Projects

At the risk of over-extending the business metaphor offered by rock climbing (and the even greater risk of boring readers who don’t have the slightest interest in my climbing rehabilitation), here is a brief update on my injury situation; closing with the normal technology-focussed twist. I suppose that part of my motivation in composing this piece lies in the fact that some of my recent climbing-related writing has been on the negative side; albeit focusing on business lessons that can be gleaned from my past rock climbing mistakes. Instead this article adopts a more positive tone looking for ways in which signs of progress in a sport can set you up for professional success.

Back in the day... (Space Suit - V3 - Bishop, California)

I have previously explained how I managed to injure my hand climbing a while back. Given the horrendous popping noise my left ring finger made when I hurt it, it is a reasonable assumption that I have a partial pulley tear. Having already not climbed at any serious level for some time, this injury kept me away from both rock and wall for several months. On the odd occasion that I did climb, it was a rather tentative and worried affair. Part of me felt that I would not ever be able to climb even adequately again; part of me didn’t want to get a hand surgeon’s opinion, lest it confirmed my worst fears. This was not a great mental attitude to adopt obviously and I rather felt that a chunk of my life was missing, or at least going badly.

However, having recently relocated to Cambridge (England not Massachusetts), my partner and I discovered the Kelsey Kerridge Sports Centre and learnt that their indoor climbing wall was in the process of being extended and upgraded. Just before Christmas we went along, to be honest without any great expectations; either of the wall or the standard of my climbing. However we were pleasantly surprised by a relatively extensive and modern facility and some very well-set and interesting problems (for an explanation of why climbs in bouldering are called problems and indeed a definition of bouldering, see Perseverance). Another plus is that many of these used plastic holds (manufactured by Sheffield’s Core Climbing) that were quite friendly to injured fingers; or at least at the lowly grades that I was initially climbing at.

Since first going we have become regulars and even interspersed a couple of trips to our old London climbing haunt of The Arch. I have been taking the (probably psychological) precaution of using climbing finger tape to bind up the damaged area. I learnt my lesson and started on easy ground with little potential to aggravate my finger. The build up to harder climbing (for me) was measured, despite a growing desire to push myself. So far, despite a couple of twinges, it has been going OK.

The quality of setting at Kelsey Kerridge has been such that, though not much has changed at the wall since mid-December, as my climbing has steadily improved, I have been able to find more interesting problems at the next level. Indeed I seem to have found a number of projects (again see Perseverance for a definition), at an increasing level of difficulty and which have taken between two and five sessions to finally crack.

Two sessions ago, I finally got up my first indoor V4 in literally years. This was something of a landmark not only because it means that I am getting back to the vicinity of where I was pre-injuries, but more specifically as the problem requires a big, dynamic move onto a small edge for my damaged left hand. It even began to feel quite comfortable making this move after a while.

This video is of me on a V3 problem at Kelsey Kerridge

Even now, I am still taking to heart the learnings that I pointed out in earlier articles and am not trying to push things too quickly. However, I am have now completed several climbs that I could not even pull onto a few weeks back and have some harder projects on which I am making significant and somewhat surprising progress.

It feels good to be back climbing at any level and even better that my hand is – [undamaged] fingers-crossed – holding up so far. A positive learning here is that when you feel at a low ebb – as inevitably happens to the most enthusiastic of project managers, running the most dynamic and important of projects – maybe the physical act of doing something is the best antidote. Even if what you do does not work out immediately, it may provide you with other ideas that might be more successful.

Contemporaneous to this climbing progress, I am taking on new challenges in my work life. At least for me, success on climbing projects gives me a great fillip when thinking about the longer term projects I face in a work context. Success in one area of life can be contagious. Making slow, but steady progress at the wall makes me feel that many things are possible in my professional arena. It is nice to be back in what I hope will continue to be a virtuous circle.

Angelus Domini nuntiavit Sharmae...


For anyone interested in other analogies I have drawn between climbing and business and technology issues, here is a list in chronological order:

 

  1. Perseverance
  2. A bad workman blames his [Business Intelligence] tools
  3. Running before you can walk
  4. Feasibility studies continued…
  5. Incremental Progress and Rock Climbing

 

 

Incremental Progress and Rock Climbing

Ovum

Introduction

Last week Ovum and @SarahBurnett were kind enough to invite me to speak at their Business Intelligence Masterclass in London.

Unfortunately one of the Ovum presenters, Madan Sheina, was ill, but Sarah did a great job running the session. The set up of the room and the number of delegates both encouraged interaction and there was a great atmosphere with lots of questions from the attendees and some interesting exchanges of ideas. Work commitments meant that I had to leave after lunch, which was a shame as I am sure that – based on what I saw in the morning – the afternoon workshops sessions would have been both entertaining and productive.

I certainly enjoyed my presentation – on Initiating and Developing a BI Strategy – which focussed on both my framework for success in Business Intelligence and, in particular, addressing the important cultural transformation aspects of these. Thank you also to the delegates both for the questions and observations and for kindly awarding my talk an 83% rating via the now ubiquitous seminar questionnaire.

Bouldering and Cultural Transformation

Boysen's Groove (V3/4) Dinas Mot, North Wales
My partner bouldering the classic Boysen’s Groove in Snowdonia

As part of my section on change management, I covered some of the themes that I introduced in my article Perseverance. In this I spoke about one of the types of rock climbing that I enjoy; bouldering. Bouldering is regular rock climbing on steroids, it is about climbing ultra-hard, but short climbs; often on boulders – hence the name. I compared the level of commitment and persistence required for success in bouldering to the need for the same attributes in change management initiatives.

I spoke to a few different delegates about this analogy during a coffee break. One in particular came up with an interesting expansion on my rock climbing theme. He referred to how people engaged in mountaineering and multi-pitch rock climbing make progress in a series of stages, establishing a new base at a higher point before attempting the next challenge. He went on to link this to making incremental progress on IT projects. I thought this was an interesting observation and told the gentleman in question that he had provided the inspiration for a future blog article.

