There are number of people on a project team that are vital to success - just like a football team playing without a goalkeeper if you leave one of these people out then you risk a failed project!
The Sponsor - Sometimes called 'The project owner' they take ultimate responsibility for the project. They will often kick it off, will present the business case to the board and provide the regular updates. Their job is to remove roadblocks, provide motivation and be the champion for the entire scheme. They set the tone and a good project sponsor is worth their weight in gold.
The Project Manager - An experienced project manager will be the person who plans and runs the project. They will help build the team and continue to provide controls over the budget and work packages on a say to day basis. They enact the sponsor and steering group's decisions an provide feedback and feedforward throughout the teams.
The Specialist - You'll need specialists in functional areas on your project teams. People like finance, operations, HR, payroll are all vital to getting the full picture to ensure that your system is correctly set up.
The Independent Consultant - Someone who has experience from prior projects and different industries. They can bring best practice information to the table and also stay on the side of the company by giving totally independent and unbiased advice.
The Software Consultant - Provided by the vendor company they bring the in depth knowledge of the project and information regarding specific requirements of the software. They will also provide the link between the project and the vendor company.
The Tester - Typically the project will employ people at all levels throughout the organisation and in all departments to make sure that the test system provided does what it says on the tin. They can also be utilised to spread communication to the wider user community about how the project is going,
The Stakeholder - People often think that stakeholders are just people in senior positions but that couldn't be further from the truth. A stakeholder is anyone that has any contact or interest in the system you are putting in. A stakeholder will usually be board members who may not use the system but will want to see a good return on investment, Staff members who will want a system that is easy to use, managers who will want to ensure that controls and reporting are robust, suppliers and clients who may well integrate with the system electronically through order placement and payment services and anyone else who comes into contact with your new software. Each company will have its own stakeholder list and it is always a good idea to think about how you will communicate with them before during and after the project.
If you need help with building your project team or you need an independent consultant or specialist then Call us now and we can talk over the options
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If you want a successful project then there’s a series of things you need to do before you even get to choose a piece of software
You also need to make sure you do all the steps – missing one out is just like making a cake without one of the ingredients
- Analyse the problem – what specific issues are you trying to solve?
- Analyse your company strategy – there’s no point in spending a huge amount of money on a shiny ERP system if you intend to sell your company to a trade competitor. They will probably have their own system in place.
- Decide whether a new system would work well in light of 1 & 2 – If the problem you are trying to solve is that you can’t recruit the best staff then putting in new software won’t help. It’s an extreme example but it makes the point.
- Scope your project – it may seem an early point but decide what you want to achieve and of course what you don’t. If It’s not important to have your people connecting using tablets then don’t bother looking for a system that will do this
- Form your steering committee – get the right people in and explain how important this is
- Decide what’s vital and what’s nice to have – get your steering committee to decide what are the absolute must haves for any system you consider. If it doesn’t have it then it doesn’t get looked at
- Send out your RFQs – Request for Quote (or RFI – Request For Information) cast your net wide and ask the vendors if they can meet your minimum requirements
- cull your list – be ruthless, in a couple of months time you’ll be sick of the sight of software
- Do your beauty parade – get your short list to present their software to your team and show how they would meet your requirements
- Do vendor background research – get independent verification of claims, find out how previous projects went and check that they are financially sound.
I specialise in helping companies through the choice process. There are lots of methods and techniques that I use to ensure that the company gets the best possible fit for it’s purchase. Give me a call and let’s talk
Every project I have ever worked on big, small, simple or complex has had one of these
Amazingly, the project management books don’t mention it, most websites ignore it and I’ve never seen it on any project management course syllabus but for all that it’s a real phenomenon that can be upsetting and destructive.
So what is the slump?
It’s a general listlessness, frustration, depression or general sense of negativity that settles on a project. It results in arguments, lacklustre performance and extended deadlines. It’s destructive and annoying and at its worst it threatens the very viability of your project.
People tend to get angry and there will be spats and full blown arguments. If you’re really unlucky a fist fight will ensue but that’s a rarity thank goodness!
But overall the project will tend to suffer because people who are happy work better. People who are unhappy don’t.
What causes it?
When you start off a project everything is new. People are all enthused and every day is a discovery. Sure there are challenges but there’s loads of low hanging fruit to grab.
The problem of course is that team members get addicted to achieving. They expect everything to be easy and when something isn’t then it gets put on a back burner until later. Unfortunately later turns up, usually at about the two thirds mark. The team isn’t having as many successes as it once had and every task is a slog. It gets old really quickly.
The project sponsor is probably a high achiever. They are in demand and when the project launches it is the most important thing in their to do list. After a while though other things come along. These things distract their attention and they drift away, if not physically then certainly mentally. The team then isn’t getting the attention it needs or deserves.
Finally people start to forget where they have come from. It’s a natural human trait but we tend to forget what things used to be like. It often manifests itself as rose tinted spectacles, but on a project it typically turns up as people forgetting all the great work their team has done and focusing on the remaining issues.
What can you do about it?
Well for a start employ an experienced project manager. A good PM will have seen this before so it won’t come as a surprise and just like a good football manager he’ll realise that some people will need a kick, some an arm round the shoulder but all the team will need attention and re-energising.
Next – get the project sponsor involved. They don’t have to do a lot but one thing they do need to do is to provide energy and enthusiasm for a vital company project. Get them to reaffirm how important this is to the company and what a great job the team have done.
Keep a success log. Make sure it’s visible and review it regularly. It will help your team to remember what they have already achieved in the project so far and how well they have done.
Make sure that everyone keeps their eyes on the prize. Especially in smaller companies there will be pressure on peoples time and priorities. Ensure that the whole company understands why this is so important to the firm.
Have a non project day. Ban everyone from working on the project, close it down for just a day and if the budget will stretch have an event. Only one rule – no project talk.
Lastly don’t give up. The project was a good idea at the start, a good idea last month and just because there have been a few bumps along the way it doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea now. Push on through and before long you’ll find that actually you’re nearer the end than you thought!
If you or your company have only ever employed permanent staff then bringing a professional interim into the mix is likely to throw up some different challenges.
As someone who works as an interim manager and who has employed interims I thought it might be an idea to put forward some thoughts on what the business needs to do differently.
Thing 1 – before you start. Often when you employ a permanent member of staff you are simply looking to swap like for like. With an interim that is likely to be different.
It may be that you have a specific issue that you need to solve, a project that you want managed or need to backfill for some planned or unplanned absence.
Whatever the issue is you need to have a clear vision about what it is you want and what skills the person needs to bring with them. You’ll need to be realistic about a budget and you’ll need to find somewhere to source great talent.
Answer these questions before you start; What issue are they expected to be able to solve? How long will it take? What skills will they need? What resources will be available in-house to help them achieve?
Once you have a clear sight of what you need then you need to find the talent.
Thing 2 – where they hang out.
Finding your interim talent is likely to be different too, especially if you want the best.
Here’s a thing, with permanent people you can’t really ring someone in a different company and ask if they have someone great you can poach, but with an interim you can call your contacts and ask if they know of anyone with the skills you are looking for. This is absolutely the best way to source great interim talent because you’ll have a recommendations from someone you trust who has worked with the person in the past.
You can of course go down the traditional recruitment agency route which is probably the easiest and least time consuming method but also try and think outside that particular box.
If you need someone with a particular set of skills then check out groups related to that interest on Linkedin. You can find great talent lurking and commenting so a well placed post can pay dividends here.
Thing 3 – the interview.
Please please don’t try and interview a professional interim in the same way as you would a permanent hire.
We’re different people and our methods and experiences are probably totally at odds.
To give you an example I once went for a job and had to spend 40 minutes explaining why I’d had a lot of jobs! The hiring manager had simply not got his head around the fact that people can choose interim work as a profession rather than because they have to.
Your questions need to be much more skill and outcome based rather than exploring where the person wants to get to or what their outside interests are.
Also remember that the interim is interviewing you. They are looking at how cool the place is to work for,whether you get the idea of interim work and whether the project is achievable. You need to be on your game because the likelihood is that they have been on more of these meetings than you have and they will be assessing the quality of the company they may end up working at.
Also make the interview process a short and sweet one. Don;t go expecting to do two rounds of interviews, followed by a cod psychological test and a final meeting with a selection board. You’ll get blown out of the water long before then by anyone good.
Incidentally great interims move in and out of the market with some speed so you need to make up your mind quickly.When you have chosen the person then get to the offer and don’t go away on holiday because you can bet they won’t be there when you get back.
Thing 4 – the deal.
There may be things about the role that the interim wants to be different so be prepared to be flexible. Job titles matter to people who send their CVs to a lot of places so they may ask to change this. It may be that they have other interests such as part-time clients or charity work that they want to pursue so will you may need to be flexible around the working hours or days.
In terms of money then you’ll need to be paying market rate. Trust me when I say that the adage ‘pay peanuts and get monkeys’ was never more true than here. People find their level in the contractor market and highly experienced, well qualified and successful candidates will cost you more than someone just starting out. You may want to structure a project with a completion bonus or for contractors working away from home pay expenses.
Thing 5 – Day 1.
Specialists that move from place to place are used to getting in, learning the company quickly and becoming productive much sooner.
Make sure that you have people for them to meet from day 1 so they can get up to speed. Arrange for resources to be available so they can find out about the company, the issue they are trying to solve and the people they will be working with.
