The magic of hierarchy

Probably my favourite tool in the arsenal of analyst techniques has to be decomposition. Whether it’s functional or process decomposition there is nothing like it for arranging problems into the big picture. Then breaking that picture down into its component parts so that you can start to make sense of it.

hierarchyAnd yet hierarchy, in recent years, has got a pretty bad reputation. As Stanford professor Bob Sutton wrote this weekend in this LinkedIn article. He was brought up to believe that hierarchy was bad and led to inefficiency, yet research for his new book showed that hierarchy is unavoidable.

Hierarchy is nature’s gift to us in helping us understand the World around us. Citing research by his colleagues Deb Gruenfeld and Lara Tiedens he describes how hierarchy is found in every single group of animals found in nature. To quote Gruenfeld and Tiedens directly:

When scholars attempt to find an organization that is not characterized by hierarchy, they cannot.

Hierarchy structures the relationships between people and things into parent, child and peer relationships. This makes it easier for us to remember those relationships, it provides an organising principle that is standardised across everything. We simply have to know how hierarchy works in order to understand something that is new to us.

This is what makes decomposition so powerful. It comes naturally to us human beings so is not really something that needs much in the way of education. When we apply it, it’s often to an area that seems chaotic and complex. By decomposing we overlay a hierarchy that allows us to understand what was previously incomprehensible. It allows us to break problems down into component parts in order to tackle them effectively and even start to predict what will happen when we make changes.

It doesn’t just aid understanding, it also helps us to remember. Instead of having to remember every single discreet component of an organisation you simply need to remember a small subset. You can then use this along with the hierarchical organising principle and you will be able to fairly accurately calculate the missing pieces.

This is what makes decomposition one of the first things I do when introduced to a new problem.

An extended version of this article is available at


Why process capture is important for unstructured processes

This article on caught my eye yesterday, “Will standard processes soon be extinct?“, particularly the comment from Software AG Chief Evangelist Theo Priestly. Citing Jim Sinur‘s ‘Dark Processes’, Theo recommends exposing these hidden processes and encouraging them. Based on my experience I’d have to agree.

In Theo’s words:

“Jim wrote last year about Dark Processes, those which lurk around the enterprise conducted by many but defy definition.”

One of the problems with undefined and undocumented processes is often they lack the benefit of process improvement experience. And let’s not forget that process improvement techniques have been incredibly effective over the past century in manufacturing and more recently with Business Process Management Systems automating, and ultimately speeding up highly repetitive and high volume transactional work.

What this article, and many others, are discussing is the limitation of process improvement in the modern World and what happens next. In my experience the one area that seems to continually get left out is the human element. These so called unstructured and dark processes are being orchestrated by humans. These are experts in their field, they have experience and skills that allow them to adapt the way they work to the changing environment. They know when to employ a standard process and when something needs to be created ad hoc.

The thing that most of these workers are not, are process experts and therefore the processes they operate are not as efficient as they could be. I find in these areas people are continually bumping into each other, duplicating work or, worse still, getting things wrong.

Simple process capture workshops can be very useful here, the objective is not to create some perfect standardised documentation. The purpose is to get those working together in the same or related areas and to discuss how things are done today. Not tomorrow but right now. In an ever changing environment it’s easy to forget exactly what your colleague is doing, what they expect of you and what you expect of them. Running regular but short and simple workshops keeps people aligned without hamstringing them with over simplified and rigid processes. It allows them to discuss real and potential issues and how to solve them in the immediate future.

I’ve had this experience recently with agile development teams. There’s a high level 4 or 5 step process but what happens in each of these steps is different in nearly every iteration. After every third or fourth iteration the retrospective is run as a process workshop. The process is torn up and re-captured every time with a focus on what went well, that we’d like to do more of, and what didn’t work, that we need to get better at. This allows the team to openly share ideas and improvements and try them out in a highly agile environment.

It doesn’t make people process experts but it acknowledges these so called ‘unstructured’ processes as being essential. It also gives a checkpoint and an opportunity for continuous improvement.

Innovation and collaboration

This morning BBC’s Breakfast show rounded off a week of articles about small enterprises in Britain. For the closing interview they chose the darling and poster child of British engineering and innovation Sir James Dyson. Dyson, who sounds a little like Mr Cholmondly-Warner and wouldn’t sound out of place as a 1930s BBC presenter himself, is of course the designer behind the famous Dyson vacuum cleaner, among various other household items.

What should have brought an end to the week with a stirring call to action for Britain’s front room innovators actually proved to be something of a downer. There were two points in particular that, in my opinion, Mr Dyson is wrong about and I would like to highlight those here.

Business Ownership

Firstly, when discussing getting started with an idea Dyson appeared to suggest that you should go it alone. He made the point that you may fall out with your friends or family to the detriment of the idea. While of course this is possible and clearly does happen I do not believe this is sage advice.

Businesses develop out of ideas. But ideas are not static concepts locked into a single point in time and space. Ideas evolve through collaboration, they are influenced by those people, objects and other ideas that surround them. A successful idea is one that develops to meet ever changing needs.

