How Life Insurance Companies Can Use the PMO to Improve Outcomes of Agile Projects

The Agile approach used in software development helps projects respond to unpredictability.

oh noWhat? Unpredictability?

Life insurance companies are founded on predictability! How can Agile work at insurance companies, the reigning rulers of predictability?

In an informal examination of multiple large life insurance provider websites, the following key words were found (multiple times/places):

  • Preserve
  • Long tradition
  • Security
  • Base for building
  • Permanent
  • Fixed
  • Deeply committed
  • Dependable

So how can we, as project managers and program managers, fuse the “traditional” insurance corporate cultures with Agile projects that are based on evolving, iterating and changing?

A PMO initiative can help manage the point where predictability has to meet unpredictability, and blend as peacefully as possible in the project world:

  • Work with project teams and vendors to ensure agile terms, practices and goals are understood and met
  • Instill a level of commitment for agile projects that meet and align with overall project goals
  • Help set up or enhance proper Agile governance for projects and vendors
  • Assure that all integration points between multiple projects are identified, efficient and manageable
  • Perform ongoing scope analysis while adhering to the Agile philosophy of shifting and reprioritizing as necessary
  • Initiate risk analysis and align with the Agile methodology
  • Provide long term, short term or interim leadership in overall project work and Agile core competencies
  • Supplement resources to help with project and business area gaps
  • Guide project managers, sponsors and stakeholders throughout the agile process and provide ownership and stability with this methodology
  • Keep a balance of traditional project reporting and documentation while managing everyday Agile shifts and changes

As daunting as it may be for “old school” companies, exposure to Agile projects is inevitable. Managing Agile in a predictable way allows insurance companies to understand what it will take to adapt to the Agile project mindset and advocate the change.

eMetrics Boston 2014 Recap: A Web Analytics Consultant’s Perspective

dalmatianLast week I had the pleasure of attending eMetrics Summit Boston at the Seaport World Trade Center as both an Edgewater Web Analtyics consultant and an attendee. For those of you reading this that may have been there yourselves, we were the booth with the cute Dalmatian. ;)

Overall, I really enjoyed the event and was motivated by some of the topics covered. Below are a my highlights:

  • It’s All One Big Decision: AB Testing, Predictive Analytics, and Behavioral Targeting
    Speaker: Matt Gershoff
    I thought Matt brought an interesting perspective to these topics and really came up with a great title for this session. All too often marketing departments decide to get into AB Testing or Behavioral Targeting for the wrong reasons – someone told them they should, or they heard a particular tool was good. It is important to step back and think about the WHY before the WHAT. There are a lot of great tools out there but ultimately optimization is all about positioning your business with the ability to make better decisions.
  • Boston Red Sox – One Year Later
    Keynote Speaker: Tim Zue
    As a Red Sox fan and New England native I must admit a bias here but it was very interesting to see some of the measurement issues a huge sports organization like the Boston Red Sox faces. While most of us can’t directly relate to same specific issues, Tim’s presentation illustrated the importance of out-of-the-box thinking. I found it particularly fascinating how Fenway Park has been transitioning from traditionally more flat pricing into more flexible ticket pricing based on true market value data imported from after-market ticket sales. Seats that have proven higher value have increased over time while others have decreased. Analyzing after market prices to make these adjustments to the primary market was a very clever strategy. Kudos to you Tim Zue.
  • Five Big Analytics Project Lessons
    Speaker: Jim Cain
    Everyone can learn from what someone else has already learned from. A few quick takeaways I found particular useful:

    • Utilizing “Active Community Members” as a social KPI.
    • Making sure web analytics data matches internal systems, “If the CFO doesn’t agree with your numbers, no one else will either.”
    • “Most social analytics tools stink.” It was reassuring for me to hear this from others in the field and I heard essentially the same sentiment in multiple sessions in the two days I was there. I would agree with this in most cases and I have also found most social tools to be extremely overpriced. Working directly with social APIs whenever possible certainly seems like the way to go. It saves money in the long run and allows for greater flexibility. Win win!
    • And while maybe not useful but particularly amusing, “BIG DATA – It doesn’t refer to font size.”
  • It was great to have a break from the normal day to day and attend eMetrics. I’ve personally been inspired to write a few more blog posts on various analytics topics so more on that soon. See you next year Boston!

    Why Office 365 over Google Apps?

    Competitive companies have CIOs who are interested in solving business problems – not focused on day-to-day IT tasks. Technology is business and if you don’t master it, your competition will. In order to focus on the business as a CIO, you need to rely on products that will essentially take care of themselves. This is, I believe, the critical benefit of  Microsoft Office 365, and what is really clearly explained in Microsoft’s new white paper, Top 10 Reasons for Choosing Office 365 over Google Apps.

