My Taylor Story – Thanks Ben

I’ve been playing guitar since I was about 12 (around forty years) and have owned quite a few guitars in that time. Everything from second-hand acoustics with warped necks and worn-out varnish, budget acoustics with actions so high they would (literally) make your fingers bleed, and budget electrics. I’ve never had a really high-end guitar before so a couple of years ago, after neglecting my solid-body electric for literally months at a time, I decided I wanted to re-discover my passion for playing again.

I knew it had to be an electro-acoustic and so I started researching Martins and similarly priced models. Taylor guitars were not on my road map until I was telling my sister of my planned purchase and her well-informed son Ben (also a guitar player) asked me what my budget was. When I told him he said, ‘you’re in Taylor territory there’ which planted the name in my head.

Some months later I ventured to a decent city-centre guitar store with my old Yamaha AES620 in tow hoping for a px deal. In my mind, I was coming home with a Martin GPCPA5. This was the guitar I had researched and it sounded like just what I wanted.

On entering the store I handed over my old Yamaha and said what I was looking for. The Martin was duly delivered and I was shown a soundproof booth where I could let rip. My technique was pretty poor with such a lack of practice so I was glad nobody else could hear. The Martin felt nice, sounded nice plugged and unplugged but it didn’t wow me in the way I expected. The assistant asked how I was getting on and offered me a few comparisons. Sure I said, recalling my nephew’s words, do you have any comparable Taylors?

I was handed a Taylor 314ce. Sitka and rose wood with a matt finish on the sides and back which I immediately liked. I struck a chord and the tone rang like a bell, a really bright but well-balanced tone. I played the Martin again which sounded dull and flat in comparison, to my ear at least.

Next I tried a Gibson, probably the most uncomfortable acoustic guitar I have ever tried to play and so quickly rejected it. After a few more contenders I was brought a Martin in all mahogany which had a sweet deep tone. Nice I said, enquiring the price, £3,500 came the reply. Take it away I said, but even at a much lower price point the Taylor was still drawing me back.

What decided it for me was not only the brilliant deal I was offered but also the versatility of the 314. Strummed, flat picked, finger picked and even playing classical that really belongs on a nylon guitar, this one instrument could do it all. I also loved the expression system.

So the deal was done and since purchasing I’ve played guitar more than I have in far too long, mastering and re-mastering pieces that I thought I would never play correctly again. The guitar makes me smile every time I open the case, it’s a joy to play and to record with via the ES2.

Buying a Taylor is like joining a family, once you become a member I doubt you’ll ever want to leave. I’d certainly love to add a few more to my collection. The more you find out about Taylor as a company, the stronger the loyalty you feel (well I do anyway). I remain grateful to my younger and better-informed nephew for bringing me to this wonderful brand. As the title of this post says: ‘Thanks Ben’

All Change – Here’s To New Challenges

On 1st July 2016 Andrew Ball Consulting Ltd ceased trading. The company will still be around until I close it down formally next April but after over four years as being my business it’s time to close the door and move on.

I’m returning to the salaried sector in a permanent role with Capgemini which gives me the scope to move away from requirements and analysis back into the project and programme management space. PPM is in my heart, it’s the first job (along with IT) I had that I loved and I’m delighted to have to opportunity to do more of it.

So it’s goodbye to contracting – it’s been great and hello PAYE. I’ll certainly miss the freedom but the uncertainty and the administration perhaps not so much.

In many ways this is the perfect time to make this switch and I’m really looking forward to the future.

Online Conducting and Losing Control with #PMChat

Sometimes you have to let go, take a risk and lose control in order to grow and learn. Running an online Twitter conversation is a surprising way to stretch your ability in this respect.

I’ve given quite a few presentations in my career. I don’t consider myself the most natural or gifted speaker but I generally got a good reaction. This, in almost every case, was down to detailed planning and preparation. A lot of time and effort perfecting slides, scripting the commentary and rehearsing the timings.

I quite enjoyed the presenting part because I was in almost complete control – real comfort territory for a classic introvert like me. The bit I disliked was the question and answer session at the end: now I’m not in control, I’m busking furiously and miles out of my comfort zone. However you need to stretch yourself in order to grow and learn, you do more Q&A and you skill up – becoming more accomplished as you gain experience.

So having recently enjoyed regular contributions to the excellent weekly #PMChat Twitter discussions, the opportunity presented itself to run a session as guest host. I had watched others do it and secretly thought, I could do that and eventually I put my name forward. The host gets to choose the topic so I selected project audit. Something I am experienced in, qualified in and have a fair few opinions on. Back in control and on my own territory.