An introduction to lead climbing

The above video is excerpted from the introduction to Hard Grit a classic 1998 climbing film by Slackjaw productions. It features climbing on the Gritstone (a type of hard sandstone) edges of the UK’s Peak District. This famous sequence shows a pretty horrendous fall off of a Peak District test piece called Gaia at Black Rocks. Amazingly the climber received no worse injuries than a severely battered and lacerated leg. Despite its proximity to my home town of London, Gritstone climbing has never been my cup of tea – it is something of an acquired taste and one that I have never appreciated as much as its many devotees.

As an aside you can see a photo of a latter-day climber falling off the same route at the beginning of my article, Some reasons why IT projects fail. I’m glad to say in this photo, unlike the video above, the climber is wearing a helmet!

What the clip illustrates is the dangers inherent in the subject of this article; traditional lead climbing. OK the jargon probably needs some explanation. First of all climbing is a very broad church, in this piece I’ll be ignoring whole areas such as mountaineering, soloing and the various types of winter and ice climbing. I am going to focus on roped climbing on rock, something that generally requires dry weather (unless you are a masochist or the British weather changes on you).

In this activity, one person climbs (unsurprisingly the climber) and another holds the rope attached to them (the belayer). The belayer uses a mechanism called a belay device to do this, but we will elide these details. With my background in Business Intelligence, I’ll now introduce some dimensions with which you can “slice and dice” this activity:

  1. multi-pitch / single pitch

    Single-pitch climbs are shorter than a length of rope (typically 50-70m) and often happen on rock outcrops such as in the Peak District mentioned above. The climber completes the climb and then the belayer may follow them up if they want, or alternatively the climber might walk round to find an easy decent and the pair will then go and find another climb.


    Multi-pitch climbs consist of at least two pitches; and sometimes many more. They tend to be in a mountain environment. One person may climb a pitch and then alternate with their partner, or the same person may climb each section first. It depends on the team.

  2. top roping / leading

    Top roping is not a very precise term (bottom roping might be more accurate) but is generally taken to mean that the rope runs from the belayer, to the top of the climb and then down to the climber.A fall when top roping

    As the climber ascends, the belayer (hopefully!) takes in the slack, but (again hopefully!) without hauling the climber up the route. This means that if the climber falls (and the belayer is both competent and attentive) they should be caught by the rope almost immediately. Obviously this arrangement only works on single-pitch climbs.


    In lead climbing, or leading, the rope runs from the belayer up to the climber. As the climber ascends, they attach the rope to various points in the rock on the climb (for how they do this see the next bullet point).A leader fall - assuming that the gear holds

    Assuming that the climber is able to make a good attachment to the rock (again see next point) the issue here is how far they fall. If they climb 2m above their last attachment point, then a slip at this point will see them swinging 2m below this point – a total fall of 4m, much longer than when top roping. Also if the last attachment point is say 10m above the ground and the climber falls off say 8m above this, then slack in the system and rope stretch will probably see them hit the ground; something that should never happen in top roping.

    [As an aside true top roping is what happens when the belayer climbs up after the climber. Here they are now belayed by the original climber from above. However no one uses the term top roping for this, instead they talk about bringing up the second, or seconding. Top roping is reserved for the practice of bottom roping described above, no one said that climbing was a logical sport!]
  3. sport / traditional In the last point I referred to a lead climber mysteriously attaching themselves to the rock as they ascend. The way that they do this determines whether they are engaged in sport or traditional climbing (though there is some blurriness around the edges).

    In sport climbing, holes are pre-drilled into the rock at strategic intervals (normally 3-5m apart, but sometimes more). Into these are glued either a metal staple or a single bolt with a metal hanger on it that has a hole in it.Staple or bolt with hanger - used in Sport Climbing

    The process of equiping a sport route in this way can take some time, particularly if it is overhanging and of course it needs to be done well if the bolts are to hold a climber’s fall. A single-pitch sport climb may have 10 or more of these bolts, plus generally a lower-off point at the top.

    DMM Phantom Quick-draw (or extender)

    The climber will take with them at least the same number of quick draws as there are bolts. These are two spring-loaded carabiners joined by a section of strong tape. As the climber ascends, they clip one end of a quick-draw to the staple or hanger and the other end over the rope attaching them to their belayer.

    So long as the person who drilled and inserted the bolts did a good job and so long as the climber is competent in clipping themselves into these; then sport climbing should be relatively safe. At this point I should stress that I know of good climbers who have died sport climbing, often by making a simple mistake, often after having completed a climb and looking to lower off. Sport climbing is a relatively safer form of climbing, but it is definitively not 100% safe; no form of climbing is.

    Because of its [relative] safety, sport climbing has something of the ethos of bouldering, with a focus on climbing at your limit as the systems involved should prevent serious injury in normal circumstances.


    In traditional climbing (uniformly called trad) the difference is that there are no pre-placed bolts, instead the climber has to take advantage of the nature of the rock to arrange their own attachment points. This means that you have to take the contents of a small hardware store with you on your climb. The assorted pieces of gear that you might use to protect yourself include: Nuts/wires (which you try to wedge into small cracks):

    A selection of DMM wall-nuts

    Hexes (which you try to wedge into large cracks):

    Wild Country Hexacentrics

    Cams/Friends (spring-loaded mechanical devices that you place in parallel cracks – the latter name being a make of cams):

    Black Diamond Cam-a-lots

    Slings (which you use to lasso spikes, or thread through any convenient holes in the rock):

    Dynema slings

    Once you have secured any of the above into or around the rock, you clip in with a quick-draw as in Sport climbing and heave a sigh of relief.

In the video that started this section, Jean-minh Trin-thieu falls (a long way) on to a cam, which thankfully holds. The issue on this particular climb is that there are no more opportunities to place gear after the final cam at round about half-way up. The nature of the rock means that a lot of Gritsone climbing is like this; one of the reasons that it is not a favourite of mine.

