Don’t Be Romanced By Technology
Ask the Right Questions of the Right People
Empty Your Cup
In my last article, How the Fourth Industrial Revolution Is Shaping Our World, I mentioned that the number one reason tech projects fail is human nature. And one of the biggest mistakes by decision makers when investing in new tech is leaving critical people out of the process.
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
If you’re a sponsor, project manager, or change agent, it can be easy to dismiss opinions from people who you think don’t see the full picture you see. Although you do need to keep the full picture in mind, each component of the picture is important — without each component, the picture would be incomplete.
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
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 why: Why are we in this situation? Why does the problem need to be solved now?
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
As a dyed-in-the-wool problem solver, it has taken me years of discipline to learn to step back and define the problem before trying to solve it.
6 Questions to Guide You
The following questions will help you systematize the process and avoid the lure of the shiny new tech that promises salvation and prematurely convinces you it will solve your problems before you fully understand them or what caused them:
- Why are we implementing this technology?
- Have we outgrown our current methods or tech?
- Has our current tech or vendor moved away from our type of business?
- Have we inherited a system that no longer works for us?
- Have we changed or added to our business models?
- 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
Cautionary Tale 1: Size Matters
I know of a shoe company that invested in a new enterprise resource planning — or ERP — system but hadn’t yet defined the problems they were trying to solve. They ended up with a system that didn’t allow them to order or track shoes by size. Imagine a shoe company that doesn’t know whether they need to order more size 6 or size 12 shoes!
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
Another retail organization’s customer support and sales team used a slow ordering system that had many limitations. The decision makers left out some important stakeholders: employees who use the system daily.
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
Only after you understand the why can you start to define the outcome and impacts you are looking for.
Do Your Homework
Let’s say you’ve transitioned from working in an office to working from home. You love your current apartment, but there’s no separation between your living space and working space — you need an apartment with an extra room or nook that can be used as an office. You find a gorgeous apartment in a neighborhood with lots of shops and restaurants within walking distance.
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
Only after we have defined our outcomes and impacts and why we are implementing new tech can we define the how.
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.
Good project management is not just box checking. Instead, it’s truly understanding how each step moves us forward.
- 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.
Know the Criteria for Success Before Investing
Scenario: A company has millions of dollars a year in carrier claims — and 85% of the claims are for missing or damaged items. Two full-time employees are dedicated to negotiating with the carriers and working through their systems.
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
Using the scenario above, what would we do if someone brought the concern that the new warehouse management system didn’t work with our newly installed warehouse scanners that cost us millions of dollars (more than we would save in time or money by implementing this system)? What if you didn’t listen to those concerns? This is more common than one might realize. What would happen to profitability if you moved ahead anyway? And when you got to testing and the scanners didn’t work? And how would those who shared this concern feel when it came to fruition? Would they have buy-in on the project? Would they feel heard or shut down?
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
A big lesson I have learned in my career is this: When tech fails — whether it is cybersecurity, tech implementations, or company culture — it is always 100% of the time about the people. Tech is not immune to it being all about the humans. It is so easy to be romanced by the possibilities of technology that we can easily forget that humans code it, choose it, implement it, and use it. I truly believe it’s always about the people, and when we value each other and work together, we can accomplish amazing things. When we value the people and we listen and we ask the right questions, we can have a massive positive impact with our technology.
In my next article in this series, I’ll talk about how dysfunctional teams can doom a project.
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.