Guidelines for keeping pace with innovation and tech adoption
This ebook explores guidelines that can help you make crucial "right item, right time" decisions and assist in the integration of new technology into existing business processes.
There are two kinds of fool. One says, “This is old, and therefore good.” And one says, “This is new, and therefore better.”
New products, services, and methodologies clamor for our attention. All of them promise to make our lives easier, to help our teams become more productive, and to give our companies more opportunity to make money. Some might even be telling the truth.
We all have guessed about when to climb on board with a new technology, hot product, lauded programming language, or other hyped item touted as the latest-and-greatest innovation. Even when the item truly is exciting, adopting it is a risk no matter what size of business you run or where you stand on the corporate ladder. If you commit too soon, you may discover that the innovation doesn’t measure up to its promises, and its failures screw things up for your own projects. If you jump on board too late, after your competitors adopt the innovation and work out all the kinks, your organization may find itself playing catch-up.
This is an age-old problem. A hundred years ago, businesspeople argued about whether it was the right time to get rid of horse-drawn conveyances and invest in those newfangled delivery trucks. But they had more time to contemplate the options. These days, the pace of change is so fast that it’s hard to learn what an innovation is, much less make a sensible decision about the right time to adopt it.
It’s not like you have a choice, really. Things are changing all around us, and we (as individuals and businesses) have to respond, one way or another.
“All organizations change, regardless of whether employees are ‘prepared and ready,’” says Kirsten Osolind, senior VP at strategy and innovation consulting firm Reinvention Consulting. “You need to be on a constant quest to wrestle new efficiencies from existing assets. You need to surf waves of opportunity. You need to run at the right speed, in the right direction.”
Fortunately, useful guidelines can help us make the “right item, right time” decisions, and assist in the integration of the new technology into existing business processes. These suggestions may aid you in recognizing when and how to implement a technology change.
You Say “Disruptive” As If It’s a Good Thing
In the late 1980s, I was president of a tiny computer user group in rural Maine. We decided to put on a computer faire—the techie equivalent of “My dad has a barn; let’s put on a show!”—which ultimately drew about 1,000 people. For a rural coastal community with a traffic light every 40 miles, that’s a lot.
I asked Pete Petersen, the vice president of WordPerfect Corporation, to be our keynote speaker, in hopes that the guy running the business for the market-leading word processor would be willing to talk to us. To my delight, Petersen said yes, even accepting my oh-so-naïve topic suggestion of prognosticating the future of computers. I remember his predictions to this day.
“I can’t tell you what future computers are going to look like,” Petersen said. “But I can tell you this: they’ll be smaller, cheaper, faster, quieter, and more powerful.”
And he was right. Nearly every technology change in the past 30 years has fallen into one of those categories. We appreciate anything that’s “smaller, cheaper, faster, quieter, and more powerful,” whether those qualities apply to a speedier personal computer, a more efficient software development process, an RFID chip that communicates useful data across a network, or a SaaS application inexpensive enough for a small business to afford.
When changes are gradual, they’re easy to weave into “business as usual” methodologies. It doesn’t cause much stress to replace an aging computer with a faster model, and you get little corporate pushback if you suggest a tweak to “the old way of doing things.”
But when we talk of innovation, often we refer to something really new.
The Technology Adoption Curve
Human improvement isn’t always a single moment of discovery in which an entire worldview changes. Those who study the creative process of innovation distinguish between incremental enhancements and true game changers. Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma (Harvard Business Review Press, new edition 2016)—which has a terrific four-minute video summary—calls these sustaining innovations, improvements to “the way we’ve always done it” and disruptions, unexpected changes to existing systems that redefine a problem as well as the solution. Everyone was looking for a better iron lung; instead, Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine. Steve Jobs cited Henry Ford as saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”; even if the attribution is inaccurate, the sentiment is not.
Not every disruption is a technology disruption, the way that a new CPU or medical breakthrough might be. Sometimes the change is a business model or a methodology. MP3 music players were around for a while, as an expensive lackluster wannabe product category, a problem looking for a solution. Then the iPod got it right. With a different business model, Apple integrated hardware, software, and services; it created both happy consumers and a technological, musical, and social juggernaut.