    There are dozens of product comparisons out there, but the decision points in this white paper can really be boiled down to 3 reasons:

    1Privacy Matters

    Microsoft hits this concern first. Why should we believe our information will be safe? Well, Microsoft touts its $9 billion network of data centers, which may or may not be impressive to you.

    Google is an advertising company. Why would I trust a company whose business model relies on ad revenue? It creates a motive for selling personal information. While Microsoft’s Bing does sell ads, it is an ancillary rather than primary revenue generator for the Microsoft Corporation, representing less than 8% of Q4 FY2014 total revenue. Google on the other hand generated 91% of their revenue from advertising in 2013 according to their 10k. For more information on Google’s latest run-in with personal information privacy issues, here is a recent Reuters article.

    2Allow Users Access to their Content Anytime, Anywhere

    Duh. This one is a no brainer. Employees have an increased desire to work from home, have flexible hours, work seamlessly while traveling, and be connected to everything they need 24/7. Because of this growing demand, mobile functionality is becoming more and more critical to today’s workforce.  Office 365 works well online and offline (even email), which is certainly important for business users who travel.

    Google apps offer limited offline functionality for email. Google is “committed” to mobility, but what about when you don’t have internet? I find it useful to have access to my information whether I am connected to internet or not.

    3Less Training Required

    Find me someone who has been in the workforce and hasn’t used the Microsoft Office applications. This means that training is minimal and your employees will likely feel relatively comfortable with the change. Microsoft worked hard to create an online platform that mirrors what employees are already doing with their on-premise versions. It could be a costly nightmare to switch to Google Apps and train employees on an enterprise level because the interface is completely different than Office. And, conversion of desktop versions of documents to Google Apps isn’t always accurate.

    These are, as an end-user and mobile employee, the most important reasons that Microsoft cites in their recent white paper. Honestly though, I would pick Office 365 on the first point alone.

    Have you had to make this choice? What was the tipping point for you?

    5 things you need to migrate web analytics on-premises to SAAS

    netinsight sunsetRemember the IBM announcement back in April to sunset NetInsight? The truth is on-premises web analytics is a dying art. The only other well-known vendor that provides on-premises solutions is WebTrends. It is destined to suffer a slow death – there have not been any new releases for the last few years and customers are encouraged to move to the SAAS version. So, the next best thing is to prepare and plan for inevitable – migration to SAAS.

    1. Assess Web Analytics vendors. Sunsetting the on-premises solution presents a good opportunity to reassess the web analytics landscape instead of blindly sticking with the same vendor and moving your data from on-premises to SAAS.
    2. Documentation. Documentation. Documentation. I said it three times and I meant it. No one likes to create it. I get it – it’s a boring, monotonous task to write every variable, every processing rule, every customization. However, switching your web analytics tool without documentation is like going into battle and forgetting your ammunition. You need to ensure you have documented the following:
      • A List of Key Custom Built Reports and Layouts. This is your foundation for stakeholder expectation management and therefore the golden key to your sanity during migration. This task can become a project on its own since going through such an exercise will confirm what reports and metrics are critical and important for the business and which ones you can delete because no one is using them anyway.
      • Current Tool Configuration rules. This is a big one and can cost you dearly. I had many urgent calls from clients desperately trying to understand why their data tanked 20 – 30% when they switched to a new tool or data collection method. In 99.9% of all cases the answer was due to configuration such as page view definition, filtering, visitor tracking methods, etc. The configuration topic certainly warrants a separate post, so check back in a while.
      • Site/Metric Matrix. List all custom collected metrics per site, including metric definition, collection method and syntax. This exercise should be completed hand-in-hand with report documentation to ensure every single custom metric is documented. This is your bible. Keep it on your nightstand and refer to it often. If you need a sample template, come back in a few weeks – I will be posting further on this subject.
    3. A Project Manager and a Project Plan. Web Analytics migration is like surgery – you need to make sure that your patient (aka reporting) will not die during the surgery (migration). You may get away without a plan if you a dealing with a simple site and basic data collection (wart removal), but if you a dealing with multiple sites, channels, applications and vendors (open heart surgery), a solid plan is required for successful execution.
    4. Assessment against Current Reporting Capabilities. Migration from on-premises to a SAAS solution (or one vendor to another) almost always results in loss and/or gain of features. E.g., SAAS solution is likely to have greater social and mobile tracking capabilities but you may need to make some data collection tradeoffs in order to adhere to your company’s data collection policies, especially if you are in the healthcare or financial industry. Create a loss/gain matrix and use it to manage change. No one likes to give up things that they already have. Over communicate any changes to stakeholders in advance, quantify impact of such changes on business and help to define mitigation plan, if necessary.
    5. Assess Current Roles, Responsibilities and Processes. Switching from on-premises to SAAS will impact current roles and processes, e.g., there will be no need to maintain servers.   Process-wise, you will not be able to re-analyze collected data, which will have an impact on new report deployment as well as the ability to apply new reporting requests to historical data. Don’t wait for a bear to get you – review current roles and processes, outline necessary adjustments and manage change before the migration occurs.

