The cost of making the wrong tech decision
If you’re a business leader, your job is all about making decisions. You constantly have to make choices—on people, on strategies, on priorities—let alone on what to eat for lunch. For me, remembering to even have lunch is a small victory!
I remember reading that presidents and famous business leaders sometimes minimize the number of “non-strategic choices” in their day (like what to wear) to save “decision making energy” for where it counts.
So to some extent, one of the biggest decisions to make as a leader is the meta-decision as to where to decide and where to delegate.
As technology drives a greater share of business every year, more and more decisions companies have to make are technical decisions.
- Where should our servers run? In the cloud or on-premise?
- What language(s) should we develop in?
- What business applications should we use?
For leaders from a non-technical background in particular, the prospect of technical decision making can get overwhelming. And with the “bottoms-up” and decentralized nature of tech purchasing, the volume of decisions to be made is skyrocketing.
Going back to the Presidential analogy, I’d imagine world leaders today spend a far great percentage of their time on technology decisions (e.g., cybersecurity, infrastructure) than comparable leaders did in past decades.
In previous eras when technology was considered closer to an office supply decision than a strategic one, leaders—whether in business or government—would gladly delegate technical decisions to “the tech folks” (IT, engineering, etc.).
But I’m noticing a big change. The most progressive business leaders I know view their tech “stack” (both internal and customer facing) as being just as strategic to long-term success as people and strategy.
More poignantly, I’ve seen a crop of companies and leaders shackled by delegated and poorly-thought-out technical decisions of the past.
You’ve seen them yourself:
- The company that is stuck with a legacy email system chosen years ago—with IT planning to migrate “next year”—every year! Morale suffers as a result.
- The CEO that fell for the sales pitch that CRM should be a feature of an accounting system and is therefore not using a modern tool like Salesforce.com or Microsoft. Due to this, the company struggles to find talent to run the system or find third-party applications that integrate with the platform.
- The exec that bought the cheap, low-end marketing automation platform thinking “we can grow out of this when we need to.” Three years later, the marketing team is stuck with a suboptimal set of tools.
- The head of R&D who thought the cloud was too immature three years ago and chose to build on physical hardware. Now the team spends half of their team fixing servers and explaining outages instead of shipping functionality.
While modern cloud and SaaS technology has the illusion of low switching costs, the reality is often different. If you are using something heavily, it often feels like there is never a good time to switch. Things are working “well enough.” And you use this excuse for years, crippling your company’s strategic growth.
Just like decisions in hiring, the most dangerous decision is often the “mediocre” one. If you make a really bad hire and you’re a decent leader, you will course-correct quickly and let the person go or find another role for him or her. And if you make a great hire, congrats to you!
But the mediocre hire is the dangerous one. They’re not horrible…maybe they’ll get better…it would be so painful to switch…maybe it’s not them—it’s you?
And I’ve understated the comparison because I’ve excluded time. The reality is that the great candidates for a role not only start out better—they get even better faster over time. The mediocre teammates for a role get stuck into their own subpar level of execution.
The parallel is dead-on in technology decisions. The mediocre ones are the scariest. If you never get a new technology up and running and it fails, in some ways it’s a blessing. It was a risk taken with a clear and hopefully quick outcome. And you move on.
But if you delegate a technology decision and your team picks the mediocre solution—the one that’s a bit cheaper, the one to get started with, the one that was the most convenient—you’re going down the darkest road. You’ll get it up and running and start using it. It will never be perfect. In fact, as the leading alternatives mature, it will be less and less perfect over time, relatively speaking. You’ll never be in the mainstream. You’ll have a hard time staffing and leveraging it. But it will work “good enough.”
The truth is that mediocre decisions—whether in hiring or technology choices—commit your company to a permanently lower trajectory. They won’t put you out of business but they’ll lock you into a path that’s probably not the one you originally intended.
So when you’re deciding what to wear to work in the morning and what to put into your burrito at lunchtime, ponder whether you’re putting your decision making energy to use in the right directions.