Great ideas, most of the time, come through collaboration. It’s difficult to impossible to pinpoint the exact time an idea came into being. Eureka moments, for example, represent a time when the missing piece of a bigger picture is discovered that brings everything together.

So if you’ve been batting an idea around with friends or colleagues, for some time, who really owns that idea? The chances are the idea that was first suggested has transformed considerably through discussion and, possibly, experimentation. In my view it’s unfair for the first person to voice an idea to claim ownership of it, without the input of others it’s likely it would have stayed still and never developed.

What’s more, entrepreneurship is not about one hit wonders, that single idea that you cling to until the end. It’s about creating the right environment and team that can continuously generate great ideas. To me, if that means going into partnership with friends or colleagues then that is a small price to pay. An effective team that generates lots of good ideas has to be better for the economy than a single good idea.


The second point I disagree with is around patents. When asked about patents, the cost and effectiveness of patents Dyson recommends that as soon as your idea has solidified then get it patented. The whole patent system is broken and out of date. If anything patents stifle innovation. Dyson even admits there are problems with enforcing the system.

In today’s commercial World, national boundaries are becoming meaningless. And yet the patent system is based on the nation state. There are international agreements in place but there is no international regime that can uphold and enforce patent infringements.

But it’s even worse than that, the World changes so fast these days that often the time it takes for a patent to be created, lodged and approved the idea is already out of date. Larger enterprises and patent trolls apply for overly vague ideas that are open to interpretation. Often discouraging smaller businesses from even daring to investigate an idea. Patents sit in the patent office files and often never reach the market. They never benefit from innovation and they certainly don’t help improve the economy.

Finally, for a small business struggling to get going with limited time and cash, taking time out of creating value in order to write a patent is waste. There are cases when the patent system can help, the right time, the right technology and the right industry. Having worried recently about this we thought hard about whether to put the time and money into a patent.

We decided to focus the time on innovation. We spend that time thinking about how we will out-innovate the competition. As I said before an idea is constantly evolving through our collaboration. If someone steals our idea it’s up to us to develop that along the most successful path. If someone else does it better than us, if they create more value for their customers and employees, then they deserve the credit.

It’s about collaboration

To me collaboration and openness leads to innovation. Sure there are gifted people out there that can rely entirely on their own skills and expertise and make the right decisions and create innovative solutions. But these people are rare, for the rest of us success comes through collaboration. If you’re thinking of starting a business and ownership of an idea is clearly yours then go for it. If not, the only way you’re going to make a success is to recognise each contributor for the value they provide.

Unfortunately the BBC do not make this TV programme available on the iplayer. A long commute puts several hours between watching the interview and writing this so I apologise if my memory has led me to misrepresent any of the ideas expressed by Sir James Dyson. I also appreciate that the interview was short which perhaps limited the context to the questions.

Our Berlin Wall

It seems the consumerization of the enterprise is over. In this article Owen Thomas, reporting that oil giant Shell is to allow its 135,000 employees to bring their own devices, declares the debate over. For him, at least, it’s no longer an interesting debate, “what’s next?” he calls.

Well let’s just hold on a second. This is, after all, a momentous occasion. Traditional beliefs and customs are tumbling down. I for one would like to stop, contemplate and enjoy this revolutionary milestone.

Approaches such as agile development and the growth of cloud based products created a two tier system. Those businesses that embraced cloud technologies got to experience freedom and a superior experience to those that were stuck using the old enterprise applications. Like East and West Germany the advancements in mobile and improved user experience became the illegal tv sets picking up western TV shows. Where those without watched enviously as those with gorged themselves on the spoils of a decadent capitalist lifestyle.

We sat at our desks looking at the depressing blue/grey of a SAP transaction while we dreamt of cute kittens on Youtube or poking long forgotten friends on Facebook. Allowing employees to bring their own mobile devices to the office seemed like a small concession to keep the masses happy. But then they began to take photos of their colleagues over lunch and published amusing edits on Flickr. Before long they were spending more and more time updating statuses (or is that statii?) and tending to their virtual farm animals.

Some even learnt how to connect these devices, against IT policy, to collect work email. They no longer needed to hide the device when the boss walked in, they could now claim to be checking the latest sales figures or sending out a contract. Like the East German police, there were pockets of resistance, some tried to stop this from happening but they soon realised the cost of doing so was unacceptable. Powerless to stop the crowd they just stepped aside and let the wall come down.

Why you should think like a hair stylist…

foilOne of the essential tools for a hair stylist is the foil strip used to separate layers of hair while dye is applied and gets to work. The foil comes in a pre-formed strip and is simply torn off at the length required.

I asked a stylist friend why she bought this rather than turkey foil? After all turkey foil can be used to cook a turkey, or any other large meat like product, and it can be cut into strips to use on hair! Turkey foil is a much more comprehensive and diverse product… Well you can imagine the look she gave me, I could see she was weighing up whether my question even deserved an answer or not, in the end she simply said:

Cutting foil into strips takes time and time is money!

