disciplined thinker using data driven inquiries with a lot of human understanding and respect.
Perhaps, the most unnerving ideas Sterman pushes forth from the citadel of the MIT Sloan Business School are that
  • all decisions are based on models
  • all models are wrong and
  • we can’t ever figure things out completely
That forces us to be a humble participant in the marketplace rather than the gladiator of social media marketing. When we realize our inability to control everything, we become more effective in the business world.

Could it really be true that Cisco’s meltdown in 2001 which allowed them to write off $2.2 billion in inventory was caused by reduced capital spending and the global macroeconomic environment, as noted in their Annual Report? Or is it more likely that their policies were just a macro version of the Beer Distribution Game like the evidence shows?

Systems thinking doesn’t recognize side effects

Side effects are just things we didn’t think of that we should have and aren’t going to be responsible for. It’s easier to assign the blame to the drug, the employees, or the military action.
It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.
as a Viet Nam era major allegedly said but never took responsibility for. His policy was directing behavior that had mismatched values with the general public

Systems thinking requires us to be accountable and responsible for our policies that we set and not continue in the child’s ploy of shifting the blame to escape parental wrath. The side effects that we caused are really just feedback from our decision inputs into the system. You have to honestly and humbly ask yourself if you have the ability to control the environment in which you work. You usually do.

Human influence on natural systems

Then you should ask yourself how you can control the parts you think you can’t manage. Are you thinking you can’t get more than 100 Twitter followers or that no one wants to retweet you? How can you influence people when they don’t want to be influenced? You think about the system that they are a part of and in many people’s corporate vernacular the solution becomes “think outside of the box” because the box are the hard walls of details that we continually focus on.

Maybe in Mark Twain’s day when he said
Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.
there weren’t meteorological scientists who could shape weather but today we are talking about global warming and our coal burning policies are a main talking point in the debate. We recognize systems at work that we control and their effects on our world.

Certainly Mark Twain’s cousins couldn’t set off a display of the Northern Lights like the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) can and upset every conspiracy theorist in the world at the same time. Even I’m concerned about the inadvertent feedback from an unknown device that can spew 3.6 megawatts of energy above my head into the environmental system that I’m living in. Hoover Dam produces about 5.6 megawatts per day which is almost what an average New Yorker uses in an entire year in case you need to talk apples and oranges.

More research into systems points to a seven day cycle of both pollutants on the East Coast and tropical cyclones. The supporting data comes from the number of cars on the road during the week which declines on the weekend and the higher chance of rain on the weekend with the least on Monday. You do the math and remember to work the weekend and take off Monday and Tuesday.

Getting others to change

Policy resistance to change is a major problem no matter where you encounter it. Maybe you're frustrated because your call to action fell flat. If it was a tweet that went unnoticed, then it’s because of the previous tweets that you look like. People say it’s just another marketing ploy, another quality program or another 10 ways that I can forget, and then ignore you.

People react to events and not to systems. The unscientific masses assign cause and effect to a volcano, a science experiment, or an alien intervention. My tweet was ignored because of the Haiti earthquake, people aren’t buying because the stock market went down, or the iPhone already has flooded the market. They react with a short-term conservative marketing program which doesn’t have real passion behind it and barely convinces anyone that they have something worth paying attention to. The market reacts with complacency which turns into no long-term effect. The short term goals produce low sales results (the feedback in the system) which causes cynicism about real change or better marketing programs. To get people out of the rut, the individual has to be taught to be a part of the larger social system.

Social networks can be seen in a good light (ignoring the electricity consumption for the computer hardware) for increasing the social interaction of individuals while decreasing the television viewing of the general public. Many studies have correlated television viewing with lower social interactions and all sorts of civic woes. If these are to be believed we can take solace that internet browsing is increasing at the expense of of television viewing and people are spending more time with their extended friends online instead of watching Friends reruns.

The more you spend time in social networks building up your extended friendships or trust agents, the more you come to value the ability to create change. People react to other people over the social networks. Television sets don’t react.

