It seems like I can’t get away from two ideas that have been widely adopted by the information technology industry – disruption and failure. The first trope says that the best company is a disruptive one. By disrupting the status quo, in markets and inside a company, you create change. The second trope is that failure is good so long as you fail fast. You see this often in companies that have pivoted. Their first business model or product has failed but they are building something else using technology and money obtained using the first idea. There are problems with this both of these ideas because of something they share
The quarterly earnings announcement season is in full swing for large tech companies. This past week IBM announced its quarterly financial results and SAP issued guidance. Oracle did the same a month ago. Each of these companies is still showing reduced overall revenue due to the shift to cloud computing. On the surface, this would appear to be a big problem. When companies undergo radical changes that drop revenues, everyone has to worry that their favorite supplier may become the next Sun, Palm, or worse, Novell which is only a shadow of its former self. I, for one, am not worried. Yes, these quintessential IT companies are taking it on
This week I ran into an interesting problem. My email stopped working. That is, my Microsfot Outlook and Lync could no longer communicate with our cloud-based Office 365 Exchange server. Microsoft support was flummoxed. I eventually found the solution and it lay in system updates. By applying an optional system update to my laptop, not an Office update, I was able to get back to normal. Certainly makes you wonder what the word “optional” means in this context. If it is necessary for applications to work, it’s probably required not optional. Although Microsoft never admitted it, it is very likely something changed in the back-end. Nothing had changed with my
I make it a point to never be overtly political in my posts, blogs, article, and other writing. That’s because I write about technology not politics or art. Art and technology have one thing in common though. Both are creative pursuits that require a free environment in which to thrive. What the awful people who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo did not seem to understand is that the writers and cartoonists were not satirizing Islam per se. They were not trying to insult Muslims or the Prophet Mohammed. Nope. They wanted to insult the very same extremists that killed them. The staff, the artists, writer, editors, and other members
It seems like I can’t get away from two ideas that have been widely adopted by the information technology industry – disruption and failure. The first trope says that the best company is a disruptive one. By disrupting the status quo, in markets and inside a company, you create change. The second trope is that failure is good so long as you fail fast. You see this often in companies that have pivoted. Their first business model or product has failed but they are building something else using technology and money obtained using the first idea. There are problems with this both of these ideas because of something they share – waste.
The ongoing love of disruption and failure is based on a conceit. The premise is that most, if not all, disruption and failure are beneficial or at least benign. The IT industry seems to have wholly accepted Clay Christenson’s thesis on innovation and disruption without critical examination. The premise that disruption and failure are good is based on a limited number of successful companies. It doesn’t take into account long term effects or the numerous disruptors and failures that have never achieved any lasting positive effects. Jill Lepore, the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard’s scathing indictment of the gospel of disruption in the June 23, 2014 issue of the New Yorker lays bare the assumptions and failures of this mindset.
Disruption is clearly not beneficial to all players, whether internal or external. If the supplier of your critical systems are disrupted, they will cause you disruption that you did not ask for. That disruption creates a lot of waste. How much time, money, and effort has gone into reengineering critical systems for no real reason other than a vendor’s insatiable need to keep up with the disruptors. When IT companies buy into disruption for the sake of disruption, they do so in a “keeping up with the Joneses” way, creating no new value and distributing pain to their customers.
If a great new IT project causes widespread internal disruption, it will create tremendous inefficiencies for a long time. End-users need to get used to new systems and processes. Systems that worked before may stop working now. More waste. Wasted money, wasted time, and wasted human capital. Anything that disrupts a company in any kind of scale needs to have measureable long-term effects but they don’t always, do they?
Failure also wastes resources and can be devastating emotionally and financially. If you’re super rich already you may weather a big failure but not anyone else. Lots of stakeholders will lose such as employees and small investors. When a big project fails, the brunt of that failure is felt much more by the grunts writing code than the CEO of the company. The developers get fired while the CEO makes excuses. One of those excuses these days is that failure is good. For the CEO perhaps but not for the psychological and economic health of employees.
When companies fail, dreams are shattered, people lose their jobs, and small investors lose money. It’s all part of portfolio management of the venture capital firms but can crush the people working at the company or the early friends and family investors. If you are a developer lucky enough to work in Silicon Valley, perhaps you can find another job at another potential failure easy enough. For everyone else, it creates uncertainty. The admins and bookkeepers may not fare so well as the coders. Failing fast may mean a failure to think through what is being done. It’s an excuse for not having given due consideration to a project or product. It allows a company to do without thinking and get away with it.
Disruption can move us down a path of progress. However, it can also be a genuinely selfish act that adds nothing new and only causes others difficulty and pain. It’s true that failure is a natural consequence of risk. Flippant failure on the other hand ignores the consequences of risk, thereby wasting time, money, and human capital. If we think of failure and disruption as inherently bad, then we need a damn good reason to risk them. Rather than accept the idea of disruption and failure as good, stop and think about the consequences of both. forces us to mitigate those consequences by proper planning and thoughtful consideration of alternatives. Speed up good analysis and planning rather than plan to fail and disrupt.