Also sort out the simple stuff. Get a workstation for them, log ins and email addresses and make sure that they have licences for the software they will need. One of my clients took 10 days to get me a log in to their system. Remember that interims are expensive so for those 10 days that client was getting less effective work from me than they should have been.
Thing 6 – managing.
I’ve worked with all sorts of managers. From some who think they need to check everything I’ve done to others who have been totally absent.
It’s likely that your interim will need a catch up meeting every so often but will probably be more fire and forget so you won’t need to closely check their work. You are bringing in top talent after all so the emphasis will be more on arms length guidance rather than day to day management.
It’s always good to set up a regular call or update session just to keep a weather eye but other than that they will probably be self-sufficient.
Thing 7 end of contract.
So you had a great time, the project is over and you are happy with how it all went. What now?
Well you need to decide whether you have any other work and if you think the person will be suitable. If so then make an offer to extend early on. Great interims will be making plans for end of contract so they will have factored in some time out, a holiday or will be lining up their next gig. You need to make your pitch early to make sure you retain them.
If you don’t have work then tell them as soon as you know. It’s surprising how many managers think that the interim will get upset but actually it’s the opposite. Having certainty on the end date is helpful because it allows everyone to plan a structured exit and make sure everything is in order and the interim is able to plan their holiday.
Thing 8 – after the contract.
It’s not very nice when a permanent person leaves. It is a visible confirmation that they weren’t happy with their job, their manager, the company or all of the above! So it’s difficult to go back to where you once worked or to employ someone who has left in the past.
When an interim leaves it’s merely the logical conclusion to successful contract. Make sure you don’t lose contact though because the likelihood is that you’ll have another project along sooner rather than later that you could engage them for.
Similarly be a kind person. The interim lives or dies by their reputation so make sure you write a recommendation for them on platforms like linkedin and if any of your contacts needs someone then be sure to pass on the name of the great person you found.
Interims are a fantastic resource for companies looking to add talent and capacity to their company on a flexible basis. They can make a massive difference so make sure you get the best out of yours by following these tips and if you have any of your own then be sure to comment.
Being an interim isn't just like having a permanent job for a short while - there's a whole set of skills and behaviours to learn and adopt
If you are thinking about becoming an interim manager then you need to attack it like owning a business. After all that's exactly what you will be doing.
Sure you won't have stock on the shelves or a load of employees working in a factory. In fact most of the time it will just be you on your lonesome doing what you do. But it's a business nonetheless and you'll need to get up to speed with real world skills sooner rather than later.
I've been an interim manager for almost two decades now and I've learnt a few things along the way.
In the early days it was by trial and error and stealing a few tricks from the other interims I met. It was hard going but it worked and now I'm passing on some more of the trade secrets so that future interim managers can get a head start.
Now this isn't a complete list and it's not in any particular order (although it's roughly in chronological order) but it will give you a good start on your journey.
- understand yourself - before you even think about taking an interim role you need to be brutally honest about your own personality. If you hate uncertainty, hate change and get worried by financial instability then you are going to struggle. Most of the time I have been unemployed on Monday and working the week after and at the end of the contract I've not been certain I'm going to finish until I'm walking out of the door*. If you think you won't be able to handle that kind of uncertainty then don't even try the interim lifestyle.
- learn the company quick - as an interim you are there to do a job so you don't get the luxury of spending the next three months finding out about the business. In fact in one company I worked for there was an accountant who'd been there 5 years and hadn't bothered to speak to any of the operations people.** You need to get in,understand what the company does, how it does it and what makes it tick. It doesn't really matter what you are doing whether it be statutory accounts, management accounting or a systems project, that deep understanding of what is important will make your work so much easier and of infinitely better quality.
- lose the attitude - nobody cares that you were like a god at the last place you worked. Nobody cares that you were at one of the big practices and nobody cares that you knew Oracle backwards in your last role. All they care about is that you can do the job and do it well. This can be great if you were a dick at the last place you worked because you can reinvent yourself but it can be a bit of a pain if you are a lovely lovely person (like me***) because you have to prove yourself all over again. I love that. See point 1.
- learn to ask smart stupid questions - Part of this comes from point 1 and 3. You have to not worry about asking basic questions and you have to learn the company quickly. So you need to ask what look like stupid questions that are actually pin point accurate in terms of what the company does, how it does it and what is important. Similarly you need to be able to ask why people do what they do in a non-threatening way. Check out six sigma and the way it reduces waste for an example. I guarantee that most finance teams produce at least one report that takes ages, has a deadline and that nobody reads.
- find the guru - there's always one. The guru may well not be in a high position in the company (in fact they probably won't be) but they will know everything because they've been there years. More importantly they will be able to give you accurate answers to your smart stupid questions without bias. Buy this person coffee and cake regularly because they will save you time and headaches.
- track your progress and publicise your results - really really important for people who are working on a change project. So can you remember the last time you had toothache? It really hurt a lot didn't it? But now you think it wasn't so bad. Humans are great at re-writing the past. So your commissioning manager will have a massive pain point that is causing them sleepless nights and the moment you fix it they will begin to forget how bad the pain actually was. Make sure you write up an 'as is' report at the start of the project and then report on all of your successes as you go along . Do it cumulatively so that by the end of the gig your manager has a clear sight of just how bad it was and what a difference you have made. Marketing is everything.
- manage upwards - we've probably all been in a job where we have a demanding manager who doesn't understand how difficult or risky a job is. Or we have a boss who won't sign stuff off, misses meetings, doesn't communicate etc. Well I'm afraid that as an interim part of your job is to make sure things get done and not have a cry in the toilets if your guvner hasn't authorised everyone's timesheets. Learning to manage upwards is one of the key skill you need to get in place. It's so important that I may even write another blog piece on it!
If you are an interim or if you are thinking of becoming one then I hope this has been of some help.
If you are an experienced interim and have other points you think are useful then please do comment. Be aware that I may steal you ideas though!
*I was once given a card by my team on the day I was due to leave and then immediately approached by an FD of another company in the group who asked if he could have a quick word. It led to another three months at the same company working for a different boss.
** This goes to point 1. You need to be a pretty outgoing person as an interim and not lock yourself away in an office and not speak to people.
*** and modest too!
It’s tempting to think that buying a new system, whether it’s a top tier ERP product or something more modest will solve all of the problems that plague your company.
Indeed it’s a view that is heartily endorsed and promoted by a legion of sales consultants, industry ‘experts’ and specialist media.
The latest iteration of a new system will come with glossy brochure telling of a wonderful new world where the grass is green and it is sunny all day. Where transactions are rapidly and accurately posted and management accounts simply fly out with no human interaction at all.
The reality though is somewhat different, especially in the area of ERP. In fact research has shown that in most implementations clients never actually gain all of the advantages that they expected and that it may cost more and take longer than first envisaged.
There are a number of reasons for that but to take it right back to the start, the first question you need to answer is whether you need a new system at all.
I’d argue that many of the problems solved by the implementation of a new system could be solved by looking at the processes rather than the software and that smart managers would actually be better off running a ‘ghost’ implementation rather than spending a shed load of cash on something new and shiny.
Now don’t get me wrong, if you want to buy a new system then I’ll be happy to help you implement it. Maybe you’ve got a lot of cash you need to get rid of or you’re pumping a gazillion transactions into Sage line 50 each day. In which case buy, and buy soon.
But actually a lot of the problems that are often ascribed to ‘the system’ are actually a product of behavioral issues or simply down to the fact that the business has moved on since it implemented its current software.
One issue frequently cited as a reason to buy new is the difficulty in getting information out of the black box. It’s a problem that many businesses face and certainly a real factor in the decision to buy.
However often this can be down to a need to reorganise the processes around the business. The oft quoted ‘garbage in garbage out’ is a good example. If your inputs aren’t done to the correct standard or with the required level of detail then the system is irrelevant; you just won’t get the information you need.
Similarly if your chart of accounts no longer fits with the way the business is organised then it’s no wonder that people are downloading information, chopping it up in excel and then reporting it in a different way. This is often seen as a difficulty getting reports out of a system when in fact it is more about how the system is configured.
New systems have loads of bells and whistles. The more they have the more attractive they look. Who could fail to be impressed by TLAs such as ODBC, OCR, CRM and of course CPM*
Oddly though many software producers are now turning away from integrated bells and whistles and either licencing white label versions of popular modules or simply suggesting that the clients buys a different add on for specific purposes.
One of the most striking for me was when a vendor announced in a meeting that their reporting was awful and that the client would be better off buying their mid tier ERP system and then bolting on a third party reporting app!
So if you are going to do that then why not bolt on the reporting app to your current system? It would be cheaper, quicker and cause a lot less disruption.
Indeed in these days of SAAS** connectivity and integration are taken as a given.
Why is it then that many system changes do bring substantial benefits to the clients and end users?
In my opinion it is not the system that provides the benefit, it is actually the process of implementation that helps.
When a client goes through an implementation project they are forced to think about how the system should be used, what the chart of accounts should look like,what reports are really needed and to go through a data migration cleanse.
This kind of deep thinking doesn’t require a new system, you can do it with what is in place already, it just takes the political will and commitment in the company to make it right and as already stated the company can buy third party add ons at any point in its journey.