I carefully drafted my questions and even prepared a short lead-in video just to try and raise interest. Once again, classic attempts to try and set the agenda and to be in control. As the date approached, the usual #PMChat marketing machine kicked in and lots of people started to pick up on my video and tweet about it – no pressure – who was I kidding.

So the big day arrives and around an hour before kick off, a regular contributor messages me in the spirit of ‘full disclosure’ to tell me that project audit was the subject of her PhD dissertation that had just gone to the publishers! Still, too late now so I decide to treat it as a positive and before I know it we’re off and running.

Q1 gets some good early answers and so I pitch Q2 as the debate warms up. I feel like a conductor at the head of an orchestra. A retweet here, a favourite there, a quick response of my own – encouraging the flautists who are being drowned out by the horn section. By Q3 my running order is shot and I jump to question six, trying to remember to re-number it before posting. At Q5 I’ve completely lost count ‘you’re all doing great’ I shout above the frenzy as I try and retrace my steps.

My orchestra knows the tune by now however and are making beautiful music, I can only sit back and briefly admire the quality of the responses and intellectual insight before realising that I’m supposed to be in charge and another question is called for.  A spammer rocks up at this point up to try and spoil the party but they are quickly and unceremoniously dismissed by a couple of the regulars with a little help from me.

We even manage to crack a few jokes and my ‘PhD’ contributor was a brilliant foil for my questions and we found an immense amount of common ground. The quality of debate and depth of insight from everyone who took part was more than I had dared to hope for.

In the end I fire off nine questions in all and end up after an hour with 80 odd Twitter interactions, three new LinkedIn connections and an incredible feeling of euphoria and achievement. I’m mentally and physically exhausted but had the most incredible time.

Sometimes you need to lose control and take yourself out of your comfort zone. It can really pay dividends. I’d like to thank everyone in the #PMChat community for taking part and making it such a brilliant session. If you’d like to find out more or even have a go yourself – check out www.pmchat.net for more information.

Ding Ding – It’s Time for #PMChat

#PMChat is a great space that happens every (well most every) Friday on Twitter at around 5pm GMT, or 12:00pm if you’re on EST. It’s global and folks log in from all corners of the globe.

Each week there’s a topic and a host and guest hosts are positively encouraged.

So the thing about this week – it’s my turn to guest host!

I’m really excited about doing this and have not done anything similar before so to say I’m a little apprehensive would be understating things somewhat. However the regulars are a friendly bunch so I’m hoping they’ll have lots to contribute to my chosen topic which is…

Well why not watch the video to find out more:

I’m hoping to get a wide range of views and experiences that I can draw on in a future blog post on this topic.

So I have my questions ready and I’m all set (I think)

See you on the 19th for another round of #PMChat

Wish me luck!

The DAWK Principle

I first came across the DAWK Principle on a PRINCE2 Practitioner course over fifteen years ago when the course leader announced we would be following the DAWK Principle (pronounced d-o-r-k) as part of the study approach and he assumed we were all familiar with it.

Of course we all thought it was a joke based around the word ‘dork’ and a new take on the ‘no such thing as a stupid question’ mantra you often get on such courses. Turns out however it is an acronym and stands for something else:

Don’t Ask Won’t Know

It is a reticence to ask questions and be inquisitive that so often stifles our progress and makes us look like chumps. I recently observed a mother with her two children in a waiting area where I was sat: a girl around eight I would guess and boy probably approaching two.

They had a picture book and the boy was pointing at things repeating the same question over and over again – ‘whatsat’.

The answers kept coming at first but after just a few minutes the mother and elder child’s enthusiasm for this game was visibly waning. It’s often said that you spend the first year of your child’s life teaching them to talk and the next 17 telling them to shut up!

Who was it said:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Often dubiously attributed to Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln but actually this gem first appeared in the Book of Proverbs 17:28

One of the ways we learn is by asking questions – when we’re only two we don’t worry about looking stupid – we don’t know what we don’t know so we just keep on asking ‘what’, swiftly followed by ‘why’.

It doesn’t take long however before self-consciousness kicks in and especially in peer environments like schools and classrooms. When I was at ‘big’ school it was definitely considered cool to look thick, stay mute and be awarded multiple detentions for missing or poor homework. Schools still struggle to overcome this reticence to ask questions today but I’m pleased to report that the science of learning has advanced massively since 1973!

Asking questions however is a professional skill that we all need to learn. Nobody can know everything and better to clarify your understanding than make a flawed decision. When elicting requirements and understanding acceptance and assessment criteria, this is a particularly critical skill.

In a former life as an IT auditor I often used to run facilitated workshops and came up with an idea for an ice-breaker to cover exactly this skill set as part of improving project and programme communications in organisations.

