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Seek Clarity for your Business

In January, when major companies were announcing their sales updates, we heard that Mothercare shares had dropped 31% following a profit warning. A business commentator explained that “supermarkets are now selling more baby and toddler goods, and that other companies like John Lewis have been doing well in gaining market share in essential baby goods like prams, pushchairs, cots and car seats. Customer service in Mothercare shops is also said to be patchy.”

In short, Mothercare had been resting on its laurels, assuming that it occupies a market niche as “expert” in a type of goods that people would always need. But the world (and Mothercare’s customers, it would seem) had moved on.

Your business might not be a FTSE listed company, but it faces the same challenges:

1. Markets and consumer trends change over time.

2. You need to evolve to stay competitive.

Yes, this takes time and effort, but most of us would rather work to keep (and grow) our existing customer base, than be in Mothercare’s position of trying to win them back.


Does your business have clarity about how it needs to develop?

  • Can you articulate the purpose of your business?
  • Is your business heading in a particular direction? If so, do you know why? If not, what’s driving it?
  • Have you looked recently at market opportunities and challenges?
  • Do you know what your customers want?
  • Do you know what your competitors are up to?

Some clarity can come from previous work… particularly mistakes that were made. How can you use the 20/20 vision you have gained with hindsight to improve what you do in the future?

You may also want to involve your customers in a review process, or others from outside your organisation. Externals can ask the “daft questions” and totally change your perspective, or at the very least make sure you’re focused on the right things.

If you’ve never done any of this before, don’t panic! At Otocos we can help you to get the process moving and find the answers you need.

Start by downloading our complimentary tips on how to deliver your goals and then make regular business reviews part of your strategic development cycle.

K for Key areas of Knowledge

Having recently qualified as a PRINCE2 Practitioner, I was interested in how PRINCE2 methodology fits with a “Body of Knowledge” (BoK), such as the Project Management Institute’s PMBoK. The simple answer is that they are complementary and fit together very well.

PRINCE2 is a prescriptive project management method where processes and themes are integrated, while the PMI PMBoK is more of a broad set of good, but non-prescriptive practice where topics can be referred to individually to help with a particular challenge or problem. PRINCE2 gives any member of a project team a framework that explains what needs to be done by whom and by when; the PMBoK uses specific tools and techniques to help the Project Manager to find a suitable solution.

The PMBoK talks about managing 9 Key areas of Knowledge in a project.

These are:

Knowledge - iStock_000009461062XSmall

1. Integration
2. Scope
3. Time
4. Cost
5. Quality
6. HR
7. Communication
8. Risk
9. Procurement

Even if you haven’t been through the PMI’s Project Management course, many of these headings will be familiar to you as Key areas to consider as you plan and manage project stages. In the detail underneath each there will be a useful technique or two that are worth having in your project armoury when creating a plan or managing risk. But whatever your background and project management training, I think it is still a great checklist!

Going for Growth in Perth & Kinross!

Starting in summer 2013, Perth and Kinross Council is able to provide specialist support to local businesses seeking to grow. The Council’s Business Growth team has recently introduced a Business Consultancy Grant for small- and medium-sized businesses in the area with high growth potential.

Otocos is delighted to have been selected as a supplier of Business Consultancy services for this programme. We can offer specialist support and advice in the following categories:

  • Product and Service Innovation
  • R&D of Innovative Products and Services
  • Business organisation, change management and staff engagement
  • Supply Chain / Procurement / Logistics

Those businesses wishing to receive support through this programme will need to provide a business outline and growth forecast to Perth & Kinross Council’s Business Growth team, to justify their selection. If selected, they will be eligible to re-claim up to 50% of the cost of the business consultancy, up to a maximum of £2,500.

To find out more about this opportunity, just contact the Perth and Kinross Council Business Growth team on 01738 477954 for information.

J for Jigsaw: Project Integration

One of the biggest challenges with any project is getting all the strands co-ordinated so that they come together effectively to deliver your requirements.

In project management terms, this Jigsaw is called Project Integration.

One way to think about it is to imagine organising a dinner party for a group of friends. What different elements do you need to bring together? Important aspects might include the right mix of people, culinary excellence AND making sure that you can enjoy the food and company rather than spending all evening in the kitchen.

Assuming you aren’t bringing in caterers, you will start off (“Project Initiation”) by defining scope: number of courses, type of food, what your aims are for the evening and a budget. At this stage you might also need to take into account someone else’s views (“Project stakeholders”), especially if they are co-hosting or helping to pay for it.

Next you can move to the planning stage, usually working back from the point of delivery. For me, this usually takes the form of a big list which might look something like this:

  • On the day: Prepare and cook food, chill wine, set table and be showered/changed and ready to greet your guests at the appointed hour (includes time, scope, quality and risk management).
  • A few days before: Source / buy ingredients (procurement, cost, quality and risk management), begin to think about what you’ll wear (scope and quality management) and remind your guests of timings (communications management).
  • 1 week before: Check for allergies or other dietary needs and plan a menu that meets your budget, is seasonally available and delivers your objectives (cost, scope and quality management).
  • 2-3 weeks before: Invite guests and confirm date (communications and time management).

Once you have these basic markers or milestones to work to, you can relax and know that you’re on top of everything.

