Avoiding Technology's Arranged Marriages
Technology decisions need to be made quickly and by a limited number of decision-makers in order to maintain agility. Yet in a world where technology is everywhere, authoritarian decision-making can create forced relationships resulting in negative consequences for moral. In this article, I’ll demonstrate ways to support or critique a solution while maintaining both speed and respect.
Motives in Technology Selection
Today, every corporate department has become a technology powerhouse. From sales to finance to engineering, cloud applications are routinely deployed in staggering numbers by staff from all levels of the organization. However, the technology selection process is not always a democratic one. Technology purchases have become a high-stakes game where players from all sides stand to win or lose significant ground, and as such, the tactics of the game have become unconventional at best, and less-than-ethical at worst. I’ll explain how to spot foul tactics, and provide general thoughts on how to course correct as needed.
How to Spot Arranged Marriages
Coerced technology decisions can feel a bit like an arranged marriage. This occurs when your future partner-- be it a customer relationship management (CRM) system, a marketing technology stack, or any other technology solution-- is selected by someone other than yourself. In some cases, power holders make such decisions in swift and transparent fashion. Other times, the persuasion is more subtle; often deceptively masquerading under the guise of “free will” despite the fact one’s destiny has already been chosen.
Regardless of the degree of persuasion being exerted, the motive of the “arranger” is to shape the technology decision based on what he or she thinks is best for the parties involved; which is of course highly subjective. For example, the CEO may feel the entire company should use Google Apps over Office 365 because she worked at Google previously. The CMO is an Eloqua fanboy, so there’s no hope for Marketo or Salesforce Marketing Cloud under his tenure. The IT department will only support WebEx, so you can forget about using BlueJeans or Zoom. If any of this sounds familiar, you’re likely on the receiving end of a forced technology relationship.
Overzealous matchmakers don’t always emanate from within the company, either. Pressure can be applied from external parties such as a powerful board member encouraging a particular solution (“the strong suggestion”), a private equity or venture capital liaison suggesting you leverage a sister company’s offering (“dogfooding”), or my personal favorite: the outside sales rep who wins over a person in a position of power such as the CxO (“the leapfrog sale”). In all scenarios, the decision from your standpoint is reduced to downstream execution. In other words, a decision has been made, and you will now comply with implementation.
These tactics are humiliating. But they also attack the very DNA of moral itself, and cultivate employee behavior that is both apathetic and rebellious. Apathy is often seen on subsequent projects when project contributors lose interest; citing claims such as: “a decision will likely be made from the top anyway.” Rebelion takes shape as secretive processes that are similar to shadow IT, whereby decisions are made behind closed doors in order to avoid external visibility (and influence) altogether.
From Power Struggles to Partnerships
While this story is similar to the one of David and Goliath, the roles here are relative. Sometimes you are David (a marketing manager being told by the CMO what solution to buy) whereas other times, you’re the Goliath (the IT department taking a hard stance on enterprise supportability). Regardless of your role, the first step in smoothing out the problem is to thoroughly understand the intent of the opposing side. While my inner optimist wants to believe intentions are always good, it’s best to proceed with pragmatic caution; especially when the opposing party stands to achieve financial gains regardless of your company/department’s overall well being.
Even when intent is not entirely aligned, it’s still possible to achieve middle ground in situations where power is clearly imbalanced. Whether you’re the decision maker or the party impacted by an upstream decision process, the magic factor in the equation is circulation of objective information. Shedding light on why the decision is being made means airing assumptions, intent, and other decision-making factors in open fashion while providing legitimate channels for feedback.
This should seem fairly obvious, and that’s because it is. Yet the means by which transparency results in a win/win scenario isn’t so intuitive. For example, an aggressive sales rep pushing a solution on a new CIO may not realize the incumbent IT leadership had a negative experience with the solution in the past. Merely forcing the solution on the leadership team is a guaranteed path of friction. Conversely, understanding past challenges may enable the the salesperson to explain how problems have since been corrected, or alternatively, enable the IT leaders to decrease product commitment until the solution is proven. Although this approach of transparency may not resonate with the authoritarian decision makers, I assert that transparency around decision-making rationale plays a key role in preservation of moral and respect.
I’ll conclude with a final thought on speed of decision making. There are times when decisions need to be made, and they need to be made quickly without bureaucratic overhead. (Think of the dreaded “decision by committee” phenomenon.) If decisions do in fact need to be made swiftly by one or two people, decision makers should strongly consider openly sharing the rationale of the decision so that future stakeholders (such as the downstream execution teams) understand the decision-making principles. If the CEO mandates the use of Google products, then at at least you know you now work in a Google shop. If the CIO previously chose a Salesforce.com greenfield over upgrading the on-prem Microsoft Dynamics installation, you know she takes a “cloud first” stance on business applications. Ultimately, all these data points will undoubtedly aid in future decisions. The process of finding decision power balance may be a never-ending journey, but you can at least smooth out some of the bumps along the way.