Disruption sounds like a marvelous thing when you’re the entrepreneur doing the disrupting. It means your business is doing something truly unique (and, one hopes, profitable) to which other organizations must attempt to measure up. That’s been true for ecommerce, Uber, phone cameras, Software as a Service (SaaS), social media, and dozens of other revelatory technology and business model changes.
If you run a business, though, disruption is a bad word. It means shaking up the status quo, often with an uncertain outcome. Not everyone wants to be disrupted; most leaders are content to be boringly productive, profitable, and business-as-usual. Disruptions are time-consuming distractions, at best.
This topic was deeply explored by Everett Rogers, a professor of communication studies, in his book Diffusion of Innovations (Free Press, 1962), and later cited at length by Geoffrey A. Moore in Crossing the Chasm (HarperCollins, 1991). They summarized the technology adoption life cycle by identifying several classes of buyers and users (that would be you):
- Innovators (2.5% of the population, according to Rogers)
The first to adopt an innovation, these people often pursue new products aggressively, while the products are still in development. Technology is a central interest in their lives, and their endorsement means a lot to those who follow. These people take risks, they are willing to put up with fewer product features because of the promise of more to come, and they accept that some bright ideas fail.
- Early adopters (13.5%)
Early adopters adopt the innovation when it’s still new, but no longer raw. They are tech-literate influencers whose opinions shape others’ decisions. They can imagine, understand, and appreciate a new technology’s benefits and relate them to other concerns. But, as with the innovators, early adopters are willing to accept imperfections in the short term because they see where the innovation is heading.
- Early majority (34%)
The entry point to the mainstream, these people share some of the early adopter’s ability to relate to technology. But, cautions Moore, ultimately they are driven by a strong sense of practicality. “They want to see well-established references before investing substantially,” he wrote. “Because there are so many people in this segment—roughly one-third of the whole adoption life cycle—winning their business is key to any substantial profits and growth.”
- Late majority (34%)
This group approaches change with a high degree of skepticism, usually after the innovation has been accepted in their society. “They wait until something has become an established standard,” writes Moore, and they tend to buy from large, well-established companies. (Or, as my mom used to say, “If it’s so great, why isn’t everybody doing it?”)
- Laggards (16%)
Laggards are change averse, and prefer familiarity and tradition. (Get off my lawn!)
Moore’s chasm theory was mind-blowing when it was first expounded because he emphasized the wide gulf—that chasm—between the early adopters and mainstream buyers. In guiding entrepreneurs on how to cross the divide, Moore went into detail about identifying target markets, product positioning, building a marketing strategy for each type of adopter, and choosing the most appropriate distribution channel and pricing.
Christensen, Moore, and Rogers spoke primarily to and for the entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and technology early adopters—the people who shape so much of what the future looks like. For example, “Characteristics of disruptive businesses, at least in their initial stages, can include: lower gross margins, smaller target markets, and simpler products and services that may not appear as attractive as existing solutions when compared against traditional performance metrics,” wrote Christensen. “Because these lower tiers of the market offer lower gross margins, they are unattractive to other firms moving upward in the market, creating space at the bottom of the market for new disruptive competitors to emerge.”
They and others offer plenty of inspirational material for how inventors can attract our interest, and I’m happy to leave them to it.
But visionaries and pragmatists have very different expectations—and here we focus on the practical issues in technology adoption.
The Chasm in Your Company
The point I want to stress is that it is important to recognize that there are several categories of users and purchasers. Because if you are considering adopting a new technology, you’re somewhere on that scale.
If you yourself are an early adopter by nature—you taught yourself how to program in a brand-new programming language, you built your own personal computer and giggled while you did so, you started a computer user group in rural Maine—then the “laggard” viewpoint is unfathomable and the mainstream users seem ridiculously hidebound. Don’t they realize how much they’re missing?!
Yet your organization—or different departments within it—may have a different attitude, and you need to take their concerns into account. Whatever you think of these people individually, you can’t sell them on a major change without addressing their goals and fears.
