Trapped by Technology Fallacies

After a working in tech at several large companies over a couple of decades, I’ve observed some of the worst fallacies that cause damage to organizations. They don’t arise from malice, but from a scarcity of professional reflection in our field. Technologists often jump to problem solving before spending sufficient time on problem setting, which leads to the creation of inappropriate and brittle solutions. Donald A. Schön discusses this disconnect in his seminal work, The Reflective Practitioner,

…with this emphasis on problem solving, we ignore problem setting, the process by which we define the decision to be made, the ends to be achieved, the means which may be chosen.

Problem solving relies on selecting from a menu of previously established formulas. While many of these tactics can be effective, let’s examine some of the dysfunctional approaches used by technologists that lead to pain for their organizations.
  • Fallacy #1 – Hammer-Nail: Technologists often assume that all problems can be beaten into submission with a technology hammer.  It’s like the bride’s father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who believes that Windex can be used to cure any ill. Similarly, technologists think that every challenge is just missing a certain type of technology to resolve it.  This, even though we generally speak about maturity models in terms of people, process, technology, and culture. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen someone design and implement a seemingly elegant solution only to have it rejected because it was developed without understanding the context of the problem.
  • Fallacy #2 – Best in Class. I’ve heard this so many times in my career that I just want to stand on a chair and shake my fist in the middle of a Gartner conference. Most organizations don’t need “best in class,” they need “good enough.” The business needs fast and frugal solutions to keep them productive and efficient, but technologists are often too busy navel gazing to listen.
  • Fallacy #3 – Information Technology is the center of the business universe. I once worked for a well-known bank that had an informal motto, “We’re a technology company that happens to be a bank.” The idea was that because they were so reliant on technology, it transformed them into a cool tech company. I used to respond with, “We also use a lot of electricity, does that make us a utility company?” Maybe a little hyperbolic, but I was trying to make the point that IT Doesn’t Matter. When Nicholas Carr used that phrase as the title of his Harvard Business Review article in 2003, he was considering technology in the historical context of other advances such as electricity and telephones, “When a resource becomes essential to competition but inconsequential to strategy, the risks it creates become more important than the advantages it provides.” In the early days of tech, it gave you an edge. Today, when a core system fails, it could sink your business. The best solutions are often invisible to the organization so it can focus on its core competencies.
While technology can be very effective at solving technical problems, most organizational issues are adaptive challenges. In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, the authors identify this failure to differentiate between the two as the root cause of business difficulties,

The most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems. What’s the difference? While technical problems may be very complex and critically important (like replacing a faulty heart valve during cardiac surgery), they have known solutions that can be implemented by current know-how. They can be resolved through the application of authoritative expertise and through the organization’s current structures, procedures, and ways of doing things. Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties. Making progress requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilize discovery, shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses, and generating the new capacity to thrive anew.

The end goals that we’re trying to reach can’t be clearly established if we don’t sufficiently reflect on the problem. When we jump to problem solving over problem setting, we’re assuming a level of confidence that hasn’t been earned. We’ve made assumptions in the way systems should work, without thoroughly investigating how they are actually functioning. When Postmodern critic Michel Foucault speaks of “an insurrection of subjugated knowledges,” he’s questioning the certainty of our perceptions when we’ve disqualified information that might be important in gaining a broader perspective. Technologists are more effective when they recognize the inherent expertise of the non-technologists in the businesses they serve and operate as trusted partners who understand change leadership. Instead of serving the “religion of tech,” we should focus on delivering what organizations really need.
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2 thoughts on “Trapped by Technology Fallacies

  1. […] Trapped by Technology Fallacies. Good post by my colleague Michele. She tackles 3 fallacies that many folks tend to believe on the […]

  2. […] I’ve written about the dangers posed by technology fallacies and one of the most frustrating for me involves discussions of “best in class.” In my […]

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