Delegates were split into small teams and supplied with blank sheets of A4 paper. One nominated delegate from each team was asked to join me in a room where they were each given the written instructions to make a paper plane. They were told they could read the instructions to other colleagues but were not allowed to show them the instructions, give a practical demonstration or practically assist – instruction must be verbal only.

Each team had five minutes to make a plane each (except for the person instructing), choose the ‘best one’ and hand it in endorsing the plane with a name. Teams were told that we would ‘assess’ the planes and award a prize to the winner.

Once the planes are handed in, we noted the names of each plane and attempted to fly them. After this we asked the teams what they thought the assessment criteria were.

Typical answers included:

  • Longest flight
  • Straightest flight
  • Most neatly folded
  • First to finish

The actual assessment criteria was – the most amusing and orignal name – people looked pretty crestfallen on being told:

‘you could have handed in a plain sheet of paper with the best name on and saved yourself a lot of effort.’

Typical team  effort was around 90% of time spent making the plane and 10% selecting a name.

The interesting dynamic here is that had anyone asked us what the assessment criteria was – we would have told them. Which opens up a further interesting dilemma as to whether the team ‘in the know’ chose to share that information with other teams.

However – nobody – ever asked

The upside was they all learned how to make a great paper plane!

The lesson here is – remember the DAWK Principle – always find out what you are being measured against before you start work. You could save yourself an awful lot of time and trouble…

If you would like to download the instructions in full for this ice-breaker,  use the links below that will enable you the relevant MS Word and MS PowerPoint files:

Making a Classic Glider

Ice Breaker

IT Security – Organisations Really Must Do Better Than This

It seems that every week brings with it a new headline about a security breach. Lame duck CEOs, badly briefed, lurch helplessly on camera from one mumbled apology to the next whilst trying to remember all the things their lawyers told them not to say.

Meanwhile those of us who so far have escaped the hackers wait to see if we might be next. While targeting services aimed at adults for financial gain is pretty low, particularly when the elderly and vulnerable are so often scammed as a result; I am truly appalled by a hack targeting services aimed at children and children of preschool/ primary age at that.

This hack is nasty, pernicious and damaging on several levels.

This is data about kids, every data owner should do their utmost to protect the data they hold but with childrens’ data they should be at the very top of their game. I can only quote the words of Rik Ferguson from Trend Micro:

“It is unforgivable, for a technology company making products for children. They had an enormous duty of care and they failed.”

I can only guess at the motives of the hacker given that no financial details appear to have been stolen, but that doesn’t mean money was not the motive. One hopes it was financially motivated or just a script kiddie trying to prove their ‘credentials’. Please let it be the case that the market sector of the target organisation was no more than an unfortunate coincidence.

Parents are rightly cautious about Internet access for very young children but devices are ubiquitous and peer pressure to join in can be overwhelming. So enter Vtech – who wrap the Internet in a child-friendly and brightly-coloured bubble – which makes it seem safe and secure – a virtual play pen if you like. Parents are only too ready to buy into that.

Kids need the Internet, they need to understand the opportunities and learning it presents as well as the risks. As they get older and mature, their online voice will be as important as their physical voice. Many parents will be asking themselves some hard questions after the Vtech breach and the decisions they take may damage what until now has seemed like a relatively safe way to open a window on the Web to young minds; that is why the hack is so damaging.

As for Vtech, assuming what I have read is correct, their information security was woefully inadequate. When you store sensitive data like passwords you secure them by encryption. This obfuscates the true value of that password. Now not all encryption is built the same, the complexity and security can vary enormously.

Vtech used a hashing algorithm known in the trade as MD5 (MD is short for Message Digest in case you were wondering). MD5 was invented way back in 1991 – when even I had a full head of hair and my kids (now 18 and 21) were not even thought of less still on the planet! So it’s old – very old.

Encryption technology is like a dog – it ages ten years for every one human year so we are talking ancient here.

MD5 takes a string value like a password and turns it into a 32 bit hexadecimal string of gibberish (hex is base 16 which uses the numbers 0-9 and the characters ABCDEF). No matter how long the input string, applying the hash always produces a 32-bit hex string.

So how does it work? Lets encrypt everyone’s favourite password:

Password + MD5 = dc647eb65e6711e155375218212b3964

which is different to:

password + MD5 = 5f4dcc3b5aa765d61d8327deb882cf99

Notice how dissimilar the hash values are, even though the only difference between the input strings is the capitalisation of the letter P.

You may think that looks pretty secure and back in 1991 many other people thought so too – but MD5 was compromised within just two years of its invention. Using such an ancient and flawed algorithm was Vtech’s first fatal mistake.

Their second fatal mistake, was failing to ‘salt’ the hash. Salting, in cryptographic parlance means adding a (usually) random string to a value which makes the output string unique.