In any case, having established the above dimensions, I am going to drill down via two of them to concentrate on just trad leading. My comments apply equally to multi- and single-pitch, but the former offers greater scope for getting yourself into trouble.

The many perils of trad leading

This is why they call lead climbing "the sharp end"
Dave Birkett on “Nowt Burra Fleein’ thing” E8 6c, Cam Crag, Wasdale, The English Lake District – © Alastair Lee – Posingproductions.com

One of the major issues with trad climbing, particularly multi-pitch trad climbing in a mountain environment is that you are never quite sure what you need to take. The more gear you clip to your harness, the more likely you are to be able to deal with any eventuality, but the heavier you are going to be and the harder it will be to climb. Some one once compared trad leading to climbing wearing a metal skirt.

The issue here is that not only do you have to find somewhere to place this protective gear, you have to place it well so that it is not dislodged as you climb past, or pulls out if you fall. What adds to this problem is that you may have to try to place say a wire in a situation where you are holding on to a small hold with one hand, with only one foot on a hold and the other dangling. You may also be on an overhang and thus with all gravity’s force coming to bear on your tendons. At such moments thoughts like “how far below was my last piece of gear?”, “how confident am I that I placed it well?” and “what happens if I can’t fiddle this piece of metal into this crack before my fingers un-peal?” tend to come to mind with alarming ease.

It is not unheard of for a trad leader to climb up many metres, placing an assortment of gear en route, only to fall off and have all of it rip out, a phenomenon call “unzipping”, thankfully not something I have experienced directly; though I have seen it happen to other people.

These additional uncertainties tend to lead to a more cautious approach to trad leading, with many people climbing within their abilities on trad climbs. Some people push themselves on trad and some get away with it for a while. However there is a saying about there being old climbers and bold climbers, but no old bold climbers.

The links with business projects

El Capitan, Yosemite, CA.

I have written quite a few times before about the benefits of an incremental approach, so long as this bears the eventual strategic direction in mind (see for example: Tactical Meandering and Holistic vs Incremental approaches to BI). In rock climbing, even within a single pitch, it is often recommended to break this into sections, particularly if there are obvious places (e.g. ledges) where you can take a bit of a rest and consider the next section. This also helps with not being too daunted; often the biggest deal is to start climbing and once you are committed then things become easier (though of course this advice can also get you in over your head on occasion).

Splitting a climb into sections is a good idea, but – in the same way as with business projects – you need to keep your eye on your eventual destination. If you don’t you may be so focussed on the current moves that you go off route and then have to face potentially difficult climbing to get back where you need to be. The equivalent in business would be projects that do not advance the overall programme.

However the analogy doesn’t stop there. If we break a single-pitch trad lead climb into smaller sections, those between each piece of gear that you place, then it is obvious that you need to pay particular attention to the piece of equipment that you are about to employ. If you do this well, then you have minimised the distance that you will fall and this will bolster your confidence for the next piece of climbing. If you rush placing your gear, or assume that it is sort of OK, then at the best you will give yourself unnecessary concerns about your climbing for the next few metres. At worst a fall could lead to this gear ripping and a longer fall, or even hitting the ground.

In business projects, if you take an incremental approach, then in the same way you must remember that you will be judged on the success or failure of the most recent project. Of course if you have a track record of earlier success then this can act as a safety net; the same as when your highest piece of gear fails, but the next one catches you. However, it is not the most comfortable of things to take a really long leader fall and similarly it is best to build on the success of one project with further successes instead of resting on your laurels.

Of course the consequences of rushing your interim steps in rock climbing can be a lot more terminal than in business. Nevertheless failure in either activity is not welcome and it is best to take every precaution to avoid it.
 

No-fooling: A new blog-tagging meme – by Curt Monash

Software Memories - a Curt Monash blog

By way of [very necessary] explanation, this post is a response to an idea started on the blog of Curt Monash (@CurtMonash), doyen of software industry analysts. You can read the full article here. This is intended as an early April Fools celebration.

A summary:

[…] the Rules of the No-Fooling Meme are:

Rule 1: Post on your blog 1 or more surprisingly true things about you,* plus their explanations. I’m starting off with 10, but it’s OK to be a lot less wordy than I’m being. I suggest the following format:

  • A noteworthy capsule sentence. (Example: “I was not of mortal woman born.”)
  • A perfectly reasonable explanation. (Example: “I was untimely ripped from my mother’s womb. In modern parlance, she had a C-section.”)

Rule 2: Link back to this post. That explains what you’re doing.
Rule 3: Drop a link to your post into the comment thread. That will let people who check here know that you’ve contributed too.
Rule 4: Ping 1 or more other people encouraging them to join in the meme with posts of their own.

*If you want to relax the “about you” part, that’s fine too.

I won’t be as dramatic as Curt, nor will I drop any names (they have been changed to protect the guilty). I also think that my list is closer to a “things you didn’t know about me” than Curt’s original intention, but hopefully it is in the spirit of his original post. I have relaxed the “about me” part for one fact as well, but claim extenuating circumstances.