I’d argue that many companies would be better off running a ‘ghost’ implementation where they go through all the stages of an implementation project such as scoping, design, development and training without actually spending cash on new software.
In many cases the business would benefit greatly from the refresh but wouldn’t suffer the main upheaval of implementing a whole new system.
I realise of course that I’ll be very much a lone voice in this view, after all there’s a whole industry that exists due to its ability to convince you to change.
It is also true that some companies just have to change. Maybe they need a more capable system or their current provider is ceasing support or whatever it may be. I just think that they need to have a more balanced view of the process.
The advert – I’ve run and worked in implementations for companies large and small. I’ve run choice projects and system refresh projects. If you are thinking of buying a new system then why not get in touch?
Maybe I can save you time and money.
* So I’ve been a bad person here. TLAs are my pet hate. TLA= Three Letter Acronym, ODBC=Open DataBase Connectivity, OCR = Optical Character Recognition, CPM= Corporate Performance Management.
** OK so this is Four Letter Acronym. SAAS = Software As A Service. An app that is delivered online that can provide extra capability for a base system or standalone. Good examples would be Gmail as a mail client, Salesforce for CRM or Concur for travel and expenses management.
So listen – not everyone’s finance department is rubbish and some are worse than others but if you get the feeling that the finance function at your company is more of a cost than a value then I have some good news for you – it doesn’t have to be that way.
Clients that I have worked with generally present with the same symptoms; inaccuracy, late figures, disconnects between accountants and operations, little understanding of what the figures mean, high turnover of staff, little in the way of value add, little input into the strategic direction of the business. You get the picture.
So if some(or all) of this sounds a bit like your company what can you do?
I’ve made my interim consulting career out of fixing just this sort of issue and so I’m about to give away some of my trade secrets. I don’t mind though and I’ll explain why later.*
So here’s some reasons why things aren’t working out and what you can do.
Issue 1 – Lack of engagement. So your finance team don’t contribute, get involved, add value. It’s distinctly possible that they haven’t ever been explicitly given the green light to get involved.
So I know what you’re thinking – people shouldn’t need to be invited to contribute, they should just do it anyway right?
Well in an ideal world we’d all be go-getters with a zillion ideas just bursting to get out but in practice some people need to be given permission, incentive or a push to contribute more than their day job. I even came across a department where people had been told to not give suggestions as they weren’t welcome!
Solution; have a chat with the team, tell them their input is valued, set up a suggestion scheme with rewards and more importantly than all of that; listen to people when they come up with ideas. If people think they are not being listened to then they’ll stop contributing.
Issue 2 – missing deadlines. The management accounts don’t turn up when expected, reports aren’t getting done etc. etc.
I once had a client who cited this as one of his main reasons that he thought his entire team needed to be fired.
I asked him what his deadline was and he couldn’t tell me. That probably says more about his management skills than the quality of his team.
The problem is that if you can’t say what you want to happen then how is anybody supposed to achieve?**
Solution; Be clear about what you want and when you want it. Setting your expectations in the form of the reports you want to see with a finance calendar showing when you expect to see them is the first port of call.
Issue 3 – Poor accuracy. It’s a difficult one this but not insurmountable. Often this will simply be a result of poor technical skills in the department or a lack of controls.
Sometimes you won’t see the result until there’s a massive change in the figures from one month to the next or until the auditors present their results at the end of the year which can be a bit embarrassing!
Often though it’s down to poor integration between departments. Sales may not have input all the figures for the month correctly (or at all). Ops may have forgotten to process all the goods received notes or the warehouse has made a cock up in the stock take.
Solution; get some good control in place. An organised, technically able financial controller will be ideally placed to make sure that the inputs are coming in full and on time and that the outputs make sense.
Issue 4 – poor communication; Typically the finance department resembles a sausage machine with stuff going in and stuff coming out but with little in the way of intelligent value added commentary. Put simply you can’t understand what they are trying to tell you or what it means for the business.
As an accountant I’m the first to admit that we don’t do ourselves any favours in this respect. Sadly all too often we tend to like to shut ourselves away and communication can be a little lacking.
That having been said it’s also true that managers can sometimes keep finance staff at arms length seeing them as practitioners of some sort of ‘dark art’.
Solution; It’s all about communication and integration. Make sure you involve your finance team in meetings, if possible make sure they are sitting with the business instead of in their own little office and look at instituting some form of business partnership system.
It’s a good idea to get someone in to take a look at your reporting and refresh what you are doing. It’s also a best practice to communicate to the finance team what information you need and why you need it. Understanding what reports are used for makes a massive difference to the way it is delivered and what it contains.
Issue 5 – high staff turnover; This is a symptom of a much deeper and more troubling problem.
It is also the same problem that can be at the root of all of the issues we’ve seen here – a lack of leadership.
How often do you hear of people saying how much they love their job and yet they are paid less than their competitors?
On the flip side how often do you hear of highly paid people complain about their employer, their job, their colleagues and anything else that you care to mention?
The problem isn’t the job or the employer, it’s the motivation and leadership in the team.
If people feel undervalued, that their opinion doesn’t count and that they can’t make much of a difference however hard they work then they’ll be looking for a job no matter how much you pay or how many team building paintball days you have.
Solution; Get the right leader. If you have someone in charge of the finance department who is a motivator, who is able to give the team a vision about where they are going and what the future holds and is able to clearly articulate what is required of people then miraculously your staff turnover will drop.
In this post I’ve tried to highlight some of the most common causes of problems with a finance department and some solutions to them. Of course this isn’t an exhaustive list but it’ll get you on the right track.
If you need further help then why not get in touch. My specialism is in setting up finance departments so that they are best in class and giving managers the confidence in their accounts that they need.
*I don’t mind giving away these trade secrets because it takes experience to be able to use them. You’ll also need technical skill to set some of the things up and that’s what people like me do.
** One of my favourite quotes from a politician has to be “we know what we know, we know what we don’t know but we don’t know what we don’t know”. It may be that you don;t actually know what’s wrong you just have that nagging feeling. I specialise in giving people a plan to put into operation and letting then know where the issues are.
People that know me will tell you that I’m an Excel geek and I’m ready to admit that I love finding out all the new funky features Microsoft pile in at every new release.
It’s not just an academic interest though; as an accountant I spend my life in excel whether it be budgeting, forecasting, management accounting or organising a project. Often clients will call me in to sort out issues they are experiencing with budgeting and forecasting or they’ll want me to set up systems to solve a particular problem.
However I’m the first to admit that Excel does have some drawbacks. Some of these are functional problems with the system, but in my opinion the vast majority of problems encountered with the software are actually of our own making.
In this post I’m aiming to give you some tips to help you avoid these issues and hopefully make your complex excel workbooks more robust and accurate.
Tip number 1 – just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
They say a little knowledge is a good thing and as my excel skills have increased over the years I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon.
When people only have basic knowledge they use simple techniques.
When they start to get good at excel then they are desperate to use their new found knowledge so they pack in as many functions, features and formats as they can.
The interesting thing is that the most advanced excel users will actually use less of these.
Advanced excel users live by the acronym KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). They understand that whilst they know exactly what is going on most people wont and that often the people inputting into the spreadsheet will be basic users. Consequently they go out of their way to make it as simple and user friendly as they can.
Tip 2 – Include an info tab.
Due to your stunning Excel work you’re probably going to get promoted or headhunted. You may be producing a workbook for someone else to use or you may go on holiday or (hopefully not) get sick.
In any case whether it’s planned or not the fact remains that there is a 99.99% chance that someone else is going to use your workbook in some capacity at some point.
I always include an ‘info’ tab at the front of the workbook. This tells users what the book is designed to do, where the information comes from, how it is processed and who it goes to. If I’ve made significant assumptions then I’ll also detail these and if there are any processes that people need to follow such as exporting a bank statement for use in the workbook I’ll usually have a ‘how to’ guide in there.
Including an info tab means that your workbook is much more likely to remain in use and your colleagues will be able to work out what’s going on.
Tip 3 – separate out data, processing and reporting.
If you are guilty of holding these three items all on the same page then you’ve probably come across issues when you try to change the formatting of a report, add or remove columns and rows or just due to the sheer complexity of the sheet.
One of the key methods of reducing the likelihood of errors is to have a separate report tab, a tab for data processing and a tab for data entry.
By keeping things separate you can make changes to your reporting without worrying that you will be compromising any formulas or base data. Similarly if you regularly paste data into your sheet you know that you won’t be pasting over important formulas or ruining your report.
Tip 4 – Colour code your tabs.
A simple colour coding based on function helps users understand where to find things.
If the whole department (or even better the company) use the same standard then you’ll find that it’s easy for any user to pick up any workbook and instantly know where the base data is held and how to find the reports.
Check out tip number 10 for more.
Tip 5 – give your workbook to someone else
One of the best ways to work out whether you are on the right track is to hand your workbook to a colleague and ask them to work out what is going on.
Don’t give them any instructions just let them get on with it.
By getting a colleague to look over your workbook you’ll find there will be things they don’t understand that to you seem obvious. This is because you’ve designed the thing and are way too close to see the issues.
This comes from my work as an interim where I know that I won’t be around forever and often people will hand my work on to someone else with no handover. I figure that if anyone can pick up my workbook with no instructions, understand what it is trying to achieve and also work out how to do it then my work is done.
Tip 6 – Separate out your formulas
Look we know you’re great at formulas and you can nest 16 levels of whatifs.