The Fifth Discipline

Peter Senge wrote The Fifth Discipline about 15 years ago on the need for a systems approach to business. Are you able to understand a watch by disassembling it into thousands of pieces and then, even harder, reassemble it to understand it as a whole? Are you able to assemble a broken mirror’s pieces and know what a real reflection looks like? Senge promoted the learning organization, a responsive business organization that can learn faster than its competitors. Instead of the top dog strategist learning for the rest of the blue collar workers, it’s got to be the entire organization learning at all levels.

Managing a better pizza

Nick’s Pizza and Pub (see “Lessons From a Blue Collar Millionaire”, Inc., February 2010), near Chicago, is a place where people are being educated by a different culture at all levels. They tell people what the situation (not the Jersey Shore type) is and let them choose how to handle it giving them control over their outputs. This increases the responsibility of the employees. I think Edward W. Deming would have found most of his 14 Points for Management in this business.

Managers at Nick’s are motivated to ask, learn, and dig down to the fifth why on their own to solve problems and not feel that sense of futility in a corporation that isn’t a learning organization. One young woman manager from the employee veteran ranks who started at 16 controlled costs better than three outside experienced professional general managers who talked the talk but couldn’t walk the walk. If you like Zappos, this is another great place to learn success from.

System theory

The previous posts in this series on systems theory as seen by the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) explored the following topics:
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Structure dresses your social media for success. Better than experience.

12 story structure at the height= 315 m (1,033 ft)
Do you have structure? According to the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL),
Without structure, our service management knowledge is merely a collection of observations, practices and conflicting goals. (ITIL Service Strategy)
Structure keeps us from doing the same mistakes over and over if we learn to improve by incorporating feedback (previous post). ITIL describes a framework for managing business services which can be as personal as a blog or as large as an international corporation.

Structure determines behavior

I’m sure you act differently when you wear a suit instead of a t-shirt and jeans. In your sales or marketing position, you create an operating structure with a phone, a computer, and a contact list. Your behavior would be different if your structure was a car, a map, and a thousand samples of a product to sell. When we change the structure, we change the behavior and the resulting events that come from that.

Your experience you receive during those events is useless if you don’t have a structure to change because that experiential feedback can’t be incorporated into your learning to improve your job. So structure trumps experience as well. Who would you rather hire in a sales representative job
  •  a green sales rep that mentored with a sales master for one year and understands the buying cycle completely but hasn’t struck out on his own
  • a 20 year rainmaker veteran who has been with the best companies in the city, has a good network of contacts, and says that he’s a natural and doesn’t need a new fangled way to do better-I’m-just-fine-the-way-I-am-thank-you
Your instincts should say that the sales veteran probably hasn’t learned much of what is right and hasn’t improved over his career. It’s likely that he’s a primadonna and will add conflict to your team. Natural talent can take you part of the way but the combination of natural talent and a structured approach to improvement will take you much further. It’s the structure of your day, your processes, and your job that makes you successful.

Structure is how you connect

Until you confront the way that you are really connected to your world, you won’t be able to make a significant change to how you perform. It’s the connections between all the pieces of the puzzle that make a difference and not the components themselves that matter. A systems approach in IT as well as business will look at all of the constituent parts of the organization in order to make an organizational transformation.

Marketing structure

Tom Webster of BrandSavant recently posted about Processing Qualitative Research Data With Tinderbox. The great thing about that Mac product is that it allows you to start with unstructured focus group data and develop a structure for interpreting it as you work with it. It's a solution for two hard problems at once - how to create a structure and how to work with qualitative data effectively.

The last post in this series on systems theory in business will look at the consequences of ignoring a systems approach.

Image by nima; via Flickr

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Feedback is critical to an improving sales or marketing process. Ask questions.

