When Work Is Fun!

It’s been a couple of months since my last blog post, and I’ve been busy settling into a new role at work.

As some of you may know, I recently joined Microsoft India as a part of the Industry Solutions team, to help strategic BFSI clients leverage Cloud & Enterprise solutions. Needless to say, it is a huge organization with an exciting canvas. And, it’s inspiring to be a part of something that has the potential to ‘make a dent in the universe’.

Microsoft’s mission is to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more“. I’m sure you will agree that with a mission statement like that, one cannot help but feel stoked.

Here’s a sample of how the last two weeks have transpired…

  • Got introduced to key partners at the annual Partner Leadership Conclave 2021 in an intensive two-day expo
  • Participated in the Microsoft Global Hackathon 2021 as an Business Strategy advisor, collaborating with colleagues across the globe on a ‘Hack for Society’ – the team is trying to build a solution that makes it possible to digitally donate to those in need, especially the homeless and un-banked
  • Joined the Discover Day Asia expo to learn more about how to navigate the larger, global organization
  • Attended insightful sessions by thought leaders in industry, academia, and government on how interdisciplinary research and Technology can impact society, as a part of the Microsoft Research Summit 2021
  • Participated in a Strategic Account Summit workshop focused on improving engagement with key accounts
  • Completed the requisite Training modules, and am now Microsoft Certified on Dynamics 365 (CRM) Fundamentals
  • Attended a Masterclass on Accessibility tools already built into Windows 10, Office 365 and Microsoft Edge, that can be used by folks with learning or comprehension disabilities

Of course, all this is in addition to internal catchups, review meetings, technology deep-dives and the day-today operations of the job!

Sure, you need to juggle your task lists, and attend some early morning / late night meetings to make it all work. But, that’s a small price to pay for such a rich exposure to the breadth and width of the solution landscape, don’t you think?

In any case, it’s the most fun I’ve had in years – at work or outside it.

P.S. I’ve received a lot of positive reactions and encouragement to this post! I should mention that most of the activities I’ve listed were entirely optional.

Accelerating Digital Transformation: The Agile Way

This post first appeared in ETCIO (July 2021)

‘Digital Transformation’ is quite the buzzword these days, and has only gained more traction courtesy of the global pandemic. Even if you were on the fence earlier, chances are, you now agree that Digital offers unmatched cost & efficiency advantages for both organizations & customers, alike.

The adoption of Digital typically happens due to novelty, necessity or natural affinity.

For many, the novelty of “going digital” is itself a goal worth pursuing, although this represents the least sustainable path. Necessity can play a role too, but only as long as favorable circumstances remain. Natural-affinity driven solutions, however, tend to offer the longest-lasting benefits.

Take the case of Financial Services – they have a natural affinity towards Technology, when it comes to the delivery of products and services. Customers can typically choose from a wide variety of offerings (online), establish their identity (digitally), and pay via a variety of (digital) modes of payment. The ecosystem is fast, cost-effective and helps eliminate many of the inconveniences associated with wait-times, intermediaries and physical visits to branches or outlets.

Such advantages not only apply to Banking, Financial Services and Insurance, but to a wide cross-section of industries and customer segments, as long as the solutions on offer are well-suited for online delivery or consumption.

If you have decided to embark on a journey of Digital Transformation, you will find that the adoption of Agile practices can aid significantly in accelerating the timelines involved, and building a sustainable edge. In fact, some would argue that Digital Transformation success depends on adopting an Agile approach to change.

Here’s a quick guide to reimagining processes and systems using Agile tools, that can help accelerate your Digital Transformation journey.

  • Prioritize, Re-prioritize

Start with a compelling Digital-First vision for your enterprise. Then, use your Program Management Office (PMO) to establish cross-functional Agile Squads, and provide them the training they need to familiarize themselves with the Agile framework. Once the Squads are up and running, empower them to deal with what comes next.

Prioritize and re-prioritize on a regular basis, based on your assessment of opportunities. Squads should periodically review progress with key stakeholders and regularly seek agreement on upcoming work, to ensure sync. When prioritizing, the focus should always be on elements that add value for the customer.

