NaBloPoMo #11

We are more than a third of the way through the month and I’m starting to hit the first barrier. This is a very tiring exercise.

Here’s one I’ve been ruminating on since last weekend.

Excel workbooks are where you should look for your next internal product.

The most effective strategy you can have for building internal, and possibly external tools, is running a workshop for your colleagues to improve their Excel skills. Ask them to bring their problems. Welcome them.

You will find that one team is running a thousand-person development programme with spreadsheets that reference each other in ways that will make your head spin. You will discover convergent evolution in the form of ten different, but functional, versioning systems. You will find out that there is a hole in a firewall because someone once wrote some VBA that needed database access, and you will need a quiet moment by yourself as you question your life choices.

But if you reframe these as opportunities – as low-hanging fruit where business processes can be smarted up, made more streamlined, and more repeatable – then you will have a user-centered roadmap of the internal tools you should be building.

I believe wholeheartedly that spreadsheets, where there is autonomy and power to change fields and do powerful calculations on the fly, are the bleeding edge evidence of what your organisation needs. A tiny example – if your organisation is using 14 spreadsheets to keep track of its room bookings, then you have identified a user need that could be met by the market but instead is being met internally with a custom product.

If you poke that long enough, by the way, the question becomes “Why do people feel they need to meet this user need through a massive, custom-built spreadsheet, the upkeep of which has become 25% of someone’s job, when there’s a bunch of products out there that can meet this need?” and that’s a different but equally important question.

Now, since spreadsheets are highly decentralised in terms of power – the person using them can add columns and remove them – they are quite different from your next step, which is an MVP database-backed service. So the second thing I’d counsel here is that your MVP absolutely must have a way of giving back a slice of the data in a CSV, so that it can be put back in Excel. If you insist instead that the new product will do everything, you’ll get low uptake (because it won’t if it’s an MVP) or you’re angling for a three-year million pound contract and that’s not an MVP, that’s your retirement fund. Stop it.

Your new product will need to almost be a micro service, a little slice where data goes in – possibly even in CSV format – and comes out again, and somewhere else some processing happens. Maybe emails get sent. Maybe some complicated calculation happens.

Or maybe a form that used to be emailed out to everyone in Excel that could instead be offered as a web interface. Basically, carve out a tiny slice of the user’s journey and replace it with something they’ll prefer to use.

In mapping parlance, you’re taking an element of a value chain and moving it to a product space. The more you do this, the more value you’ll be able to move up the value chain – value here being your colleagues’ time.

Of course with the extra time they’ll make more spreadsheets, but then that’s sort of the point of the bleeding edge. It’s always moving.

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

November is National Blog Posting Month, or NaBloPoMo. I’ll be endeavouring to write one blog post per day in the month of November 2019 – some short and sweet, others long and boring.

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