Disc brake on a motorcycle.
There are two basic ways to manage a sales process. One is to take the results from the output and change the process based on that. The other is to ignore the results and do the same process the same way. The feedback loop from using your own output as input for modifying your next process is a closed-loop control process. The other style is an open-loop control process where you don't let the results affect your next steps.

Open-loop vs. closed loop feedback

Open-loop processes change only when the inputs change. Maybe a customer has more money or less money. You still try to sell them the same product with the same approach. When things change too much, you don’t cope well. Maybe you know that smart guy, Al Einstein who said:
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results
An open-loop process is more like a car braking system. The user has an intention whether good or bad to slow down the “driving system.” A foot steps on the brake, the car slows down, and the car doesn’t bother to do any feedback unless there is a closed-loop anti-lock braking system installed.

Closed-loop processes have a continual monitor like a thermostat that controls the heat in your house. It is based on a goal set by the user and then the process works without intervention. If you walk in the door after work every day in an open-loop system and turn up the heat, eventually it will be summer and your system isn’t working well.

Feedback questions for sales and marketing

The faster the feedback in your system the less performance swings there will be as your goal is kept in sight. You can use this concept by checking in with your clients at every stage you can where it seems appropriate. And having a set of expectations to guide your future tasks is even better. Each question that you ask has to be listened to and absorbed so you can use it in your future meetings.

Ask feedback questions like:
  • What has been the best benefit you have gotten so far?
  • How can I improve my service to you?
  • Is there anything I shouldn’t be doing?
  • Did I miss giving you something you wanted recently?
  • Did my company do something that I should be aware of?
  • Should I have spent more or less time for a particular task with you?
  • Am I doing the right thing for you right now?
  • What other ways would provide value for you that I can offer?
  • What would you like me to do more for you?
The list is not a complete list of questions but a start for keeping the conversation open and honest. It’s the trust that the client has with you that will provide them with an opportunity for you to improve your experience with them. The more you listen, the more you’ll get honest responses.

Feedback is not linear. It takes a good manager to recognize patterns in the feedback to initiate changes that keep the process on target. When you start receiving the feedback, it will be good to keep a log. That way you can search for patterns, keywords that keep popping up, or themes that should be addressed. Then you can plan an improvement plan to get those processes back on track.

The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) talks quite a bit about how to manage your business by a systems approach using a closed-loop feedback system. It also talks quite a bit about how a sales or marketing professional can improve their performance even though those specific functions are not addressed.

Follow-up posts on the topic of system theory will look at structure and the consequences of not understanding systems.

Image via Wikipedia
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Friday, January 15, 2010

How to distribute beer and manage the big picture in social media to sell and market successfully

Beer Truck
It’s just human to focus on managing by event. It is much harder to pull yourself up out of the muck of random events and manage better by thinking about the big picture. In the early 1960s, a bunch of MIT business school professors who I believe spent more time at a local pub than in the classroom, came up with a way to teach the failure of managing by events by using beer. Of course, it was a great success, even though everyone failed.

This beer distribution game was a simulation of a supply chain from retailer to warehouse to manufacturer. No actual beer is used (sigh). It’s a simple game with orders and back orders, inventory shortages and excesses, customer demand and production shortages. The players always get frustrated and disappointed because they manage by event. They blame, accuse, doubt and use unpleasant words as they pursue a level inventory and a happy customer. If you would like to play the online version of the beer game, get three other people with computers (and a few beverages) and start distributing.

God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy – Billy Currington

Event vs. systems management

As data systems analysis progressed from an event managed to a component managed and most recently to a systems managed approach, business systems are also undergoing a similar change. Business focused on the sales event, the ad event, the transaction event, or the shipping event. Then the components were tied together in more of a component approach where sales and marketing teamed up, ordering and shipping reduced warehouse time, and customer service and product development consulted with each other for better products.

The value chain is based on microeconomic principles that focuses on long-term success by viewing the individual functions of the business as cost components which use assets to combine into a good or service. The focus is on the processes and control of the individual parts. It’s too complex to use in real management discussions and instead a ‘lite’ version using a diagram to show competitive advantages is sometimes used. This mid-80s style is not a systems approach but an event management style. 

