Paul Gebel

Category: Business

Good design is …

Good design is knowing which characteristics of your Web site or product are the most important, and which ones you are willing to give in on. If you are clear on the goals, success will always come from planning enough time in your schedule to think through the trade-offs of a wide set of alternatives. Consistency is a potential means for success, but not success itself.

Scott Berkun

Berkun provides five great ways to help decide on how consistency may help – or hinder – your goals in designing an interface. Sometimes designers find it expedient to reuse content or standardize an experience, because they as the designer are able to map a more cogent pathway. The end user, however, may find themselves trying to learn a system of interpretation while gaining no further value other than the interpretation itself. Here are the five rules of thumb, in Berkun’s own words:

  1. Begin by reusing existing controls or concepts in your sketches and prototypes unless your goals include changing a specific user task or behavior, start with as much consistency as you can. Reuse of working concepts is good. Style guides are of great value here in helping you to reuse as much existing knowledge and good design work as possible.
  2. If your sketches and prototypes aren’t working in user studies or other evaluations because of the failure of existing concepts, try to grow an existing concept to cover the new situation you have. If you change the behavior of a control, apply that change everywhere the control is used. If you change a concept, consistently apply that change.
  3. If you can’t extend what you have to solve the problem, go and design a new widget or concept to solve your problem.
  4. If you have to use special cases (local optimization of a widget that isn’t used everywhere), make sure it’s the best trade-off you have.
  5. Always ensure that user success at tasks takes precedence over abstract design consistency.

3 Reasons GTD (Getting Things Done®) + Evernote Is Your Next Inbox

Full disclosure: I’m an avid Secret Weapon user. My thoughts here are mainly an expression of standing on their giant shoulders.

Getting Things Done (GTD) has become a business cult of formerly information-saturated executives, entrepreneurs and stay at home moms. The simplicity of the organization and the regiment of the process make such intuitive sense that it is difficult for me to imagine organizing my tasks and information in any other construct. However, there is a way to impose a tool on the system that accelerates the process and allows much more depth and context to the system.

For Evernote users, this has become a welcome organizational framework for all of the data and is great for turning non-context  driven data into useful, actionable tasks. There are limitless variations that can be taken on this theme, but the most important decision for me came in this simple approach: “Few Notebooks, Many Tags”. This will seem like gibberish to the Evernote Luddites, so the meaning might be more clear in the practical application.

GTD SimplifiedFirst the notebooks set-up. I have two “stacks”. They’re called tasks and files. The first question you ask in the GTD process is, “Is it actionable?” If yes, it’s a task. If no, it’s a file. The sub-notebooks in files can be as large as necessary. Some examples in mine are cookbookrolodex and fitness. There are a dozen or so, and I have very loose rules around what does where. There isn’t any action associated with them, and I’ll likely find what I need by tag as opposed to notebook. Secondly, the files. There are two kinds in the GTD system: Action Pending or Completed. The system doesn’t allow a heroic approach to task labeling. If it’s a project with multiple tasks required for completion, tag it with the project name, but every task gets it’s own note in Evernote.

There are a couple reasons this system works. First of all, I trust Evernote. This whole thing falls apart with my email client as the backbone, because I don’t trust that tool as a consistently available, reliable system of storage and organization. Second, Evernote is a blank slate. Every GTD user has their own take on the system. Little modifications to files. Little personalized touches on the categories. Evernote is designed to get out of your way and just allow you to store information in contexts that make sense. And third, this works, because of the community. The not-so-silent partner in taking on the GTD framework (regardless of the Evernote implementation) is the user groups. You’ll find them on LinkedIn, blogs, the GTD forum, the GTD Blog… It’s the amazing part of this undertaking. The help-desk is ubiquitous.

The Five Phases of Consulting: Decision (5 of 5)

Iniitation > Discovery > Analysis and Decision > Engagement and Implementation > Decision

The final step in a well maintained consulting relationship is Decision. Not “decision” in the management sense of the term – but rather Decision to extend the process, continue to dig deeper into process improvement, or to terminate the existing project. Many times, this is the hardest phase for a consultant to maintain the lateral relationship of the situation. It is easy to vacillate between two extremes. On the one-hand, the client may become reliant on the consultant’s leadership in the project and organization. This is an unhealthy direction for future consulting opportunities, because the organization will begin to view the consultant as a surrogate manager. Once that line has been crossed, it is very difficult to recover to a place of lateral support.

