Saturday, 19 December 2009

Delivering Real Value

At the Warehouse, we run regular courses on “Managing successful projects”. I often get asked to provide support for these courses on behalf of the executive, by welcoming the participants and leading one of the sessions. The irony is that the session they always get me to lead is “What leads to project failure”? During this session we interactively identify why projects fail. There are many reasons why projects can fail. However, I always emphasise what I believe to be two key causes of project failure.

The first is sponsors who are not active champions for the project. I tell our participants that yes; I and my executive colleagues are one of your biggest risks. Normally this is not because we do not believe in the project or that they are inherently bad leaders. Often it is because we try and do too much too quickly and simply run out of time.

If you have issues and your sponsor is not willing to provide the time and support that you need to resolve issues or align resources effectively for your project, then the project manager needs to have a conversation with the sponsor to resolve this issue.

The potential resolutions are many and varied, however you need to consider the possibility that the project should be stopped or put on hold until it can be given priority. Better to stop early than muddling through with the likelihood of ultimate failure.

The second major cause of project failure is that we stop too soon. A huge effort goes into delivering the project; we get to go live and provide a small amount of post-go live support. We have a party to celebrate success and then leave looking for our next opportunity. We arrogantly assume that what we have implemented the first time is the total and ultimate solution.

We fail to measure on a consistent basis to ensure we get the benefits we expect and we spend virtually no time working with “the users” to ensure they successfully make the transition to the new process. As a result the change usually doesn’t stick and we do not get the benefits we planned, and we wonder why the project didn’t work.

To help reinforce the point, I compare a project to raising a child. There are three phases to each process and below is the short G-rated (approved for general viewing) version.

In stage one both are conceived to high expectations and celebrations. Everybody celebrates what will be and see only the benefits to come, and none of the hard work.

In the project world, we call stage two, implementation. In parenthood it is called pregnancy. During implementation, there is a lot of hard work that needs to be done. There are many reasons for that, however one of the main ones is we often expect people to carry on with our day jobs while at the same time supporting the project.

The culmination of stage two is “go live”. Go lives are often momentous events where everyone is under immense pressure and as a result things are said that perhaps shouldn’t be. The result of go live is, however, miraculous. In one a child is born. In the other a new way of business is given birth too and handed over to the expectant parents.

Stage three is where we raise the child to adulthood so they can effectively leave home and independently contribute to the world. In childhood this process takes years, about 18 years if you are lucky, and lots more if you are not! In projects, however, we spend little time “raising the child”. In essence, we abandon the child to look after itself and seem to expect that everything will work out as it was intended.

In more corporate speak, we spend very little time institutionalising change from our projects. Usually it is a few weeks and we expect everything will work out. The reality is that often it doesn’t.

If as a project manager, or an IS department, we want to add value to our organisations, then I believe we need to ensure the change sticks and delivers the benefits.

Metaphorically, all the value is realised from raising the child to adulthood, it is not in the conception and implementation. If we are truly interested in value creation, we need to stick around for and be active in the terrible twos, through puberty and on into adulthood. If we don’t, the chances of everything working out decrease dramatically.

First Published on

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Paid to do nothing

First Published on

One night after a long day at work I came home wanting to chill out and relax. As a father of four that is seldom an option. This particular night I arrived home right on bedtime and soon found myself in the middle of stories and good night cuddles. In our house the bedtime ritual usually includes a period of time where we ask each other questions about our day. On this particular night my daughter asked me, “Dad, what do you do at work?”

This was not the first time she had asked me this question. On this particular night, being tired and not really thinking, I gave a glib “well, I get paid to do nothing”. I followed this up with what I thought was a pretty good attempt at describing what my job as a leader of a fairly large team actually is. It included an analogy between the principal of her school and what I did at work.

The story went that at school her job was to learn as much as she could and the teachers job was to help her learn. The school principal’s role was to support her teacher and all the other teachers in the school and make sure it ran properly so she and her friends could learn as much as possible.

He didn’t get paid to learn, but he got paid to make sure all the children did learn and to help the teachers to make that happen. At work I don’t get paid to work with computers, I get paid to support the managers, team leaders and all of the team to do their work as effectively as possible and make sure the work is done, I told her.