My “no-fooling” facts are, in (broadly) reverse chronological order:

  1. I have recently corrected a Physics paper in Science – and please bear in mind that I was a Mathematician not a Physicist; I’m not linking to the paper as the error was Science’s fault not the scientists’ and the lead author was very nice about it.
  2. My partner is shortly going to be working with one of last year’s Nobel Laureates at one of the world’s premier research institues – I’m proud, so sue me!
  3. My partner, my eldest son and I have all attended (or are attending) the same University – though separated by over 20 years.
  4. The same University awarded me 120% in my MSc. Number Theory exam – the irony of this appeals to me to this day; I was taught Number Theory by a Fields Medalist; by way of contrast, I got a gamma minus in second year Applied Mathematics.
  5. Not only did I used to own a fan-site for a computer game character, I co-administered a universal bulletin board (yes I am that old) dedicated to the same character – even more amazingly, there were female members!
  6. As far as I can tell, my code is still part of the core of software that is used rather widely in the UK and elsewhere – though I suspect that a high percentage of it has succumbed to evolutionary pressures.
  7. I have recorded an eagle playing golf – despite not being very good at it and not playing at all now.
  8. I have played cricket against the national teams of both Zimbabwe (in less traumatic times) and the Netherlands – Under 15s and Under 19s respectively; I have also played both with and against an England cricketer and against a West Indies cricketer (who also got me out), but I said that I wasn’t going to name drop.
  9. [Unlike Curt] I only competed in one chess tournament – I came fourth, but only after being threatened with expulsion over an argument to do with whether I had let go of a bishop for a nanosecond; I think I was 11 at the time.
  10. At least allegedly, one of my antecedents was one of the last hangmen in England – I’m not sure how you would go about substantiating this fact as they were meant to be sworn to secrecy; equally I’m not sure that I would want to substantiate it.
  11. And a bonus fact (which could also be seen as oneupmanship vis à vis Curt):

  12. One of the articles that I wrote for the UK climbing press has had substantially more unique views than any of my business-related articles on here (save for the home page itself) – sad, but true, if you don’t believe me, the proof is here.

 


 
Other Monash-related posts on this site:

 

Feasibility studies continued…

These make a very disconcerting popping noise when you suffer them
A2 pulley injuries. Partial tear (left) and complete tear (right).
Images © Eric J. Horst, via www.nicros.com

Back in May 2009 I wrote about The importance of feasibility studies in business intelligence. More recently I penned a piece entitled Running before you can walk, which compared the circumstances behind me injuring my finger rock climbing to how IT teams can sometimes behave when under pressure.

I started my own feasibility study today, climbing [sadly only indoors] for the first time in the six, or so, weeks since I injured myself. Learning from my previous impetuousness I stuck to lowly V0s, working up only as far as V2 (for anyone interested an explanation of bouldering grades can be found here). My patience in forgoing climbing for a month and a half, together with my caution today seems to have paid off. Aside from a few tweaks, my damaged finger seems to have come through OK. I now need to remember to build things up very slowly and back-off at the first sign of any crunchiness whatsoever.

As per my previous analogy, it similarly takes time to turn round business or IT performance. Change is more of a marathon than a sprint (though often some basic things can be done a lot quicker). Staying with the area of rock climbing / business cross-overs, another previous article – Perseverance – highlighted the importance of this attribute in both areas. My aim is to take my own advice!
 

Running before you can walk

Prelude…

I have been back blogging for a few days, so it is well past time for a rock climbing-related post. Though this site being what it is, I’ve twisted this thought round to apply to the world of IT.

Case of the Month

Symptoms: 42 year-old with recent long finger injury and resultant deformity.

A2 pulley damage - this is not my finger, but is most likely the injury that I have

Diagnosis Disruption of the A2 (white arrow), A3 (black arrow), and A4 (black arrowhead) pulleys. The primary function of the pulley system is to provide stability to the flexor tendons during flexion by fixing them to the underlying osseous structures. Injuries to the pulley system, commonly seen in rock climbers, lead to bowstringing of the flexor tendons with abnormal separation from the underlying phalanges.

Image and text care of The Institute of Orthopaedic Imaging, with my underlining.

Living in London, real rock is always a reasonably lengthy drive away, but in normal circumstances I would train indoors at least twice, and normally three times, a week and climb outdoors as often as possible. However, for a variety of reasons (including an ankle injury to myself, a chronic shoulder injury to my partner and both having an awful lot of other things on), I have not been climbing very much for several months. About a month ago, my partner and I decided to make a point of once more getting to the wall at least once a week. The problem is that, after a lay-off, your mind can remember climbing at a certain level but your body is way off the pace.

A combination of keenness, a desire to make up for lost time, pride and pig-headedness often sees a climber who is returning from injury quickly try to get back on to the level of routes/problems that they were achieving before. My limit, both indoors and out, used to be around V4 (fairly low down on the overall scale of climbing), with the occasional V5 indoors only. Having a few tentatively successful sessions under my belt, I found an indoor V5 that played to my strengths and was making some progress on it. It was a bit fingery and required use of a technique called crimping (see the image below):

An example of crimping

This is a very effective way of getting purchase on small holds, but puts a lot of pressure on your fingers. Levering my body up from sitting on the ground with both hands crimping like mad I felt a sort of crunching in the ring finger of my left hand. I stopped my attempt and decided that I would warm down on some easier stuff. Sadly even easier stuff can be quite demanding on the fingers and on my next but one climb I ended up pulling quite hard on the same left hand. There was a very audible pop, my left hand exploded off of the hold and I found myself on the floor holding my swollen finger in quite some pain.

After intensive icing at the wall and some therapeutic treatment in the four or so weeks since, I am still able to bend the finger (so hopefully do not have a full rupture of the tendon), but am a long way off of going back to climbing. I also have an unhelpful mental image of the tendon hanging by a thread, it is going to take quite some time for me to get over this; even if the finger itself heals.

Old tendon injury to ring finger of right hand

It doesn’t help that I fully ruptured the same tendon in my right ring finger when playing rugby as a teenager (see above). I can’t bend the top section of that finger and it has been a bit of an issue for me when climbing on occasion.

Tommy Caldwell - "high four"

Professional climber Tommy Caldwell (above) cut off one of his fingers in a DIY accident and still climbs to an astonishingly high level, so I can’t complain too much about this earlier injury. However I am now rather concerned about having matching tendon problems on both hands. I guess time will tell how serious this new injury is and what level of recovery I will experience. I hope to be able to avoid surgery, which is in any case no guarantee of a cure.

One of the most frustrating aspects of all this is that I feel as if I had a warning with the initial crunchiness, I chose to ignore this, which then led to the more serious injury. I guess it rather feels that I could have avoided getting myself in this situation with a little more thought.

