Post by Rob Collie

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One of Our Clients Sent This to us Before a Consult.  It is Perfection.

The Dysfunctional Myth of “Requirements Discovery”

A traditional BI project typically starts with “requirements discovery.”  This is where YOU, the business, get to spend multiple days, weeks, or even months teaching someone else (a BI consultant or internal BI pro) about your business.

There are MULTIPLE problems with this traditional methodology:

  1. YOU are the teacher (teaching about your biz), but YOU are paying.  Seems backwards yes?  Money usually flows in the opposite direction of knowledge transfer.  But not in BI.
  2. YOUR time is a MASSIVE hidden cost.  In addition to the fees you may be paying, don’t forget that YOUR time is being consumed in the process.  If we were going to put an “honest” cost on a BI project, the time consumed by Business personnel should be included.  (And that’s a lot more than your salaries – there’s opportunity cost to the business as well since you aren’t doing OTHER things).
  3. When the dust settles on “discovery,” the BI Pro STILL does not understand.  Oh, everyone PRETENDS that “discovery” is over, but really, it’s just begun.  In a few weeks, when the first “results” come in from the BI Pro, you will then, ahem, discover that there were tremendous misunderstandings.

This dysfunction is the root of BI failure.  Projects that never end.  Projects that end, but under-deliver.  And also…  projects that never even start.  If you’ve ever said “we can’t afford BI,” you were both simultaneously correct AND unknowingly reacting to this dynamic.

This dysfunction is NOT your fault, NOR is it the BI Pro’s fault.  You see, we’re terribly ineffective at communication, us humans – both on the “send” side AND the “receive” side.  No exceptions.

Requirements Discovery Works MUCH Better on Planet VulcanThe people involved are FINE.  It’s the methodology that’s broken.  I don’t have a single critical word for the PEOPLE involved in such projects.  We’d need to be Vulcans, equipped with the Mind Meld power, to make this approach work well.

So WHY did a bad methodology gain acceptance in the first place?  Because the software vendors did this TO the world.  Perpetrated it ON the world.  They built software that REQUIRED this sort of methodology.  All of the big players share historical blame here – Microsoft, IBM, Cognos, Business Objects, Microstrategy.  All of them.  Let’s shine a light on them.

Our Villain:  The Ivory Tower “Arrogance” of Past BI Software

 

Artist's Rendition of BI Software Engineer "Eight of Eleven"Traditional BI Software is to blame for traditional BI methodology, and people like ME are to blame for traditional BI software.  Yes, I am guilty.  I spent a lot of time on the “inside” of that industry, working on traditional BI software for Microsoft back in the early 2000’s, without ONCE even suspecting something was wrong.  So I hold “Past Rob” partly responsible for this, and “Today Rob” works to atone for these sins every day.  But I also hasten to say that really, I wasn’t smart enough to have truly helped create this problem.  I wanted to be that smart, but I wasn’t.

It takes a special kind of nerd to BUILD robust BI software.  Seriously, something like SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS)?  It’s frankly stunning that something that beautiful could ever get built, and I’m talking about the “old” version of SSAS here – the one that first appeared in 2000.  Software like that, with its intricate logical interdependencies, can only be built by mathematical GENIUSES.  And you need more than one of them – you need Genius Critical Mass in order to build a credible BI tool like SSAS (or Cognos, or BO, or Microstrategy, or…)

Mathematical Geniuses go STRAIGHT into Software, without acquiring other experience first.  They don’t typically spend time in some other profession before becoming software developers.  They were drawn to computers in high school, studied them in college, and then were immediately hired by firms like MS.  (Heck, I was 100% like that too, I just was not as smart as I thought I was, and when I got to Microsoft, I discovered that.)

The Fatal Assumptions:  Where the “Arrogance Meets the Road.”

Math Geniuses Tend to Make Mathematical Assumptions About the World.  And this is where the problem starts.  Here are the relevant assumptions:

  1. They believed the Business World could be Accurately and Completely Captured in Pure, Logical Structures.  “Dimensions.”  “Measure Groups.”  “Cubes.”  These are the containers into which they believed the biz world could be poured – without overflow or leakage.
  2. They believed that the world is basically Just as Smart as them, and able to translate their businesses into these elegant structures.  This is where the word “arrogance” doesn’t fit.  I’ve found that the world’s smartest people are, by and large, some of its nicest.  They don’t remotely realize how exceptional they are.  So they design languages and systems that are so difficult, people like ME (no dummy) find them intimidating.  I was scared to death of MDX (the language of traditional SSAS), for instance.  No way I was ever learning it.
  3. They believed that the Business World is relatively static.  So, once you finished translating your entire business into those structures, you could move on and never revisit the translation.

