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03 September 2017

Learning from Poor Writing

A wise person learns from others' mistakes. Any competent Business Analyst must master written communications. This flog post (flog + blog) presents lessons from unprofessional writing. I try not to pick on common people (e.g., Facebook posters). Instead, I focus on those who ought to know better: mainly, reporters and the news organizations that are too miserly to hire copy editors.

Bent-piped Gaffs

Reporters often accept news releases from companies or government agencies and then post them with minimal editing. That's probably what happened with this story. The text went in one end of the pipe and came out the other end, uncorrected. The quality doesn't speak well of the News Director who posted it under his name. He may be a great reporter or manager, but his proofreading is substandard, even by the news industry's rapidly deteriorating standards.

The USFS manager who probably provided the source text sits on the borderline of forgiveness. Managers reach their position because they can do one or two things well. One of two halo effects result. (a) Since they do something well, they think they can do all things well.  (b) Since they do something well, their managers expect them to do all things well (including writing) and withhold budget for hiring professional tech writers. Both situations can result in unprofessional writing. Most of the time, poor writing does not matter, but when the subject impacts profitability or safety, poor writing can cost jobs or even lives.

  • In the opening sentence, using the verb to be equates the fire with the area. That is a logical error. The fire covers 3,791 acres or has burned 3,791 acres, but we shouldn't say the fire is 3,791 acres.
  • You don't need to be a firefighter to know the difference between a [Name] Complex Fire and a fire complex. A wildfire complex forms when two or more fires merge. Complex may also be loosely applied to multiple wildfires close enough together to be treated as a single fire. 
    • In this case, two fires have merged, but the third remains separate, across the valley. Therefore, the Summit Complex Fire ought to be called Summit Complex Fires
    • The complex fire should simply be The complex. The complex of fires would be acceptable but wordy. 
  • Containment is not something you place on a fire. You don't have 9% containment on the fire, you have 9% containment of the fire. A better headline would state, Summit Complex Fires Containment at 9%.
  • 9% is a measurement. You don't spell out measurements.
  • Nine-percent should not be hyphenated. The focus of the sentence is on 9% (e.g., the containment has reached 9%). When the unit of measurement might otherwise require pluralizing, we hyphenate the number and the unit of measurement, and we keep the unit in the singular.
    • Example: The six-foot statue (not the six feet statue
    • Percent does not require pluralizing. For example, we would never say, nine percents.
  • In lightning caused incidents and heat related illness, the author commits the opposite error by failing to hyphenate. Where a pair of words form Correct: lightning-caused incidents and heat-related illness.
  • (Sarcasm Alert) I just love "The fire activity of the McCormick Fire has been especially active...." We wouldn't want to scare people by telling them that the McCormick Fire has been especially active. Let's tell them that the activity has been especially active. Great writing! 
  • Competing with the complex fire for best example of redundancy, we have dry fuel moistures. Low fuel moisture would be better. The technical people think in terms of the percentage moisture content in the materials that make up the fuels for wildfires. But a good writer would simply say dry fuels.
  • The problem with the final error lies in what it omits. Writing in passive voice commonly leads to ambiguity about who performs the action. 
    • A voluntary evacuation has been issued in conjunction with the Tuolumne County Sherriff's Office....
      • By the way, you don't issue an evacuation; you issue an evacuation notice or order.
      • And Sheriff has one 'r', not two.
      • The news release probably came from the US Forest Service spokesman, so I'll fill in the missing detail:
    • Corrected: The Forest Service, in conjunction with the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office, has issued a voluntary evacuation notice....