The learning here is twofold: specifically how easy it is to injure yourself when returning from a lay-off; and generally that it is also much too tempting to try things that you are not yet ready for – to run before you can walk. The first lesson applies to climbing and sport in general, the second has wider applicability and some pertinence to the work of IT in particular.
 
 
…and Fugue

Running before you can walk seems to be something that particularly afflicts IT departments and IT people when they are in a bit of a hole already. If an IT department has been under-performing, or has become semi-detached from the business (the latter often leading to the former), there can be a desperate desire to get onto firmer ground quickly. I have seen this manifest itself in a couple of ways:

  1. An overwhelming urge to do something that will be appreciated by the business and make a difference – here the desire is for a quick redemption, unfortunately the concomitant rushing and even omission of key steps in the development process are just as likely to lead to more business disappointment and an increasingly tarnished reputation.
  2. The second symptom is virtually antipodal to the first; an unhealthy clinging to formal methodologies, or (much worse) an attempt to introduce new and improved ones – this can have almost a totemic quality, as if by simply adhering to ISO 9000 / Agile / ITIL / RAD (delete as appropriate) things will miraculously turn around.

Unfortunately both of these extremes are essentially displacement activities. I have led the turn-around of a number of IT teams. In my experience, what is generally required is a heavy dose of pragmatism and a focus on doing the basics well and without any elaboration whatsoever. It is nearly always best to try to fix the existing machine, or at most to tinker with it slightly in the first instance, rather than to make drastic modifications or try to build a new machine in entirety.

The main reason that teams under-perform - and the main route to addressing this

When IT is under-performing it is not normally a case of absent or ill-adhered to formal procedures. Rather the malaise is more likely to be a human one, relating to a lack of leadership and direction, a consequent lack of motivation and a group that begins to spiral in on itself. If the problem is essentially with people, then the solution often lies with them as well. It is not easy to motivate demotivated people, it is not easy to provide direction to those who are lost. However both of these things are easier to do than relying on the same lost and demotivated people to either make lighting fast redemptive deliveries, or to cheerfully adopt a new and fool-proof development methodology.

If a formal methodology is important – and it generally is – then my recommendation is to implement this once you have put a lot of effort into creating a happier and better functioning IT team. It is a bit like the old adage about not outsourcing a problem. Best practice instead is to resolve the issues and only then outsource a functioning process.

It is worth also saying that, as well as being more effective, working to make your team happier and more functional is a lot more rewarding and a lot more fun. If you achieve this it is amazing how much more easily the successful system deliveries start to flow.
 
 
Coda

In business, as in rock climbing, if you try to run before you can walk, try to jump to the desired end-state without putting in the necessary hard work, then you are only likely to get hurt. If you don’t believe me, I can tell you all about my finger injury again.
 

A bad workman blames his [Business Intelligence] tools

Tools
 
Introduction

This is a proverb with quite some history to it. Indeed its lineage has been traced to 13th Century France in: mauvés ovriers ne trovera ja bon hostill (les mauvais ouvriers ne trouveront jamais un bon outil being a rendition in more contemporary French). To me this timeless observation is applicable to present-day Business Intelligence projects. Browsing through on-line forums, it is all too typical to see discussions that start “What is the best BI software available on the market?”, “Who are the leaders in SaaS BI?” and (rather poignantly in my opinion) “Please help me to pick the best technology for a dashboard.” I feel that these are all rather missing the point. Before I explain why, I am going to offer another of my sporting analogies, which I believe is pertinent. Indeed sporting performace is an area to which the aphorism appearing in the title is frequently applied.

If you would like to skip the sporting analogy and cut to the chase, please click here.
 
 
The importance of having the right shoes

Rock climbing is a sport that certainly has its share of machismo; any climbing magazine or web-site will feature images of testosterone-infused youths whose improbable physiques (often displayed to full advantage by the de rigueur absence of any torso-encumbering clothing) propel them to the top of equally improbable climbs.

Given this, many commentators have noted the irony of climbing being conducted by people wearing the equivalent of rubber-covered ballet slippers. The fact that one of the most iconic rock climbing shoes of all time was a fetching shade of pink merely adds piquancy to this observation. Examples of these, the classic FiveTen Anasazi Lace-ups, are featured in the following photo of top British climber, Steve McClure (yes it is the right way up).

The UK's finest sport climer - Steve McClure - sports the Pink'uns

When I started rock climbing, my first pair of shoes were Zephyrs from Spanish climbing firm Boreal. They looked something like this:

The Zephyr by Boreal - $87 - £67
The Zephyr by Boreal - $87 - £67

Although it might not be apparent from the above image, these are intended to be comfortable shoes. Ones to be worn by more experienced climbers on long mountain days, or suitable for beginners, like myself at the time, on shorter climbs. Although not exactly cheap, they are not prohibitively expensive and the rubber on the soles is quite hard-wearing as well.

The Zephyrs worked well for me, but inevitably over time you begin to notice the shoes worn by better climbers at the crag or at the wall. You also cannot fail to miss the much sexier shoes worn by professional climbers in films, climbing magazine articles and (no coincidence here) advertisements. These other shoes also cost more (again no coincidence) and promise better performance. When you are looking to get better at something, it is tempting to take any advantage that you can get. Also, perhaps especially when you are looking to break into a new area, there is some pressure to conform, to look like the “in-crowd”, maybe even simply to distance yourself from the beginner that you were only a few months previously.

This is very shallow behaviour of course, but it is also the rock on which the advertising industry is founded. I wanted to get better as a climber, but would have to admit that other, less noble, motives also drove me to wanting to purchase new rock shoes.

The Galileo by FiveTen - $130 - £85
The Galileo by FiveTen - $130 - £85

The Galileos shown above are made by US company FiveTen and are representative of the type of shoes that I have worn for most my climbing career. FiveTen shoes have been worn by many top climbers over the years (though there have recently been some quite high-profile defections to start-up brand Evolv, who can never seem to decide whether to append a final ‘e’ to their name or not).