All three of those assumptions were DEEPLY flawed.  And committed, universally, by everyone in the BI software business.

The Assumptions’ Impact:  Three Hurdles

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  1. The software could only be configured by… Math Geniuses!  For perspective, I was on the Calculus Team in high school and yet I wanted nothing to do with MDX!  This hurdle is the result of assumption #2, of course, and is also the reason why you need specialized BI pros – you just didn’t have any Biz experts who were also BI experts.  Commence six-month mind meld.
  2. Inability to deal with exceptions, corner cases, and other rough edges.  The BI software TOLERATED a certain amount of real-world “noise,” but viewed noise as the exception rather than the norm.  But reality is often incredibly noisy.  This complicated the translation process tremendously, because now the BI pro had to educate the Biz pro on the limitations of the software, so that they could try figuring out a compromise.  Mind meld enters month seven.
  3. Changes to “finished” BI systems often felt like starting from scratch.  If you made it over Hurdles 1 and 2, panting and exhausted, it wasn’t long before your Biz environment and/or requirements changed.  And the software simply wasn’t designed to absorb that – the implications of such change would ripple across the whole system and invalidate many formerly-valid structures.  Start over?  Nah.  In practice, you’d just start ignoring the BI system and pressing the world’s favorite export button.

The Borg Got Humility, and We Got Power Pivot

imageEverything above is The Past, and we live in a VERY different Today.  Seriously, do you know what it takes for someone like ME to say something so gushingly positive about technology?  My ringside seat for all of this taught me to HATE software, and technology, rather than love it.

Lucky for me, I ALSO had a ringside seat for the birth of Power Pivot.  Which means I got to watch Amir Netz go through an amazing process:  of retracing his own steps.  (Not JUST him, but the entire team.  He was the architect however, and I worked with him more than anyone else).

Amir and I disagreed about a lot of things, but on today’s topic you will find nothing but admiration and respect.  Awe, even.  Without qualification.

Power Pivot (and SSAS Tabular) was a “Reboot,” a “Do-Over” on past sins.  Yes, it was also science-fiction level compression and speed, but the memory burned onto my brain was of the WISDOM – the hard-won wisdom on display during those years.

“Arrogant,” Pure Structures Like Dimensions?  Gone.  Replaced by HUMBLE structures.  Things like, you know – tables and formulas.  And, GASP, links between tables!  Things the world already undeniably had.  Things that were flexible and simple.  Things that absorbed real-world noise with grace.  Things that absorbed CHANGE with grace.

In the process, the language could be simplified and made more approachable.  No, not everyone can learn DAX (the language of Power Pivot and SSAS Tabular).  But MILLIONS of us can.  Millions. 

Most importantly, a small subset of Business people can learn it.  Bye bye mind meld.  No more MASSIVE communication cost.  Just go do it.

Wrapping Up:  The New Process

Pretty simple really.

  1. Sketch out what would change your biz.  As in “if we knew THIS information, it would change everything.”  You can sketch it out mentally, or go the extra step of drawing what it might actually look like, as pictured at the top of the post.
  2. Go build THAT, as fast as possible.  If you know Power Pivot, just go build it.  If you DON’T, you can sit down with someone who DOES know it.  Crack open Power Pivot, as a 2-person team, dig into your data, and collaboratively build it. 
  3. Yes, there is SOME communication involved here, but 100x less than before, because you aren’t trying to “capture” requirements in abstract form.  You are just BUILDING WHAT YOU NEED.  And there’s zero ambiguity here, while looking at the evolving results in real time.  A picture is worth 1,000 words and so is an evolving dashboard.  In two hours, you can often arguably be DONE with something that may have consumed weeks or months in the old way.  Honest.  I promise.
  4. Keep learning. If you had help in step 2, guess what?  That’s an awesome start to becoming a trained pro!  You are now likely already capable of making small improvements on your own.  And you can call the experts back in for occasional help as needed.  If you were “solo” for step 2, you’re just one step further along, but we are ALL always learning.  Me too – definitely.
  5. Now keep working backwards to improve the process “under the hood.”  Maybe you started out using text and excel files as data sources.  And maybe you invested manual “cleaning” steps on those before you could start.  Now is the time to start getting IT help.  Can we connect to a database instead?  Maybe we need to create a new db just to feed this model.  (Yes, maybe NOW is when you start building a Data Warehouse, but it’s going to be so much lighter and cheaper than traditional DW’s that I think the label doesn’t quite fit anymore).

Working fast in steps 1 and 2, in other words, does NOT dispel the need for responsibility.  In fact, your Power Pivot work benefits DRAMATICALLY MORE from responsible “plumbing” and IT support than your old Excel approach.  And it benefits IT to participate as well.

And of course you will soon want YouTube for Workbooks Smile