  • User Stories

Once the priorities have been clearly defined, the next step is to create “User Stories” – natural language descriptions of the key functionalities that the team (Squad) will ultimately develop. The advantage of a ‘User Story’ approach over a Business Requirements Document (BRD) is that user stories focus on the Customer Experience – what the person using the product or service should be able to do.

As a rule, smaller user stories are easier to plan for, develop and test. Keep in mind that everyone in the Squad should have a clear understanding of “definition of done” and the acceptance criteria.

  • Build MVPs

An MVP (Minimum Viable Product) is a product with just enough features to gain insight from actual users. One of the key principles of Agile is to test lean products at early stages by involving all the stakeholders. This MVP-approach of Product Development helps drastically cut-down time to market.

  • Sprints & Scrums

Sprints are at the very heart of the Agile philosophy, and getting it right is a key determinant of success. If you are new to Agile, start with a 2-week Sprint cycle, always starting on the same day of the week (say, every Tuesday), across all Squads.

Sprint Planning sessions and Daily Scrums, when conducted regularly, help Squads update on their progress, discuss & resolve bottlenecks, showcase achievements to stakeholders, and seek feedback to identify improvement opportunities. Rinse and repeat until it becomes the way any project is tackled.

  • Retrospectives

Having an Agile mindset means trying, failing, learning, keeping what works, adapting. So, Squads need to regularly reflect on what they are doing, and how they can improve on it.

Retrospectives should ideally be carried out at the Squad level, but are also encouraged at the Program (PMO) level, especially after the launch of any critical initiative. Multiple Squads collaborating at frequent intervals via a ‘Scrum of Scrum’ is another great tool to help tackle cross-squad dependencies required to deliver on enterprise objectives.

The Agile Manifesto clearly outlines guiding principles that put a premium on individuals and interactions over processes and tools, as well as focus on the ability to respond to change.

In an age where Technology and Digital are practically par for the course, Agile practices allow organizations to remain nimble and respond to ever-changing market situations by building small, collaborating fast, failing early and scaling quickly.

Now, isn’t that an edge worth striving for?

Making Sense of Data

A thread on a LinkedIn post got me thinking about how “data” is often confused with “insight”…

99% of the ‘insights’ I encounter are mere associations. E.g. ‘X% of millennials prefer Y’ or ‘X% of our customers switched from contract Y to Z’. These are observations, not insights.

Robert van Ossenbruggen

In every industry and market across the globe, customers are embracing the abundance of Technology that now comes practically embedded in products and services. Access to low-cost Internet is no longer a problem for most of us. And, cheap, always-on, Internet access tends to generate a whole lot of data.

To make matters worse, in today’s context, that data (structured and unstructured) no longer resides in neat database tables inside the enterprise. Mobile devices, sensors, microphones, GPS devices, software, social media, cameras – almost every electronic device or service around you is contributing to the data pool, every minute.

The Paradox of Data is that little data leads to little insight, but too much data can also lead to little insight!

Organizations need to learn how to work with the vast storehouses of data being generated each day; Actionable insights are key to building Customer Engagement.

Patterns can often emerge from large data-sets of seemingly trivial information, which raises the question: What should you begin capturing, when embarking on a new journey?

Customers may say one thing in formal C-SAT or NPS surveys, but behave differently when it comes to repeat purchases, referrals or ‘lifetime value’ realization. Which insights should key decisions be based on?

How often should data be analyzed? Which systems ought to be monitored in real-time? What happens when the instincts and hunches of key executives don’t quite match the dashboard reports and data streams being reviewed?

“Big Data” thinking allows you to do things at a large scale that simply cannot be done at a smaller one. But, it also requires a different mindset.

In a “Big Data” world, ‘more’ trumps ‘better’, messiness (in a very, very large data set) trumps high accuracy (from a small sample), and tags yield better insights than taxonomies. That said, tools do not equal analytics, and Data certainly does not equal Insight.

As always, Business goals need to drive Data & Analytics, not the other way around.

One consumer study eloquently reported: We now inhabit a world that shares more content, from more sources, with more people, more often and more quickly. Today’s cloud-native tools and advances in computing already provide us the means to collect, store and analyze enormous quantities of data, with ease.

Making sense of it all, though, is a whole different ask.