My daughter went very quiet and looked to be thinking about the ramifications of the answer I had given. I was quietly quite pleased with the answer I had given and then she said, “Dad, if you get paid to do nothing, why does it take so long?” I was stunned, quickly said goodnight and left disgruntled.

Now, when I said I get paid to do nothing I was half joking, but it was only half. If I look at how I actually spend my time, virtually all of my day is spent in meetings.

The form and topics of these meetings are many and varied. They may be one on ones, team meetings, executive briefings, steering committees, operating reviews, meet and greets or many other forums and topics.

If I am not in a meeting chances are I am preparing for a meeting, doing the occasional necessary action that comes out of meetings or reading and answering email and occasionally doing some personal research and study. Not a “productive” task there anywhere!

The organisational focus on meetings is often criticised loudly and with passion. How many times have you said or heard others say, “if only I didn’t have so many meetings, I could actually get something done!” Well what if you didn’t have meetings? How would we get our job as CIOs or senior IT leaders done?

In reality, as leaders of large teams, meetings are the job of CIOs and senior IT leaders. It is how we do what we do, which is to inspire, motivate, align, communicate, prioritise, discuss, decide, reward and recognise our team. There is no other effective way to do these things.

So, if you find yourself or your team lamenting about too many meetings, the problem isn’t too many meetings but that your meetings are ineffective and don’t add value. The answer is not to stop your meetings, but to find out how to have more effective, value-adding meetings. How do you do this?

As some of my previous columns have suggested, thro-ugh focusing on the basics. In this case be prepared, have a clearly defined objective and supporting agenda and ensure you have clear outcomes and next steps that are followed through.

Indeed, I believe meetings are so important that anything we do outside of a meeting should be completely focused on making our meetings more effective, so we can make a difference for our teams.

Friday, 16 October 2009

LGP Fundamentals - an Update

LGP Purpose

Games for Living; Supporting New Zealand as a place where everybody is safe and loved by harnessing the power of immersive games technology to foster the development of life skills and positive lifestyle choices.


We believe that collaboration and leadership occurs naturally in an environment where everyone feels safe and loved. We do this by:

  • living life with a sense of play
  • acting with integrity and for the highest good of all
  • learning and improving
  • seeing people as the best they can be
  • encouraging action
  • being open and inclusive


1. Create a self managing framework for the New Zealand IT industry and Educationalists to engage and connect New Zealanders with today's immersive games experience to teach life skills in fun and sustainable ways.

2. Deliver a pilot LGP Project by Christmas 2009

3. Measurably impact the lives of 2,000 kiwis, their family and friends through the delivery of immersive games technology by Christmas 2012 by:

  • Establishing 50 effective Games Delivery Operations by Christmas 2012
  • Commissioning two immersive games for our communities and for sale

Operations Guidelines

  • LGP delivers Products and Services through LGP Projects based around individual Underserved Communities
  • LGP people honour the LGP Values
  • LGP Teams collaborate to establish and support LGP Projects that deliver measureable outcomes to Underserved Communities
  • LGP Projects contribute to the LGP Purpose and BHAGs
  • Each LGP Team develops and applies effective Selection Criteria and Outcome Metrics

Finance and Administration

The LGP is looking for an existing and related registered Charitable Trust as a home that will support, nurture and administer us so that we can concentrate on ‘doing stuff.’ Is this you?


To participate and Do LGP Stuff, start by joining the LinkedIn Life Game Project Group and Subgroup that suits you best ...

Friday, 11 September 2009

Life Game Project (LGP)

LGP Vision

Games for Living - Harnessing the power of immersive games technology to foster the development of life skills and positive lifestyles throughout New Zealand communities.

LGP Purpose

Creating a self managing framework for the Auckland based IT industry and Educationalists to engage New Zealanders with today's immersive games experience to teach life skills in fun and sustainable ways.

Background to LGP

The concept for LGP was born recently out of a meeting between Ian Howard, Parikshit Basrur and myself. Exactly how it came about is something of a blur to me. However, in my brain this is what happened.

