Technology Decisions: Should Leaders Hold On or Let Go?

Technology Decisions: Should Leaders Hold On or Let Go?

If you’ve been following Ian Patterson’s Five Days Delivering Digital Transformation, you’ll be pleased to see Ian back on the blog with the latest installment. If you’re just diving in now and like what you see, then be sure to take a look back at Day 1 and Day 2 — because today is Ian’s third day on the job, tackling a topic that I’ve seen trip up many business leaders: where to draw the line between too much technology knowledge (techknowledge?) and not enough.

Let’s join Ian’s work in progress as he dives into Day 3.




Day 3

Understanding the fast-moving technologies that have profound effects on how people (customers, citizens, consumers, employees) live remains one of the biggest challenges leaders face. To be more specific, leaders are struggling to gauge how much technical knowledge they need, in order to make the right business decisions.

I’d like to share some examples with you that illustrate how leaders are dealing with technology – and leave you with some lessons you can apply to your business.

A Torrent of Tech

People walk in the storm surge from Hurricane Isaac along Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. Isaac was later downgraded to a tropical storm as it continued to grind its way through the Gulf Coast, dropping torrential rain and generating dangerous storm surges.

On my third day consulting with a regional government client, I discovered that one of the essential services provided to citizens in that region – the client’s payment system – was slow, prone to issues and didn’t work on mobile devices. When I asked the lead usability specialist why nothing had been done about it, he explained it had been this way for seven years, and that despite his best efforts the senior team had never prioritized a fix.

With this information I could have done one of two things. First, I could have assumed there was a good reason why an upgrade had never happened (legacy contracts, costs, etc.). Perhaps others before me had tried their level best, but never managed to move the mountain? Second, I could consider that no one had the right information to make a management decision.

Regardless of the ambition to innovate with technology, inevitably, the day you need to make an upgrade will arrive. In the case of my public sector contract, it was clear that the suitability and usability payment service had gotten worse over time. With more citizens turning to the Internet to pay for services, using a varied array of devices and generally expecting a seamless and simple user experience, the service built with 2007 technology was failing to keep up with demand. As a result, people who would otherwise have paid electronically were instead using less efficient traditional methods that cost the organization more money – such as telephone payments or physical checks.

Given that various attempts had been made to put this ‘technology issue’ on the radar of the senior team, I wanted to try another angle. It would be better to approach this from a citizen-centric view. I proposed that, if we gave more people the opportunity to use digital services, we would deliver on a core channel-shift performance metric, improve cash flow, and increase profitability as a result. The tech had to change to support this. Thankfully the matter was raised as a priority. It was simply the case of giving the right people the right information to make an informed decision.

The lesson for leaders is to anticipate technology upgrades and build a business case to push them through, rather then allowing services to degrade and suffer for lack of funding.

A Simple Technology ‘Role Model’

Animal Odd Couples

A chief digital officer once asked me if I thought they should learn how to code. To which I replied, “If you want to.” The sentiment being – if you will enjoy coding, then it may give you context when working with the technologists on the team, so you can understand what they do and how long it takes. However, I quickly followed up with a caveat that understanding how to make the technology work wasn’t his role, even if understanding what the technology enables is. Technologists look to leaders for answers. They need direction and guidance to make sure they deliver a product that will satisfy clear objectives. Often we see the reverse, with technologists left to make strategic decisions and business leaders trying too hard to understand how the technology works.

The lesson for leaders? You have a job to do. Technology is just one way to get it done, so don’t replace your commercial responsibilities with technical tasks.

In Technologists We Trust

trust-fallMy final example is based around trusting your technology talent. With so much emphasis on technology, leaders have to put massive trust in their teams to deliver. When this relationship works well technologists support leaders, explain options and life is good. Yet we seldom talk about the challenges leaders face when they suddenly have to learn a whole new language, including technical acronyms and buzzwords in order to manage their teams. This can be very daunting when you are the one tasked with signing off budgets and reporting to the board. It’s your neck on the line, and you have to trust that the technical advice is right, before making those big decisions.

Some leaders embrace technology and some dive in too deep (see above). Others suffer at the hands of technologists who don’t respect them. If you’re at a technology crossroads, ask yourself this question – do you fundamentally trust the technical opinion you are getting? If you do – then stop trying to do a job you are not supposed to do. If not, quickly do what you can to fix the trust problem.

Leaders must learn to trust the people empowered to make technology decisions while remaining accountable for the business results that accrue around smart technology choices.

Let’s Crack the Code

With so much buzz about accelerating technology change and cries for digital transformation, some leaders over-fixate on tech as if it’s the problem rather than one part of the solution. Other leaders – still nursing hangovers from one business trend after another (e-commerce, enterprise 2.0, social media, social business, collaborative companies, the crowd economy, future of work, I could go on but you get my point) – view transformative technology with skepticism and hold it at arm’s length maintaining it’s ‘not for my business.’

Both stances are equally risky. Both ignore the real elephant in the room – that the rate of change outside the organization often exceeds the rate of change inside the organization (and that, as Jack Welch has famously said, is a sign that “the end is near.”) Competition is innovating. Employees have new expectations. Customers, citizens and consumers demand that organizations be better, smarter, faster and more efficient. All of these point to a clear business need: understand and adopt technology that allows you to best serve your constituents.

But that doesn’t mean that every CEO, CFO, Marketing Director and line of business head must battle the geeks for tech supremacy. There will always be someone who can deliver the technology itself. That’s the easy part. Instead, focus on the core of your business while you surround yourself with people smart perspectives on how technology supports your vision for the business.

Day Three is in the rearview. Subscribe using the one-field form in the righthand column of this page to get an email when we publish the next installment of this series — Five Days Delivering Digital Transformation.

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