Mar 29, 2012

7 Habits of True Strategic BI Thinkers

The biggest fault of BI managers is when they start to develop day to day solutions and forget management. Here’s how to become a BI Strategy thinker and become the leader your company so desperately needs right now
In the beginning you wrote a lot of transformation codes, then you starting leading BI projects where you managed other coders. Before long you became the local and then the local lead. You burned the midnight oil and then through weekends. Then suddenly you became the global Information Manager or better still the CIO. Now it is time to change your hat, to stop looking at the trees, leave aside clipping leaves even though the tendency to prove your skill passes your table on almost a daily basis. Now the biggest mistake you can make is to stop managing or become tactical. It is now time to be strategic but first you have to understand what strategic means.

There is a part of your that does not allow you to think strategic because all the folks you had met selling strategy were quite irrelevant and basically to your mindset a bunch of ‘high flung dung’ types who basically were slackers. If these thoughts cross your mind it may be consoling to know you are not alone. So far your skills have been honed to deal with what lies right in front of you, i.e. dealing with what seems urgent and critical right now, often with an illusion that unless your solve it right now the world around will fall apart. While you are busy stepping around Severity 1 potholes, you’ll be flying past bonanza opportunities, and little time to look out through the long term windshield and miss all the signals that you’re on the road leading towards a very vertical cliff.  The temptation will remain extremely strong but by following your instincts you put your company and yourself at great risk.

Make no mistake, managing large BI projects is a very tough job, about that and there is an inherent failure probability of over 50%. If they are global BI projects then the stakes and complexities get ever higher.
One of the main reasons this job is so tough is that no one really understands what it takes. If you go and pick a book on business intelligence it will probably deal with how to build a cube or the EDW architecture, and be out of date by the time you start to read it. First thing is that it is hard to be a strategic BI leader if you don’t know what strategic BI leaders are supposed to do. Secondly its had to be strategic if you don’t know what your strategic checklist if for global business intelligence endeavors.
After two decades of assisting, both large and small, global corporations with their data warehouse initiatives, ranging from Oracle to Informix, SAP BW, BusinessObjects, BW Accelerator, HANA and Teradata,  my colleagues and I have come up with what’s required for such a role. Proactive strategic leaders – the kinds who thrive in today’s flat world and globally competitive environments – do seven things well:

1.    Business First

Most of the current BI initiatives treat BI as a technology deployment with BI initiatives planned architectured, modeled and delivered by IT folks. These leaders lack “Competitive Business Vision” and often deliver a technical solution with very little business context.  This can leave your company with a BI initiative that resonates with the following statement made recently by a CIO “Our BI initiative was an IT success, but a business failure”. According to Gartner more than 50% of BI projects end in this predicament. This can leave your company not only facing a severe drought of decision capable information for their day-to-day activities, but also leave your company vulnerable to the global competitive forces that thrive in detecting and acting on your confusing business signals. A strategic leader must encourage open dialogues between business and their team, build trust and engage critical stakeholders in all phases of the BI project.  To deliver a strategic IDCM, Information Demand & Consumption Management, environment you must:
a)     Align all BI goals to business goals and check each tactical request against the strategic goals
b)     Plan to leverage your business skills and enable Reports & Analytics that are one step ahead of your competition. Look for game changing ways to enhance decisions
c)      Find a BI Business Value Architect as your mentor to assist and guide you through the myriads of technology and BI alternatives. Conduct an alternative analysis before deploying any technology
d)     Network to build your personal ‘customers only’ circle of trust and then network a little more

2.    Strategic Foundation

“Conventional wisdom” opens you to a future where you’re BVA, Business Value Attainment, score languishes below a 50% success scenario. BVA is an acid test in BI that allows management to measure true business success of a BI installation at any phase of the project. But if you swallow all some of your current technocratic and tactical fads, beliefs and recommendations at face value and start to take personal ownership and accountability for your BI methodology you not only gain the strategic competitive advantage but will save millions of dollars over the next five years. To lay your foundation that is scientifically aligned to global strategic alignment you must think and believe success as a start:
a)     Think global and strategic even if you are a small company in Fremont California. This will ensure your designs do not break at the seams as soon as you hit hyper growth
b)     Build a ‘Global Enterprise BI Cookbook’ as your foundation of rules and regulations and the referential methodology for all development done in any of your BI environments.
c)      As a first step build your global standards, processes and FEDW Architecture guidelines, all other components can come subsequently. Each task you conduction without this in place will take your BI farther from your strategic BI
d)     Find your BI Business Value Architect that works only for the global success of your company and who comes with a solid business and your BI technology background. This has to be an external expert
e)     Build your BI COE or COC as Gartner calls it. This must be built on the traditional Gartner COC concepts. Understand the COE requirements before you accept it

3.    Business Value Attainment

Most BI projects focus too much on the technology and too little on the true business benefits. True strategic competitiveness can only be attained by focusing on true Business Value Attainment, which is very different from perceived value. Conventional technocratic BI projects attempt to keep business stakeholders out of BI project room in varying degrees. The scientific principles of BVA mandate an active participation of information consumers in all things BI. Business, rather than being viewed as ignorant time wasters, and now viewed as anchors, judge and jury members. The BVA methodology requires business to question everything, while still maintaining a very tight rein to keep them within a solid framework of thinking. To master this skill you must:
a)     Get all your Key BI Stakeholders, especially business, executives who will decide and sign on tasks and contracts, into a short 4 to 6 hour ‘Strategic BVA in BI’ training. This will empower them to understand strategic impacts of their decisions
b)     Appoint an internal ‘Business Value Owner’. This cannot be an external contractor or an intermediary systems integrator but has to be an internal employee with very high protocol authorization. Their role is ‘Meet Business Expectations’
c)      Make small alterations to global processes to commence BVA reporting on a weekly basis
d)     Learn to differentiate flashy ‘value’ statements from true BVA for your business users

