After having managed teams and be part of BI project in various positions, I can say that there are special challenges when developping a system with both a data (Back-end) and visual (Front-End) element. More specifically, most team in a BI project will be developping a data component to gather, structure, enrich and store, data. Users rarely consumme data directly, but more through visual interfaces, like structured reports and dashboard. They aggregate and present information, rather than data. Information to enable better decision making that is.

One typical problem area

The key to understanding one of the challenges in a BI dashboard project is in the cohesion and the interaction of the data architect with the solution architect. In more precise terms, I am refering typically to the project’s lead data modeler and the project’s lead dashboard designer. On one side,  the data analysts are profiling and analyzing the data, where the dashboard designer is trying to design an interface that matches the client’s needs. One team is focused by nature on “what’s possible”, while the other guy is focusing on “designing a dream” with the client.

Together with the Project manager, there is a great need for regular communication between them in order to keep their respective efforts aligned. This is moreso in a work setup where people are not working close together. That is why I specially like the concept of War rooms and daily meetings with the team leads and project managers.

Managing the communication blind spots

As the project moves in later phases, business concepts and solution specific terminology become second nature to the team. Communication gets more abstract since assumptions on the underlying definition become more common. As Mr. Parker mentions in his article, paraphrasing, and having people repeat what they say using different terms will make it more obvious when there is a misunderstanding. In one of my recent projects, at 2/3 of the project we found out some team members had a very different view of a specific kpi (Average revenue per transaction). One was including taxes where other analyst had removed them from their calculations. The definition had seemingly been defined in a now defunct thread of e-mails. Using visual aids or a project wiki posted on the wall reiterating the main Kpis definition would have saved a lot of problems. One must be on the lookout for these growing blind spot. This is especially true when the Project Manager and the Business Analyst are gathering and validating requirements with the client which has his own nomenclature from years of experience. As a consultant, we often do not that level of business specific context.

The Case for a War Room; Breaking down the expertise silos

Having multi-functional teams be in the same war room as other advantages. Breaking down the frontier between the data and the design team is important to align the work of the team. Both teams needs to understand that they impose restriction, and enable, the other team.

For instance, the back-end team imposes restriction on “what” can be done on a dashboard, due to data limitations. They also enable the front-end team by aggregating data structure for performance, or denormalising a data table for a graphical display requirement.

As just mentionned, for their part, the front-end team imposes the data requirement of the solution on the back-end team by needing data in a very specific fashion.

In order to succeed, I agree with Glen Parker that the team needs to be very flexible, cohesive and supportive of one another. As project managers, in a sense we need to understand that  the unit of delivery is the team, not the individual.

PM’s, protect your team! 

Team members need to have the right to adapt to the changing demands of a multi-functional team, especially in an agile approach. Work will be redone, concepts teared down in order to be build stronger in the next sprint. Project managers need to consider this a being a normal evolution of the solution in an iterative mode, not a symptom of an incorrect design.

For his part, clients seeing a fluctuating solution will have the natural tendency to question the validity of the approach and the end product. Project Manager will need to keep the ship aligned in the right direction, and face the winds and waves that a nervous client will throw at the project’s ship. Strong leadership skills will help the boat afloat while the team is self-organising to deliver value.

Team cohesion & The great coffee machine

The war room also greatly helps teambuilding by creating a sense of camaraderie. 5min breaks to the coffee machine (more than I’d like to admint) are a great way to replenish one’s creativity and they offer the opportunity for multi-functional team members to discuss about their activities and focus. They create a common ground where people can discuss fresh solution in a new environment. This might sound very strange, but many team realignements and issue management have occured during that short 5-6 min walk to the coffee machine and back. Having a War room facilitates these moments to  having those discussions.

The succesful leader will be aware of the dynamics that foster a cohesive team with a strong solution oriented focus. He or she will be able to create the right project environment to make those elements glue together.

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