    Feel free to comment or add to my list!

    One Size Does Not Fit All

    One size fits allHave you been to the mall and purchased a shirt that says “one size fits all” for the size?  While the shirt may fit some of us perfectly, it might be too large or too small for others.  The same goes for a project.  This “one size fits all” mentality for all projects can put your smaller projects at great risk by bogging them down in a project management methodology that is too rigorous for the size of these projects.

     So what can you do?

    Establish a flexible project management methodology framework

    1. Define what a “small” and “large” project is in your organization (e.g., a small project can be between 6 – 12 weeks and a large project is anything greater than 12 weeks)
    2. Identify the deliverables or documents needed for each project type
    3. Monitor smaller projects to validate the success/failure rate of these projects and adjust the deliverables within the framework as necessary

    The key point to remember is that the project management methodology is a framework for all projects, not a straitjacket.  The framework needs flexibility to support all projects, no matter their size, while producing results.

    One size really does not fit all, so find the size that fits your needs to successfully manage your small project.

    Are You an Effective Leader?

    Edgewater ConsultingI’m a bit of a history buff and I recently finished reading Jeff Shaara’s new book “The Smoke at Dawn” which focuses on the Civil War battle for Chattanooga.

    The book has me thinking about what makes an effective leader. At the beginning of the novel, one general has every advantage, but focuses on the wrong things. While the other general begins at a major disadvantage, focuses on the right things, and ends up winning the battle.

    The novel reinforced some core leadership principles that were good reminders for me.

    • First and foremost – where you decide to focus your energy matters. You can allow your attention to be distracted and squandered on the petty minutia or you can keep yourself focused on key goals. An effective leader doesn’t ignore the details, but does know what is important and what is not. An effective leader actively chooses to spend most of his or her energy on what is important.
    • Second, you need to identify a goal to be accomplished and share that vision. An effective leader ensures that everyone on the team understands what the goal is, why the goal is important, and the part they play in making the goal a reality. Even the “reserve forces” play an important role, and they need to be told what it is.
    • Third, you need to listen to and trust the people in the trenches. An effective leader listens to the team’s problems and removes roadblocks. He or she also listens to their ideas and lets them experiment with different ways to reach the goal.
    • Fourth, you need to recognize and acknowledge the efforts of the team, even when they don’t succeed. An effective leader holds people accountable, but also helps them learn from mistakes.
    • Finally, you need to recognize, acknowledge, and act to correct your own mis-steps.

    So in brief, the refresher leadership course I gained from reading a novel. It seems that others have found similar inspiration:

    So — What leadership lessons have you drawn from unexpected sources?


    5 Warning signs that your methodology needs a reset

    Project methodologies tend to grow dysfunctional as time goes on.  The breadth of their standardization increases until the only person who really knows how to use it is the methodology owner.

    Too many templates, too many standards, too many hours required for initial training and training on new templates and standards, and perhaps too many good resources moving on to other employers with a less rigid approach.

    To find out if your project management methodology is heading down the wrong path, look for these warning signs:

    1. You have a full time position dedicated to policing methodology compliance
    2. Your methodology manages by standard and template instead of by desired outcome and requirements
    3. Your methodology continues to get bigger over time, and details with little or minor influence on success have never been pared away
    4. Your projects are taking longer to implement
    5. Your project sponsors are growing more frustrated with each project you attempt to implement

    resetThe methodology should be a guideline, not a noose, for organizational projects  - supporting the strategic goals of the organizational ecosystem instead of drowning in a pool of standardization. If you see any of these warning signs, maybe it’s time to hit the reset button.


    Avoiding Agile Anarchy

    Agile project management

    Conventional Agile Methodology Wisdom lists three factors that define an Agile-ready project:

    1. High Uniqueness
    2. High Complexity
    3. Aggressive Deadlines

    After using these three parameters to select your first agile project, there is still legwork to be done before sprints are humming along.

    Many agile initiatives are announced by fiat with the team structure, sprint length and other basic rules of the road mandated by the Agile Initiative Sponsor. They dive right into development sprints, gathering user stories along the way to build a backlog. Here are some ways this approach could backfire:

    • In a rigid, hierarchical organization, the ability of teams to self-organize is often historically non-existent, and the change management hurdle might be a gap too big to jump. There are many ways that interoffice personalities and politics can sink an agile initiative in its early stages, or at any point along the way.
    • Complex, unique projects require some upfront work on architecture before the development sprints can begin. Agile teams can best manage this by making the first few sprints architecture sprints. Time and again, we have seen horror stories when the overall design or architecture is glossed over:
      • Parallel agile teams within a business design disparate UI’s to enable functionality that is essentially the same, but serves the needs of one particular product group. Before long, it’s obvious that external stakeholders are confused and put off by having to remember two different ways of interacting with the same company
      • User stories are taken down as the basis for development sprints, but they fail to consider the secondary stakeholders. BI reporting needs are often missed.
      • Prioritization of the backlog is driven by business need, without any attention to building foundational pieces first, then layering on transactions.