My family and I are committed to making a difference in New Zealand society. The vision we have for this is that we want New Zealand to be a place where everyone in New Zealand can be and is "Safe and Loved". I have been thinking about what I could do to make a difference and move us forward towards this vision. As I thought about this several threads of internal conversations began to form:
  • I believe in the power of technology to make a positive difference. It is one of the main reasons that I do what I do as everyday I get to think about and work on real solutions that make a difference for The Warehouse and for New Zealanders. I wondered, how could I apply technology to this broader mission?
  • The current trends in technology are beginning to change how people are defining reality and community, and how people interact with each other and can support each other. While this movement has huge positive potential, it also has the potential to simply ingrain the "have and have not's" in our society through the digital divide. Once again, communities most in need could miss out as they cannot afford access.
  • I believe in the power of education. When I say education I mean education in the holistic sense. Yes, this includes reading writing and arithmetic; but it also includes learning how to lead a successful life and develop yourself to fulfil your potential. It has been a major part of my life and has provided me many opportunities and there are many examples of programs that show that if people have the skills to be successful in society then virtually everyone will choose a positive role. My favourite example of this is the Delancey Street Foundation who turn around the lives of hardened criminals through peer support and mentoring. Over 90% of Delancey's graduates never offend again. This compares to their peer group where recidivism is typically well over 90%.
I was thinking about all of this and thinking about how I could put it together. As I pondered this my mind turned to the possibility of introducing learning labs into less advantaged communities. That is when I met Ian Howard (thanks to Baz).

Ian introduced me to the huge potential of using modern games to educate in a compelling, fun and personal way. Many modern games today are driven by participants decisions and their ability to complete specific quests or tasks. As Ian showed me some examples I began to see how you could shape the experience in a way that the gamer would begin to naturally assimilate powerful lessons in life in a fun and positive way. I could also see how gamers could be supported by peers and mentors with social networking technologies.

Thus the concept of the Life Game Project was born; and the rest will be history in the making. Game On!

If you would like to know more or contribute in some way then contact me and let's talk!

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The Power of Focus

First Published by CIO New Zealand -

The technology industry, indeed business in general, is enamoured with innovation. Any business oriented magazine you pick up talks about innovation and how to be more innovative. Innovate or die is our mantra and we are constantly on the look out for new bright ideas. If you judge us by our actions it seems we all believe that the person with the most ideas will win and all others are doomed. The result is we are constantly looking for and implementing new initiatives. If something is wrong then start a project to fix it. If your competition seems to be better at something than you are then start a project to fix it. If there is a hot new technology out there you better have an innovation fund available to be able to explore it and get ahead. Change is constant and if you can’t change faster than your competition then you will loose.

I am a big believer in the need for innovation in order to be successful but is it true that the person with the most ideas wins?

While I am no expert I have spent a fair bit of time reviewing the “success literature” and trying to understand what it takes to be successful. One of the common themes within the literature is that all successful people are incredibly focused and they practice constantly. It doesn’t matter if you look at sports stars, musicians’, authors, or business people constant focus and practice wins the day. Being a Kiwi bloke, who grew up in the deep south of the South Island one of my favourite examples is Jeff Wilson. Jeff was an incredible sporting talent who represented New Zealand in both cricket and rugby. As a teenager he also represented the south Island in age group basketball. For all his talent however it wasn’t until he decided to focus solely on rugby that he became a true superstar and one of the world’s elite.

Another great Kiwi example is Dan Carter. Maybe the best first five we have ever had. Dan Carter (and Jeff Wilson in his day) practices constantly. As the greatest first five in our history what does Dan Carter spend most of his time doing at practice? I mean he is already brilliant!! My guess is Dan Carter spends most of his time working on the basics, his fitness, his kicking, his passing and his tackling, over and over again trying to get a little better each and every time. I could go on and on with many examples. There are after all enough examples from any walk of life you wish to name to fill libraries.

