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#021 - Make the trade-off or risk mediocrity
Welcome to Issue #021 of The Forcing Function - your guide to delivering the right outcomes for your projects and your users.
🤔 Made me think: Progress is deciding what not to do.
👨💻 Worth checking out: Which voting system is the best?
📨 Welcome to my first issue on Substack. For email subscribers, you may find that the look and feel of the email is slightly different following the switch. If you have any issues, please reply back and let me know.
Trade-offs are inevitable yet are your key to project success.
The UK is currently closed and not just because it’s Christmas.
Sitting in a hospital clinic for an outpatient appointment a few weeks ago, I saw first-hand how how much pressure our National Health Service (NHS) is under. Nurses being run ragged as the place filled to bursting point. Patients left waiting and getting irate at the lack of care and communication.
The situation is now so bad that last Thursday, tens of thousands of nurses went on strike. It was the Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) first nationwide strike in its 106-year history. Think how extraordinary the situation must be for them to take such last-resort action.
Over the last decade, nurses’ pay has been so below inflation that they now effectively work one day a week for free. And now, with inflation running at a 40-year high, 25% of hospitals have set up food banks to support nursing staff. Unsurprisingly, more than 10% of nurses (~ 32,000) leave the NHS each year.
With such chronic understaffing, the RCN argue that nurses are constantly overworked, the quality of care can’t be maintained, and patient safety is at risk.
By striking, the nurses have chosen to sacrifice their pay in the expectation that their collective action will help them improve a dire situation. But, health strikes also sacrifice the the quality of life of thousands of patients. Thousands of outpatient appointments and non-urgent operations have to be cancelled.
For the RCN, their trade-off is to strike but not completely. They’ve exempted certain critical life-preserving services (such as chemotherapy) whilst reducing other services to Christmas Day levels. Still making their point but not deliberately recklessly.
Where would you draw the line?
The inevitability of trade-offs
Trade-offs exist because constraints exist.
No amount of “if only …” wishful thinking is going to change that. Simply hoping for the best, on its own, is not a sustainable strategy and neither is the desperation of a Hail Mary pass. There is a finite limit to how much additional work you can squeeze and how much you can squeeze people / systems to do even more.
And even when you make a trade-off, there’s rarely a single “right” answer either. The variables are multiple, your information is imperfect, the future is unknown. The best you can do is to make the best decision you can.
To do that, take a step back and question the trade-off itself. Not to deny it but to use your initial understanding as the starting point to:
Validate: Robustly check that the trade-off is genuine and not an arbitrary construct that’s now taken as gospel.
Reframe: Look at the trade-off from different perspectives with different stakeholders to uncover hidden options. A trade-off isn’t always zero-sum.
Assess: Quantify the costs and impacts to provide facts to help compare options.
Negotiate: Understand what movement there is with each constraint. Work with that to avoid or ameliorate the trade-off.
Making trade-offs is business analysis
Unlike the nurses, business analysts (BAs) typically don’t have to make life and death decisions. Though, on project delivery, it’s a fundamental part of our role to wrestle with our own trade-offs. Whether that’s making a choice about what to not to do or making the choice about how to do what’s been decided.
Over the last two decades of working in this profession, here’s an internal example as well as a client example from my career:
1) Being a generalist versus being a specialist
Today I specialise in applying business analysis on projects that deliver Salesforce’s customer relationship management (CRM) applications.
But that wasn’t always the case and it wasn't even an ambition of mine. It simply happened to be part of the project I signed up for in 2014. A project that I had chosen for completely differently reasons.
In making my informed choice to specialise, I deliberately sacrificed:
Having the variety of project types now that I was focusing exclusively on CRM projects.
Having a wide client pool now that I was restricted to clients who were going to use or were already using Salesforce.
Having independence and optionality now that my fortunes are dependent on Salesforce’s successes, its ability to continue being a market leader, and its whims.
All worthwhile to support my long-term goal to advance my solo consulting career, to enhance my earning potential, and to become a better BA.
2) Being project-centric or user-centric
A constant on each of my projects whether to sacrifice quality for the end-users or to sacrifice the project’s limited resources.
Especially so when it’s a question of “doing the right thing” for users versus getting the project delivered on time, on budget, and to scope.
On one project, there was the choice between two vastly different system vendors who both met the core business requirements. One technically did what was needed but in a way that could best be described at technically usable. The other did exceed the planned budget but both looked and functioned far more elegantly to the delight of the end-user representatives.
Their dilemma was what to trade-off: keeping to the agreed budget or having the better user experience.
The sponsor’s view was that the budget was paramount. As a BA, my guiding principle is to prioritise the end-users’ needs wherever possible. After all, senior managers come and go but end-users have to live with the system that’s put in - warts and all.
So I reframed the choice for him by asking him to consider which would cost him more in time, effort, and goodwill in the long run:
The cost of having to heavily customise the cheaper solution to get it nearer to where the end-users need it to be lest they reject the solution.
The additional cost of the system they wanted to use which the vendor was willing to negotiate down on for a longer-term contract.
Your key to success
Trade-offs give you a choice. Deliver mediocrity by trying to do everything. Or, by being surgical and making the necessary sacrifice, deliver something exceptional.
“There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.”
Thomas Sowell | Economist
🤔 Made me think
Progress is deciding what not to do.
Project delivery is as much about what you choose not to do than what you choose to do.
🧑💻Worth checking out
📺 Which voting system is the best? | TED
How our vote is counted is an important examples of how trade-offs directly impact us. That’s not just for our elected officials. We “vote” when we decide who should get a promotion or what vendor we’re selecting.
As the video shows, there is no single fairest way to decide between more than 2 options. Each system has at least one scenario where you can get an “unfair” outcome for someone. Which begs the question: “who benefits from the voting system that’s been chosen?”.
You can find out more on TED.
🖖Until next Thursday ...
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For now, thank you so much for reading this week's issue of The Forcing Function and I hope that you have a great day.
PS: Thanks to P for reading drafts for me.