    In short, Agile without Architecture leads to Anarchy, and a lasting bad impression that will taint future Agile efforts. It’s best to look before you leap and take time to address any Agile readiness gaps.


    Part 3: Creating an Editable Grid in CRM 2013 Using Knockout JS

    This is the third installment following Part 2, which demonstrated the editable grid from inside Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013, and Part 1, which introduced the editable grid in CRM 2011. This blog introduces paging.

    I will first demo what the grid looks like with paging in a CRM 2013 environment. Afterwards, I will walk through the main block of code.

    I adopted the concepts from this great blog post from Ryan Vanderpol, about adding a pager to a grid.


    The following screen shot demonstrates the pager inside the grid.

    CRM editable grid

    The above demonstrates:

    • The “Previous” and “Next” buttons allow the user the move forward and backwards one page. Currently, the “Previous” button is disabled because the first page is being displayed.
    • The numbers “1”, “2”, and “3” represent the page numbers.

    Code Walkthrough

    The following code represents the additional changes required to the source originally introduced in Part 2 of my blog.

    I have added a new resource to the mix:

    • new_bootstrap_no_icons.css

    I have made changes to the following source.

    • The below html web resource.
      *Look for code marked in green
      *Strike out code is either replaced or removed

    See Code Walkthrough here

    Code Comments

    Snippet Comments
    <tbody data-bind=”foreach: pagedList“> Loop through pageList instead of oproducts collection.
    <div class=”pagination”> Represents the paging UI controls. This code uses the styles from bootstrap CSS.
    self.pageSize = ko.observable(3); Establishes the number of rows to display per page.
    self.pageIndex = ko.observable(0); Determines what page to start on when the form loads.
    self.moveToPage(self.maxPageIndex()); This is called after a new record is inserted
    if (self.pageIndex() > self.maxPageIndex())
    This is called after a record is removed.

    What’s next?

    In future blog posts:

    • Resolving deadlocks when saving multiple records from the editable grid.
    • Sorting.
    • Do you have any suggestions on what you would like to see?

    Diagnose Your Inefficiency Potholes

    potholesMany employees tend to complain about work-related inefficiencies as much as Wisconsinites bemoan the craters (aka potholes) left in the roads each winter. In response, companies usually acknowledge that making improvements is critical, and do their part in researching Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) options. But, are all work-related inefficiencies exclusively due to a legacy system? Are people jumping the gun in assuming so, or are they misidentifying a process problem? Could some of these issues disappear by making a few simple process adjustments? Without empowerment and support, all the technology in the world won’t move your business forward.

    There is no exact formula to determine if a problem stems from a bad system or a bad process; but asking yourself some basic questions could help you figure out where the problem lies. For example:

    • Would implementing new process improvements really resolve the problem?
    • Could implementing new system functionality resolve the problem and also provide a competitive edge?
    • Do the system benefits outweigh process benefits?

    The following steps should aid you in your diagnosis and decision-making:

    Create a problem Inventory 

    Interview Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) from the various departments affected to develop a problem inventory list.

    Identify process-related problems

    Identify all process-related issues from your inventory list. Ask yourself: What is the root cause of the problem? Is there a lack of communication, lack of enforcement, or lack of an actual process? If you answered yes to any of these questions, the problem likely stems from a process issue.

    Examples of process-related problems include:

    • A customer is upset that they’re getting bounced around
    • Sales Agents aren’t required to track or manage lead information
    • No official process for returns exists. (If an actual documented process cannot be provided, there probably isn’t one.)

    These items may also range in severity. While going through this process, consider assigning priority levels or at least identify quick fixes.

    Make process improvements where possible

    This step is important because it improves overall business processes and productivity by making identified improvements. It also validates problems that can be resolved realistically. This step may take a few weeks to a few months to transpire, but it provides important insight and brings the process to the next step.

    Focus on system-related problems

    Once process-related problems are identified and resolved, one is able to ascertain that the remaining problems are system-related and decide if a new ERP system would be advantageous.

    Examples of system-related problems include:

    • No visibility to inventory availability
    • Multiple customer masters, item masters, and vendor masters
    • Manipulation applied to reports (current system lacks reporting functionality)

    This step will not completely resolve a company’s problems and inefficiencies, nor will it guarantee employee satisfaction. It will, however, allow for a more focused approach when considering solutions. It also provides the added benefit of some inexpensive process improvements along the way.