If multiple users happen to share the same password for a site (a more common occurence than you might imagine), the resulting hash value would be the same. However if the hash is salted – our passwords may be the same but the hashed value will be different. This makes a password attack by a hacker much more difficult.

You would imagine that a technology company, targeting children would at least be using up to date hash algorithms (like SHA-2) and best practice security to protect customer data.

However there’s the ‘and finally’. For their final fall from grace, Vtech stored customers’ security questions and answers in plain text. You know the kind of thing: name of your first pet, first school, mother’s maiden name and so on. This type of data is reused by people on many sites – you only had one Mother after all and she only had one maiden name!

To be honest, as an IT professional, I’m struggling here to comprehend the scale of the incompetence. As the title of this post says, organisations – and my profession – can and must do significantly better than this.

Arrogance or Incompetence?

Have you upgraded to Windows 10 yet or are you still thinking about it?

For those of us brave (or stupid) enough to make the switch, November 2015 was quite important – because Microsoft released what used to be known as a Service Pack.

The first Service Pack of a new OS is the one that many users wait for – it’s a sign that things have finally moved out of Beta and into a General Release. 😉

You can tell when a MS update is a Service Pack in three ways:

  • It’s a whacking great download (3Gb in this case).
  • It takes a long time to install.
  • When it starts up for the first time after install, the screens and messages look very much like the original set up routine.

However Microsoft aren’t calling this a Service Pack, oh no. It’s called “1511”, “Threshold” or “TH2”. It is, in essence, a completely re-engineered version of the OS.

I’m guessing 1511 was named after the release date, or possibly the collective IQ of Microsoft’s Test and Assurance Team (assuming there are more than twenty of them).

The update has lots of cool updates I am sure – mainly to Cortana which is just one of the many new ‘features’ I instantly disabled as soon as I upgraded. It will also incorpoorate security fixes and updates – so I’m of the view that it’s generally better to be patched than not patched.

However, the update has some other hidden features Microsoft omitted to mention. If you use any of the following software:

  • CPU-Z;
  • CPUID;
  • CCleaner;
  • SmartFTP;
  • Avira Antivir Security;
  • Novell client;
  • Cisco VPN client;
  • NetGear Genie; and
  • ESET AntiVirus.

Then you might be in for a surprise when you next come to use them.

These are the ones reported so far that the TH2 will uninstall – silently in the background – without warning and without asking permission.

Arrogance or incompetence?

Now it may be that some or all of these have known compatibility issues – in which case what you do is publish this information to your users. This needs to be upfront and IN YOUR FACE before you even download the upgrade; let alone run it.

You might also give a screen warning when the update executes – giving the user the chance to cancel and requiring active confirmation by the user that they wish to continue.

Really good code might even scan for the existence of these applications to customise the warning message for your device.

Doing this without warning and without permission is not acceptable – whether by design or accident – either way it’s supreme arrogance or unbelievable incompetence.

Some of the above apps are free and some are or have paid-for versions. I run CCleaner Pro and I was not best pleased to find it unceremoniously dumped off my system without my consent!

So what do Microsoft have to say about this – well check out the T&Cs for this nugget:

“This is part of the Services agreement and thus should be expected by the user.”

And there’s more…

“The Microsoft Services Agreement allows Microsoft to change or discontinue certain apps or content where we deem your security is at risk.”

Security eh – I think defining CCleaner as a security risk is stretching it.

In fact the apps are not deleted – they are removed and saved in the C:\Windows.old folder. So as well as deleting apps it doesn’t like – what else does it do:

  • Well you might find a few default programs you have changed have been reset.
  • You might find drivers you have updated manually have been overwritten with older (or newer) versions.
  • You might find some of your peripherals no longer work as they should (my scanner being one example).
  • Some video and telemetry settings may also have been reset.

And finally, re-check all those privacy settings you disabled in case some have been inadvertently switched back on.

As this kind of full update is the intended MO Microsoft have announced, expect more of this kind of behaviour. If like me, you’re not particularly impressed then get on line, vent your spleen, email or tweet Microsoft and let them know that their user community doesn’t like underhand behaviour and a lack of transparency.

As for Microsoft, you need to learn that – in this case – it’s better to ask for permission instead of forgiveness.

So Why Blog?

I have three primary reasons for blogging:

  1. It’s one of the best ways I can meet CPD requirements for professional qualifications that require me to spend a minimum number of hours contributing to the profession. Contracting makes attendance at CPD events like conferences and professional away days difficult; writing articles is a great alternative to gain credits.
  2. It’s a great way to keep in touch with my network and remind people that I’m still around. If they choose to read and comment on my posts, so much the better. I like the interaction and discussion some posts generate.
  3. I actually enjoy writing and crafting articles. It’s very therapeutic and it is fascinating to see which articles get a reaction and which do not. I am consistently surprised by the ones that generate the most reaction – it is never the ones I predict. Working out why that is will, I hope, make me a better writer given time.