Writing That Bites

The next grammatical atrocity has too many errors for a complete commentary. The points listed below will have to suffice.
Inattention to order of phrases
  • The past participle of bite is bitten. The woman bit the crew member. The crew member was bitten.
  • Grammatically, ...in Angels Camp that had wedged implies that Angels Camp did the wedging. 
  • The correct pronoun for a person is who, not that. That implies that the thing referred-to is not human.
  • Had wedged... and refused changes verb tenses in the middle of the sentence. Had wedged... and had refused adds parallelism.
  • The order of the phrases should reflect the importance of the information. The location should not interrupt the actions. A better version of the opening sentence would read,
    • An ambulance crew member was bitten while attempting to rescue a woman who refused police orders to come out after wedging herself between two boulders near Angels Creek in Angels Camp.
  • The sentence still uses a passive verb, which renders it boring. Splicing too much information into a single sentence makes it even worse. A best version would read,
    • A woman bit an ambulance crew member who was attempting to rescue her near Angels Creek in Angels Camp. She had refused police orders to come out after having wedged herself between two boulders.
  • The lack of a comma in referred to as the "Paradise" area for a female that... implies that the name refers to a woman. The resulting double entendre should bring a smile to dirty minds.  
  • The lack of a comma in a steep ravine who had lodged herself implies that the ravine is a person and that the ravine did the lodging. Again, the writer interrupts the action by inserting the location prematurely in the sentence. A better version of the sentence reads,
    • Once at the scene, they found a 21-year-old woman who had lodged herself in a crevasse between two large rocks near the creek at the bottom of a steep ravine about a half mile from the roadway.
The next sentence secured this article's place on my grammatical wall of shame.
  • Unable to sit still and while making animated, erratic movements, officers ordered....
Too much coffee, officers? 

The final paragraph opens with an equally awful (although not nearly as funny) mistake.
  • It took crews nearly two hours through heavy vegetation and rough terrain, to safely remove the women (sic) from the scene. First, vegetation and terrain are not units of time. Second, the writer blunders yet again by stating the location too early in the sentence. The corrected sentence reads as follows:
    • It took crews nearly two hours to safely remove the woman through heavy vegetation and rough terrain.
    • Notice that when the obstacles are correctly placed, it becomes clear that from the scene is redundant.

That's it for now. I'm happy with my vent. I hope you found this either amusing or edifying. If you see other examples of atrocious writing, feel free to leave a link in the comments, below.


More to come, later.

Copyright 2017 Richard Wheeler

20 June 2017

When Sales Promises Phantom Features

What should a Product Development or Project Manager do when Sales has sold the product with a feature that does not exist, Engineering does not plan to build it, and it is not in the SOW?

This is like bringing the boss home for dinner without telling your spouse.

In this case, the organization is broken. It is stovepiped, with Sales not considering other stakeholders within the organization.

Some would look at the Statement of Work (SOW) and draw a hard line, but that option often does not legally exist. The spoken word often binds the Seller.

My answer assumes traditional product development and project management. Agile developers have considerable flexibility with scope.

If you don't have a Change Management Process, create one. Your Product Roadmap, Project Management Plan, and product design may require significant rework that must be analyzed and documented. The presumptuous defenestration of all that planning incurs significant costs and delays because they have just altered your carefully optimized route.

Driving is a great metaphor, here. You invested significant creativity and expense in planning to add features and develop your market in a logical order. Now, you have to spend more budget and time on planning a new route that may take longer to get to the destination.

As a starting point for accountability, require Sales to submit a Change Request form that requires documenting the business case, costs, funding sources, risks, schedule impact, and technical impact and feasibility. This requires business analysis and coordinating efforts of many stakeholders such as the buyer, users, Product Development, Engineering, Production, Deployment, Scheduling, Contracts, Finance, Quality, and suppliers (through Purchasing). The change may be a "done deal," but Sales needs to stand before a Change Control Board (CCB) and gain an understanding of the consequences of their actions. When the borrowed experts from Engineering start charging against Sales' budget, even their managers will get the message.

Fulfilling the changes will require a combination of creative options.

  • Most people will compromise rather than spoil their relationship with your company by taking advantage of a loose-lipped salesman; so you may be able to negotiate a change to the contract based on re-prioritizing client needs.
  • Since the change may have value to other customers, management might accelerate investment in product development funding.
  • Consider dipping into Management Reserves and profits.
  • Bring in a Lean/Six Sigma team to find cost and schedule savings. (After that, have them help fix those stovepiped processes.)
  • If the Product Roadmap includes features not delivered to this customer, delay their development.
  • Look for features planned for the product but not promised to the Customer. They may be removed.
  • Sometimes, the penalties for breaking a contract cost less than fulfilling it. This is your worst option, but it is a valid option.

A well thought-out Change Request Form anticipates the areas that require investigation when instigating change. A well-designed Change Control process not only provides opportunity for characterizing changes, but also for creative thinking about the solutions to sticky problems. 