The better systems approach via ITIL

A systems approach to business is what the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) strives to define through a framework of processes, functions and a definition of service management for both business and IT. Policies and objectives for business are defined in the Service Strategy volume. Business change and transformation are worked out in Service Design, Transition, and Operation volumes. And the Continual Service Improvement volume is interested in how we learn and improve. Studying ITIL will point the way for a modern systems based business management framework.

System dynamics, a framework for thinking how company policies interact to shape business performance, was derived from cybernetics in the 1960s. John Sterman and John Morecroft, both from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, are names most associated with this framework. They would say that the end results are determined by influence and information which is governed by policies controlling actions decided by initial conditions. Models based on system dynamics fuel discussions for strategic thinking and helps simplify scenarios vital to understanding business interactions.

Applying a systems approach

Taking a look at your own life, you want to start asking some systems questions to get a better handle on why you may be focused on the details rather than the big picture. On a personal level this means that you should look at your personal goals. If you are a social networker,
  • do you have a plan for which sites your visit?
  • do you know who you want to influence?
  • do you track your conversations or comments?
  • do you have a plan for leveraging this network?
  • do your contacts value your networking?
If you are more of an information service, such as a blogger or an incurable Twitter user that informs others,
  • do you have a plan that guides your reading inputs?
  • do you have a list of topical outputs that your readers expect?
  • do you have a set of keywords that Google can index so new readers can find you?
  • do you know what the value of your information is to you?
  • do you know the value of the information to your readers?
If you are a sales representative
  • do you have a customer profile for your ideal customer?
  • do you have a list of buying funnel traits that tell you how close a sale is and what to do next?
  • do you have a plan for using customer feedback to improve the organization?
  • do you know what your customers expect from you?
  • do you know what to expect from the business departments that you depend on?
Follow-up posts on systems feedback, system structure and consequences of not using a systems approach will appear in the next few days.

Image by notanyron via Flickr

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Too many social media accounts? Not enough customers? Right size your business for success by encapsulation.

Eggistentialism I
One of the great problems of business management is to determine when you are putting in the right amount of work for the value that you get out. As a social media person running a few Twitter accounts or maintaining a blog, you may wonder why you spend so much time and don’t get a good response. Maybe you’ve just realized that having LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and FriendFeed accounts were keeping you from writing your blog. You can find an initial discussion of simplifying your business services in the previous blog post.

The last part discussed to simplify your business services is to get the right size of your business service. The first step is to estimate what you think the right size should be. The other steps that follow are easy such as:
  • test it out
  • figure out if it works and change scope if necessary
  • deploy the service
But it’s the initial step that is one of the toughest problems no matter where you encounter it. It’s the step into the great void of “I don’t know” that stymies the beginning analyst, inexperienced startup entrepreneur, or guy on the street who thinks he can become a social media expert by reading a Dummies book.

Estimating the initial scope

To understand how to create the best Twitter account, the best Facebook fan page, the best technology blog and so on, you must estimate the scope of the full service itself. The point of view from your customer is important because they don’t care about the way that you deliver the service as long as they get what they want when and how they want it.

The principle with the fifty-cent word behind determining the scope of your service is encapsulation. It is made up of three minor principles that govern the parts of a service:
  • clear definition of the parts
  • interchangeable parts, and
  • loose coupling of the parts
Using the three principles together gives you some grasp on how to test whether you are getting the scope of your business service right or not. This can work whether you’re launching a service to commit social suicide or adding a social network service to your plumbing business .

Clear definition of system parts

A business is made up of functional groups and connected through processes. You have Human Resources, Accounting, Manufacturing, etc. If you are just a personal information service, you blur them all together because they are not scaled up enough unless you’ve developed a working regimen that says e-mail at 7 am, RSS readers at 8 am, phone calls at 9am, etc. It’s not typical but it’s this disciplined work ethic that would produce the best results.