When I get to work do I see this pattern of practice in the IT industry? Do we focus on the basics and look to get a little bit better at the basics every day? Often the answer is no. Rather we look for that one killer initiative, the emerging technology that will change the world or the silver bullet that will solve all our problems. Some times we even have big initiatives for continuous improvement. ITIL, maybe Six Sigma or Lean IT. Better yet what about Lean Six Sigma (maybe there’s a marketing opportunity for Lean ITIL)! We work hard on these initiatives and we spend a lot of money on them. And when they don’t work what do we do? Do we look to practice and improve a little day by day like the most successful people do or do we look to the next initiative. Usually we look to the next initiative. Indeed, I suggest that if you look back through our history as an industry it is full of silver bullets that didn’t quite fulfil their promise.

I suggest it’s time we stop looking for silver bullets. We stop defining and implementing initiative after initiative, innovation after innovation. Instead let’s look at and understand the basics of what it means to be world class in IT and work hard to implement these basics and get a little bit better at them everyday. Not very glamorous I know, but then how glamorous is it for Dan Carter to take dozens of kicks at goal every day? While it might not be glamorous practice and continuous improvement is the key to success.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

How to sell to a CIO (aka tips for tech companies)

First published in CIO New Zealand.

Before I took up the role of CIO at The Warehouse I was a partner with Deloitte Consulting. As with most professional services firms my role was a mix of selling and delivering services to clients. Because of this when I joined The Warehouse I was quite open to meet with potential service providers to see what value they could add to us.

I was unprepared for the onslaught however. Every week I get many phone calls and emails from companies who have a great product or service to sell. When I respond to these calls I find that they never provide me with value for my time. As a result I now work diligently to avoid all and any approaches from companies wishing to sell me something. While this preserves my time I am convinced that there must be solutions out there that will help our organisation and talking to the owners of those solutions seems like a sensible way to find out about them. The question is how can I do this in a way that adds value rather than destroys value?

I have talked with other CIOs about this issue either in person or online over one of several social network groups I belong to and I have discovered that I am not unique. This is a very prevalent issue so to try and cut through this here is Owen’s tips for how to successfully sell to a CIO.

Do your research before you come to see me. Doing your research shows that you are serious about us as a client because you have invested your time. As a publicly listed company our business strategy is available in public domain if you are prepared to look. Don’t stop at the company level either. Research what is going on in our IS team. For better or worse I have a reasonably high profile and so there is a lot of information available about what we are trying to achieve.

I don’t buy technology I buy solutions to business issues so when you come and see me sell me a solution to my business issue. Selling technology isn’t a bad thing. It just doesn’t work for most CIOs. If I like your business solution I probably won’t buy straight away. I will probably refer you to one of my team and someone in our business outside of IS. You will then need to sell to them to as they will need to live with the solution day by day.

Listen and act on what you hear. If I ask you to change a proposal or to pitch it in a particular way trust that there is a reason. I will tell you if I can but I can’t always tell you. If I do this it’s a great sign as it means I’m interested and one of the best ways to build a relationship is to show that you have listened and responded to my needs. If you can’t for some reason then be up front and acknowledge it. I’ll appreciate the honesty and think of you next time when you may be able to help me.

Be honest at all times. If you aren’t it will only come back to bite you and your organisation. In particular, don’t tell me how important I am to you and that you want a long term relationship with me if you don’t really mean it. If you are successful in winning business with us I will find out if you are serious the first time I ask for a change to our arrangement and you begin to quote the contract to me. This lacks integrity and you are unlikely to win any additional business.

Never tell me I’m strategic because every time someone has said that they very quickly try to increase the price or decrease the discount I receive.

Finally, for me pitching via email is better than by phone. I don’t answer the phone but I do at least browse all my emails. If you follow some of the guidance above and I like what I see you might get a response and a chance to pitch your solution to me or one of my team and that might just lead to value for everyone.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

IT and Business Alignment – Holly Grail or Fools Gold?

There is a lot of literature out there that talks about the importance of IT and business alignment.  If you search for the term at you get “about 1700” hits.  You can’t go to a conference without it being the topic of at least 1 of the speakers.   Nearly every survey of CIO concerns has IT and Business alignment as one of the top concerns.  Often IT dedicated websites have whole sections devoted to the topic of alignment.   