Amongst other things, FiveTens are noted for the stickiness of their rubber, which is provided by an organisation called Stealth Rubber and appears on no other rock climbing shoes. Generally the greater the adhesion between your foot and the rock, the greater the force that you can bring to bear on it to drive yourself upwards. Also it helps to have confidence that your foot has a good chance of staying in place, no matter how glassy the rock may be (and no matter how long the fall may be should this not happen). I have worn FiveTen shoes on all of my hardest climbs (none of which have actually been very hard in the grand scheme of things sad to say).

The Solution by La Sportiva - $155 - £120 (link goes to the Sportiva site)
The Solution by La Sportiva - $155 - £120
(the link loads a Flash page on the Sportiva site)

Nevertheless, with what I admit was rather a sense of guilt, I have recently embarked on a dalliance with another rock shoe manufacturer, La Sportiva of Italy. The Sportiva Solutions which are shown above are both the most expensive rock shoes I have ever owned and the most technical. If NASA made a rock shoe, they would probably not be a million miles away from the Solutions. The radical nature of their design can perhaps best be appreciated in three dimensions and you can do this by clicking on the above image.

The Solutions are very, very good rock shoes. I recently had the opportunity to carry out a before and after comparison on the following climb, A Miller’s Tale:

A Miller's Tale (V4/Font 6b+) - Rubicon Wall, Derbyshire, England
A Miller's Tale (V4/Font 6b+)
Rubicon Wall, Derbyshire, England
© http://77jenn.blogspot.com

My partner, who appears in the photo (incidentally sporting FiveTen shoes), climbed this on her second go. By contrast, I had many fruitless attempts wearing my own pair of FiveTens (that, to be fair to FiveTen, were much less technical than the Galileo’s above and were also probably past the end of their useful life). I frequently found my feet skittering off of the highly polished limestone, which resulted in me rapidly returning to terra firma.

A couple of weeks later, equipped with my shiny new Sportivas, my feet did not slip once. Of course the perfect end to this story would have been to say that I then climbed the problem (for an explanation of why some types of climbs are called problems see my earlier article Perseverance). Sadly, though I made much more progress during my second session, I need to go back to finally tick it off of my list.

So here surely is an example of the tool making a difference, or is it? My partner had climbed A Miller’s Tale quite happily without having the advantage of my new footwear. She is 5’3″ (160cm) compared to my 5’11” (180cm) and the taller you are the easier it is to reach the next hold. Strength is a factor in climbing and I am also stronger in absolute terms than she is. The reason that she succeeded where I failed is simply that she is a better climber than I am. It is an oft-repeated truism in the climbing world that many females have better techniques than men. This, together with the “unfair” advantage of smaller fingers, is the excuse often offered by muscle-bound men who fail to complete a climb that a female then dances her way up. However in my partner’s case, she is also very strong, with her power-to-weight ratio being the key factor. You don’t need to lift massive weights in climbing, just your own body.

So I didn’t really need better rock shoes to prevent my feet from slipping. If I got my body into a better balanced position, then this would have had the same impact. Equally, if my abdominal muscles were stronger, I could have squeezed my feet harder onto the rock, increasing their adhesion (this type of strength, known as core strength for obvious reasons, is crucial to progressing in many types of climbing). What the Solutions did was not to make me a better climber, but to make up for some of my inadequacies. In this way, by allowing me the luxury of not focussing on increasing my strength or improving my technique, you could even argue that they might be bad for my climbing in the long run. I probably protest too much in this last comment, but hopefully the reader can appreciate the point that I am trying to make.

Campus board training

In order to become a better climber I need to do lots of things. I need to strengthen the tendons in my fingers (or at least in nine of them as I ruptured the tendon in my right ring finger playing rugby years ago) so that I can hold on to smaller edges and grasp larger ones for longer. I need to develop my abdominal muscles to hold me onto the rock face better and put more pressure on my feet; particularly when the climb is overhanging. I need to build up muscles in my back, shoulders and arms to be able to move more assuredly between holds that are widely spaced. I must work on my endurance, so that I do not fail climbs because I am worn out by a long series of lower moves. Finally I need to improve my technique: making my footwork more precise; paying more attention to the shape of my body and how this affects my centre of gravity and the purchase I have on holds; getting more comfortable with the tricks of the trade such as heel- and toe-hooks; learning when to be aggressive in my climbing and when to be slow and deliberate; and finally better visualising how my body fits against the rock and the best way to flow economically from one position to the next.

If I can get better in all of these areas, then maybe I will have earned my new technical rock shoes and I will be able to take advantage of the benefits that they offer. Having the right shoes can undoubtedly improve your climbing, but it is no substitute for focussing on the long list in the previous paragraph. There is no real short-cut to becoming a better climber, it just takes an awful lot of work.

A final thing to add in this section is that the Solutions offer advantages to the climber on certain types of climbs. On any overhanging, pocketed rock, they are brilliant. But the way that they shape your foot into a down-turned claw would be a positive disadvantage when trying to pad up a slab. In this second scenario, something like my worn out FiveTens (now sadly consigned to the rubbish tip) would be the tool of choice. It is important to realise that the right tool is often dictated by the task in hand and one that excels in area A may be an also-ran in area B.

Notes:

  1. Lest it be thought that the above manufacturers play only in narrow niches, I should explain that each of Boreal, FiveTen and La Sportiva produce a wide range of rock shoes catering to virtuially every type of climber from the neophyte to the world’s best.
  2. If you think that the pound dollar rates are rather strange in the above exhibits, then a few things are at play. Some are genuine differences, but others are because they are historical rates. for example, I struggled to find a US web-site that still sells Boreal Zephyrs.
  3. If you are interested in finding out more about my adventures in rock climbing, then take a look at my partner’s blog.

 
 
The role of technology in Business Intelligence

I hope that I have established that at least in the world of rock climbing, the technology that you have at your disposal is only one of many factors necessary for success; indeed it is some way from being the most important factor.