It’s a pretty obvious assessment and yet we confuse the convenience of hair foil over the flexibility of turkey foil all the time when choosing tools to help us in business. One example of this is in the field of user interface/experience design:

Wireframing tools make the process of creating an app or website fundamentally easier, by visually stripping the product down and allowing all involved to focus purely on functions and user interactivity.

You can read about the plethora of wireframing products available here on the Creative BloqSome of the tools listed do exactly as described while others, such as Microsoft’s Visio, go much further allowing you to model everything from the layout of your new kitchen, business processes to creating realistic looking mockups of Windows apps.

My favorite product on the list is balsamiq, it’s simple, it’s specifically for wireframing and doesn’t do anything else. It’s like the hair foil to Microsoft Visio’s turkey foil. Working with customers and stakeholders I can use balsamiq to mockup hypothetical applications and features, in minutes, live in the meeting. We can alter, update and deconstruct while we discuss the pros and cons of each approach. While I can’t create a seating plan for a wedding, as I can with Visio, I simply couldn’t use Visio to create mockups live in this way, it’s too clunky for that.

And the same is true for many of the different types of model you can create in Visio, there are very often more specific tools for the job, tools that make it faster and easier to create and add more value. But this doesn’t make Visio, or other similar comprehensive tools, bad it just means you have to consider your use case and whether it matches the features of the tool.

If you’re doing lots of wireframing consider a product like balsamiq, it will save you a lot of time. But if you’re only going to create one or two mockups and you may also need to model a business process at some point and maybe a UML diagram  in the future then you’re probably better off investing in Visio.

My wife is not a stylist but she does, every now and then, put color in her own hair and for this she needs strips of foil. But she never uses enough to justify buying a specialist product, instead she cuts strips of turkey foil as we always have it in the cupboard for cooking!

Want to improve loyalty? improve the experience

I’m told that customer loyalty is the new battle ground for the retail industry. New predictive technologies allow your favorite retailer to send you updates and offers before you even need them. They will know when you’re in or near a store and update you accordingly with latest offers so you have an irresistible desire to go into the shop and part with your cash for something you don’t need.

I find it all a bit creepy.

Last weekend I was doing my ‘weekly’ and got talking to the Computer Science undergrad working the checkout. It seems we had a lot of interests in common. Anyway he pointed out the new system being installed to help reduce queues at checkout.

Asda, Walmart’s UK supermarket chain, have always been a no frills supermarket. No loyalty program, large out of town stores, extensive product range and consistently low prices, the last of which is what brings us back here most weeks. The length of time we spend waiting to checkout is testament to the fact many others agree.

Well over the last 2 years the innovation guys at Asda have been doing something about that. Their new system, Queue Clarity, tracks the number of shoppers entering the store, how long they take to fill their trolleys and predict how many checkouts they need open before the queues start to form. They’re improving the shopping experience, making it easier for me to get in there, get what I want and get out again as painlessly as possible. And no need for me to signup to a loyalty program, no concerns about what they are doing with my data and who they are selling it to.

ps. I don’t shop online, I prefer to choose my own fresh groceries and I like to go to the store for inspiration for the next week’s meals.

Will we ever learn…

…to recognize the signs of change early enough to respond adequately? Probably not…

In a recent post Ian Gotts highlighted again the now well understood changes, to traditional business models, in publishing from print media to music and films. As everyone in the tech industry knows everything is different, the pace of change is so rapid that your business model can disappear virtually overnight without any apparent warning. We’ve seen it happen so often now we’re sure to see it coming when it affects us.

Is that really the case? Are we kidding ourselves while we choose to ignore the warning signs and desperately hang on to the past?

The dark economy

This year the value of Bitcoins spiked at an all time high against the US Dollar. The virtual currency is used to trade goods and services over the internet with a growing number of well known organizations adopting it as a payment method.

But Bitcoins are unlike traditional currencies, they are not centrally managed by national banks, they are untracable (making them popular for trading illegal goods and services) and they are finite ( The structure of the system is fundamentally different from the currency systems that dominate trade today. In other words it has good disruption credentials and the evidence shows that it is being adopted.

And this is where we seem to be making the same mistakes. Edward Castronova, a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University Bloomington was quoted in The Guardian

It [Bitcoins] just isn’t very fun. We’ve learned from game currencies that people like a little inflation in their economies. But Bitcoin is built to deflate. And we’ve just seen, culturally, people don’t like deflation.

That may be true but it would be easy for those reliant on the status quo to take this as evidence that they can safely ignore it. When the internet began to change the way we consumed music some people noted that Vinyl, cassete tapes or CDs hadn’t destroyed the radio.

The warning signs are there, Bitcoins already fuel a thriving underground economy and as usual governments, and other large organizations, are late to the party. Already on the back foot these organizations will once again be playing catchup on a rapidly changing business model. It seems we never learn to heed the signs of change until it’s too late for those most affected.