Outcomes are better when you specialize your capabilities and resources. It improves your health and well being when you concentrate on winter driving and don’t answer text messages at the same time. Not paying attention can put you in a snow filled embankment or sliding down Seattle’s icy hills. When you repeat your process over and over, you learn how to optimize it to achieve the best product, the fastest output or the most profit. Challenges and opportunities can be best matched up with the corporate assets that best address the issue whether that be a particular division or just a better data visualization service for Twitter like StreamGraphs.

There are several processes for business deconstruction analysis. You can define the parts by first identifying the persistent and recurring patterns of your activity. Are you a blogger that can reuse your copy for email newsletters, blog comments, magazine articles, etc.? Another set of tasks involves the separation of concerns principle which says that you should put the things that change in one pile and the things that stay the same in another pile. Maybe one reading topic of interest causes you to have a different workflow each time you research and all the rest let you use Google Reader. And another type of sorting involves identifying the ‘what’ and distinguishing it from the ‘how.’ What are topics that you want to be known for and how do the work processes help you do that?

Perhaps this would make more sense if you actually do the work. The words are simple but the thinking is hard. One difficulty is that the topics of study vary according to your size and direction of your business. Large businesses would concentrate on developing a clear data dictionary of business entities and a Business Process Model commonly developed before a large business reengineering project.

On a smaller scale it might involve a description of the ‘what’ of business commerce. These are the major business entities (nouns commonly used in business discussions) such as profit, account, sales lead, qualified lead, etc. The ‘how’ pieces are described in business use cases, Agile stories, or just done in a flow chart style that other people use and understand in the company. They are distinguished by verbs and actions.
By separating the pieces, the approach to a better service orientation is made clear. Demand can be characterized by common elements and then served by the best shared services that are available. A person who knows why they are blogging and then finds a better match for their needs will make a quicker decision when the boundaries of their service are known.

Interchangeable system parts

Just like Honeré Blanc and Eli Whitney who applied the principle of interchangeable system parts to military weapons, anyone can profit from a better way to manage complexity. By grouping pieces that are almost fully self-contained, you have a way to swap modules with other systems.

You can see this principle at work with many of the Twitter services. Instead of asking you to create a separate account on each of the helper services, they reuse the Twitter authentication so that the benefit to you is that you only have to remember your Twitter name and password. The user identification process has been made a reusable module. The service that implements it understands the public Twitter interface.

A car engine can be replaced with little work compared to hand crafting a completely new engine. All that has to be done is to lower the new engine into place, hook up the connections (the interface), and bolt it in. Is your blog host starting to give you bad mileage? No problem. Remove your blogs, pick up your domain name, and drop them into a new host. Hook up the connections and you’re driving smoothly again.

By allowing the pieces to be bundled up into a well related grouping by another fifty-cent software principle called cohesion, you can increase efficiency and economy through reduction of duplication, administrative overhead, and costs of changes. A cohesive set of tasks provided by an all-in-one Twitter shared service like HootSuite eliminates the jumping around to multiple services when you are concentrating on your networking or public relations.

Loose coupling of system parts

The interface is the key item in the service module or, in software development, the component. It must be simple and easy. This is where the KISS principle is most important. The fewer the connections you have with other modules the better. The less you have to stop and go get something in a business process, the more you can concentrate on the task at hand.

When you need to swap out a module, it’s the number of connections you have to unscrew and screw back in that makes the job easy or difficult. An electrical device has a great interface because the wall plug is easy and simple. It is a three prong connector that can only be plugged in one way and gives you access to a power generation system that you mostly forget about. Most people don't think about the coal furnaces they keep burning as they use their computers.

How easy is it for you to walk away from your office and do business at home or on the road? How many different pieces of hardware, software, files, books, resources, and comforts do you need? The less connectors you need, the more cohesive and less coupled your office module becomes.