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should (see tip 1) and you should really stop showing off.
Having massively complex formulas in a single cell just makes it harder to unpick when something goes wrong. Instead look at having formulas in separate cells so that each can be understood and checked when errors arise.
Tip 7 – Don’t you dare use a white font on a white background.
It makes it much more likely someone will overtype your data or formulas, will delete the row it is on or won’t be able to find what you are pointing at.
If you have to then hide a row or column but please use tip 3 so that you actually don’t need to hide anything. Hiding stuff should be done sparingly because it just increases the likelihood of unintended consequences.
Using a white font on a white background to hide stuff is as dumb as a dumb thing.
Tip 8 – enforce version control.
Having many versions of the same spreadsheet flying about the company is a recipe for disaster. The problem is that everyone turns up at a meeting with a different set of numbers that are supposedly from the same source.
If you need to have many people inputting then think about using sharing services like Onedrive or give them individual tabs for their input that you can then paste back into your master version.
It’s sensible to make sure that complex workbooks have a single owner. That person is responsible for making structural changes and making sure that input gets into the right place. They are the go to person for questions problems and issues.
Also make sure that you number your versions so that you know which is the latest.
The original is version 1 (v1), Small changes increment the number after the full stop (V1.1) and large changes mean that it gets a new version number (V2.1). Alternatively at least append the workbook name with the date it was produced.
Tip 9 – understand where you want to go before you set out.
As with any project it’s best to sit and have a good old think about what you want to achieve from your workbooks before you start building formulas.
I’ll often mock up the reporting page first and get the users to sign up to it or suggest changes.
Once I have my destination set then I know what things I need to do to get there.
I’ll know what data I need to collect, how I need to categorise it, what time frame it needs to span and how I need to manipulate it.
I should also have a clear idea as to how the consumers of the information see the workbook being used in the future.
On a side note, just because people say that the workbook is only going to be used once you shouldn’t believe them.
I find that if you do a great piece of analysis once you’ll get the same request three months down the line so bear that in mind when you are building your ‘one off’ ad hoc report.
Tip 10 – the best one of all; use the FAST standard.
FAST is an attempt to produce an internationally recognised standard for producing complex workbooks in Excel (or any other spreadsheet for that matter).
You can find a link at the end of the article
Although there is some pretty dry stuff in there, there is also some exceptionally useful ideas that make life an awful lot easier if you put them into practice.
At the very least, download the standard, read it and then use it to produce your own company standard. I promise this will reduce the number of errors you experience and make your life easier.
So there we are, a few useful tips to make your workbooks less random and a bit more professional.
If you’ve got any particular questions then please do comment and I’ll do my best to answer.
I help my clients with their finance issues.
I’m a professional interim and one of my areas of expertise is in budgeting and forecasting.
If you need some help with your process or want to look at new ways of doing things then contact me here and we can have a chat.
Let me start with a caveat – this doesn’t apply to everyone, so if you are in the 1% of people who are leveraging their financial, reporting and operational systems fully then I apologise.
For the rest of us there are some very good reasons why we don’t make full use and thereby get full value out of what we’ve got.
How have I come up with this theory?
Well part of my job is to help clients choose new software and most of the time what I find is that buying a new system isn’t the issue.
So I’ve put together some of the most common reasons why you may not be getting your money’s worth and what you could do about it.
Reason 1 – not taking the updates. So many people pay a full support fee for their systems but don’t take advantage of the updates that are included. There are two problems with this; firstly you miss out on valuable features and nice to have tweeks that have been introduced and secondly it can leave you vulnerable to compromise if the security patches haven’t been applied.
Solution – Make someone responsible. Funny as it may sound, software is still often seen as a dark art and in a lot of SMEs updating seems to be left until it absolutely has to be done. I’d suggest getting someone trained up and task them with applying patches and updates as they are released, that way you’ll get all the new shiny features but you’ll also stay safe!
Reason 2 – You never got to phase 3. Way back in the mists of time you probably had a really good project that was split into 3 phases. Phase 1 was the basic implementation, phase 2 was the reporting and phase 3 was the nice to haves. You managed to get phases 1 &2 done but something happened along the way and all the really cool features that you liked never actually got implemented.
Solution – Now is the time to revisit what was sitting in phase 3. Although at the time some of it may have seemed like nice to have, you may find that they have moved further up the priority list and would really add value or make the system easier and more efficient to use.
Reason 3 – There’s a training deficit. If you have a high turnover then this will usually be because people just weren’t trained well enough in the handover, it may be that people have forgotten over time or that they only had enough training to just do their job at the start without finding out about all the great features that are built in.
Solution – you could find that a level of training is already included within your support package but if not then it could well be worth getting someone in from the software vendor to give your staff a refresher course and to see if there are areas of the system that could be used better. Make sure that the release notes from updates are circulated when there are new features added and think about setting up a quick training session so people can take time out to learn about them.
Reason 4 – You’ve not kept up with new releases. Even if they aren’t included within your support package, it is likely that you software company will regularly add new features and modules that would add real value to your system. Especially now with the speed of change it is important to ensure that you don’t rely upon your salesperson to keep you up to date.
Solution - Put a note in your diary to check out their website or give them a call and see what’s new and assess whether it would help you or not. Keep an eye on what is available in the market too, this can work as a prompt for you to push the company to provide it for your system.
Reason 5 – Time has moved on. Your business has changed and your requirements likewise but sadly your system is still configured in the same way as when it was installed and it’s creaking as a result. Maybe you have added new companies, new products or just got a lot busier but the systems and methods that seemed sensible back in the day now don’t look so efficient.
Solution – Run a mini project. Start with specifying how you would like the system to work and what features you’d like to see in an ideal world. Examine all the pain points and areas that just seem to take too much time or effort. Then take a fresh look at your systems to see where you can solve the issues. You may well find that there are features within your existing software that can be better utilised and save you time and money.
Reason 6 – Nobody owns anything. The problem can often be that the system doesn’t have a champion and if it’s left unloved and only given attention when it breaks then it is not surprising that you’re not getting the best value. Before long everyone hates it!
Solution – appoint a system owner and make sure that small issues are dealt with quickly before they become big issues. Don’t underestimate the value of internal PR. People will often make great suggestions for ways to make things better if they think there’s a likelihood that things will change and that their input is valued.
Reason 7 – and this is the most common; it has nothing to do with the system. Typically you’ll find that people have developed ways of doing things offline that take ages that could actually be done using the software. No one knows who started it, no one knows why but it has for some reason become ‘the way we do things round here’.
Solution – take some time to go through how people do what they do. Think about modules and features of your system and how they could be better used for those offline tasks. Look for jobs that have been done by the same person in the same way forever.
The best advice I can give is not to rush into buying software that you may not need. Have a look at what you have now and see if you can get more value out of your existing set up as this will ultimately provide a greater return on investment.
Be aware that there are 1001 sales people out there that will tell you that your system stinks and you should buy theirs!
As I said at the start of the piece my job is to help clients with their systems issues. I can help you decide whether you need to implement new or if what you have will work with some tweeks.
If you’d like to have an informal chat about issues your company may be experiencing then please do mail or call.
Riding down a local street recently I noticed that one of my favourite local businesses had closed down.
I say favourite, but the truth is that I rarely visited the little DIY shop because I generally shop online nowadays. It’s just easier to order a widget at 11.30 at night after a day working than it is to make a special journey into town.
The closure made me sad, partially because the business had gone, partially because I liked the atmosphere and partially because I saw it coming from a long way off.
Years ago I would visit to get that hard to find bolt and the brown coated owner would fish in the back of a shop, finding just the right thing from a myriad of unmarked wooden drawers as if by magic.
We’d chat about life, the universe and everything. And business.
Convinced that the internet was a fad he refused to think about online retailing, eschewed email, closed on Wednesday afternoon and answered the phone in a gruff manner.
In short I loved it because it was just like shops used to be in my youth.
But I didn’t buy there much.
The closure reminded me of Spencer Johnson’s excellent book “who moved my cheese” the parable of change and more importantly people’s reaction to it.
I could see that my beloved owner had decided that changing markets didn’t exist and if he stuck it out long enough then things would return to ‘normal’.
Well that doesn’t happen and it provides us business owners with a timely reminder that we need to be prepared to spot and adapt to changing markets.
If you are thinking about employing someone to complete a specific project or to steady the ship for a while then you may be considering employing an interim manager. But many people think that an interim is simply a posh name for a temp.
In fact there are a whole series of skills and attributes that an experienced and successful interim will bring to the table that make an interim professional much more of a value add proposition.
The first skill that you’ll probably see when you meet up with an interim is the ability to produce clarity. It’s likely that the first evidence of this will be before the assignment even begins as a good professional interim will want to examine exactly what you want to achieve from their appointment.
It may feel a little like you are being grilled but it’s all in a good cause. Being able to put some clarity around what it is that you actually want and what would be best for your business will make it much more likely that you’ll achieve a successful outcome.
The second attribute visible will be honesty.
This may sound a bit odd, because we usually expect that our hires in general and our financial specialists will be honest but I’m talking about a specific type of honesty here.
If the role looks like a non-starter then a good professional interim will tell you so. They will have plenty of experience and will be able to tell whether you are being unrealistic or not.
A great interim is probably identified as much by the roles they don’t take as the ones they do.