Secondly, a the other extreme presents the hazard of over-separation or even resistance – passive-aggressive or overt. Instead of over-reliance, the conclusion of a project may have revealed vulnerabilities or gaps in process that the client feels the need to take care of internally. In either situation, it may be the most beneficial decision to terminate the contract relationship in order to preserve the client as opportunities to open different doors in the future may open.

If the door remains open for follow-on work or re-engagement in areas of the organization that were previously out of scope, there is always the possibility to continue within the organization for a long time! Throughout the lifecycle of the consulting engagement, the consultant is in a struggle for balance. Balance in the project’s scope, schedule and budget – yes. But even more, the consultant is required to balance the relationship. Maintaining trust and credibility, while never becoming so essential as to become a proxy manager.

The Five Phases of Consulting: Engagement and Implementation (4 of 5)

This week we’ve been going through a generic consulting process laid by master consultant Peter Block in his third edition of Flawless Consulting. Before we jump right into Engagement, it’s important to pause at this mid-point to consider just why process is so important in the first place. Problems can be solved on an ad-hoc basis, and an expert advisor may be able to add value through simple observation and reporting. Process informs a client of your value as a consultant and provides structure to the value you’re adding. In a way, the medium is the message. The value isn’t necessarily in the epiphany of process improvement or market capitalization. The value is in the discovery, consensus, and as we’ll see now, the Implementation. To see where we’ve come, the process we’ve mapped out so far looks like this:

  1. Iniitation
  2. Discovery
  3. Analysis and Decision

In the Engagement and Implementation phase, the process takes us through the execution of the plans developed in Analysis. The reason to separate this from the last step, especially in defining scope, schedule and budget, is to set expectations within the responsibility matrix. (You’ve set this up for your project, right?) The execution post-analysis may actually be the full responsibility of the project sponsor on the client’s team. Or in very sophisticated project settings, the consultant may remain deeply involved. Regardless of the level, it is important for the implementation to be a smooth – but very deliberate – transition from the Analysis phase.

The biggest risk of scope creep presents itself in this phase, so getting this right before it’s begun is critical to project hand-off and – more importantly – client satisfaction.

The Five Phases of Consulting: Analysis and Decision (3 of 5)

So far, our fearless consultant has gone through the process of Initiation and begun the patient, deliberate task of Discovery. The third phase of the consulting process moves into what is traditionally considered “planning.” Analysis is lumped in with Decision at the end, because the goal of this step is to manage and deal with risk. Risk may present itself in the form of financial loss, degradation of the organization’s culture, or missed business opportunities. In the initiation and discovery, there was a foundation building process. In the Analysis phase, the walls start to go up.

It may be helpful to include the client in the Analysis process, but it is usually a function of observe, interview and collect. If the consulting need is of any importance at all, there is going to be a significant amount of data to collect. The value that the consultant adds to the process here is mitigating opportunity cost. By focusing on all of the data, there is little value gained and few decisions possible. But by choosing to ignore less valuable data for the sake of high-value data, the process begins to take shape towards a real actionable goal.

It is in this Decision step that the consultant shapes the appearance, limits and impact of the final product. The deliverables are decided on, and the client is at the table for the conversation to help decide, “What is the goal of the project?” If there is no goal, and the tasks assigned to the consultant are just tasks that are not getting done for business right now… then there is no consulting going on. The consultant has become a line manager or augmented staff. But by observing and orienting towards the problem hand and collecting the right data, the consultant can help make the decision regarding what the project is going to accomplish.

The Five Phases of Consulting: Discovery (2 of 5)

Yesterday we described the foundational process of Initiation. Today we take a look at the forensics of how a consultant uncovers the requirements and methodology for approaching a client’s problem. This is a somewhat more subtle task than the straightforward Initiation. It’s an easy mistake for the consultant to overrun the Discovery and attempt to begin solving the problem immediately. Though sometimes the problem seems so apparent and the process so straightforward, it is a temptation to begin without the dialogue involved in the Discovery step.

The Discovery is really what sets the consultant apart from the line manager, outsourced contractor or temp worker. If outsourcing or staff augmentation is the task at hand, that is a great way to initiate a relationship in a trial run. But that is merely surrogate management – not true consulting. Discovery is where the consultant begins adding value, and there are a few simple ways that the success of Discovery can be measured. In the course of the process, the consultant should demonstrate the skill to be able to answer some thoughtful, planning questions.