Copyright 2017 Richard Wheeler

10 December 2016

Elevator Pitches: Tell Me A Little About Yourself

You Need an Elevator Pitch


When prospecting for jobs, I used to have two panic situations.

  • You meet somebody, you ask them some questions to establish a bit of a relationship and to choose whether to put more time into the conversation. You learn that this person could be a lead to a job. Suddenly, you realize that it’s your turn to introduce yourself. What do you say?

  • A hiring manager invites you to take a seat and begins the interview. “So, tell me a little about yourself.” What do you say?

As you can see, you need more than a good resume and a good cover letter.

The Elevator Pitch is the introduction you would give during an elevator ride. At the end of the ride, either you will watch the doors close as the listener walks away, or you will walk away with the listener because he or she wants to hear more.

You’ve got 30 seconds, and what you say will not only show whether you can solve the manager’s problem, it will also tell the manager whether, in your current occupation (Job Hunter), you are a diligent worker. The pressure is on!

Create Your Elevator Pitch


The Web has thousands of formulas for elevator pitches. I’ll give you the best formula I’ve seen, to get you started.

  1. (Introduce yourself. By this point, you should already have introduced yourself. If you haven’t, do so now. Optionally, you can add something about yourself that sets up the next part.)

    Example: My name is Remy Therat (and some day, I’m going to own my own restaurant).

  2. Get their attention. Not your attention. Theirs. What do they care about? What challenges do they face? Stories get a person’s attention. A story about me -- or about the problems I face -- gets my attention.

    Example:  The last place I ate, the server’s expression made me feel guilty for having to ask for a fork three times, and the cooks couldn’t even bother with centering the burger on the bun.

  3. Tell them how you solve their problem. Remember, this is about their challenges, not about what you want. When you become the hiring manager, you can talk all you want about what you want. But for now, the hiring manager and his or her problems are the center of your universe.

    Example:  As an assistant manager, I always started the day with a huddle to get the staff to think about how we can make diners feel comfortable and important.

  4. Call to action! You want them to help you, but you don’t want to put them on the spot. Asking directly for a job puts them on the spot, so be indirect. “Who* do you know that...” asks them to think of a specific answer that moves you closer to finding an employer, and if you’ve already found the right person, he or she will answer, “Me!”

    Example:  Who do you know who could use a caring, ambitious worker on their staff to increase customer loyalty and staff retention?
    Notice that the question reinforced the message of how Remy would be a great employee and how he would be good for the business.

    * The correct word is whom. In my line of work, I have to be a bit of a grammar cop, so I would use whom. However, if it would make you sound stuffy and unnatural in your line of work, who will do just fine. 

Let’s see how that flows:

  • My name is Remy Therat (and someday, I’m going to own my own restaurant). The last place I ate, the server’s expression made me feel guilty for having to ask for a fork three times, and the cooks couldn’t even bother with centering the burger on the bun. As an assistant manager, I always started the day with a huddle to get the staff to think about how we could make diners feel comfortable and important. Who do you know who could use a caring, ambitious worker on their staff to increase customer loyalty and staff retention?  


Prepare Your Pitch, but Be Spontaneous


Here’s the catch: You want this to come from within. You don’t want to sound like you’re reading off a 3x5 card. Besides, no Elevator Pitch will fit every situation.

If somebody asks about the weather forecast, do you repeat what KCRA’s meteorologist said, word-for-word? Of course not.

You now know the three main parts of your Elevator Pitch:

  1. What are their challenges?
  2. How can you solve their challenges?
  3. “Who do you know that could use (description of yourself) to (how you’d be good for the business)?”

You know your skills, your knowledge, your behaviors, your history. You are the expert on You, so you can be flexible.

Write out several possible answers for each of the pieces above. Think of how you would word the pieces for different types of jobs.

Then rehearse them. (Boring repetition and breaking things into pieces are the keys to memorizing.)

Imagine that you meet the hiring manager for one job and decide what the best pitch would be for her. Then imagine that you meet a manager for another job you could do, and decide what the best pitch would be for him.

A mechanic doesn’t use one tool for every job, he carries a whole toolkit. Be prepared, and you'll be able to be flexible and natural.