Also, these are not hard-and-fast personality traits. You can be an early adopter in one realm and a laggard in others, even in business terms. For example, you may be willing to take a bet on a new social media plan, but be loath to move your customer relationship management system to the cloud. The consequences of failure are minor in the former case, but could be devastating in the latter.
In fact, it’s wise to limit the number of innovations you adopt. If nothing else, changing too many variables at once makes it impossible to discern which one made the difference.
“There’s a steady stream of ‘cool and new’ things, and if you tried to adopt every one that came along, you’d be overwhelmed,” says Otto Berkes, CTO of CA Technologies. “It’s tempting to chase the latest shiny object, and while doing so may seem like progress, it will ultimately take you off track. It’s just as important to decide what new things not to adopt as the things you decide are worth the effort.”
Failure Is Dangerous
Technologies ebb and flow. What was once new and exciting becomes ho-hum boring and mainstream—in fact, that’s what its inventors hope for—and eventually it is displaced by the newer and even more exciting.
Case in point: BlackBerry. When the RIM 950 Wireless Handheld came out, sporting a patented keyboard design that made it easy to type with your thumbs, owning one was super-cool. A BlackBerry email service followed in 1999, leading some businesses to adopt the technology, since the step-beyond-pagers demonstrated real productivity benefits. If you owned one (a friend did), people (by which I mean I) would ask to see it, and would quiz you about how it worked. By 2006, BlackBerrys had become so mainstream that users were criticized for their “CrackBerry” addiction.
But RIM couldn’t keep up with iPhone and Android, and it was slow to deliver on the new versions it promised. And now, BlackBerry says it’s done designing and building its own phones.
Obviously, BlackBerry’s decline and fall is meaningful to the company shareholders. But it also illustrates the adoption curve for any business decision maker. In 2000, suggesting that your company adopt BlackBerry would make you a forward-thinking iconoclast, and might earn you a raise and promotion. Ten years later, the same recommendation would mark you as a hidebound laggard who wasn’t keeping up with the times.
It’s even more dangerous to fall behind on technology when the adoption curve involves a lot of moving parts and application integration, or the technology otherwise becomes hard to extract afterward. Bringing in a new programming language, office productivity software, or network infrastructure are the easy examples, since each requires ongoing support, including employees who know how the system works. Replacing a company’s mobile phones is relatively simple and inexpensive, compared to rewriting custom applications for a new operating system.
This makes the decision process even more stressful. At what point should a mobile app developer decide to create a version for a new mobile platform? Maybe JQuery’s time is done; should a development team adopt TypeScript instead? On whose say-so? What should they consider before they make the decision—beyond the techie feature catnip issues?
Nobody wants to bet the house on a new platform that doesn’t take off. I knew OS/2 developers who realized too late that the market didn’t grow enough to justify their investment in building applications for IBM’s operating system. Corporations that did commit to OS/2 (often for the best of technical reasons—did I mention OS/2 was wonderful?) were forced to replace it. They also had to buy new Windows or Linux applications, not to mention the cost of rewriting the custom software they built on top of OS/2, and then they had to explain all that to the company management to whom they’d successfully argued that this was the right direction.
This happens at a personal level as well. If you’re a mobile developer of any experience, you remember when it was obvious that you had to write software for iPhones, but less clear if you should write a version for BlackBerry or Android or Windows Phone. In the early stages of a technology adoption life cycle, it’s nearly impossible to tell which one is going to take off, and practical limitations (such as developers having only 24 hours in a day during which to write software) sometimes mean you can’t support every option.
Conservatism Is Okay
Business projects fail regularly even when the technology is understood and well established. Management mistakes, unreliable suppliers, poorly trained workers, taken-for-granted assumptions, inadequate budgets, and many other factors can play havoc with even the best-laid plans, without including, “Let’s take a chance on that newfangled thing.”
Newfangled things have a long history of failure. The vendor may go out of business due to lack of funding, often because too few organizations were ready to invest in something unproven or the pricing model was out of whack. Their promised technology advantage may not pan out. The groundbreaking innovation may go against industry standards in an environment where standards win out.