  • Who will be involved on the project team?
  • Who is the consultant’s project manager? Who is the clients? Who will be each of their project champions or sponsors?
  • Which methods will be used for analysis and decision to measure the success of the process?
  • What is the knowledge management process to gather data, process information and synthesize information?
  • What are the triple constraints? (i.e. Scope, Schedule, and Budget)
  • Will the process be executed by the consultant or by the client through a scripted process?

In reality, this is the work before the work. It is an uncovering, dialoguing and documenting phase that cannot be overlooked. The hazards of stepping right into Analysis without conducting proper Discovery is lack of buy-in, unchecked scope creep and will ultimately risk the peril of mistrust between client and consultant. In Initiation, the conversation is across the table. The client and consultant are looking eye to eye establishing ground rules and expectations. In Discovery, the conversation moves (figuratively) around the table, dialoguing and discussing to consensus and looking in the same direction.

The Five Phases of Consulting: Initiation (1 of 5)

When a consultant approaches a qualified prospect for gaining approval for the work to be done, initiation is an often overlooked or minimized step in the process. I suspect that the reason lies in the fact that independent consultants do not always make the best salesmen (in the noblest sense of the term), and vice versa. As Zig Ziglar so aptly put it, there are really only ever five reasons, real or perceived, that a sale can go awry. The five basic obstacles are: no need, no money, no hurry, no desire, and no trust. From the very first exploratory meeting through every phase of discovery, the consultant should strategically qualify or disqualify each of these five obstacles.

In a traditional retail or B2B sales-based role, the obstacles may effectively be tactically removed. That is, a customer may create the illusion of one obstacle in order to camouflage another, and the salesman is required to detect this misdirection. For example, a customer may lead the conversation towards a meager budget obstacle, when a lack of trust is the real issue. These kinds of conversations still may take place in the consultative process, however the difference between a sales approach and a consultation is that one has a customer and the other has a client, respectively.

What is the difference between a customer and a client? The customer is always right.

A tactical conversation eliminates the obstacle for the success of the sale. A strategic conversation eliminates the obstacle for the success of the relationship. A successful consultant deals strategically with clients, and the process towards successful change needs to be one of compromise. Sometimes it involves the consultant discovering that they are not actually the right one to work on the project that the client thinks they need. The level of maturity needed to have an initiation meeting lead to that conclusion is probably the single largest test of the quality of a consultant and the biggest distinguishing trait from a salesman. A successful initiation will lead to three fundamental points of agreement.

  1. What the client’s expectations are
  2. What the consultant’s dependencies and constraints are
  3. What is required to kick off the project

The initiation is the foundation on which the whole project and larger relationship will be based. With a poor initiation phase, there is little chance of succeeding through Discovery, Analysis, Implementation and ERT (Extension, Recycling, or Termination).

The Application of Good Knowledge Management in Business

This is the third and final post in a short series on Knowledge Management (KM) in organizations. I prefaced this with an introduction to Madanmohan Rao’s framework, expanded on Nancy M. Dixon’s knowledge transfer channels, explained the “8Cs Audit” of KM, and in this post we’ll wrap up the series with a summary of why this all matters in the first place.

There are four primary areas where the health of an organization’s KM primarily manifests, and the success or failure on each of these aspects can be largely influenced by KM best practices. First of all, a high 8C-scoring organization would likely have really well designed products or services. In a company where the employees trust one another and cooperate, there is also likely to be efficient divisions of labor and ease of institutional knowledge transfer for efficiencies. Secondly, these KM champion companies will also have state-of-the-art CRM tools and practices in place as well. Customer service will thrive under good KM practices due to (among other things) the time that employees are freed up to spend making customers happy! Thirdly, as employees begin to develop KM habits around good 8C principles, the company becomes an easier place to lead and manage. Since duplication and re-work is minimized, employees can grow along career pathing lines in which they desire. Last but not least, the firm’s ability to conduct business analysis, both internally and externally, will flourish under good KM practices. Nowhere will an unhealthy KM system be more visible than in a firm’s ability (or lack thereof) to identify profit centers or peg KPIs through rigorous business analysis.

So there you have it. We examined how knowledge is actually communicated, how to determine the efficiency by which it is communicated , and finally why bother setting up KM practices in business at all? In conclusion, if a firm were to desire good design in its work, highly satisfied customers, well managed employees and a good sense of the internal and external market… it seems like implementing a well thought out KM strategy would be an excellent place to start.

If you are interested in a KM assessment at your firm, please feel free to contact me for further discussion.