Copyright 2016, Rich Wheeler

31 October 2016

Corrections to LinkedIn's Course, Business Analysis Fundamentals

LinkedIn's inLearning course (apparently they got it from Linda.com), Business Analysis Fundamentals, provides plenty of useable information. However, I was frustrated with a number of points. The most damaging were the course's confusion about Validation, Verification, Traceability, and Stakeholders.

  • You validate requirements by confirming that they have authority, are necessary, and meet standards for quality. Validation looks upward.

  • You verify that requirements are met either by lower-level requirements or by the product. Verification looks downward. Methods include Inspection, Analysis, Test, and Demonstration.

  • The course reversed these distinctions and identified only Test as a method of verification.

  • Traceability links each requirement to directly-related higher- and lower-level requirements. Traceability enables validating requirements' authority and verifying their satisfaction.

  • The course's discussion of traceability focused on metadata about requirements' sources. While such information is useful, it is a very minor part of traceability.

  • Stakeholders include everybody who "has a stake in" the project.  The course focused on external stakeholders. It should have included the project team and other internal relationships such as other projects.

  • The course's definition of Functional Requirements includes activities that the project needs to do to deliver the product. It should also have included what the product does and how well it does it.

  • Since the course only half understands what constitutes functional requirements, it classifies Performance among nonfunctional requirements. Project performance is nonfunctional, but product performance is functional.

  • The course treats Transitional Requirements as a separate category. If the project performs a service, transitional requirements can be Functional requirements; and if the project creates a product, they are usually nonfunctional.

  • The T in SMART stands for Time-bound. The course replaces this with Traceable. The substitution is a good one, but it is nonstandard, and it requires that you include temporal requirements in Specific.

As I said, the course provided plenty of actionable content. I would be proud to work with the instructor, and I would learn a lot more from him that he would learn from me. However, we'd have to work out some issues, first.

20 October 2016

Steps to Avoid Becoming Another Samsung

"What should I focus on or watch out for in order to prevent a calamity from happening to my business?"

Asked at http://www.mosaichub.com/answers/question/what-should-i-focus-on-or-watch-out-for-in-order-t#57652

Study Risk Management

  • I strongly suggest studying the Risk Management sections of Project Management Institute's (PMI's) Project Management Body of Knowledge Guide Guide (PMBOK). Add to that the corresponding chapter of a PMI-PMP (Project Management Professional) exam study guide such as the one by Rita Mulcahey.
  • If your organization can bear the cost, consider hiring an employee or consultant with a strong background in risk management to help establish a risk management program or to review the program you establish.
  • One such expert is Glen Alleman. I recommend the materials on his blog, Herding Cats.

Systematically Define Your Business and Identify Potential Risks

  • In general, you need to systematically define and examine every facet of your business, processes, products, services, and business environment. (The whole of the PMBOK Guide will help you classify those areas for projects.) As you examine each facet, you compile a list of risks. Clarification: I'm not saying you have to do it all at once.

Evaluate Risks

  • To evaluate the identified risks, you make a subjective, rough estimate of their effect and probability.

    Risk = Impact x Probability

    You then accept the low-risk items or place them on a watch list and make a more objective evaluation of high and medium risks.

Aleatory and Epistemic Risk

  • One of the characteristics of risk that you need to consider is what you know about the risk. Epistemic risks can be reduced by learning more about them. Aleatory risks cannot be reduced because there's a random element. For example, knowing how many sides dice have lets you know the possible range of values, and testing them can tell you whether loading or poor workmanship make some results more likely. On the other hand, after that, you cannot reduce randomness. This is part of the information you use when evaluating strategies for managing the risks.

Identify Candidate Responses

  • Identify possible responses (accept the risk, sidestep the risk (e.g., plan your road around the mountain instead of tunneling through it), reduce the effects, take steps to reduce the probability, transfer the risk to somebody else (outsourcing or insurance), or wait and see.

Evaluate, Select, and Implement Responses

  • Evaluate and select responses based on their cost and probability of success. Note that risk responses become policies, changes to processes, or new requirements. 