There’s another reason though, if you’ve read any CVs lately you’ll know how few differentiators there are. My writing helps me project a little of my personality. I write about things I care about and try to reflect on things that get me out of bed in a morning as well as those that (sometimes) keep me awake at night.

Hopefully any potential client or employer can get some insight into what makes me tick and whether we’re going to work well together – that way we can both save each other a lot of expense, time and effort.

So have you started blogging yet, if so what’s your motivation and if not what’s stopping you? If you’re reading this and haven’t started then why not give it a go? You’ll find you have more to say than you think and you’ll find it both a positive and rewarding experience.

Why I’ve Gone Off the Internet (a bit)

Surfing the web used to be quite an enjoyable way to pass some time. Lots of new stuff cropping up here there and everywhere. At first I was very much a consumer – other people were making content and I was reading it.

Building websites (not to mention getting them hosted) was rather technical and could be a frustrating process. However, perseverance brought immense satisfaction at seeing your work ‘in print’ so to speak.

Enter easy to use hosted platforms like Blogger and WordPress, not to mention Facebook and suddenly everyone was creating content – lots of it. The web wasn’t yet really that commercial; much of the content was good and it was free but the number of cat pictures and video was beginning to increase alarmingly. 😉

Making connections and building networks became simple and people have built careers making sense of the web and how it can be exploited. But there it is, the ‘e’ word – exploitation. The web is a marketer’s dream and the marketeers have turned the surfing experience into some kind of living Hell. Every time I go on line now I find I am hit with one or more of my pet hates – here’s my top ten (in no particular order):

1. Pay Walls

I have no objection really to news providers and content generators charging for their content – after all if I wanted a newspaper I would pay for it and why shouldn’t they monetise their IP. The problem is links to articles on Twitter, LinkedIn etc (often shortened) that look interesting will take me to the FT, the Telegraph or the Times and then what do I hit – a Pay Wall. If I’m not subscribed then I can’t see the article so I have wasted my time. Pay walled links should be flagged so I know it’s  behind a pay wall before I click it.

2. Register to Download Our Latest White Paper

Again, it’s good marketing sense to build up a list of potential customers who visit your website – why wouldn’t you? I’ll tell you why, because it pisses me and countless others off no end. Don’t force me to register so I can get a copy of your white paper. Publish your white paper and make it so good that I actually want to register and make sure I don’t miss any future content; a subtle but important difference. Think of it like fishing – if all you put in the water is a hook bait you won’t catch much. You need to throw in a few regular freebies to get the fish interested. I’m much the same – feed me first – then offer me the hook! However make sure the freebies are as good as the hook bait and not some inferior crap or I will swiftly learn to ‘feed’ elsewhere.

3. Interstitial and in-text Link Advertisements in Articles

Try and find a product review or read on line publications and there you are scrolling down an article reading away when you just catch one of those words that has a mouse-over trigger and up pops a video that starts playing away completely distracting you. Most of this text is visible to be fair but articles like this will make me shut down a web page faster than a teenage boy who’s Mom just walked in the room! This to me is barely one up from malware, stop it now.

4. Breaking Conventions

So I’m happily browsing away and up pops an ad, or some other irritating content I don’t want and so I look top right of the window for the X to close it. However there’s a problem, it’s not there. It has moved: bottom left or top left or maybe been grayed out so it’s barely discernible. Naughty that, come on play nice and stick to the rules.

5 Inflating Your Profile Views and Activity Ratings

Posts on Linkedin are the worst for this:

“Look at this grid and post the first word you see.”

This and similar nauseating puzzles are just sad and pathetic attempts to increase profile views and activity rankings. As if these numbers ever mattered in the first place – social and professional networking is about quality not quantity. If you have nothing of value to say, they don’t say it.

6 Click Bait

When did you not see the likes of this on LinkedIn recently:

“Want 500 free emoji or 1000 clip art images – just leave your email address in the comment below.”

Wow man, so kind, thanks for sharing, email me at sucker@ilovespam.com or open.toallmalware@infected.com

I mean really – do I have to explain?

7. Advertorials

Defined as an advertisement in the form of editorial content. Again LinkedIn is the prime target here. Some of the Pulse and other articles I read on LinkedIn are well-crafted and thought-provoking pieces of writing into which people have put considerable effort. Others aren’t, they may as well just say ‘Buy My Stuff – It’s Great’ in large letters.

“Buy My Stuff – It’s Great”

I have no problem with people advertising their products and services but please don’t pretend you’re not advertising when you really are. That’s basically dishonest and will make me far less likely to buy from you or engage with your content and brand.