4.    Process Compliance

Almost every BI project has some form of Standard and Process documentation. Less than twenty percent of them actually use it. If you allow this herd-like anarchy to continue then your company, your BI investment and possibly your reputation will all be determined by the forces and skills of anarchists. One of the greatest examples that has a direct impact on almost every BI project I have been invited to fix has to do with one critical process, i.e. Functional Specifications. This example is the tip of the iceberg but demonstrates what noncompliance to any process can result in.  The seduction and convenience of this single task is not only very delusional but also extremely destructive for strategic SLA. To master this process compliance use the following example and transmigrate it to your other processes:
a)     Mandate that only business users can actually build and create a functional specification (FS). Thus must never be the SI developers, it must not be an external contractor, nor must it be another SI building this on behalf of business
b)     No development can start without a fully executed, and signed off, functional specification
c)      There must be an official hand-over from business to development for this process; it cannot be a phone call, or a walk by instruction
d)     If development starts and business makes a change to the FS then the total process has to be rolled back and the build timer required to start from the beginning again

5.    Responsibility

A strategic leader is one who leads and does not simply follow. Conventional BI leaders tend to be technocratic and follow the technical future-state. This positions them exceptionally well to try out new solutions and technologies, unfortunately these may not be the strategic investment that the company should be making at that point of time. Strategic leaders need to clearly understand the marketing concepts of their BI and involve the final customers in all decision processes. They need to believe in their own recommendations and personally undertake ownership and accountability to a successful BVA delivery in each investment
a)     Understand the tactical, mid-term and Strategic impact of each initiative you start
b)     Review all available alternatives for the solution with pros and cons. Finalize the decision with a formal signoff by all key stakeholders
c)      Approve an initiative only after you are willing to stake your job on its ability to deliver BVA to your business decision capabilities
d)     Spend as much time as required in planning, with your COE and stakeholders before starting any work. ‘Plan your work, before working your plan’
e)     Trust your ‘Blink’ instinct and clarify each concern. Blink is your gut feeling and personal confidence (from Malcolm Gladwell’s book with the same title)

6.    Think Strategic

That may sound like an oxymoron but conventional wisdom requires us to think two weeks, a month or maximum a year ahead. Tactical wisdom also allows following current technical fads at face value and often results in deploying short term initiatives that are not strategically aligned. Strategic wisdom requires us to think five to ten years in advance. Critical strategic thinkers exist in the future and question every step with a ‘So how will this affect me five or ten years from today’. To master this skill you must force yourself to:

a)     Start each issue resolution with a strategic solution, replacing constant ‘fire-fighting’ with strategic ‘fire prevention’ goals. Identify resources who may get their daily adrenal rush, and feeling of importance, from being in a constant state of Sevrity-1 solutioning.
b)     Reframe your analysis to get the strategic requirements and gains with each task and investment.
c)      Challenge all current beliefs and mindsets, including your own. Encourage alternate views on strategic alignment
d)     Uncover flashy value statements, hypocrisy, manipulations and bias in organizational decisions

7.    Take Decisions

Uncertainty is most unsettling. Without a strategic roadmap the temptation to reach for a fast, and potentially a wrong, solution is imminent. A good strategic leader thinks long-term and does not get distracted by seemingly critical tactical issues. Do not fall prey to “Predictive Freeze” when faced with a multitude of tactical crisis.

a)     Seek patterns and frequencies of issue occurrences, then resolve the patterns and not individual issues
b)     Safeguard your decisions by questioning prevailing assumptions, taking group decisions and analyzing multiple alternatives simultaneously
c)      Carefully frame the decision for its tactical, mid-term and strategic impacts
d)     Remember ‘Excellence is the enemy of good’. Try to remain one step ahead of competition and not get side-tracked by glorious visions of perceived value.
e)     When a decision is required take a stand on what the majority approves is right with current information on all alternatives. Total consensus may be a sign of inadequate research or inaccurate protocol directives
Get ready to be the strategic leader?
Finally to pull off your strategic excellence you must decide who wears the pants in your BI Projects. Trust neutral recommendations of including business stakeholders, i.e. ‘Without business in business intelligence, BI is dead” Gartner. At the base of strategic thinking is the pursuit for excellence by avoiding the pitfalls of mistakes or defects. Traditional definitions do not explain the cause and effect of a soccer ball glancing the goalpost and random chance effects. Thus goals scored should not define strategies but the scientific methodology of proven processes based on empirical standards and deep analysis. For a strategic thinker “a defect is any decision, an action or judgment that is less than optimal, given what was possible from knowable facts at that point of time”. Understand what drives the values of your partners, other stakeholder’s agendas - assuming that most remain hidden, also remember that as companies grow so does politics, and honest feedback becomes correspondingly rare. Encourage both convergent and divergent opinions on the table. Build your risk register and follow each risk with a mitigation plan. In meetings shift discussions if you think they are getting off track or melding into personal agendas. Reward success and review failures and realign your ‘Global BI Cookbook’ processes accordingly.
No matter how we look at this it is a daunting list of tasks, but if we take this one step at a time it is highly realizable and is established as a proverbial path to the end of the rainbow. Each step can be taught and each missing piece of the puzzle can be filled in. Due to my perceived need for this I am planning to release higher degree of details in future columns and a book ‘The Scientific Principles of Information Delivery” I plan to publish in 2012. You may test the strategic alignment of your BI initiative in the following survey

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