The main source for this post comes from a framework by Madanmohan Rao (@madanrao) in the book Knowledge Management in Practice: Connections and Context.

The “8 Cs” Audit of Knowledge Management

This is the second of a three part series on Knowledge Management in organizations. I kicked it off introducing you to Madanmahon Rao’s KM best practices overview, and in the first main post I examined the five channels of knowledge transfer, discovered by Nancy M. Dixon. In this post, I’ll take a look at a high-level survey of eight attributes of the state of KM within an organization. As a snapshot poll, this survey could be structured as a simple 1-10, or more likely a 1-5 performance scale. Or if an organization were to sample a set of knowledge superusers, this audit could also solicit unstructured, free-form responses for more qualitative feedback. Any way it is administered, the feedback gained from this audit is foundational to developing action items for KM improvement based on the goals of the organization.

  1. Connectivity – What connectivity devices, bandwidths, interfaces, technologies, and tools do your knowledge workers have when they are in the office of on the road?
  2. Content – What knowledge assets are relevant to the content of your workflow, and what are your strategies for codification, classification, archival, retrieval, usage and tracking?
  3. Community – What are the core communities of practice aligned with your business, and what organizational support do you have for identifying, nurturing, and harnessing them?
  4. Culture – Does your organization have a culture of learning where your employees thirst for knowledge, trust one another, and have visible support from their management?
  5. Capacity – What are your strategies for building knowledge-centric capacity in your employees, for instance via workshops, white papers, mentoring, and e-learning?
  6. Cooperation – Do you employees have a spirit of open cooperation, and does your organizations cooperate on the KM front with business partners, industry consortia, and universities?
  7. Commerce – What commercial and other incentives do you use to promote your KM practice? How are you “pricing” the contribution, acceptance, and usage of knowledge assets?
  8. Capital – What percentage and amount of your revenues are invested in your KM practices, and how are you measuring their usage and benefits in monetary and qualitative terms?

Similar to the five channels of knowledge transfer, it’s striking upon reading it. This audit, compiled by an internationally respected expert in KM, never mentions ISO standards or file naming conventions. The health and wellbeing of KM within organizations has more to do with people than it does technology. So lay out your goals for improving KM for effective growth towards your goals, and see where your areas of improvement lie. Have you conducted an 8Cs audit within your firm before? If you need a hand getting started, I would love to help your business grow.

The main source for this post comes from a framework by Madanmohan Rao (@madanrao) in the book Knowledge Management in Practice: Connections and Context.

Knowledge Transfer Within Organizations

This is the first of a three part series on Knowledge Management in IT (or any organization for that matter). I introduced the series describing the influence Madanmahon Rao’s work has had on this exploration, and in compiling the best KM practices in the industry, he begins with an operational look at how knowledge passes between people within organizations. It is important to put this in context, because without contextualizing the means of transfer, you will not be able to tell what channels are working effectively or not. Rao first cites GWU professor Nancy M. Dixon’s framework for the channels for knowledge transfer in order to flesh this out. She articulated the five methods of knowledge transfer thus:

Serial Transfer: The knowledge a team has gained from doing its task in one setting is transferred to the next time that team does the task in a different setting.
Near Transfer: Explicit knowledge a team has gained from doing a frequent and repeated task is reused by other teams doing similar work.
Far Transfer: Tacit knowledge a team has gained from doing a nonroutine task is made available to other teams doing similar work in another part of the organization.
Strategic Transfer: The collective knowledge of the organization is needed to accomplish a strategic task that occurs infrequently but is critical to the whole organization.
Expert Transfer: A team facing a technical question beyond the scope of its own knowledge seeks the expertise of others in the organization.

It seems so simple! Reading through the list, I imagine how each one of those channels place a role in the communication and workflow of my organization on a daily basis. Upon reading these listed out so succinctly, I’m reminded of an analogy in how the brain responds to an optical illusion. That is, when presented with the classic image of an old woman or a rabbit, our brains know that two “images” exist in front of us, but we can only visualize one at a time. Similarly, there are five main channels of knowledge transfer, and we know that they all exist simultaneously as methodologies – tacit or explicit – but our teams and employees can only really focus on one at a time. When solving our company’s biggest problems, sometimes just knowing what we’re not seeing is as important as knowing what we are.

The main source for this post comes from a framework by Madanmohan Rao (@madanrao) in the book Knowledge Management in Practice: Connections and Context.