Having really poor, or worn out, rock shoes can dent your confidence and even get you into bad habits (such as not using your feet enough). Having really good rock shoes can bring some incremental benefits, but these are not as great as those to be gained by training and experience. Most of the technologically-related benefits will be realised by having reasonably good and reasonably new shoes.

While the level of a professional rock climber’s performance will be undoubtedly be improved by using the best equipment available, a bad climber with $150 rock shoes will still be a bad climber (note this is not intended to be a self-referential comment).

Requirements - Data Analysis - Information - Manage Change
Requirements - Data Analysis - Information - Manage Change

Returning to another of my passions, Business Intelligence, I see some pertinent parallels. In a series of previous articles (including BI implementations are like icebergs, “All that glisters is not gold” – some thoughts on dashboards and Short-term “Trouble for Big Business Intelligence Vendors” may lead to longer-term advantage) , I have laid out my framework for BI success and explained why I feel that technology is not the most important part of a BI programme.

My recommended approach is based on four pillars:

  1. Determine what information is necessary to drive key business decisions.
  2. Understand the various data sources that are available and how they relate to each other.
  3. Transform the data to meet the information needs.
  4. Manage the embedding of BI in the corporate culture.

Obviously good BI technology has a role to play across all of these areas, but it is not the primary concern in any of them. Let us consider what is often one of the most difficult areas to get right, embedding BI in an organisation’s DNA. What is the role of the BI tool here?

Well if you want people to actually use the BI system, it helps if the way that the BI technology operates is not a hindrance to this. Ideally the ease-of-use and intuitiveness of the BI technology deployed should be a plus point for you. However, if you have the ultimate in BI technology, but your BI system does not highlight areas that business people are interested in, does not provide information that influences actual decision-making, or contains numbers that are inaccurate, out-of-date, or unreconciled, then it will not be used. I put this a little more succinctly in a recent article: Using multiple business intelligence tools in an implementation – Part II (an inspired title I realise), which I finished by saying:

If your systems do not have credibility with your users, then all is already lost and no amount of flashy functionality will save you.

Similar points can be made about all of the other pillars. Great BI technology should be the icing on your BI cake, not one of the main ingredients.
 
 
The historical perspective

What Car?

Ajay Ohri from the DecisionStats web-site recently interviewed me in some depth about a range of issues. He specifically asked me about what differentiated the various BI tools and I reproduce my reply here:

The really important question in BI is not which tool is best, but how to make BI projects successful. While many an unsuccessful BI manager may blame the tool or its vendor, this is not where the real issues lie. I firmly believe that successful BI rests on four mutually reinforcing pillars: understand the questions the business needs to answer, understand the data available, transform the data to meet the business needs and embed the use of BI in the organisation’s culture. If you get these things right then you can be successful with almost any of the excellent BI tools available in the marketplace. If you get any one of them wrong, then using the paragon of BI tools is not going to offer you salvation.

I think about BI tools in the same way as I do the car market. Not so many years ago there were major differences between manufacturers. The Japanese offered ultimate reliability, but maybe didn’t often engage the spirit. The Germans prided themselves on engineering excellence, slanted either in the direction of performance or luxury, but were not quite as dependable as the Japanese. The Italians offered out-and-out romance and theatre, with mechanical integrity an afterthought. The French seemed to think that bizarrely shaped cars with wheels as thin as dinner plates were the way forward, but at least they were distinctive. The Swedes majored on a mixture of safety and aerospace cachet, but sometimes struggled to shift their image of being boring. The Americans were still in the middle of their love affair with the large and the rugged, at the expense of convenience and value-for-money. Stereotypically, my fellow-countrymen majored on agricultural charm, or wooden-panelled nostalgia, but struggled with the demands of electronics.

Nowadays, the quality and reliability of cars are much closer to each other. Most manufacturers have products with similar features and performance and economy ratings. If we take financial issues to one side, differences are more likely to related to design, or how people perceive a brand. Today the quality of a Ford is not far behind that of a Toyota. The styling of a Honda can be as dramatic as an Alfa Romeo. Lexus and Audi are playing in areas previously the preserve of BMW and Mercedes and so on. To me this is also where the market for BI tools is at present. It is relatively mature and the differences between product sets are less than before.

Of course this doesn’t mean that the BI field will not be shaken up by some new technology or approach (in-memory BI or SaaS come to mind). This would be the equivalent of the impact that the first hybrid cars had on the auto market. However, from the point of view of implementations, most BI tools will do at least an adequate job and picking one should not be your primary concern in a BI project.

If you are interested, you can read the full interview here.
 
 
The current reality

IBM to acquire SPSS

As my comments to Ajay suggest, maybe in past times there were greater differences between BI vendors and the tools that they supplied. One benefit of the massive consolidation that has occurred in recent years is that the five biggest players: IBM/Cognos, Oracle/Hyperion, SAP/BusinessObjects, Microsoft and (the as yet still independent) SAS all have product portfolios that are both wide and deep. If there is something that you want your BI tool to do, it is likely that any of these organisations can provide you with the software; assuming that your wallet allows it. Both the functionality and scope of offerings from smaller vendors operating in the BI arena have also increased greatly in recent times. Finding a technology that fits your specific needs for functionality, ease-of-use, scalability and reliability should not be a problem.

This general landscape is one against which it is interesting to view the recent acquisition of business analytics firm SPSS by IBM. According to Reuters, IBM’s motivations are as follows:

IBM plans to buy business analytics company SPSS Inc for $1.2 billion in cash to better compete with Oracle Corp and SAP AG in the growing field of business intelligence

Full story here.

As an aside, should both Microsoft and SAS be worried that they are omitted from this list?