8. Chat Now

Offering me a chat experience with a customer service operative who probably can’t breathe unless they are given a script to follow that tells them how to do it is not my idea of great customer service. Publish your email address and phone numbers, have a well-manned Twitter channel, employ some ‘real people’ and answer the bloody phone within a reasonable wait time (by reasonable I mean not exceeding five minutes). That is what good customer service looks like.

9. Fancy a Cookie?

OK hands up – my website does this too – although I tried to use the most subtle plug-in I could find. They all do it – and why – because of the wretched EU cookie law – one of the worst pieces of legislation to come out of Europe ever. Although the ICO in the UK has now removed the requirement for explicit consent, this lunatic legislation continues to cause misery for web users and web designers – especially those working with mobile devices. There really must be a better way to manage consent then an ugly pop up or sidebar that craps all over your web design like an unwelcome seagull.

10. Twitter Freaks

Random people (or bots – who knows) that crop up from nowhere on Twitter to follow me. All manner of exotic creatures and people I’ve never heard of adding me to lists I have no wish to be on without asking my permission. It’s a tiresome game of cat and mouse, blocking the bots and the nutters – I should probably take a more relaxed all-comers-welcome approach but that’s never going to happen.

It can’t just be me, what are your pet hates when using the web and what tips do you have to avoid or nullify them. Share please.

The Whiteboard Challenge

Ever sat in a meeting a workshop and had that sinking feeling as yet again you end up having circular debates without getting to the heart of the issue. Sitting there watching the facilitator fail to control neither the discussion nor those taking part can be a desperate experience.

Sometimes you just have to intervene and one of the very best ways to do it – without appearing to ‘take over’ or undermine the facilitator – is to take up the whiteboard challenge. You can always pitch this as wanting to clarify your understanding – certainly likely to be better received than if you pitch it as you having the answer; although I’ve seen this work too.

You really don’t have to be a brilliant artist to sketch up a few ideas. A simple matrix, table, process flow – whatever schematic fits the problem will be fine. There are no rules for this – the objective is to break the current cycle, switch the focus and throw some new perspective onto the debate. In some organisations, you’ll find this culture is pretty well established so you might find yourself competing for the pens!

“Learn a lesson from your IT architects: always have your own personal set of whiteboard pens handy!”

Even if your intervention is rejected and ultimately dismissed by other delegates – you will have succeeded  (hopefully) in refocusing the discussion and moving the meeting on towards a better conclusion.

So next time you find yourself in a meeting and frustrated by a lack of progress, grab a whiteboard pen and start drawing – you might just turn a potential waste of time into something that delivers some real value for all those attending and the organisation.

The Art of Spending Public Money Wisely

Have you seen this slide deck, presented recently at Civil Service Live by the UK National Audit Office?

http://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/The-art-of-spending-public-money-wisely.pdf

If not and you work in UK public sector then I urge you to read it. This really is a very good deck, actually scratch that – it’s a great deck – that draws on a lot of learning from public sector audit. The following extracted slide really resonated with me and says it all really:

Civil servants may be reluctant to highlight unrealistic timescales or the need for further pilots and planning as they want to be seen as ‘can do’.

This can generate pressure to hurry the implementation of reforms and projects.

However, sustainable changes to public services needs a strategic perspective, careful planning and sound implementation.

If a department can only move at a slow pace, it can be detrimental to value for money to pretend otherwise.

A department may also only be able to take on so much change at once.

There is no deliberate resistance but there is unacknowledged reality.

Is anybody in Government and the senior ranks of the Civil Service listening and taking any notice? Contrary to myth and legend, the Civil Service is not a machine. It’s staffed by regular folks – like you and me – the people who run it can and must drive change and reform. They need to start telling it like it is and the politicians – as sponsors – need to start bloody listening!

Unless the people who run and sponsor the Service initiate change: there will be no change.

For those that aren’t listening or won’t listen, buckets of sand are available on request!

 

Who’d Be A Mentor

MentoringThis week’s #pmchat was on the topic of mentoring, mainly – but not entirely – focused on project management. As someone who has been through a formal mentoring scheme – I thought I would share my experience. So if you are wondering what all the fuss is about – read on – this may help you decide whether mentoring is for you.

The title of this post reads rather negatively I think – it’s not meant to read that way and suggests mentoring might be hard work. Well the bad news is that it does require real effort. In my experience – as a mentor – this is not something you take on lightly and it is a commitment you should give some serious thought to.

There are lots of ways to mentor – many organisations run organised schemes and this is how I was first introduced to it. Many alumni organisations in universities are using alumni as student mentors and there are also opportunities in the third sector so if you’re looking to get involved there should be no shortage of opportunities.