By altering your workflow into a simpler module, you have less coupling. Let’s say you work on your laptop with a word processor, a spreadsheet, your e-mail client, and need a dictionary for translation and spelling. Let’s assume you have to use a client’s computer now instead to do the work and can’t use your laptop for security reasons. So now you need to move all your data files on to a separate portable hard drive. That’s a lot of dependencies or couplings.

Use Google apps to get looser

Instead you could set up a workflow that uses Google's free applications like Gmail and Google Docs as well as the rest of the free services on the web. You store your data there, and don’t have the need for a separate hard drive or any fees to Microsoft. This greatly simplifies the coupling and is going to be a trend in 2010 and beyond as the free services become more integrated into business workflows. New add-ons like MailBrowser for Gmail will increase the speed at which adoption takes place as familiar processes like contact management and document management are added to a market leader like Google's email process making for looser coupling.

You may eventually need to switch over to another service like Zoho apps because Google may still follow through on their promise to destroy all the data that they can’t index . When that happens, you will reap the benefits by having a loose coupling to the Google apps. OK, that’s not really true. But still, Google apps are now the 2010 favorite of Michael Arrington of TechCrunch over Zoho. Arrington decreased his personal coupling by dropping Zoho from his tech products he loves because he finds “that centralizing as many services as possible at Google makes things easier for me as a user.”

Google has followed the loose coupling principle completely by educating you about how they are transforming their services into the most decoupled they can make them with a site called Data Liberation. The anti-lock-in site explains how your data is not held hostage by their services and therefore builds the best system by using their free and paid services. I’m enhancing the fairly dry technical explanation here, but the net result is a more resilient system.

Apply encapsulation anywhere

These three encapsulation principles can apply to any system including business, software, hardware, or organizations. The plug-and-play systems on modern computers boosted replacements of parts and adoption of new peripherals quickly. Skunk works teams in business as well as Special Weapons Assault Teams (SWAT) in police forces use the encapsulation principles to their advantage. In technology, Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) is the big buzz for distributed systems and has all the same words and concepts as any other system described here.

You’ll find that by knowing and setting your boundaries of your business that you can get higher returns due to less time wasted. Your customers will be happier as they are able to find things with less clutter. And you will be more focused in 2010 on your business leading to greater success.

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Monday, January 4, 2010

How to simplify your social life. Hide the back office, KISS your customers and set some service boundaries.

Simple Life 天空舞台
Business managers really don’t care about social media. It's simple. They want whatever you’re doing there with your Twitface stuff to turn into sales. They care about it being profitable today, tomorrow, and next week. They care about it not costing the company another server, web development guy, and an admin to run it. Social marketing is about what goes on behind the scenes to them.

Blog readers want it simple also. They want the text served up with entertainment and information and they want it weekly or more often. They don’t care whether you’re using Blogger or WordPress or counting visits to your page. Can they get it on their iPhone or Droid? Even better. SEO and social media technology is what goes on inside or under the hood.

There are things that you can do to make sure that your customers find what they are looking for and you have the most time to spend with them. The three things that help you simplify your social life online are
  • hide the back office
  • simplify for your customers, and
  • set service boundaries
Hide the back office

In a restaurant, there’s the front of house and then there’s the back of house. The front is polished mahogany and soft lighting. The back is all business built with cheap and sturdy concrete and made to run efficiently. Advertising the details of your back office business service to your customers is a mistake. They don’t concern themselves with the complexity of the technical machinations that you went through to get the service provided.

Sure, some people are curious but it’s not going to add value, so it’s not worth the time. I’ve asked and got tours of kitchens before because I was curious but the staff isn’t going to offer up a pantry parade so they can maximize their customer time instead. The cooks are more annoyed that you are in their tight work quarters than happy to see you take interest in their technique.

Your customers, whether your boss or a blog reader, prefer simple. Don’t tell them about Twitter or Facebook fan pages or the thousands of choices that they have available to slice and dice the information. Sometimes a simple web page will be all that they need. Keep it simple and clean and show them only what is useful and usable to them. It will also let you maximize your time on the part that needs focus.

