Embrace the Tweak
In a Baseline article by Michael Vizard called "Proving IT’s Value to the Executive Suite," the author makes the case that without measurement and management visibility, you can’t understand and promote your program/platform/strategy ROI to the company. Want to get your executive team to sign off on some great new tool? Need additional funding for existing system expansion? Need to hire a couple new engineers to help the company better position itself for changes to your industry? Great. So…where’s the data making your case? It may be impossible to outline every possible risk, every competitive stance, or every possible scheduling issue – but without core data that supports your request, your “gut feel” that it’s the right thing to do may not be enough. Something that stuck with me from business school was Deming’s focus on measurement and iteration, using that data to inform your next steps, and with each little step, get you closer to proving your hypothesis.
If the goal of management is to make decisions on behalf of the company, the role of management is to read these measurements and, once you have enough of a sample size (enough data, that is) to make a decision, to take action. One measurement of successful management is the ability to view, interpret, and take action of this data faster than your competitors.
In his article, Vizard uses a great example of a marketing department (in an example that sounds like most marketing departments I’ve known) that cannot seem to make the connection between dollars spent and value achieved:
In the absence of any real measurement tools, most investment in marketing campaigns is based on an article of faith that assumes there is a definable return on that investment. Moreover, most marketing departments are not all that efficient because they don’t conclusively know what campaign is working, and, more important, when it is actually working.
Think about how much the IT industry has changed even in the past 2 to 3 years as organizations quickly move toward the cloud. In almost every conversation the question of ROI comes into question – people want to know specifics on how new tools and platforms, and even new hires, will impact their bottom line. The problem is that answering that question – even for tools and solutions that, instinctively, will bring value – can be difficult. What it requires is measurement and iteration. Take a hypothesis and some target metrics, create a baseline, and then trial the new solutions, tweaking and measuring as you go until you have sufficient data to make a decision.
Seth Godin wrote a blog post on "tweaking" in which he suggest that people constantly look for ways to test and measure and improve the user experience, to find the right feature/tool/solution to deliver the business benefit you seek. He has even built a lens on Squidoo to promote the cause of tweaking:
I’m talking about turning an arrogant checkout into a useful one by turning off the button that automatically resets to opt in to the spam list every single time I return to the checkout. Or changing the size of the product photo from 144 pixels wide to 500, because making the product the star can triple clickthrough.
This is stuff tweakers know because they do it every day. Because they test and they measure. This is high return on investment knowledge, because it can take hours, not weeks to implement and test.
The lesson to be learned from both articles is that value is most often derived from an iterative process of hypothesis, metrics, testing, and adjusting based on what you learn. Knowing how to direct your project or team or company (whatever your scope of ownership) is never a straight-forward proposition. We have to work at it. We have to nibble away at the foundation of what we know and try to figure out how to achieve that much sought-after ROI. How do you know you’re moving in the right direction? You’re tracking it, you’re tweaking it, you’re socializing your findings with your team, and people are responding.