They’ll be honest about the skills they have and whether they think they can achieve what you want, they’ll be honest about whether you are being unrealistic with budget, timescale or outcomes and they’ll be honest about the resources that will be needed.
Again this may seem brutal, but the plain fact is that everyone needs to be on the same page from the start otherwise there will be upset along the way and there’s no benefit in an interim telling you that something can be done when it plainly can’t. It may give you a nice warm feeling but in the long run it will end in tears.
A great interim manager will have superb analytical skills. They’ll be able to tell very quickly where the problems are and what the skill levels of the employees are like.
An interim manager is most likely to be a high level, seasoned executive. They are not the sort of person to turn up with a host of problems and expect you to solve them. A great interim will come to you with a clear explanation of the issue but they’ll also have a selection of solutions for you to choose from. These will either be methods they’ve seen work elsewhere in their career or they will be solutions that they’ve worked up specifically for your business.
That having been said it is likely that you’ll only get to see the major problems that need addressing at a high level. An experienced interim manager is ‘fire and forget’. You can give them a task to complete and they’ll do so with the minimum of handholding or management, only coming to you or the board when they have something that requires further input.
One of the key attributes of a successful interim is their ability with soft skills.
An interim doesn’t have a long time to work out who is who and then build relationships. Instead they will be able to understand people’s places in the organisation very quickly and will then form effective business relationships very quickly indeed.
Communication is often crucial to the success of a short term role. Being able to effectively communicate at all levels of the organisation means that the interim is able to obtain accurate information quickly, analyse and then disseminate to the right people in the right way.
Building a great team, even if it is an informal one is another key skill that a superb interim has mastered. The experienced interim manager understands that they are just one person and consequently they won’t be able to do everything themselves. Instead they are able to bring colleagues along and leverage their specific knowledge and resources to achieve things that one person alone could not manage.
Starting and leaving a job every six months or so can be an emotionally difficult concept, as can the highs and lows of a project type role. An experienced interim has seen this all before and tends to be emotionally stable and resilient so that they are able to take the ’slings and arrows’ with good humour and a sense of perspective. Many people assume that their interim will get upset at the end of a contract but this isn’t the case. It’s just something that the interim accepts as part of their way of life.
A typical interim executive will be completely goal oriented. They’ll have built their career on achieving what the client needs quickly and effectively. Indeed their future roles depend on their track record, so getting a great result for you is all important to them. Having someone who isn’t thinking about their career in your organisation or the politics of the firm but instead are totally focused on the task in hand is incredibly powerful.
Finally your interim manager will bring the skills needed to complete whatever task you have set them but they will also bring vast knowledge of other companies and sectors allowing them to add value to other parts of your organisation. In fact executives often find that their interim becomes more of a sounding board for ideas as time goes on.
Hiring an experienced professional interim manager can be amazingly powerful for a business that needs to complete a project or is in a period of change. The skills that they carry with them and the knowledge that they bring to bear allows them to add significant value to their clients.
The price might look attractive – but there’s a reason
Buying content should be pretty simple, you've got an article you want about fitting cycle brakes so you find someone online, agree a fee and job done.
Or is it?
The problem is that a lot of companies selling content online aren't really bothered about quality, they are much keener on getting through a huge volume of work.
Often, to get the price down they will farm out the work to overseas 'boilerhouses' where people who's first language isn't necessarily English will ping out articles culled from dubious web sources.
Even so it's cheap so that's OK isn't it?
Well not really.
The problem is that you'll need to factor in the cost of spell checking the document and adjusting the grammar.
Then you'll need to fact check it.
Then you'll probably need to make sure it includes the keywords you asked them to include in the first place
Then you'll probably want to insert some life into what was written as a bland and inoffensive article to make sure you that you couldn't get annoyed with it
Then you may be thinking to yourself that actually it would be better to have written the article yourself!
We write engaging, original content especially designed to prove interesting to your customers and drive traffic to your site. If you'd like to speak with us regarding our services then give us a ring!
It may seem counter intuitive, but one of the best ways to ensure recovery of a distressed business is to go through a quick liquidation process.
Whilst winding up a limited company means the end of the legal entity that is the company this is no reason to think that the actual business of the firm needs to stop. In fact it is a more common occurrence than people think for a business to close but for the trading style, brand and assets of the firm to continue.
If we imagine a very healthy company that has been saddled with historical debts but has a profitable trading business, it makes sense that the ‘good’ business is separated from the ‘bad’ allowing the new company to flourish and provide jobs in the future. Eliminating a firm simply due to some bad decisions that may have been taken years before or by people no longer with the firm seems irrational.
This makes sense when viewed from the point of view of the employees of course as they are able to continue in their jobs but with the knowledge that they have the security of a healthy and flourishing business behind them.
It is often the case that a business may be essentially profitable at an operational level but may be saddled with very high interest payments on legacy debt, may be tied in to a very large contract that has ceased to be profitable or to a lease on premises that are costly and no longer meet its needs. In these cases the day to day profitability will be eroded by the legacy issues and the firm may find itself facing Administration.
By taking quick action the directors could ensure that the legal entity that is the company is wound up in a structured and professional way by a licenced insolvency practitioner, and a new ‘phoenix’ company (newco) is formed which buys the assets and the good business from the old.
The old company retains those aspects of the bad business and is liquidated with any remaining cash and of course the proceeds of the sale to the ‘newco’. Using this structured and managed way to close a limited company ensures that maximum value is retained for the creditors.
Again it may seem that this presents a rather unattractive proposition for creditors however the alternative is even less palatable. Let’s imagine the same company carrying on as long as it can. Before long the interest or lease payments take their toll and the firms’ bills start to take longer and longer to pay. Eventually the directors lose the battle and the company is faced with insolvency but any reasonable chance of saving the trading company is lost along with any remaining value for the now larger list of creditors. The employees also suffer as the firm then closes down with loss of jobs as a result.
A managed liquidation of a company is also better for the directors. Opting for a quick liquidation is cheaper than waiting until it is forced upon them by bankruptcy. The chances of accusations of wrongful trading through insolvency are reduced and the directors can then be free to get on with managing the newco secure in the knowledge that they have done their legal duty .
Restructuring a limited company in this way ensures that the brand and trading styles of a business can be retained. It means that the firm is still able to serve its customers and given that it should now be a profitable and cash positive company may well mean that it is able to expand and grow. All of which means that a restructured firm that was to all intents and purposes failing now becomes a valuable asset to society providing jobs and of course taxation income for the economy.
Liquidation isn’t right for every company and there are other ways the firms can restructure. There are also clearly costs and legal implications so we’d always advocate that specialist advice is taken from a licenced Insolvency Practitioner before making any decisions. However liquidation in the right circumstances can prove to be good for the directors, employees, creditors and customers of an insolvent company.
When setting up limited companies we all hope and expect that everything will work out well but sometimes events overtake the owners of a business and they find themselves in a situation where the company is wound up, whether that be voluntarily or otherwise.
One of the duties of a company liquidator in any insolvency situation will be to determine whether there has been any wrongful trading on the part of the company and directors. Wrongful trading, according to The Companies Act 1986 is the act of continuing to trade even when there is no prospect of creditors being paid and there are stiff penalties for directors who don’t comply with the law.
In fact it is not enough to wait until absolutely certain that the company cannot continue; directors are required to take action if
“ at some time before the commencement of the winding up of the company, that person knew or ought to have concluded that there was no reasonable prospect that the company would avoid going into insolvent liquidation” 1
It is important that directors stop and think about the possible consequences of trading wrongfully and in this article we look at what signs show that you may need to examine the issue and what you can put in place to give early warning of any impending problems.
It is not a defence to suggest that a directors doesn’t have the requisite financial knowledge or information to understand the situation. It is a requirement that they apply the care of ‘a reasonably diligent person’ and that they apply the skill expected of someone taking on the office of director or if they hold a specialist office (such as finance director) the higher level of skill expected of that position.
Signs that wrongful trading may occur;
The company continues to make a loss with no sign of the trend reversing
There is no prospect of raising additional funds
The company loses a major customer
The loss of a key supplier with no replacement being found
Substantial debtors are in financial trouble and debts are not insured
There are significant onerous or loss making contracts
Banks remove their facility
This is not of course an exhaustive list. The overarching principle has to be that directors take action when any event occurs that suggests the company may be in trouble. In cases such as these it is important that the board meet and discuss the future and where appropriate take specialist qualified advice. Hoping that the problem will go away or developing an unreasonably optimistic outlook are not recommended courses of action!
How can you protect yourself against a claim of wrongful trading?
There are steps you can take that will help to show that, as a director you acted responsibly and within the law. Of course it is impossible to give a remedy for absolutely every case and you won’t be protected just because you have done a few of these but these are some useful guidelines for the sort of safeguards you should be thinking about.
Maintain good, timely accounting records and management reports - Knowing what is going on with your company, even if it is not your area of responsibility will give you a chance of spotting problems early.
Ensure you have adequate training - ignorance is not a defence so ensure that you have the level of skill that allows you to understand what is happening within your company.
Meet regularly - and discuss as a board results not only for the past but also the future outlook. Ask the difficult questions and make sure that assertions made are tested for validity.Ensure that discussions and decisions are recorded.
Adopt a realistic worldview - ensure you have a basis for any optimistic forecasts and don’t just assume that everything will be OK.