The biggest challenge for Project Integration is when you’re managing multiple activities during “Project Delivery”. You’ll need to keep the overall plan under review as time unfolds, and you may need to adapt to circumstances e.g. if some of the ingredients you were planning to use are not available or if your oven stops working at the critical time.  But knowing what you want to achieve and how everything fits together will help you to make decisions (or compromises) that still let you deliver your plans in an acceptable way.

As with most projects, timings on the final delivery day may be tight, so you should plan these activities in depth: work out when to start preparing each part of the meal and how to dovetail tasks most effectively to make your life as easy as possible. Any preparation you can do in advance will help.

After it’s all over, make sure you take time to think about what went well and what didn’t (“Project Closing”). Could you have done anything differently? Were there any missing or late pieces in the puzzle? A quick review of how everything went will help you to do better next time: integration gets easier with practice!

I for Innovation

Innovation may have become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, but I don’t think you can argue with the idea that effective innovation is at the heart of successful projects, businesses and economies.

How to define innovation? The most commonly accepted definition is:

“the application of new ideas to deliver value”

In a project situation, generating and applying new ideas is vitally important to maximise the potential to deliver effectively.  Ultimately this requires a better understanding of how teams operate.

Around 5 years ago, Michael Kearns of UXL Ltd introduced me to a tool called FourSight which helps people to understand their preferred thinking styles in the context of innovation. It seeks to help teams to improve their effectiveness by building a stronger “blend of insight, imagination, analysis and action”.

The tool describes the 4 “faces” of innovation:

The Clarifier – wants to give facts and figures careful attention before making decisions
The Ideator – likes to be creative and spend lots of time coming up with ideas
The Developer – likes to continuously improve on ideas until they’re perfect
The Implementer – just wants to get on with delivering

In reality most of us have strong preferences for engaging with some of aspects of the innovation process (and equally strong aversions to others).  Some of us combine 2 or 3 of these preferences and these generally define our approach to problem-solving.

By being aware of these preferences, we can encourage teams to give enough time to each stage of a development process to get the best result, but move on when a solution is good enough.

For more information about the ForeSight process, contact Michael Kearns through UXL Ltd.

H for Hurdles

With athletics season well underway and the London Olympics almost here, it’s a good time to mention Hurdles.

In an ideal world, project-related hurdles would be spotted well in advance (i.e. during scoping or detailed planning of each phase) and removed from the equation. But often the reality is that while a potential hurdle is identified early on, it can only be placed on the project risk register, to be tracked and managed as effectively as possible. The aim is to avoid a collision that either derails the team or slows down progress to a significant extent.

Sometimes risks are caused by external factors outside your control. But usually there are common reasons for derailment or delays:

  • a lack of clarity in scope, specification or quality requirements;
  • project stakeholders with different perspectives of project deliverables, who continue to push their own view even once the specification is signed off;
  • missing skills or specialist knowledge within the project team;
  • a lack of team awareness of key risks;
  • a focus on problems (to be solved by the manager) rather than solutions (to be solved by the team); or
  • end-users involved in the process too late (at testing rather than specification).

With experience and strong leadership these can be monitored, managed and mitigated. While it can be difficult to establish the best way to circumnavigate a risk until it’s facing you down the track, iterative methodologies (e.g. Agile management) can help you to respond quickly to challenges and ensure that the team remains focused on solutions.

Potential solutions may include an agreed change to timings, additional resources or specialist input during a specific phase to ensure the desired result.

It can also be helpful to think about requirements rather than tasks: as discussed previously in this series, the aim is to keep focused on what you want to achieve and the benefits sought.

Just as hurdling champions like Dai Greene have to develop an effective stride pattern to clear the hurdles cleanly, so those delivering projects have to get their pace and focus right in order to reach the finishing line successfully.

G for Good enough

Lord Chesterfield is credited with the saying in a letter in 1746,

“In truth, whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.” But taking this idea to the extreme can kill progress and jeopardise success.

Good enough is about spending time on the right things and knowing when to move on or stop. In short: being effective.

How can you make sure that your project keeps moving?

  1. Have clarity about the project cornerstones – time, scope and cost – and use them as a focal point for decision-making.
  2. Ensure you know the quality standards that are needed for this piece of work to be a success: good enough is never ever about mediocrity! The initial specification should be clear about quality requirements and specify any tolerances.
  3. Manage your stakeholders closely. Ultimately they have the power to raise the quality bar, but only with a close eye on budget and time implications, and through a formal change in specification.
  4. Identify the people in your team who have a preference for refining and tweaking. Watch their productivity closely and help them to move on when they’ve delivered to the required standard. Ensure they are aware of the law of diminishing returns and that the cost of refining further is not justified at that time.

Defining quality standards can be a particular challenge, especially in projects where the stakeholders are not themselves totally clear about what is needed. While a some degree of progressive elaborationis acceptable, care should be taken to avoid a “We’ll know when we get there” mentality. You can explore quality requirements by reviewing what outcomes were good enough or fell short in other projects. Common areas to consider include:

  • Known tolerances and priorities, whilst recognising time, cost and specification limitations
  • What it is hoped will be achieved after the project is complete
  • User satisfaction / audience engagement
  • Acceptable defect rate