When I signed up for a work scheme, I had to document my reasons for wanting to be a mentor and that in itself is quite an interesting process of self-reflection. For my scheme, the mentees documented what they were looking for and the matching was done by the scheme administrators. I’m not entirely sure about this ‘facilitated dating’ scheme because you are presented with quite a narrow list of potential matches. That said, there is no obligation and the scheme admins should be qualified and skilled at what they do. The aim of my scheme was to focus on difference to stretch both mentee and mentor – too much common ground is not necessarily a good starting place so be prepared to think laterally and open your mind.

Too much common ground is not necessarily a good starting place so be prepared to think laterally and open your mind.

I was offered two mentees, both women as it happened, one I knew slightly (worked in the same office location as me) and the other worked in a different office. I got in touch with both for an initial discussion or ‘first date’; one was face to face and the other was conducted by phone. My ‘phone date’ did not go so well, it was the mentee’s choice not to meet face to face and this definitely put us both at a disadvantage. I didn’t feel a connection and in particular I didn’t feel this candidate had a firm fix on what they were looking to achieve from a mentoring relationship with me and I felt that was not a great position to start from. So I turned this mentee down (I don’t know, because I never found out, but suspect she also rejected me as a potential mentor). My other ‘first date’ was much better. The mentee in question was actually in a wheelchair due to a disability. She had a very clear vision for what she wanted from a mentoring relationship, we hit it off immediately and shared a similar sense of humour. My only reservation was – could I deliver anything close to her expectations. However we decided to proceed and had a mentoring relationship for around a year.

My ‘phone date’ did not go well, it was the mentee’s choice not to meet face to face and this definitely put us both at a disadvantage.

On formal schemes there is quite a lot of support and coaching to go through, knowing what to ask, how to ask it and when is a key skill set. You do need to learn not to dive in, how to stand back and how to ask lots of reflective questions rather than solving the problem. As a male and IT professional – for whom logic is a way of life – resisting the temptation to solve the problem being discussed was almost impossible to resist!

As a male and IT professional – for whom logic is a way of life – resisting the temptation to solve the problem being discussed was almost impossible to resist!

At first, mentoring is exciting and hugely motivating – your mentee will often have a lot to say and you will have much to absorb and reflect on. Steering, guiding and helping your mentee explore alternative options and to consider their situation from a range of perspectives should be your focus. Preparing well for meetings is really important and managing confidences is absolutely critical. If you’re not hearing things that should never go beyond the two of you then my feeling is that you’re probably not being sufficently challenging or open with each other.

Managing confidences is abslutely critical. If you’re not hearing things that should never go beyond the two of you then my feeling is that you’re probably not being sufficently challenging or open with each other.

Documentation is also critical, learning reviews for you both are important to reflect on because don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is a one-way exchange programme. For one, being the mentor doesn’t give you a monopoly on intelligence. Assuming you cannot learn and develop from interactions with your mentee is supremely arrogant and if you feel that way I would question your suitability as a mentor.

Being the mentor doesn’t give you a monopoly on intelligence. Assuming you cannot learn and develop from interactions with your mentee is supremely arrogant and if you feel that way I would question your suitability as a mentor.

As your relationship develops you will find yourself slipping into comfortable habits and it’s important to make sure you continue to challenge and not let the mentoring sessions lapse into general catch ups. Equally you may hear things that make you want to intervene with line managers and your mentee’s colleagues – this is difficult territory and your scheme advisors can be a useful guide on how to manage this. Your role is to support your mentee in resolving issues themselves, not to fight their battles for them. Always tread with care in this space.

Most mentoring programmes run over a fixed period (mine was a year) but you can’t just walk away from something that intense and sever all connections. My mentee and I continued to correspond over the following months and we’re still in touch (although less often than we were and that’s how it should be in my view). Eventually you should both move on; staying in touch on professional networks is a great way to maintain the relationship at a level both of you feel comfortable with.

Eventually you should both move on; staying in touch on professional networks is a great way to maintain the relationship at a level both of you feel comfortable with.

If you’re considering mentoring I would definitely recommend finding out more about it and seeing if your work place or your alma mater run a scheme. I found it to be both a rewarding and enriching experience.

Eight Reasons To Say ‘No’ to a CPO

What’s a CPO – a Chief Projects Officer.

Think CIO or CTO – a C-level exec role with portfolio responsibility for Information, Technology or – in this case – Project Delivery.

This came up today on the excellent weekly #PMChat Twitter discussion group (every Friday at 17:00 GMT if you fancy joining in) and I immediately balked at this suggestion. So what’s my objection to having my voice as a PM heard on the Board. Sit back, strap in and and I’ll tell you!