Monitor Responses and Watch List

  • Set up a risk monitoring system that tracks risks in the watch list as well as implementation of responses. This feeds into controlling performance and also into Lessons Learned (you have a Lessons Learned archive, don't you?) that save you work in the future.

Iterate and Integrate

  • Risk identification is iterative because risk responses can create secondary risks, because everything eventually changes, and because . Many companies miss new risks because they perform risk identification and planning and never re-visit the subject.
  • Many organizations delegate responses and leave them isolated from the . However, except for responses that are experimental (e.g., try it on a limited scale before rolling it out to the entire organization), they must be integrated into the business, project, product, etc.
  • Like process improvement, risk management (RM) needs to be part of a company's culture. Some say that RM should dominate status meetings because it is more proactive and more actionable, and also because "status" is actually a facet of risk.
Copyright 2016, Richard Wheeler

Steps to Avoid Becoming Another Samsung

"What should I focus on or watch out for in order to prevent a calamity from happening to my business?"

Asked at http://www.mosaichub.com/answers/question/what-should-i-focus-on-or-watch-out-for-in-order-t#57652

Study Risk Management

  • I strongly suggest studying the Risk Management sections of Project Management Institute's (PMI's) Project Management Body of Knowledge Guide Guide (PMBOK). Add to that the corresponding chapter of a PMI-PMP (Project Management Professional) exam study guide such as the one by Rita Mulcahey.
  • If your organization can bear the cost, consider hiring an employee or consultant with a strong background in risk management to help establish a risk management program or to review the program you establish.
  • One such expert is Glen Alleman. I recommend the materials on his blog, Herding Cats.

Systematically Define Your Business and Identify Potential Risks

  • In general, you need to systematically define and examine every facet of your business, processes, products, services, and business environment. (The whole of the PMBOK Guide will help you classify those areas for projects.) As you examine each facet, you compile a list of risks. Clarification: I'm not saying you have to do it all at once.

Evaluate Risks

  • To evaluate the identified risks, you make a subjective, rough estimate of their effect and probability.

    Risk = Impact x Probability

    You then accept the low-risk items or place them on a watch list and make a more objective evaluation of high and medium risks.

Aleatory and Epistemic Risk

  • One of the characteristics of risk that you need to consider is what you know about the risk. Epistemic risks can be reduced by learning more about them. Aleatory risks cannot be reduced because there's a random element. For example, knowing how many sides dice have lets you know the possible range of values, and testing them can tell you whether loading or poor workmanship make some results more likely. On the other hand, after that, you cannot reduce randomness. This is part of the information you use when evaluating strategies for managing the risks.

Identify Candidate Responses

  • Identify possible responses (accept the risk, sidestep the risk (e.g., plan your road around the mountain instead of tunneling through it), reduce the effects, take steps to reduce the probability, transfer the risk to somebody else (outsourcing or insurance), or wait and see.

Evaluate, Select, and Implement Responses

  • Evaluate and select responses based on their cost and probability of success. Note that risk responses become policies, changes to processes, or new requirements. 

Monitor Responses and Watch List

  • Set up a risk monitoring system that tracks risks in the watch list as well as implementation of responses. This feeds into controlling performance and also into Lessons Learned (you have a Lessons Learned archive, don't you?) that save you work in the future.

Iterate and Integrate

  • Risk identification is iterative because risk responses can create secondary risks, because everything eventually changes, and because . Many companies miss new risks because they perform risk identification and planning and never re-visit the subject.
  • Many organizations delegate responses and leave them isolated from the . However, except for responses that are experimental (e.g., try it on a limited scale before rolling it out to the entire organization), they must be integrated into the business, project, product, etc.
  • Like process improvement, risk management (RM) needs to be part of a company's culture. Some say that RM should dominate status meetings because it is more proactive and more actionable, and also because "status" is actually a facet of risk.
Copyright 2016, Richard Wheeler

04 October 2016

Managing an Aggressive, Disrespectful Employee

Question from Quora.com about a situation every manager eventually faces:

How can I be a strong leader of a company?

I’m the managing director of a company in a national competition. I appointed ‘Billy’, as we’ll call him, as deputy managing director. However he’s trying to take charge and criticising me as a public speaker, which I am actually very good at. How can I be strong and prove that I’m in charge?

Manage or Lead?