Take action - Minimise costs and don’t continue to spend money. Taking action to reduce any possible loss to creditors shows that the directors have thought about the ramifications of continuing to trade.
Think about the future effects of current events - does losing a supplier mean that you can no longer manufacture your product? Will a loss making contract cause irreparable financial harm to your firm? If your main debtor goes bust how will you replace the cash lost?
Actively monitor and control debts - ensuring that no further liabilities are taken on and that current debts are monitored and paid down where possible shows a responsible approach to the company.
Take qualified advice - If there is any doubt then getting in independent experts show that the board are serious about their responsibilities to creditors.
In most cases of company insolvency directors have acted with care and responsibility. When a business goes into liquidation the creditors invariably lose out and so it is important that their losses are minimised and this is an area that a liquidator will take a look at.
Adopting these good practice principles will help immeasurably but as ever it is really important to ensure that you have taken qualified and experienced advice about your specific circumstances.
You can find an interesting HMRC manual here - http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/manuals/insmanual/ins44321.htm
and the independent accountancy body ICEAW has produced a useful guide here
We’ve all heard the expression that ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ but it’s true that a significant amount of people think that the cool app that they have just started using in the cloud is somehow magically paid for by the fairies! This post is designed to help you spot some of the ways that cloud software companies will use to part you from your money.
The cloud has brought a huge amount of really useful tools within reach of even the smallest companies. I confess to having love for Mailchimp, TeamworksPm and GoogleDocs. I’m getting into a load of others too and I’m using them all on their free plans – but ‘FREE’ doesn’t always mean free.
So how do companies charge for their services? Here are some of the business models;
1 – Subscriptions – This is possibly the most up front method that a company will use. You pay a set amount from day 1 of using the product. That’s it. Nice and easy to understand but often companies won’t give you a free period to see if you like it. Consequently if you sign up, enter all your data, train your staff then find out you don’t like it then you’re stuck. Bigger developers will use this and probably ally it with sales people.
2 – Advertising – This is the easiest to spot and is the method used by companies like Facebook. Seen all those annoying ads next to your profile? Well they are paying for your software. Marketers pay to advertise next to people who share similar interests and values to the product or service they are trying to sell. This is sometimes combined with the subscription model so it’s free with ads or if you pay a subscription the ads disappear.
3 – Reduced functionality – Want our app for free? Yes of course but if you want to do all of the cool stuff that it is capable of then you’ll have to pay. Apps like Prezi and Batchbook and TeamworkPM will give you the ‘lite’ version to get you using their product but when you want to do something a little more advanced then you’ll have to buy a subscription. This is a great way to get into an app but beware – some may not let you export your data if you decide to move away later.
4 – Restricted activity – This is the easiest to disguise. The app works absolutely fine in all respects but only up to a certain level of activity. Want more users? Want to upload more times in a month? Want to send out more invoices? Then you’ll have to pay. Apps like Box and Dropbox use this model.
5 – Time limited – Everything but for a trial period only. The trial period is designed to let you have a look, play, get some stuff going and form a habit. Once it gets switched off then you can’t access your stuff and you miss it. Videoscribe use this but to be honest 7 days trial is too short in my opinion.
6 – Composite methods – Some or all of the above. You’ll find that the more you pay the more users you can add, the more functionality is available and the more like a custom made application it becomes.
The cloud has led to a massive increase in the amount of apps available. The quality is variable to be honest but the one common theme is that they haven’t all been designed out of the goodness of people’s hearts!* If you are unsure then carry out a Google search, do lots of research and work out how you’ll use the service or alternatively see the advertisement below.
Let’s be fair, some of these companies have spent millions bringing to market a superb application that will make your life a lot better so they deserve to be paid for their effort and they are honest and upfront about the whole thing. (look for a page on their site called ‘Pricing’ or ‘Plans’). Some though aren’t totally transparent and users only find out what they have to pay for when it’s too late.
This is what I do for companies. If you are thinking about buying software then call me first. I give an independent and impartial view as to whether it’s a good move for you or not and it’s a lot cheaper than making the wrong decision.
* Yes Linux,open office etc. HAVE been designed out of the goodness of people’s hearts but in general the majority of the stuff you come across in internetland will be trying to work out how to get into your wallet.
Seemingly simple decisions can get stuck in the mud and seem to be intractable when you are working on a project. The inspiration for this entry comes from a talk given by Sophie Personne at a networking event I attended recently. Sophie runs an excellent local business called Sophisticated Singles and spoke eloquently about the power of compromise.
Sadly compromise is something that is often lacking in project meetings with political game playing, resistance to change and downright obstinance all playing a part, so how can you push decisions through when things get tough? Here are a few tips to help you on the way.
Tip 1 – Speak to people privately. Sometimes taking 5 minutes out of a meeting environment can help people understand the other’s point of view. Simply taking time to listen can often show up misunderstandings that actually would be masked in a meeting room.
Tip 2 – Find out the real reason. Often people will dig their heels in on an issue for an unrelated reason. I remember one project where an accountant absolutely refused to budge on an issue. It turned out that this was as a result of management not spelling out where he fitted into the organisation post project. Once he’d been given clear sight of his future position he became a positive and valuable team player.
Tip 3 – Understand the impact of everyone’s suggested course of action. If a course of action has no impact on the project, won’t cost anything but makes people feel more included then why wouldn’t you adopt it? Sometimes sitting down with each side and spelling out what the consequences will be can often produce a compromise position easily.
Tip 4 – Use peer power. If people can see how their actions are affecting others then often they will at least compromise or sometimes back down entirely. In a group setting spell out what effect the impasse is having on the rest of the team.
Tip 5 – Get the project sponsor involved. Sometimes whatever you do people refuse to back down. Get the sponsor in to sit people down and clear the blocker. This needs to be used sparingly because the power of the sponsor and the shock of them getting involved tends to wane when they turn up every day to mediate on minor disagreements!
Tip 6 – Get an outsider in. Often people that work together every day will react differently (and be much more grown up) when an outside agency becomes involved. Get an independent (ahem!) professional in to do a project review and see how that moves things along.
If you need help with your project then get in touch for an initial chat and we’ll see if we can get your team to compromise!
We all want people to buy what we are selling right?
But I’m a firm believer that we can’t make people buy they have to choose to buy.
If we understand how people choose to buy then we can put in place all the information they need to make a positive choice. Buying behaviour is all about the steps people go through when they are making that choice.
Think about the last thing you bought. How did you decide who to use or what product to buy?
Oddly, although we’re all different, research has shown that humans make buying decisions in the same way. We may take longer or shorter time, gather more or less information but we still go through the process.
There are 5 steps in this process and the great news for businesses is that understanding these steps allows them to make it easier for the consumer to choose their product or service.
These are the steps that people go through when they are thinking about buying something;
- Recognition – people realise there’s a need either on their own or they get prompted.
- Search – when they realise there’s a need our prospective buyer will do an information search. They’ll probably do an internal search ( memories of good/bad experiences, recommendations that friends have made, ads they’ve seen) or they’ll do an external search by checking Google or asking around. They’ll look at all the features of something they want to buy and maybe subconsciously will rank them in order of importance.
- Matching – they’ll make up a short list of possible buys and then match them against the ranking that they made up in the previous stage.
- Choice – They’ll form a short list and then make a choice based on the results of their matching process
- Purchase – they actually go through the process of buying
However there’s something important that businesses need to know. A buyer can choose to either re-start or leave the process at any time. So if your prospect gets all the way through to stage 5 and your purchase process isn’t smooth and intuitive then they can easily drop out and go and find another supplier. Similarly if no product gets through the matching process they may go back and do another more detailed information search.
What buyers do
What you need to do
Realise there’s a problem – decide whether to do anything about it
Prompt people to realise there’s a problem or create a need
Insurance, car cam belts, gas boiler servicing
Look for information on solutions both internally (memories) and externally, develop assessment criteria
Make sure you are around and that they can find information, make sure that you are memorable so that you are stored internally
Google, tourist information,key fobs, Meerkats, loyalty schemes
Assess features and benefits of each against their criteria developed in stage 2
Ensure your benefits are clear and that you compare favourably. Factfind. Give incentives or bespoke
Mobile websites, comparison sites, comparison charts
Decides which (whether) the product sufficiently matches the criteria
Spell out how your product meets the need, answer request for further information, bespoke your service
Statement of benefits, Car websites
Goes through with the purchase then evaluates their experience and stores it in memory for next time
Make sure it’s easy to buy
Repeat orders, shopping lists
The process is longer or shorter depending upon how important the purchase is. The more important a decision, the more consequences or the more expensive then the more information the buyer will seek. Would you look to do a structural survey on a shed? Probably not. The consequences of getting it wrong won’t be as disastrous as choosing which house to buy and it doesn’t cost as much money so consumers won’t look for as much information and won’t view as many alternatives.
As an aide i’ve included some questions below, see if it gives you any inspiration for marketing your business or product
These are the steps for a personal purchase and we’ll usually make them in isolation but often the business buying decision can be the same or similar. It may have more formal steps, it may be longer but it’ll still contain the same basic methods although it may well include more people in the decision making process.
If you tailor your service or product to the way that people buy you should have happier customers. Happy customers will come back (because of their information search) and you’ll have a busy business. Everyone’s a winner!
