How to hit the ground running

I was watching “Ali” the other day with my dad. While I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, I realised that my dad was struggling to make sense of what was going on.. I realised that the movie assumed that the viewer was already aware of the 60s movement in the US to gain racial equality, Malcolm X and the politics of Nation of Islam, the Vietnam war etc. Years of watching American television, movies , documentaries and a lot of reading allowed me to get the necessary context, which my dad lacked.

Too often, consultants face the problem when they land at a new client – there are huge unknowns such as the client’s existing business process, existing systems and the business environment. At this point a good amount of jargon gets thrown about by the user base without necessarily setting the context. Some of this jargon can also be wrong such as false domain terms, using system names interchangeably with business processes, poor domain design etc. Its possible that there isnt a safe zone for the consultants to ask the dumb questions. Its difficult for the consultants to hit the ground running when faced with such barriers to information.

Kathy Sierra draws a distinction between “Jargon” and “Buzzword” in her post , the former being the lingua franca of experts and the latter being used to impress/ mislead others. In our example, the users /customers have built their own jargon over the years based on their specific work environment. The consultants, on other hand, may possess certain knowledge about domain, but is most probably not conversant with the jargon used. Without resorting to buzzwords which can be counterproductive, the consultant needs to find a way around the jargon used.

Here’s what I have done in similar situations like this earlier

  1. Read ! Read existing documents , WIKI pages, public websites, etc. Some clients also have internal induction training courses – get your hands on those, if possible.
  2. Model your understanding of the system and illustrate it visually. The users may break the model through different scenarios, which is actually a positive thing. (For more details, see Chris Matts’ article on Negative Feedback)
  3. Apprenticeship. If possible, get to be an apprentice to a customer and help them in their work. Suddenly “Damn ! We have got too many NIGOs today” starts making a bit more sense. (NIGO = Not in Good Order). There is another side benefit here – we may actually begin to have empathy for their daily jobs.
  4. Related to apprenticeship, one can volunteer to test existing systems for a short period of time. This usually provides a good context of how users actually use the system.
  5. Maintain a “Jargon” or “Glossary” page on a shared WIKI or something similar. Most users are happy to answer direct questions such as ” How is a CFD different from Swap” ? or ” Where does GLADIS fit in the whole trade cycle” ? This is of course, assuming, that you know what a SWAP is and what a trade cycle is.
  6. Get the user in a teaching mode e.g. Lets say we are building a new financial trading system. In our analysis sessions, we should ask the user to think of a situation where they have just set up an entirely new fund. The user is asked to think about a single product which they wish to trade, consciously keeping out any complexities. Once the simplest scenario is achieved, start layering it with other complexities and dimensions. The happy side effect is that you would also end up with the right set of stories to work with.
  7. Build relationships at client site at all levels. Juniormost people are sometimes also the best sources of information as they have recently been through a learning curve themselves.
  8. Finally, document your learning. It is quite possible that you may have to handover to another person and you dont want them to go through the same pains again.

Let me know how these tips work for you. Or you could just be like my dad who says “Theres no such thing as a dumb question – there are only dumb answers”.

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2 Responses

  1. Great take away for me and my team.
    I will be sharing this with my team as well.

    Keep up the good work

  2. Thanks for the kind comments. I am glad you find it useful. Let me know how it works for you – would be interested to see if there are other things that I have missed.

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