Don’t Be Romanced By Technology

Ask the Right Questions of the Right People

Photo by John Bogna on Unsplash

Empty Your Cup

We all approach new projects with preconceived notions. While our knowledge and experience can help us make informed decisions, they can also prevent us from seeing the whole picture.

Imagine your mind as a tea cup. When the cup is full, it can’t hold any more tea. Only after you empty the cup can you pour in new tea.

When you approach new tech projects, think of the tea cup. With an empty cup ready to hold more tea, you remain open to fresh perspectives from everyone who will be affected by new tech implementations, and you’ll get better results.

Rethink Your Definition of Stakeholders

Decision makers often forget about those who will be most affected by the implementation: the daily users. But leaving those who use the current tech or processes daily out of the equation is a recipe for disaster.

This is where reframing your notion of who stakeholders are can go a long way toward ensuring your project will succeed. Merriam-Webster’s third definition for stakeholder is most relevant here: one who is involved in or affected by a course of action.

Asking the right questions of the right people can help you avoid making an expensive mistake and potentially damaging your company’s reputation.

Start With the Why to Get to the What

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

When deciding on new tech, it’s common to start with the what (i.e., the tech that will solve your problem) without first exploring the why and the how. However, if you do this, you risk missing business requirements that are crucial to the what.

Instead, you should start by gathering all stakeholders for a healthy facilitated conversation about what is and is not working well so you can understand the pain points and how they are holding the organization back.

Example: Your company needs a new help desk system because the current help desk system is inefficient and frustrating to use.

The how: How will the new tech be used, and what is the desired outcome? How will the tech help us reach this outcome?

The what: What tech solution will best help us reach our desired outcome?

The questions in Figure 1 can guide the decision-making process.

Figure 1. Example Why-How-What Process for Choosing a New Help Desk System.

Create a Process

6 Questions to Guide You

  1. Why are we implementing this technology?
  2. Have we outgrown our current methods or tech?
  3. Has our current tech or vendor moved away from our type of business?
  4. Have we inherited a system that no longer works for us?
  5. Have we changed or added to our business models?
  6. Are there opportunities for automation that didn’t exist before?

The Importance of Understanding the Why and the How Before Investing in New Tech: Two Cautionary Tales

Photo by Hiroshi Kimura on Unsplash

Cautionary Tale 1: Size Matters

When their shiny new system couldn’t order or manage by size, they turned to Excel, which is a great tool but not a substitute for an ordering system, an accounting system, or a supply chain system. They went through many rounds of layoffs and a buyout — although being romanced by tech was a key factor in these, it wasn’t the sole reason. Had they defined the problems first and then worked to solve them, they likely would have had a better outcome.

Cautionary Tale 2: One Step Forward, Three Steps Back

After implementing the new system, while it was indeed faster to process orders, they now had a bigger problem: While the old tab-through, text-based system was easy to use, the new one had lots of windows and no tabbing. Entering orders in the new system involved lots of clicking, and time spent entering orders more than tripled.

The decision makers skipped steps in their process and knew only one part of the why. Their mistake was not including relevant people in the why conversation before investing in the system.

Over time the system was altered to allow tabbing (this was back in the early 2000s), but by then the company was already transitioning to a third system.

Understand the Desired Outcomes Before Investing

Do Your Homework

After you set up your desk in your new home office, you realize the outlet next to your desk doesn’t work. You call the landlord to let him know the outlet doesn’t work, and he gives you the runaround about getting it fixed: “It’s an old building; sometimes outlets just stop working.”

You persist, and he hires an electrician to fix the outlet, but not without putting up a fight and complaining about the cost.

You realize in retrospect that you should have checked to make sure everything in the apartment worked and talked to other tenants to ask whether the landlord was good about fixing things before signing the lease.

Whether we buy or rent, most of us have certain requirements we want in a place we are going to live. In the example above, the new apartment solved the primary pain point: it had a separate room you could use as an office. But it made your life harder in other ways.

If we start with the why — what the pain points are — and then the problems we are trying to solve, then we can get to the outcome. The same holds true for implementing tech projects in a company.

Determine How New Tech Will Be Implemented

The first how is actually a who — that is, what team will be doing the implementation. Make sure all stakeholders (remember your new definition of this word) agree on a plan and approach.

The questions in Figure 1 can guide the decision-making process.

Figure 2. Two Key Things to Keep in Mind About the How.

We need good project management and a sound game plan with reasonable timelines.

  • What are the criteria for success? We took the time to define our outcomes and impacts. What does it look like when we meet those goals?
  • For example, if our outcome is to free up accounting time, our impact is to save Accounts Payable 60 hours a week via system automation. Our what or tech is saving 60 hours a week because the new system automates tasks that were previously done manually: entering invoices into the accounting system, emailing approvals with attached invoices, and verifying what is approved for payment.
  • In this case, our success criteria would be the new accounting system that can automate scanning, approving, and scheduling payment of vendor invoices.

Image by Em bé khóc nhè on Unsplash

Know the Criteria for Success Before Investing

I wish I could say that decision makers don’t choose tech just because it’s cool. But sadly I have seen many examples of this during my career.

Starting with the outcome and impact will let you judge whether the implementation was successful and give you a North Star to guide you from selecting vendors and solutions, to user stories, to milestones, and ultimately to whether or not you achieved your goals and success criteria. The results should look like the outcome and impact you envisioned at the beginning of the process.

Include All Stakeholders in the Process

Again, with the footwear company example, both IT and supply chain employees said they needed a system that could order and manage shoes by size. They were ignored.

Results Over Romance: A Win for All

Stay Tuned…

This article was written in collaboration with Sophie Michals of (SM) Edits LLC. Follow her on LinkedIn and subscribe to her newsletter, The Writing Standards Weekly, for tips on delivering clear, concise writing with a consistent brand voice.