Right let’s be honest Windows 8 isn’t the best. (I’m trying to be diplomatic)
When it first appeared I absolutely hated it. This was a fine example of a company taking it’s user’s thoughts on board and launching them straight into the bin. I’ve started to get used to it and some of the features I love (but only some). I find it difficult to understand why a company will take probably the best known user interface and stamp on it with a big fat muddy boot (rant over).
To be fair W8 works fine when you have a touch screen but if you are a desk based person then it’s rubbish.
On the plus side there are a series of workarounds that can make your life less traumatic.
First off if you’ve got Windows 8 then download the update Windows 8.1. This is a sign that Microsoft knows it’s made a boo boo. For those of you that hate the fact that MS got rid of the Start button then you’ll find it returns when you download it. You can find out more about W8.1 here http://windows.microsoft.com/en-gb/windows-8/meet
Tip 1 – remember the scroll wheel. When you are on the ‘Charms’ ( I know, I know) screen then the scroll wheel is really useful for moving from one end of the icons to the other
Tip 2 – reorganise your charms. Move the ones you want the most to be front and centre of your home screen. Simply click your mouse on them, hold and drag the icon to where you want it to be.
Tip 3 – to find the program you want then just start typing on the charms screen and W8 will bring up a list that matches like this (click on the image to see a bigger version)
Tip 4 – Learn some handy shortcut keys. Here’s some of the ones I use most:
- What to shut down? Pressing the windows key and ‘I’ at the same time brings up the stupid settings thingmy (press Esc to make it go away
- Opened a program you didn’t want? Press the Alt key and F4 to shut it down. ( this closes the program so save your work if you need to keep something)
- Want to move between programs? Hold down the Alt key then press tab, each time you press tab you’ll move to another open program, let it go and the one you chose will magically appear
- Zoom in or zoom out. Hold down Ctrl and turn the mouse wheel
- Want your desktop? Press the windows key and ‘D’ at the same time. If you’re already on the desktop then it’ll show you the start/charms screen.
- Visit this place for more keyboard shortcuts http://windows.microsoft.com/en-gb/windows-8/keyboard-shortcuts
Tip 5 – right click on the start button – you did download W8.1 right? Well when you do you’ll get a funky new device from MS called a start button (what a great idea). Right click on it and you’ll get a list of the most commonly used features like signing off and shutting down. Smashing.
Tip 6 – and this is the best one. Use it. Seriously Microsoft is trying to force its way into the mobile/tablet arena and they won’t drop W8 so we’re stuck with it for a while. The best bet is to start using it, exploring the functions and getting to know the cheeky little fella. Just be comforted by the fact that everyone else hates it too.
This post isn’t designed to make you a W8 wizard. All I want to do is take some of the pain away. There’s some great communities on the web that will be able to tell you much more than I.
To get you started there’s another really useful article on customising the whole Windows 8 experience here http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/how-customize-windows-81-start-screen-and-keyboard-shortcut-tricks
Estimating is a key skill in ERP implementation projects. It’s vital to get a clear sight of how much your project is going to cost and how long it will take but what are the best practices for this vital skill?
Magne Jorgensen produced the top 12 estimating best practices and I’ve taken these and added in some of my real world experience and suggestions as to how you can manage the process.
(1) evaluate estimation accuracy, but avoid high evaluation pressure – Studies have shown that giving people a bonus or basing their appraisals on a good estimation track record actually decreases their ability and accuracy. Treat the estimation process as a collaborative effort and you’ll get better accuracy and a happier, more committed team.
(2) avoid conflicting estimation goals – It seems an obvious one but telling your analyst that you need a supremely accurate cost and then telling them that it mustn’t come in over X will make their work less reliable. Go for accuracy and not political expediency.
Thomsett (1996) gives an excellent example in his ‘software estimation game’
Boss: Hi, Mary. How long do you think it will take
to add some customer enquiry screens to the Aardvark
Mary: Gee . . . I guess about six weeks or so.
Boss: WHAAT?!!!! That long?!!! You’re joking, right?
Mary: Oh! Sorry. It could be done perhaps in four
weeks . . .
We’ve all been there right?
(3) ask the estimators to justify and criticize their estimates – Very often a firm will have a culture of perfection and not being able to admit mistakes. In a project environment this is often disastrous. The truth is that any cost prediction will have shortcomings. Ask your estimator what these are and then take a view as to whether you mitigate or look for more information.
(4) avoid irrelevant and unreliable estimation information – Sometimes people include information in their estimate that is unreliable purely because they have nothing better to go on. The truth is you are better off understanding that there is no data rather than basing a decision on something that could be misleading.
(5) use documented data from previous development tasks – If you’ve done work in the area before, or even if you had a project in the company that wasn’t the same you can still use the lessons learned documentation to inform your estimates for the new project. You did do a lessons learned document didn’t you?
(6) find estimation experts with relevant domain background and good estimation records – Music to my ears. Get in an expert even if it is only to help with estimation. Studies show that experience of the software you are putting in is great but across a number of different platforms is even better.
(7) Estimate top-down and bottom-up, independently of each other – Don’t let the golden idea of how long a project should take affect the bottom up process of analysing out how long each task will take. Do both completely separately and you’ll get a much clearer view of the likely cost/time implications.
(8) use estimation checklists – if your software provider or partner has a checklist then so much the better but if not then sit down at the start of the analysis phase and think about all the bases you want to cover. You can add things in along the way if you forget something but make sure by the time you get to the point of choosing your software that you have covered everything in your original list.
(9) combine estimates from different experts and estimation strategies – Two heads are better than one or put another way you want the most expertise from as many different areas and with as many different points of view as you can. Get them all together then aggregate to give you an overall view.
(10) assess the uncertainty of the estimate – The only thing you can be certain about is that there is a certain level of uncertainty (with thanks to Rowan Atkinson). Estimates are only a guide but what you can do is put numbers around key points of your forecast to give you an idea as to how risky the project is.
(11) provide feedback on estimation accuracy and development task relations – this goes to points 5 and 6. If you want to identify who in your organisation is a particularly good analyst of projects then you also need to be developing them. Feedback is a vital component in this. Similarly feedback into a lessons learned document the results of your estimate versus the actual costs. You are keeping a lessons learned document right?
(12) provide estimation training opportunities – as above really. Good experienced estimators have been shown to be much more useful than a statistical model but they have to come from somewhere so start getting people involved in projects. if you are paying an outside consultant to come in and do this for you then make sure you allocate an internal person to shadow them, learn and develop the skills for in-house use.
Using these best practices when producing your project estimates will help give you the confidence that you are on the right lines and produce a better outcome.
If you’d like some external help with producing a cost estimate for your project then please do contact us -we’d be happy to help
Jorgensen. M., 2004. A review of studies on expert estimation of software development effort. Journal of Systems and Software, 70(1â€“2), pp. 37-60.
Thomsett, R., 1996. Double Dummy Spit and other estimating games.American Programmer 9 (6), 16–22.
A Board of Directors has a series of responsibilities that can only be discharged properly by having access to the right information – but how do you decide what should be in the board pack?
One of the difficulties of sitting on a board, especially if you are a Non Executive Director (or NED) is that the focus needs to change from the day to day running of the company to a more strategic and oversight role. This is where many NEDs suffer because it’s a natural reaction, especially if you have many years experience in a managerial capacity to want lots of in depth material. It’s a reaction that can prove counter-productive because lots of detail can lead to a loss of focus on the job directors are there to do.
So how do you decide what needs to be included in the board pack?
This is almost like a ‘piece of string’ question because companies are all different. Larger companies may have more onerous reporting requirements and a bigger board but there are some general rules of thumb that can help.
Executive Summary – and it really should be a summary. It’s sponsored by the MD whose aim should be to give the board an overall high level view of what has happened since the last board. It’s the entree if you like to the more meaty reports from the leaders in the functional areas. Of course often the MD feels they are the most important person in the room and will try and write a novel but that’s not the point of the exercise. It really is only the precursor to the main event. Keep it to a side of A4 if possible.
KPIs – this again should be a high level report based around the key drivers of the business. The KPIs themselves should be chosen well in advance by the board and should be a result of their understanding of how the business runs and what they key drivers are. A really well designed KPI report will include around half a dozen metrics that will encapsulate exactly how the business is doing and will again fit on one side of A4. In an ideal world each of the functional departments will have a KPI that they will report on in subsequent sections so that the whole pack forms a pyramid.
Finance – Above all the board are the keepers of the shareholders’ money so a finance report is a key component of a board pack. Remember though that your FD is a numbers man/lady and they’ll want to include information down to a low level. They really should only give you the information one level down from the KPI’s and then use this as a method of stimulating questions because it’s the discussion in a board where the real value lies.
Marketing – for any company the driver to success has to be an effective and active marketing department. For companies that practice a customer focused methodology then it’s crucial as marketing will influence everything from product development right through to after sales servicing. Of course marketers are fantastic salespeople and will love to tell you everything in great detail. Again they need to be focused on providing a level of information appropriate for strategic discussion and not how many hits the website has had.
Operations – This is probably the area where companies will differ the most but of course it is also the engine room of the business. This report needs to be all about how the firm goes about it’s work. What’s working well and what not so. What does the company need to do differently and what investment needs to be made to make things better?
Compliance – often firms need to report out to an external body such as OFSTED, CSCI etc. It’s important that these bodies are given comfort that their concerns are given prominence at board level but also that the firm internally considers matters of compliance all year round and not just at reporting time. Again this needs to be at a high level and could take a similar form to the risk register.
