UK perspectives on problem-solving for projects; an interview with Adrian Reed…
Adrian Reed is a seasoned business change professional whose experience balances both sides of the scale; from establishing his own well-respected consulting business all the way through to his corporate work, including supporting leading insurance companies. Adrian passionately believes that good quality business analysis can make or break a project.
We caught up with Adrian for a brief coffee and a chat, and were keen to discuss some of the key things that make a successful project tick. Here are Adrian’s caffeine-fuelled musings …
You’ve worked with companies in the pre-project phase. What is the most common mistake you see companies make when embarking on a new project?
Good question! The number one recurring pattern I see is organisations that jump straight to a solution, without thoroughly understanding the problem. I call this pattern the “solution illusion” — often organisations feel an acute pain somewhere — perhaps they are losing customers, or a process has broken. This can lead to knee jerk reactions and expensive projects that don’t actually deliver sufficient benefit.
The challenge is that the root cause of whatever problem the organisation is trying to address might be in quite a different place, and might need quite a different solution. It’s a bit like a patient with a headache reaching for an aspirin — it might dull the pain, but without a full diagnosis it’s impossible to know if there’s something more serious underneath. Without understanding the problem or opportunity an organisation is trying to address, it’s impossible to know which solution will be the best to meet it.
To be more successful we need to think diagnostically and holistically.
Interesting! So what sort of solutions do organisations tend to focus on?
Almost always, it’s IT. Someone sees a problem, they see a shiny new IT application, and equate new IT to efficiency. Building on the analogy I mentioned above, it’s like reaching for a shrink wrapped software package to solve a headache rather than a shrink-wrapped aspirin pack. Now, I need to be clear here… Sensible and considered application of IT can be a good thing for organisations, the key is to consider the business situation holistically. This means considering people, process, organisation AND technology.
Blindly implementing a shiny new package because the salesman was charismatic is a route to disaster. Always think problem, then solution.
So does this mean that solution-centric thinking is “wrong?”
No! It’s natural. We all do it. And it’s actually very useful, but we need to tame it. Humans tend to try to reduce uncertainty by identifying a solution earlier. If we ride that uncertainty, really understand the problem, then we might identify 20 other solutions — some of which might be better and cheaper. Of course, there will still be iteration – doing things in small chunks to see what works – but we need to know the general direction first.
So, does this extra thinking time mean slowing projects down and doing tonnes of analysis…. Analysis paralysis….?
Absolutely not! That’s one of the biggest myths of business analysis. Look at it this way: in order to implement a successful solution, you need to understand the problem at some point. By understanding it early, you can set the project on the right path… Saving time and money.
This doesn’t have to be time consuming. You can do it waterfall, agile, iterative. It’s about the deliberate thought process rather than some formal ritual.
What practical techniques can companies and project teams use to better understand the problem?
Well, there are many, and as you know, I run a pre-project problem analysis course…
The reality is that it depends on the situation, but creating a succinct, concise yet precise problem statement can really help. This short artefact can help ensure everyone is on the same page over the precise problem or opportunity that the organisation is trying to address.
Other tools and techniques like observation, interviews, workshops, 5 whys, fishbone diagrams and many others can help too. The key at the pre-project phase is to keep things lightweight, yet precise. Taking a “thin slice” approach.
Great. Adrian, thanks. Is there a way our readers can stay in touch with you?
Sure! I publish loads of content for free. I’m a real business analysis geek… And a true believer that good quality business analysis can really “move the needle” in terms of organisational and project effectiveness. People can drop me a line anytime. And if you need a speaker for your conference or team event, give me a shout.
About the Author
Running Blackmetric – a BA consulting and training practice in the UK, in his “spare time” Adrian is also President of the UK Chapter of IIBA – the International Institute for Business Analysis. A prolific blogger and international speaker, Adrian is also a proud contributing author to the 2013 book Business Analysis and Leadership: Influencing Change.