Mr. Asker is right to focus on leadership. A good manager guides the business whereas a good leader guides people. Success comes when you do both. 

One responder correctly stated that firing "Billy" is an option. However, since Mr. Asker saw value and ability in Billy, it’s probably better to help him grow, so firing him would be the last option. A manager would fire Billy first; a leader would fire him last. 

That having been said, let's consider some options. Everybody has a unique personality, motivations, and needs, so we no single response fits everybody. However, we can identify some common, general methods. 

Rise above the challenge

Mr. Asker should not focus on proving anything, although, after settling the problem, he may need to take steps to restore his stakeholders’ confidence in him. The following excellent advice is offered by Kim Bunting:
Prove that you’re in charge by taking charge.  The first thing about being in charge is to not get caught up in the emotion of the situation.
Criticism is only as impactful as you let it become.  Make sure you hear what he’s saying and look (without emotion) at it to make sure it isn’t feedback that might help you improve your already good presentation skills.  If it’s not, say “thanks for the feedback” and keep going.  If it is, work on changing.  A leader takes feedback and isn’t injured by people offering it.
If he’s trying to take charge of things you are doing, say “thanks for the help, I’ve got this” and move on.  Assign him something else to focus on, such as saying “rather than both of us spending time on this task I’m doing, we can get more done if you get the spreadsheet finished. Let me know when you’re done.” (or whatever)
The most powerful thing you can do to someone who is trying to upstage you or discredit your authority is to NOT react to them as if your authority could be taken away.

Confront the challenge

Containing the situation limits the damage to your reputation, to company morale, to business, and to Billy’s reputation, too. Jesus stated a rule about escalating an issue (Matthew 18:15-17). You start one-on-one, then bring in witnesses if you must, and then bring in the broadest authority; sanctions are the last resort. Some companies have Human Resources professionals who specialize in managing interpersonal conflicts, so involving them may be one of the routes for escalation.  Needless to say, the best option benefits everybody.

I recommend a two-pronged approach. One step is urgent while the other is important.

Feedback is urgent.

Billy needs immediate, private feedback. I suggest using the feedback model taught at Manager-Tools.com. (You can join to access their content or you can search their website or the iTunes store for their free podcasts on the feedback model.) The script goes something like this, and it should only take a minute or two:
  1. Describe what Billy did. Focus strictly on one event, not on personalities or general behaviors.
  2. Explain the result of what Billy did. Remember, this is about what’s good for the business. It’s not about judging Billy or defending yourself. However, you can describe the perceptions that his behavior causes and the feelings it triggers as they impact business. 
  3. Explain your standards for profitable business behavior.
  4. Ask Billy whether he can support those standards, and ask him what he will do to meet those standards. 
  5. Thank Billy for his time and for the improvements you expect to see.
  6. Move on. Don’t mention it again unless another feedback session is needed. 
Notice two things about the model: First, the model identifies the problem and its costs and then conveys a vision, a to condition, before seeking change. 

Second, if Billy agrees to take steps to correct his behavior, Mr. Asker now has a standard against which to hold him accountable. If Mr. Asker keeps thorough records, he now has a basis for future actions such as rewards for improvement, withholding rewards for failing to improve, or sanctions such as demotion or termination.

Treating the cause is vital.

Feedback is urgent, but identifying the root cause is important. Knowing root causes enables making a plan for how to will deal with the problem, just like a manager would make a plan for dealing with any other business problem. 

Toward that end, Mr. Asker should work on his relationship with Billy. He could take him to lunch. He could establish weekly one-on-ones (learn about those in the Manager-Tools podcasts, too). Determining what drives Billy him and his goals will help determine how to direct his energies and help him grow as a human being.

Manager-Tools’ also has a coaching model. Mr. Asker can also help Billy by assigning research or reading that would help correct his behaviors. Sometimes a bad behavior expresses some other frustration. Dealing with the root cause may mean helping Billy learn some technical skill rather than teaching him the social skill.

Leaders are learners. They prepare by collecting tools for dealing with issues and problems and by investigating to learn the root causes. Their plans for how to deal with issues may include a variety of approaches, and they may change approaches. Finally, the leader works for the benefit of everyone, including the offende


Copyright 2016, Richard Wheeler