1 – Span of Control – one CPO cannot possibly hope to have anything other than a superficial grasp on the breadth of projects across an organisation and less still assess their impact from a value perspective. This surrogate Super Product Owner or Super Senior User role (to borrow from Agile and PRINCE2) is being set up to fail.

2 – Paint Me a Target – this job should come with a uniform – a free tee shirt with a target painted on the back. All of the things that BAU Managers loathe about projects will fall on the shoulders of one person.

  • cherry picking all the best resources;
  • disruption to BAU;
  • overrun and delay;
  • raiding operational budgets; and
  • over-estimated benefits.

You name it, the arrows will fly and watch the other C-level execs happily keep their heads down, delighted to have a new stooge on the Board or even join in the fray.

3 – Sloping Shoulder Syndrome – it’s hard enough to get good Board level sponsorship for projects. Now at last, here’s the perfect excuse to make that someone else’s problem and hand it over to the new fall guy. The answer is to make the existing Board members do they job they are paid to do, not to give the reponsibility to somebody else!

4 – Governance Over Delivery – appoint a CPO and what you’ll almost certainly get is a focus on governance. Better compliance with methods, templates and standards and probably not much else. Why, because improving governance is easy and improving delivery is bloody difficult! You will improve delivery a bit by improving compliance; you’ll certainly improve your audit scores (which says a lot about some of the crimes committed in the name of audit that often pass for PM governance checks).

5 – Them and Us – the idea that you can bring projects closer to the business by taking away their executive accountability is about as mad as it gets. I once worked with a Product Owner who pitched up to our Scrum of Scrums meeting on a complex and politically sensitive project and proudly stated

At the end of the day, it’s my arse hanging out ‘the window if you lot don’t deliver!

He really meant it and he absolutely understood his project and his business inside out and he had a direct interest in its successful delivery. Are you telling me you’ll get the same sponsorship from a CPO – sorry but I just don’t buy it.

6 – Symptoms over Cause – any organisation identifying the need for a CPO has got problems but the dysfunction runs deep and won’t be cured by appointing a new Board member as  a troubleshooter. This is real sticking plaster mentality to treat a broken leg.

7 – No Debate – healthy debate between sponsors to agree a balanced project portfolio for the organisation is far from a perfect ritual. Some Execs are better than others at arguing their cases and getting their pet projects through but at least there is a debate. With a CPO pitching the projects for consideration it is one person’s view and although there will still be debate; a skilled CPO will more often than not achieve backing for the projects they are rooting for. This actually weakens governance in my view.

8 – Accountability Without Authority – this is a real killer for me. ‘Yes you can take all my crap but for any really big decisions – you’d better defer to me’. Effectively a CPO becomes an affiliate or slightly junior Board Member who is not a true equal of the other Directors. As an auditor, I have seen this happen with CIOs so many times – I call these ‘DINO roles’ (Director in Name Only).

So enough negatives – what can you do? I don’t dispute for a moment that C-level executives need support in project sponsorship.

  • Bringing in an experienced Programme or Project Manager to support Board meetings where projects are discussed can help.
  • Using your project auditors intelligently – and at the right time – can improve independent scrutiny and inform decision making. Using auditors to ‘bayonet the dead’ after a project has failed is an exercise in misery and pointlessness.
  • Take a long hard look at your PMO and the information they are reporting and providing to Board members. Are they ‘cranking the handle’ on the same reports month after month. Follow the reports and find out what your Board Members really make of them and use them for. The answers may surprise you.

So what do you think – has your organisation appointed a CPO and made it work – or not? Either way, feel free to leave a comment and share your experience.

Inhumanity

The news emerging from Amazon this week is shocking – if proven to be true – a culture of work that sounds almost de-humanising. When stories like this emerge, I tend to subscribe to the view that there is ‘no smoke without fire’ – especially when so weakly defended by Company Execs – but we should remember that they are only allegations.

However, culture like this is not new. Back in the 1990s I was working as a Civil Servant alongside a number of consultants from a major firm. In one particular meeting – an important one I will admit – one of the partners received a phone call. He left the room briefly and on returning had a short whispered exchange with his boss. The meeting continued – for several hours – and after the meeting closed the partner receiving the call left swiftly without staying on for the usual wash-up that always followed such all-day workshops. This was an unusual thing for him to do.

It was only some time later that we discovered that phone call had been to tell him that his ailing father had just passed away and he had asked for permission to leave. The senior partner had said:

I’m sorry Michael, but I really need you in the room on this one

Telling this story now shocks me just as much as it did at the time over twenty years ago. We all have a responsibility to each other to ensure our workplace is somewhere that inhumanity, prejudice and injustice is never tolerated and cannot thrive.

Names have been changed to protect the innocent