So what is alignment anyway?  Since there has already been a lot of discussion about alignment rather than making it up here is what has to say:

Alignment is the adjustment of an object in relation with other objects, or a static orientation of some object or set of objects in relation to others.

 Business/IT alignment, Business/IT alignment optimizes the relational mechanisms between the business and IT organization by working on the IT effectiveness of the organization in order to maximise the business value from IT.

So business/IT alignment is important because without alignment it is unlikely that you will be perceived to be investing the organisations money wisely and nor will you be perceived to be adding value.  I guess if you boil it down to a single self centred statement for a CIO, if you are not aligned then you’ll probably be looking for a new job soon! 

So if alignment is the mechanism that allows us to “maximise the business value from IT” then alignment it not only important but it is the “holy grail” as what CIO is going to disagree that maximising business value is not the most important outcome of their role?

The problem is that while I agree that maximising the business value from IT is the central mandate for a CIO I believe that the logic supporting alignment as the way of doing this is fatally flawed.  Why?  Because to believe that alignment is the most important thing requires that you believe that IT and the business are separate objects (alignment is “the adjustment of an object in relation with other objects”).  Alignment in a world of unity or an integrated world is nonsensical.  Actually, I’ll take this a step further; the fact that we practitioners of IT see ourselves as somehow different from the business in which we operate creates the problem of needing alignment.  If we simply changed this belief and replaced it with a belief that IT is the business, or perhaps more correctly, is within the business, then the issue of alignment goes away. 

That’s to simplistic I hear you say?  You’re just playing with words? Maybe, but no other function talks so much about the need for alignment as IT does.  It’s interesting that while has a definition for business/IT alignment it doesn't have a definition for business/[insert name of any department except IT here] alignment. Have you ever heard of business/marketing alignment or business/finance alignment?  Now this is not to say there are not issues with silo behaviour and the need to work together within and between other departments but the thought of this being a problem of two independent entities needing to be aligned is a little bizarre.  

Monday, 6 April 2009

One Approach to Strategy

This post was first published by CIO New Zealand

Forget the arduous, intellectualised number crunching and data grinding. In real life, strategy is actually very straight forward. You pick a general direction and implement like hell.”   Jack Welsh


I love this quote. It captures so much of where I have ended up when it comes to understanding strategy. Not long after taking up my role as the CIO of The Warehouse I began to turn my mind to producing an IS strategy. However as I went through a traditional strategy exercise as a CIO rather than a consultant I came to realise that traditional strategies don’t work to well in the real world. The best possible outcome of a traditional IS strategy is that you produce a list of technologies and projects to be implemented into your organisation over a three to five year period that while they maybe rationally correct they are usually unrealistic and unexecutable. Why? I struggle to answer why with any precision however, if pushed, my answer is that an IS strategy provides a static view of some future nirvana based on conditions today, foisted onto a dynamic and ever changing organisation. Static and dynamic do not mix well no matter how often static is updated.


So if a traditional strategy doesn’t work then what are the alternatives? When I am confronted with these types of questions I revert to type, deep introverted thinking, and try and answer some basic questions. In this case the basic questions are:


Question 1 – Why are we here? Whether this is expressed in the traditional sense of mission, vision and values our alternatives such as an organisational Core Purpose as The Warehouse does, or a “general direction” as Jack Welsh expresses it you need to understand why you exist. A clear definition of purpose provides meaning to the team and if it is truly alive will guide all decisions.


In our case the team decided we were here “to help the Warehouse achieve it’s purpose of making the desirable affordable by becoming a world class IS organisation that provides great solutions and great service that makes life easier for our customers and our team.”


Question 2 – What does success look like? The “game” of business is played over a long period of time and you need to know if you are making progress towards meeting your purpose. This is the world of measurement and I love measurement as it very powerfully determines what gets done. The real question is what should you measure? We determined that there were 5 key dimensions of what it meant to be a world class IS organisation and we have developed measures for each dimension. The dimensions are:

Customer Satisfaction – Are our users and colleagues delighted with our service?

Operational Effectiveness – Are our core IS operations efficient and effective and are we actually providing a quality service? (actual service quality and customer satisfaction with the service is not the same thing)

Employee Engagement – Is our team a place where people want to work and are they motivated to do their best work?

