3 Tips to Getting the Most Out of Limited Tools (The Secret: Get Creative)

(By Mike Raftery)

Who would have thought that the most creativity comes out of a “vanilla” solution?  When options are limited, it’s amazing how creative you can really become.  I’m on a project now with limited resources for customization.  Basically, it’s me and whatever functionality the infinite wisdom of those APO gods have decided to bestow on me.  And to be honest, it’s the most fun I’ve had on a project, ever.

Being limited to whatever I can come up with on my own is making me a better consultant, a more innovative analyst, and has awakened whatever creativity corporate America spent 15 years trying to crush.  But it’s a project of “vanilla” functionality right?  Shouldn’t it just be as simple as inserting tab A into slot B?  By now it should be obvious that there is no such thing as ‘standard.’  No two companies have the same requirements, same pressures, or same value system.  So there is no such thing as a ‘standard’ solution.  However, there is a standard set of tools.  When you find yourself on a desert island where enhancements don’t exist, you find ways to get innovative with the tools you find, and some you invent.  It’s a challenge, and a lot of fun to try if you ever get the chance.

Here are 3 tips I’ve learned.

  1. Analyze the Requirement. Ok, Now Do it Again.

When requirements are first given, they’re provided in the context of the previous system. It’s not intentional; people just know what they’ve used before.  Now I have a new appreciation for what that really means.  With limited resources, and an army of one, you do not have the time to budget to second attempts.  Reworks are a huge waste of the scarcest resource: time.  So knowing your requirements is critical because there aren’t the time and resources available to give people what they had before.  Sure, the customer might have a specific report in mind, or a layout they love, but is it worth the extra time and money compared to standard?  As long as it meets the requirement, the answer is probably no.  The trick is getting to the core of the requirement, not just a quick understanding of how it was done before.

  1. Keep Digging

There’s always an answer.  And usually the more time I have spent digging, the better the answer was in the first place.  Limited time and resources make you distill the functionality down to its essence.  This makes the result tighter and more reliable.  Maybe it’s a personality defect, but I hate giving up, and I love challenges.  Doing a project with no enhancements is a great playground for me.  In this playground I’m forced to find new solutions.  Sometimes it’s a new feature from a later software version I never discovered before.  Other times, it’s a new skill that I’m forced to learn, because there’s nobody else to help.  These challenges make me better, and I end up with new skills to share as a result.

There’s always a better way to find a tighter solution.  I love the old story about how in the early days of Microsoft when Bill Gates wrote MS-DOS 1.0, he wrote the code so tight that an entire operating system fit on 4000 lines of code and ran on 8kb of memory.  Not to sound like an old man on the porch, but I think the availability of storage and memory has made for lazy developers.  So I try and remember that MS-DOS story to keep myself from being lazy, to avoid workarounds, and to boil the problem down to its essence.  Most of the time this results in better, more reliable, more functional solution than I originally came up with.

  1. Use the Phrase: “Yes, If” Instead of “No, But.”

If you come at the problem with the right attitude, the conversation changes immediately.  In some ways, it’s easier to have no resources at your disposal.  You know exactly what you have to work with.  When clients present new requirements or customization requests, it’s an easy out to say “sorry, no room for customization here.”  However, instead of just saying “No,” it’s important to present the alternative solution.  When both the analyst and the customer realize that compromises are required, everyone gets much more collaborative.  I have found it makes for a closer team environment as well, since we’re all in this boat together.

Working with new technology has the same feel to it.  While we work to learn SAP’s Integrated Business Planning (IBP) solution, many of the same restrictions apply: not many people know it at an expert level, there aren’t that many publicly available resources yet, and sometimes a bug is a bug.  However, since everyone is learning together, it forces the same creativity.  The infamous “let me try one thing…” from the IT nerds is a phrase heard constantly while working with new technology.  It comes from that same drive for creativity.

I recommend getting uncomfortable and working without a net, at least once.  When you are the only resource at your disposal, it forces you to get better and learn something new, since you really have no other option.  It’s fun, it’s challenging, and most importantly, it will make you a better analyst, guaranteed.

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