Milk the cow when it’s in the barn!

Some years ago I worked for a friend of mine at his hotel in Austria. At that time they were only open during the summer holiday season as this was when they had most of their visitors. After the first week or so I asked him when I would be taking a day off.

“Day off?” he said, “But what would you do?”

I said well, relax, go for a swim, rest, that sort of thing.

He looked at me like I’d suddenly lost my mind and said,

“If I’m a farmer and I have to milk my cows, do I run around the field trying to milk them? That’s so much more work than milking them when they’re in the barn. This is what we’re doing here – we’re milking the cows when they’re in the barn.”

I didn’t have a day off for about 4 months.

While I don’t by any stretch of the imagination think of my clients today as cows, the metaphor still works. Working with those clients you have is much less effort than frantically chasing the clients you might be able to catch in the field.

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Expectation Management

It’s tempting sometimes to not tell a client about something that may come up during a project. After all, if whatever it is doesn’t happen all the time, maybe mentioning it will alarm a client more than simply dealing with it if it comes up. This can sound like the right approach but now I have a personal perspective on this.

A few weeks ago I had two wisdom teeth removed. I’d been told there was a risk of nerve damage, that the recovery would probably be painful and that it might take longer than I’d thought, so one could argue I was prepared.

However, on about the fifth day after the surgery I woke up with the taste of dead rat in my mouth. It was awful. I rinsed, I took drugs, I even ate something (difficult as I was still basically on a liquid diet) but the taste remained. I couldn’t sleep at night as every time I swallowed, I tasted dead rat.

So I went back to the surgeon, who had a quick look and said,

“Oh yeah, that’s pretty normal.”

In conversation with others I’ve discovered that it happens to at least half of those people whom I know have had wisdom teeth out. I’ve concluded that it must be some sort of chemical the body makes to aid in healing, as it gradually faded away over about a week.

Normal? Ok, I guess I have to readjust, but I confess I felt quite betrayed that no one had thought to tell me ahead of time that this was a more than 50% likely outcome.

So, next time you’re doing a project with a client and you think there’s a chance that what you’re doing will give the client the taste of dead rat, even for a short time, tell them. Better to know ahead of time that it’s a possibility than to suffer dead rat surprise.

How can businesses understand what they need from big data?

Success starts with simple.

As the utilization of big data grows, stories proliferate about new data that turn out to have an impact on a seemingly unconnected area. This can lead to the assumption that mining big data is like collecting marbles in a bucket and then spilling them on the floor, hoping that previously unknown patterns will be revealed. While this *can* happen – and with new visualization tools and techniques, may happen more frequently – success is much more likely to arise from first understanding what questions you want to answer.

You’re much more likely to learn what data are necessary if you brainstorm about what you want to know and create the right questions. Once you have the questions, you can break down the likely data sources for the answers and start figuring out where it is and how to get it.

I know, it sounds simple but it’s amazing how many businesses have not yet reached this conclusion. Find the questions and then you can find the answers.

Big Data = Big Deal?

Guess you’ve all seen the sudden explosion of articles about big data recently – you can hardly load a webpage without seeing it mentioned – and a number of questions may have come to mind. Things like

  • How can I help my clients take advantage of it?
  • How can I leverage it in my business?
  • Do I have any of my own?
  • Is it really as big as the media says, or is it all hype?

I’m going to look at each of these questions – and probably some others – over the next few weeks, and share what I believe to be useful and how data can be leveraged for you and your clients. I say data in general because from a business perspective it doesn’t really matter if your data is big or small – it’s part of a total approach.

Let’s look at the last question first – is big data really a big deal? To start to answer this question, let’s look at understanding some things about data generally.

Think of data like water. Water is a resource that can be scarce or abundant and historically, we didn’t know what it was made of. We didn’t know its chemical makeup, what properties it held, how pure or impure it was. We only knew it was water. When it was scarce, we moved in deserts from oasis to oasis, getting small amounts out of the ground with great difficulty. In abundance, we crossed oceans made of it, not seeing into its depths and understanding what secrets it held. In essence we held neither a micro nor a macro view – we were at the same level.

Nowadays, we understand water differently. We know what it’s made of chemically and we know that it may contain various different substances while still maintaining the same appearance. We have better ways of detecting it in environments where it’s scarce and better ways of getting it out of the ground. We no longer only float on top of oceans – we build pictures of what lies underneath and detect currents and patterns across large areas.

At one time, a cup of water only quenched a thirst. Now, it holds the answers to many other questions.

With data – particularly big data – we’ve followed a similar path to a greater understanding. In the past for organizations and for society at large, information could be scarce. We’ve known that events have occurred but we haven’t known all of the details about them. Analysts traipse from system to system, copying information from one Excel sheet to another trying to get a picture of what’s happening. We’ve floated on top of information that is unknown, un-described, or both; a bit like old-time mariners, sometimes feeling there’s a storm coming with no way to see the currents that really tell the story, not seeing the shark until it attacks.

Now, information generally has become more abundant and available to both individuals and organizations. We can identify and describe each element of a particular event and save that information for later. We have better ways of discovering and aggregating data, saving the time and effort involved in pulling information together into one place. Now we can choose to float on top of the data, look at its currents and patterns from different perspectives, or we can look at the data itself and understand what parts are needed to answer a particular question and what is not.

So is big data a big deal? Fundamentally yes, but this new abundance has its own challenges. Data now comes out of a fire hose and we have to figure out not just how to sip from it, but how to siphon only what we need. How do we know what we need? This is the next question I’ll be looking into.

Back to the beginning…

For those of you that haven’t seen The Princess Bride, you should. It’s a swashbuckling film with true love and true humour that still feels as good to see today as when it was released in 1987. Even better, it’s given me one of my all-time favourite reminders that I use at work all the time. When things get too confusing and a project feels like it has lost focus, run out of steam or is just plain failing, go back to the beginning – to your first principles.

In the movie, Inigo, a sword-for-hire, has received setbacks that threaten to undo his life’s work – taking revenge on the man who killed his father. Inigo has been defeated in a sword fight by a mysterious man in black, his best friend was beaten by the same guy and then his boss was killed. It seems like everything has fallen apart and so he goes to where his employer, Vizzini, always threatened to take him – back to the beginning. “The beginning”, as Vizzini saw it, was Inigo lying drunk on the bad side of town with no money and no friends. But, it’s only once he’s back at the beginning – drunk at the bottom of the barrel – that he can re-focus on what he wants to accomplish and what he needs to get there. Inigo realizes that the source of his misfortunes, the mysterious man in black, is actually the one person that will help him reach his objective.

This is not to say that mysterious strangers are always the answer, but it’s easy on projects to get distracted and find yourself unintentionally travelling in circles. When this happens, stop, take a breath and go back to the beginning. What is the objective? What’s the primary use case you’re seeking to serve? It’s only once you’ve done this that you’ll be able to move forward again.