Project Delivery – Are we agile and do we define, prioritise and deliver the projects the business wants and needs in a timely fashion?

IS Value Add – Are we delivering value to the organisation for the money invested and are we bringing great ideas on how to use technology and information to help the organisation succeed?


Question 3 – How mature are we as an organisation? More detail on this can be found in my blog post about the IS hierarchy of needs however the answer to this question will form the context in which you choose your priorities.


Question 4 – What initiatives should we undertake to meet these needs? The initiatives you undertake will vary depending on the culture of your organisation, your leadership style and what needs from question 3 you are trying to meet in the short term


Question 5 – What are the target measurements that will show we have succeeded? This is how you will know you are making progress and provides cues of when to celebrate and when to dig deeper into an issue that is not making progress.


After much thought and discussion within our team answering these 5 questions forms the basis of our strategy. It is simple. So simple we can fit it on a page, two pages if you count the scorecard with all our measures on it and we hang it up through out our work area, always visible. Now all we have to do is execute like hell.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Thoughts of a Trainee Parent

This post was first published at

There is a great little poem by Robert Fulghum about life called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It is a very simple and common sense approach to life. Once you have read it you wonder why life is so complex. We seem to get some form of satisfaction and sense of self esteem by making things complex. Did you ever hear someone boast that their job was so difficult, complex and important that they couldn't possibly explain it. I often wonder about this. I mean really, if you can’t explain what you do how can you do it?

Now here’s the rub. I find it really hard to explain what I do as an “IT Leader” to people who live outside of the corporate environment, especially my family. If I explain what an Information Systems Department does my mother and brother will ask me to fix their PC. After I have checked the power and done the standard reboot I’m lost. On the other hand if I explain to them what I do from a task perspective then it’s: I go to meeting (talk and listen), prepare for meetings and send and receive email. They just look at me as if I’m stupid and go “yeah but what do you do?”.

Another approach I have taken is to say I lead or manage an Information Systems Department. This is more accurate but often all I get is “…well what does that mean?” It’s a good question, what does it mean? There are libraries full of books on leadership and management but does anyone really know? Surely libraries full of books make leadership far more complex than it needs to be. So in the interests of simplification and as a show of admiration for Robert Fulghum here is my version of leadership from the perspective of a parent:

“All I Really Needed to Know about Leadership I Learnt as a Parent”.

  • Love is the most important thing.

  • Be respectful. Children might be short but they are people.

  • Your job as a parent is to help your children to learn right from wrong and become independent. That’s all. (aka it’s their life, let them live it)

  • As the parent you set the tone and the rules.

  • Actions have consequences. Be consistent, always.

  • Do not have rules you do not want to enforce.

  • It might not look like they’re listening but they are.

  • It might not look like they’re watching but they are.

  • Yes sometimes you do have to repeat yourself a thousand times before they get it.

  • What you said and what they heard are not the same thing!

  • Accidents happen. They know they screwed up you don’t need to tell them but they do need to clean up and put it right.

  • Making mistakes and the bumps and bruises that result are part of learning and children should not be protected from them.

  • Sometimes there is real danger. They actually don’t know better and they do need to be protected until they learn (see above).

  • True forgiveness is healing. If you want to understand true forgiveness then observe your child after you have screwed up.

  • If you always resolve the arguments and always make the decisions then you will always have to resolve the arguments and make the decisions.

  • Always end the day with a cuddle and talk about the day (topics of choice: What was great? What was not so good? What would you do different? Do you have any questions?).

  • Finally, have fun together. You learn a lot, it builds great relationships and it’s, well, fun.

There are two more things that I would like to add to the list. I didn’t learn these as a parent I learnt them from my parents, specifically my father. They are more to do with the relationship between the parents than they are about being a parent. Think of them as rules for “executive relationships” and they belong here because of their impact on the children:

  • Never go to bed on an argument

  • The most important thing that a father can do for his children is to love their mother.

So there you have it, leadership from the perspective of a parent as seen by Owen McCall (parent to 4 amazing children and CIO of The Warehouse).