Simplify for your customers

Your customer relationship is the most important part of your business. No customers… no business. So you want to make sure that the customer understands what you are trying to get to them as a business. That relationship that you let them see is what you can call a service interface. The front of house is the food service interface of the restaurant for the customer. The back of house is the implementation of the food service.

Maintaining a simple and secure interface is a software programming principle but one that is applicable to business services like those that you who are doing the tweeting and the blogging are running. The business service anyone involved in using social media is engaging in is providing an information service. And the principles of interface design apply to services whether a business activity or a more technical web service.

This KISS (Keep It Simple and Stupid) principle for whittling down the unnecessary parts of the project/process/code is found throughout modern business implemented in such frameworks as Extreme Programming, Agile project management, or Lean Software Development. Maybe there are so many systems to get rid of useless jetsam and flotsam because people aren’t good at recognizing it.

There’s certainly no lack of people telling us to remove all the unnecessary parts but few people telling us how and giving us examples.  Einstein is typically hauled in to the conversation when people raise the flag for decreasing complexity with an ironic over-simplification of his quote about simplicity that goes “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.“ You have to wonder why Al couldn’t have said it that simple.

After teaching years of business and software analysis, it’s understandable to me why there aren’t better systems for performing business simplification. Business analysis is a hard job and people usually don’t have anyone to learn it from. I’ve seen some natural analysts who did it out of sheer self-preservation but no one recognized just how good they were. So I know it’s happening out there.

The business task that focuses on simplification is to attain the perfect size and shape of your business service. When it is as simple as possible, it becomes the stupid thing as the KISS acronym originally intended, and not the person using it. When the service has the right size, it has a boundary that keeps it from growing by scope creep or shrinking from budget cuts. The right size of a business service allows for efficient management today and scalability for tomorrow.

Boundary setting

The setting of the boundary of your business service is determined in an analysis phase of a project. To Steve Blank, who blogs about customer development for startups, it would be called achieving the product/market fit. To a software analyst, it would be called doing requirements gathering completely. It’s a continuous process and in reality it never ends. For a software application, the complete requirements can only be determined when the project is deployed. Then, there’s always the next maintenance release. For a business, it means keeping in touch with your customers and scaling up when appropriate.

As an information service, you should follow a process to set your business boundaries.  The steps follow a simple quality regimen. They are:
  • estimate the scope
  • test it out
  • figure out if it works and change scope if necessary
  • deploy the service
If you are familiar with W. Edwards Deming, you may recognize this pattern. It’s his Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle put into context for right-sizing of your business service.

The toughest part is estimating the initial scope of the service (to be covered in the next post of this blog). You test it out by taking your service to a small group of people. Marketing departments typically have focus groups for product development testing. Software groups have alpha and beta test programs.

If you are posting comments in a social network, confine yourself to one group until you get the hang of it. If you are on Twitter, be happy with the 10 to 20 followers you have and talk to them. If you are making a few mistakes, it’s easy to correct them at this point. You have a close relationship with these beta testers and they should know that they have significant impact on your final product.

Then assess the results, change your course appropriately, and go whole hog. You’ll know if the results are right when you can ask and get comfortable answers to these questions:
  • Did you get what the service said it was going to give?
  • Did I promise something more than what I was able to deliver?
  • Did you expect something that you didn’t get from my service?
  • Would you miss this service if it were not available? (Thanks, Steve Blank)
If you don’t get satisfactory answers, then figure out what the customers want and rescope. When you finally get good responses, put it on the road.

By keeping the unnecessary details from your customers, creating a simple interface, and setting boundaries on your personal or corporate services, you’ll find that you are doing both you and your customers a favor. They get what they need faster and you end up with more time and to take care of them.  Make 2010 a simple and focused year for your business strategy.

Image by d!zzy via Flickr

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