Risk/Audit – The Directors are custodians of the firm so they need to be mindful of risks that may turn up in the future, assess these and mitigate where required. A comprehensive and updated risk register is the key here and again forms the spur to discussion. Similarly they need to plan an audit and work on the findings and the level of information will naturally change just before and after an audit.
Projects/special reports – there are points throughout the year where something may be happening that requires The Directors attention. It may be the findings of the remuneration committee or a large company wide project that is occurring but whatever it is the board need a good high level overview of how things are progressing.
PESTLE – this really goes to the heart of what the board are there to do. It doesn’t need to take the form of the ubiquitous PESTLE (Political,Economic,Sociological,Technological, Legal and Environmental) format but there needs to be an appreciation of the firm’s place in the world and the external factors that could affect it. After all if The Directors don’t understand where the rocks are how will they steer the ship?
It’s also really important to think about how this information will be consumed and used. SME NEDs often only get one day a month paid and will be expected to attend a meeting for half a day. The pack needs to be light enough that it can be read and understood within an hour or so. It needs to strike a balance between enough detail for good understanding but not too much that it takes an age to read because trust me – people won’t read it. Remember also that we are all different. I hate paper information, some people love it so be prepared to provide it in whatever way is most comfortable for your individual Directors.
Consistency is important as time spent looking for where the latest sales figures are will put people off but also mean that they have less time to actually understand the numbers. Keep a consistent format and style for each report each month and make sure that the pack is distributed at the same time every month so that the directors know when to expect it.
The aim of the board pack is to educate and inform but also to stimulate debate. As a general rule of thumb one quarter of the meeting should be given over to presentation of the reports for each area and three quarters should be allowed for discussion because as started earlier this is where the real value is added. The overriding message has to be focus,focus,focus.
Although there is no ‘standard’ board pack, following the guidelines above should get you most of the way towards a good level of content for your company to make the most of it’s Board of Directors’ talents.
Isango8 specialise in information presentation. If you’d like us to help you reformat your board pack and identify your KPIs then please get in touch for an informal chat and we can tell you how we can help.
As a non executive director you’ll probably have oversight of a number of projects during your tenure but how can you tell if things are going awry when you are remote from the project team? These are my top 5 signs that things might be going wrong.
One of the great things about being a non executive director is that you have the opportunity to take a detached higher level view. This gives you a chance to spot things that look out of place when someone much closer and more invested in the project may not be able to see the signs.
There’s an old saying that ‘there’s nothing new in the world’ and in the universe of projects that’s especially true. One thing that shines out from the reams and reams of literature on implementations is the consistency of the type of problems that projects face. The good news is that NEDs can use that consistency to spot when their firm may be facing issues.
There are really only 3 ways in which a project can be classed a failure – the system is late, over budget and it’s not to the specification required. Here I present my top 5 ways to spot if any of these is on the horizon.
5 – High spending very early on. Projects, especially those that need infrastructure will incur higher costs early on for things like servers, cabling etc. but staff costs should generally be higher towards the end when you are entering the testing/training phase. If your project has used up a very high proportion of its budget or the spending is not matching the project cash flow predictions then it’s time to ask questions because it may well end up using up all of the money when it’s too late to turn back. Make sure a ‘Cost to complete’ is included in the project reports that the board should be getting regularly from the project team.
4 – Things mysteriously disappear from the schedule. I have honestly seen software houses just leave things out of a project report because they decided it was too difficult to deliver. They hoped that if they didn’t mention it then people would forget that they’d asked for it in the first place! Good organisation is the key here. Make sure that when you receive project reports they include all aspects of the proposed implementation and that the risk register is kept up to date.
3 – Missing early deadlines. Through the life of the project there will be mini deadlines that crop up. Producing a system for a ‘look and feel’ demonstration system for instance. It’s usually a sign of how the company providing the goods does business and it’s folly to think that this leopard will change it’s spots halfway through a project. If your provider starts to miss early deadlines then you need to start exercising the firm’s authority and exert proper control over targets.
2 – The project sponsor goes AWOL. One of the key critical success factors cited in the literature is full high level back up from the project sponsor. Unfortunately they are generally very busy people and often, although the project is the focus of their attention on day one, by the time they get halfway through your sponsor will have moved on to more pressing matters. The difficulty is that this is the point at which their input is most needed. As a NED the sponsor is also your direct link to the project so get them to focus. If something else is taking them away then reassign the task.
1 – Lack of clear direction. This is my absolute number 1 priority for any project big or small. The great thing for a NED is that this can be seen right from day 1. If you read the project description and there is no clear and unequivocal statement of what actually will be achieved by investing the firms money then your project will fail. This is also the point where a good NED can add the most value. Challenge (in a constructive way obviously) all the way to the point where the contract is signed. Make sure that the proposed system is properly and completely planned and scoped so that everyone has a clear sight of what the company want to achieve. If you don’t then you can expect trouble!
Above all my advice is to trust your intuition. If something doesn’t sound right, if the project manager becomes evasive or people begin to stare at their feet when budgets or schedules are on the agenda then it may be time to dig a little deeper!
This is a little something I did in some spare time and if you’re a project manager who’s a parent then you’ll definitely recognise the behaviour!
1 client (child) says they would like a sandwich
2 project manager(mum) goes back to client and asks what type of sandwich. client says ‘something nice’
3 Project Manager(PM) suggests peanut butter. Client informs PM that they hate peanut butter
4 PM Asks client what they would like instead then. Client says ‘ something nice but not peanut butter’
5 PM decides to check the cupboard and see what’s available
6 Client says ‘where’s my sandwich?’. PM informs client that they haven’t decided what they want yet
7 Client says ‘oh yeah’ and still doesn’t decide
8 PM calls project meeting with client to feedback the options
9 Client doesn’t like any of them and questions why they are paying their PM a fortune to under achieve
10 Client informs PM that they have just met someone at a networking group (school) who really likes baked bean and banana sandwiches
11 PM informs client that they won’t like baked bean and banana sandwiches because they are squidgy and the client hates bananas
12 Client informs PM that they are the client and they’ll have what they want. As an aside they mention that their networking(school) friend has a PM (mum) who always gives them what they want
13 PM asks client if they want their bread buttered, client promises to get back to PM
14 PM gathers together bread, bananas, two knives(in case one is ineffective), a tin of baked beans, a tin opener, a plate and an assistant PM (little brother)
15 PM asks client if they want their bread buttered, client promises to get back to them. PM Points out that this is a critical path item and work will stop until a decision is reached. Client turns volume up on TV so that they can’t hear what the PM is saying
16 PM tasks APM with skinning a banana. PM selects 2 slices of bread and puts them on the plate. APM begins to pick nose whilst staring out of the window.
17 PM carries out a load test of the knives to make sure they work and starts making a training plan for sandwich eating, puts washing into machine and loads dishwasher.
18 Client calls into the kitchen and asks where the sandwich is. PM informs client that they still haven’t made a decision over the critical path item (bread buttering)
19 Client asks what resource the PM was thinking of using to carry out the operation. PM informs client that APM is pencilled in to do it
20 Client goes ‘humph’ and walks away without making a decision
21 PM explains to APM that nose picking is not optimal for this project and sends them to wash hands
22 Client suggests crisis meeting in which they explain that they are very disappointed not to see the project progress any further. PM explains that the team are eager to progress but are waiting on the mission critical decision on bread buttering. Client says that he can’t understand why the PM hasn’t made such a simple decision themselves. After all their friends PM(mum) would have already done this by now. Explains that they are considering changing PMs as a result. Client decides to take more control of the project and fires APM who is singing in the bathroom. Client decides to butter half of the bread and tells PM that ‘it wasn’t so hard after all, was it?’. Goes to watch power rangers.
23 PM butters remaining bread, skins and mashes banana, puts banana into bread opens beans puts beans onto bread puts top on sandwich cuts into four squares and delivers to client. APM stops singing in bathroom and asks why they have been fired.
24 Client informs PM that they didn’t want it cut into squares as they are no longer a child. PM points to project scope document and says that this was not specified and does not affect the operation of the deliverables. Client makes dissatisfaction with PMs performance known.
25 PM begins training plan by telling client to ‘eat your sandwich and shut up’
26 Client informs PM that they hate bananas and asks why the PM thought it appropriate to provide a squidgy sandwich when they hate squidgy sandwiches. PM explains to client that this was noted on the project risks document right at the start and they would have appreciated some feedback before beginning work.
27 Client informs PM in a full and frank exchange of views that they are in fact the worst PM in the entire world. Further, they are stupid and smell too. They wonder why they didn’t use their networking (school) friends PM who always makes great sandwiches.
28 PM removes the application (sandwich) and places it in a secure offline storage facility(bin). Client decides that a cooling off period(sulk) is appropriate
29 Client contacts PM and explains about a great idea they have for a further project for a tuna and honey sandwich and suggests forcefully that, as the PM performed so poorly in the last project that they complete this new improved project ahead of their other projects (little brother’s sandwich) only ‘much better this time’ as recompense.
30 PM explains to client that they have a large amount of projects (washing, cleaning, ironing) to carry out before they feed ungrateful children. Suggests developing an in house capacity (‘do it yourself’) or failing that utilising the services of their networking (school) friend’s PM.