I have two kids in college. Not surprisingly, our family has lots of conversations about money. There is only so much of it in the First National Bank of Claycomb, and we have to prioritize how it gets spent. In essence, my family is a lot like a business: we have to figure out how to allocate scarce resources.
I think that business analysts have an obligation to help companies maximize their investments. We can do that in a couple of ways. First of all, we can help make sure that we spend our time and money solving valuable problems or pursuing valuable opportunities. Once it’s been decided that the undertaking is valuable and worth pursuing, we can help design a successful solution. A successful solution is one that does just enough – it delivers everything that is needed (but nothing more) and is recognized by the business for enabling them to be successful.
Nothing I’ve said so far is really new news. We all understand that there’s a limited amount of money available for projects, and that we have to do the most important things first, and that we have to develop a solution that meets the business needs, yadda, yadda, yadda. The catch is… how do you actually DO that? How do you KNOW that you’re addressing the most critical things? How do you KNOW that you’re designing a successful solution?
Let me introduce you to our Business Value Framework. It takes the intuitive process of pursuing valuable business outcomes and makes it explicit. Here’s what it looks like:
So how does it work? And when am I going to tell you about the really big, strong guy?
Let’s have a look!
Step 1: Envision Business Success
We want to make our business partners successful. The thing is, in order to do that, we have to understand what success looks like to them. Their vision of success is almost always different than our vision of success. We tend to view our projects as successful if they’re delivered on time, under budget, with an acceptable level of quality and an agreed-upon set of features. But for the business, the project is only successful if it lets them achieve a valuable outcome. In other words, they can do something they need to be able to do that they couldn’t do before. So we start the Business value framework by establishing the need.
We also define the problem. This is important, because the only reason to create a solution is if there is something blocking the business from doing what they need to be able to do.
It’s also important to establish the value of solving this particular problem or leveraging this specific opportunity. Of all the projects we could invest in, why invest in this one?
In a recent class, I broke the students up into small groups and had them pick a project on which one of them was working. I asked them to identify the business need, and any associated problems. Afterwards, the groups presented to the class. Here’s the dialogue that followed; watch for the really big, strong guy to make his appearance.
Student: Our business need is for a secure network connection between two sites, and our problem is that we don’t have one.
Me: So you need a secure network connection?
Student: Yes we do.
Me: No, you don’t.
Student (looking puzzled): Umm….yes, we do.
Me: Actually, I bet you don’t.
Student (now looking uncomfortable): Umm…yes, we do, because we don’t have one.
Me: So what? (“So what” became the catchphrase for this class.)
Student: Well, we don’t have the data.
Me: What data? And again, so what?
Student: It’s the data we need to close the books at the end of the month. We need a secure network connection so we can transfer the data and get the financial reporting done on time.
Me: Aha! Now I know for sure that you don’t need a secure network connection.
Student (looking at me like I’m crazy): How else are you going to do this, Kathy?
Me: Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to hire a guy, a really big, strong guy that no one would want to mess with. I’m going to give a flash drive, so the data will be secure, and I’m going to give him a gun. (Hey, I live in Texas, we can do stuff like that here.) And whenever you need data moved back and forth, we’re going to call our really big, strong guy. He’s going to go to the first building with his flash drive and his gun, and he’s going to download the data. Then he’s going to drive to the other building, and he’s going to deliver the data to somebody there. Ta-da! No secure network.
(Crickets) Then somebody in the back of the room laughed and said, “Hey! We can get him one of those briefcases! You know, the ones that you handcuff to your wrist?” And somebody else said, “Yeah! And an armored car for driving back and forth!” We all laughed… but here’s the point. Many of us have a bad habit of treating the lack of a specific solution as a need. And maybe it is… but it’s not a business need. And just having a solution may not provide value to the business.
The first step in our business value framework leads us through identifying:
- the business need
- the problem or problems that are impacting that need
- what capabilities are needed in a solution
- the outcome that must be delivered
- the value that they can obtain if the outcome is reached
For the team in my class, it ended up looking something like this:
Problem: No way to transfer data so that it meets audit standards for inclusion in financial reports
Need: A way to securely transfer data in a timely fashion
Outcome: On-time, accurate, compliant financial reports
Value: Avoid fines imposed when reports are non-compliant; reduce audit remediation costs
(Sidebar: You might be thinking that this isn’t any different than root cause analysis, however at the end of root cause analysis, you should know what the problem is and what the root cause is. But what you don’t know is whether it’s a valuable problem to solve. There are lots of problems — the goal here to determine: why should we solve this one?)
Step 2: Describe Solution Option Success
Once we understand what success looks like for the business, we can begin considering solution options. Ideally, we want to build a solution that contains everything they need and nothing that they don’t. Our goal is to create something that enables the business and gets them to that valuable outcome. To that end, teams will often develop things like business objectives, decision filters, a list of minimally marketable features (MMF), or a description of a minimal viable product (MVP). But here’s my question… how do you decide what those are?
Start by asking yourself a question: Why do they need YOU? Let’s face it – if they could solve their problem without us, they probably would. Our business partners come to us when they have critical needs that they can’t achieve on their own. Using our Business Value Framework, we detail the results that the business needs. We then identify results that the business is having difficulty reaching on its own. Those form the foundation for identifying what must be in the solution in order for it to be successful.
Step 3: Plan for Performance Success
The third step in the Business Value Framework leads us through designing a solution that delivers the results we outlined in the previous step. And very importantly, it helps us establish measures for:
- Business results
- Solution performance
- Solution success
A subset of these measures may be identified as KPIs and used to monitor and adjust the solution as needed.
Step 4: Communicate Business Value
Last but not least, we need to clearly communicate our value proposition. A well-thought-out business case is the “sales pitch” for our proposed solution. If a full business case is overkill for your situation, you can also use a solution option position statement to (briefly) make your case.
Want to put this in practice? Bring your project to a session of Establishing Business Value and KPIs. We’ll walk it through the business value framework and get you started down the path to a successful solution that delivers real value.
By the way… here’s the “rest of the story”. Another student from the same company later told me that they had been involved in a similar situation. Their solution? At the end of the day, the security guard from Building A picked up a drive containing the data and drove it down the street to Building B to drop it off. As I understand it, he was a really big, strong guy.
All the best,