Tactical Meandering


  tactics /táktiks/ n.pl. 2 a the plans and means adopted in carrying out a scheme or achieving some end. (O.E.D.)  
  meander /miándər/ n. 1 a a curve in a winding river etc. b a crooked or winding path or passage. (O.E.D.)  

I was reminded of the expression “tactical meandering”, which I used to use quite a bit, by a thread on the LinkedIn.com Business Intelligence Group forum. The title of this was Is BI recession-proof? (as always, you need to be a member of both LinkedIn.com and the group to view this).

The conversation on the thread turned to the fact that, in the current economic climate, there may be less focus on major, strategic BI initiatives and more on quick, tactical ones that address urgent business needs.

My take on this is that it is a perfectly respectable approach, indeed it is one that works pretty well in my experience regardless of the economic climate. There is however one proviso, that the short-term work is carried out with one eye on a vision of what the future BI landscape will look like. Of course this assumes that you have developed such a vision in the first place, but if you haven’t why are you talking about business intelligence when report writing is probably what you are engaged in (regardless of how fancy the tools may be that you are using to deliver these).

I talked about this specific area extensively in my earlier article, Holistic vs Incremental approaches to BI and also offered some more general thoughts in Vision vs Pragmatism. In keeping with the latter piece, and although the initial discussions referred to above related to BI, I wanted to use this article to expand the scope to some other sorts of IT projects (and maybe to some non-IT projects as well).

Some might argue (as people did on the LinkedIn.com thread) that all tactical work has to be 100% complementary to you strategic efforts. I would not be so absolute. To me you can wander quite some way from your central goals if it makes sense to do so in order to meet pressing business requirements in a timely and cost-effective manner. The issue is not so much how far you diverge from your established medium-term objectives, but that you always bear these in mind in your work. Doing something that is totally incompatible with your strategic work and even detracts from it may not be sensible (though it may sometimes still be necessary), but delivering value by being responsive to current priorities demonstrates your flexibility and business acumen; two characteristics that you probably want people to associate with you and your team.

Tactical meandering sums up the approach pretty well in my opinion. A river can wander a long way from a line drawn from its source to its mouth. Sometimes it can bend a long way back on itself in order to negotiate some obstacle. However, the ultimate destination is set and progress towards it continues, even if this is sometimes tortuous.

Oxbow Lake Formation
Oxbow Lake Formation

Expanding on the geographic analogy, sometimes meanders become so extreme that the river joins back to its main course, cutting off the loop and leaving an oxbow lake on one side. This is something that you will need to countenance in your projects. Sometimes an approach, or a technology, or a system was efficacious at a point in time but now needs to be dropped, allowing the project to move on. These eventualities are probably inevitable and the important thing is to flag up their likelihood in advance and to communicate clearly when they occur.

My experience is that, if you keep you strategic direction in mind, the sum of a number of tactical meanders can advance you quite some way towards your goals; importantly adding value at each step. The quickest path from A to B is not always a straight line.

Holistic vs Incremental approaches to BI

There is a strong link here to my Vision vs Pragmatism article. In this I argued that Vision and Pragmatism are both essential for the success of any project, be that related to change, to IT, and certainly when using IT to drive change. Unsurprisingly, similar comments apply to whether a holistic or incremental approach to BI is the superior route. However, in this case, I will come down more firmly on the side of one of the options.
The benefits of an incremental approach

Of course the secret of the success of many projects is their incremental nature. Incremental deliveries, particularly those early on in a project, enable you to do a number of things, including: –

  1. Proving that business value can be added the work that you are doing
  2. Showing tangible evidence of progress
  3. Demonstrating that the project team is responsive to business priorities
  4. Chopping up funding into more digestible parts
  5. Providing early exposure to change management issues; allowing time to learn from mistakes when still operating at on a smaller scale

Overall incremental work can enhance the credibility of a project team and thereby made it easier to secure senior management support. Such work is indispensable to any project.
How does the sum of the parts measure up?

However there is a point to be made here in favour of a holistic approach which goes beyond my previous preference for always having an overarching vision. This is something that is specific to business intelligence and relates to the nature of information delivery. In a nutshell the sum of several incremental BI developments may be considerably less than the whole if each is not part of an overall strategy.

BI is about having the information necessary to run the business. However, it is also about how that information is delivered and how internally consistent it is. Often BI projects aim to address a fragmentation of existing reporting systems that leads to confusion amongst users and even a general distrust of figures. It is entirely possible to perpetuate this situation, simply replacing older reporting technology with shiny new ones. Each of these new systems may be easier to use that its predecessor and offer significantly greater access to information, but the fragmented nature of information provision will not have been addressed; it may even have been made worse.
A single platform

The ideal for a BI solution is to have a single platform which supports all pertinent reporting needs. There will undoubtedly be different segments of this, tailored to different groups of users, but these should use subsets of the same dimensions and measures and the same reporting and analysis tools should be used. Adhering to these precepts means that when users of one part of the system need to employ another part, they are not taking a step into terra incognita, but instead are familiar with their surroundings and get the sense that the same logic pervades all of the system.

On a practical level, this approach minimises costs due to software licenses and simplifies your technical architecture, again keeping a lid on expenditure. Fewer people are also needed to both build and maintain a single, central system than many divergent ones. Just as importantly, a single-platform approach means that training becomes focussed on business issues rather than the functionality of a different reporting suites. My experience suggests that, after an initial investment in thorough training for users, introduction of new reporting capabilities can be very smooth and efficient in such a set-up.

Of course developing good BI takes time and effort. Getting to the eventual ideal state that I have described above will undoubtedly take some time (in my most recent BI project it took five years to fully realise). This means that there is no real alternative to the incremental approach that I described at the beginning. However, taking a more holistic approach ensures that your incremental deliveries are aligned with both each other and overall business needs. It also means that with each incremental release there is a related reduction in fragmentation. This is the difference between slowly unveiling a large, coherent edifice and revealing several separate sculptures one at a time.
The link with cultural transformation

In particular if an aim of your BI project is to transform how users behave (of course this should be a central aim of any BI project, what else is BI for?), then this is going to be most easily achieved with a holistic approach where each phase builds on the success of the previous ones. In this scenario, each incremental delivery can be seen more as extending the remit of your BI system to a new area, rather than adding on a new module. Phase N+1 always reinforces the messages from Phases 1 to N. Each step reduces fragmentation, increases consistency and further improves decision-making. This is the best way to make sure that your BI efforts exceed the sum of their parts, rather than falling short of them. Such a rigorous approach is also the best way to ensure that you meet your cultural transformation objectives.