Whatever the corporate logic for IBM, to me this is simply more evidence that BI technology is becoming a utility (it should however be noted that this is not the same as BI itself becoming a utility). I believe that this trend will lead to a greater focus on the use of BI technology as part of broad-based BI programmes that drive business value. Though BI has the potential of releasing massive benefits for organisations, the track record has been somewhat patchy. Hopefully as people start to worry less about BI technology and more about the factors that really drive success in BI programmes, this will begin to change.

A precursor to Business Intelligence

As with any technical innovation over the centuries, it is only when the technology itself becomes invisible that the real benefits flow.
 

Perseverance

This blog is generally focused on topics in business, technology and change; often all three at the same time. However, from time to time, a personal post leaks in. This is one such post… or is it? Read to the end and then I will leave you to make up your own mind about this question.
 
 
Introduction

Over the years I have played many sports. For example, both cricket and rugby union consumed much of my youth. I have also recently got into mountain biking and really enjoy it. However, the activity that I am most engaged in currently is rock climbing, something that I alluded to at the beginning of a blog post yesterday. Rock climbing forms a very broad church and I have taken part in many aspects of it. However, for a number of reasons, I have gravitated to the sub-genre of bouldering over the last few years.

For the uninitiated, bouldering is climbing un-roped, often on actual boulders, but also on small outcrops and generally going no more than 5-6m (15-20 ft) off the ground. You carry around crash-pads (bouldering mats) with you to hopefully take the brunt of any falls. Indeed the idea with bouldering is to fall… to try again… and to fall again. In fact maybe Beckett had bouldering in mind when he wrote:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

The whole point is that, because bouldering is relatively (and I stress the word relatively) safe, you can try to make moves that are at the limit of your ability; moves that would not be terribly sensible to even contemplate making on a longer, higher, roped climb. In fact bouldering climbs are so difficult that they are generally described as “problems”; an apt name that also conveys the fact that sometimes you have to use extreme subtlety and finesse as well as brute strength to get up them.

People often literally spend years attempting to complete a problem, particularly if it represents a new level of climbing for them, or if no one else has climbed the line before. Because of this, such unclimbed lines are often called projects. It’s common to ask a fellow climber about how their current project is progressing. This choice of name perhaps begins to give some indication of why I am sharing my experiences in bouldering with you today.

Having said that most boulder problems are short, some hardy souls also embrace high-ball bouldering which, as the name suggests, takes you a lot further off the ground. The following video shows one of the world’s best climbers, Chris Sharma, bouldering in Bishop, California. It segues to him and another top climber, Ethan Pringle, attempting a high-ball problem that weighs in at around 11-12m (35-40 ft).

Note 1: Ethan issues an expletive under his breath towards the end of the clip. I might well have been tempted to do so myself in similar circumstances, but count yourselves warned.

Note 2: As will be apparent if you try to click on this video, it is sadly no longer available, probably to do with copyright issues. Instead I would recommend that you take a look at the bouldering section of Dead Point Magazine’s site.

Copyright notice. This piece is taken from the DVD King Lines which features Chris Sharma climbing all over the world. The copyright holder is BigUp Productions, a world-renowned and award-winning producer of climbing DVDs.
 
 
So what does this have to do with the price of fish?

Please substitute “the price of eggs” if you are in the US

Green Wall Essential (V2). The Buttermilks, Bishop, CA
Green Wall Essential (V2). The Buttermilks, Bishop, CA

I have recently taken to showing the above photograph at the mid-point of my public speaking about business intelligence and change management. Generally I have introduced it with the comment that I wanted to relieve the audience’s boredom by showing them some of my holiday snaps.

As in the above video, this climb is also in Bishop, California, a world-class bouldering venue. The problem is called Green Wall Essential and its grade of difficulty is V2. Without going into enormous detail about the different grading systems for boulder problems, I’ll simply say that V2 is towards the easier end of the spectrum; V15/16 is the hardest that people have climbed.

The reason that I share this image with business/technology audiences is related to the number of times that I tried (and failed) to climb it. Here are some statistics:

  • More than 80 attempts
  • On 4 different days
  • During 2 separate visits to Bishop
  • Spread over 8 months

I mentioned the term project above; Green Wall Essential became my project and my obsession. The above statistics represent more effort than I have ever put into climbing anything else. The quartz monzonite rock is hard and crystalline. It digs into your fingers and peels off your skin leaving the rock stained with your blood (you can see the tape holding the tips of my fingers together in the photograph). Your muscles and tendons ache from trying to push yourself just that little bit harder in order to attain success. You endlessly try different foot holds and body positions. You try to be slow and precise. When that doesn’t work you try to be aggressive and dynamic. When that doesn’t work… and so on and so on.

Now in order to put in that much effort over that much time, and to put up with that much pain and that much failure, you have to really want to do the problem. You have to be persistent, despite set backs. You have to continue to keep a positive mind-set, to believe that you can be successful, even when you have just failed for the 80th time.

In my experience, that is precisely the same mind-set that you need to be successful with major projects, particularly in the business of change management. Hopefully your fingers will bleed less, but it will not be easy. There will be set-backs. Progress may sometimes seem glacially slow, but if you persevere then the goal is worth it.

Sometimes we want to find a magic recipe for success, or – to mix the metaphor – a silver bullet. We want to discover a series of defined steps to take that, if repeated religiously, will guarantee that we get to the desired goal each and every time. That’s why articles entitled “The 5 ways to […]” and “My top tips for […]” are so well-read on the web. My take is that the secret ingredient may be very simple: plain, pig-headed perseverance.

By way of illustrating the benefits of this approach (and closing this article), here I am having achieved my own personal goal on Green Wall Essential… EVENTUALLY!!!

Me a very happy boulderer having completed my project.
Me a very happy boulderer having completed my project.

I wish you luck with your own projects, be these in business intelligence, other areas of IT, change management, or even bouldering. My own “Top tip” – if at first you don’t succeed, persevere.
 


 
If I have whetted anyone’s appetite about bouldering, you can take a look at my partner’s bouldering blog, which contains bouldering photos and videos, together with her musings on what motivates her to climb.