As a result, it’s easy to make the argument that businesses should adopt well-established technologies that offer proven reliability, easy availability, volume pricing, and adequate useful life—all factors in a CEO’s goal of reducing the total cost of ownership. It’s a lot easier to sell management on the “expected” answer.
Being an effective early adopter is a tremendous amount of work. It’s one thing to buy a consumer item for yourself. For businesses, early adoption involves a major commitment and can put an organization at more risk.
Really, you can understand why some companies hang back and continue to rely on “business as usual,” no matter how frustrating it might be to the people who want to try the latest innovation. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” often is a wise viewpoint…to a point.
“The company I currently work for has been around for about 30 years,” explains Jim, its receptionist. “While they do use QuickBooks, they still also use handwritten time cards. Only a quarter of their work records they have is backed up in any way.” The company owners have always worked that way. But, Jim opines, the old-fashioned workflow weakens the infrastructure of the company, because employee training takes longer, the records are susceptible to loss or damage, and it’s more difficult to locate files on paper. “People stopped using handwritten time cards decades ago,” says Jim. “There have been no major consequences yet, but I think it’s only a matter of time.”
Evaluating the Options
When I asked people for their advice about when to jump on board with a new technology, the most common response was laughter. “Good luck with that,” said one friend. “Nobody ever knows.”
Yet we each make these decisions sometimes. We commit to a major shift in tools, technology, or process, and make those choices using some kind of criteria, consciously or unconsciously. You might change the core programming language the team uses, adopt a new environment (such as a move to the cloud), replace a legacy tool with a more modern one, or start a project with an unproven gadget (such as seeking a business model using the Internet of Things). We like to apply some kind of logic to the process, even if we ultimately go with our guts.
This seems to be the process we each use:
Identify the business goals and today’s limitations in addressing them.
Measure the new thing against those goals.
Evaluate the impact of the change, for good and ill.
What happens if you wait?
Make your decision.
Implement the change.
We go through this process even when we don’t deliberately identify each step. Sometimes we use emotional shortcuts that cut to the chase. We can review a new restaurant in a single sentence (“The food’s good, but it’s not worth the money.”) or with 2,000 words of in-depth analysis discussing each item on the menu (particularly its chocolate dessert).
But, ultimately, the decision-making process takes each of these issues into account.
The many questions I raise below may make it sound as though you should never adopt anything new. Certainly, these seem critical to my ear. But I raise these objections because other people in your organization are sure to do so—and it’s a good idea to have an answer ready. Also, when you realize that you can honestly respond (to yourself if no one else), “Hey, we’re set with that; no problem!” you can begin the adoption process with far more confidence.
A jargon note: by now you understand that the whiz-bang item adoption might be new hardware, a cloud-based application, a new Agile development methodology—really almost anything. That’d get unwieldy if I needed to describe each of these options repetitively. So let’s just refer to the attractive new technology as the Turbo Ninja Plus, as a generic name for the item you’re swooning over. Got that? Groovy.
Determine What You Want: Introducing the Turbo Ninja Plus
“Oh cool!” you might shout, when you first learn about the new opportunity. “I want me one of those!”
But before you even consider adopting a Turbo Ninja Plus, you have to determine if it solves any kind of problem you currently experience or that you expect to experience. And that sends you back to square one of any business plan: contemplating your goals.
Whether you run a multimillion-dollar enterprise, volunteer with a community organization, or lead a tiny development team, there is a shared purpose. It might be, “Create software that makes architects shout with joy” or “Give homeowners peace of mind” or “Enable payroll professionals to pass their certification exams” or “Have fun with N-scale model trains” or a thousand other things. Sometimes people give this a formal label, such as “a mission statement,” but ultimately you provide something of value, usually something that people are willing to pay for.
And nearly everything you do is in service to that goal, whether or not you lie awake at 2:00 am agonizing over it. Which means that the Turbo Ninja Plus must either contribute to you achieving your goal, or reduce the obstacles that prevent you from achieving that goal.
The goals and obstacles may present themselves in several ways. For example, the Turbo Ninja Plus may give customers a new feature they care about (oh look, more blinking lights—they love blinking lights!). It might make it easier for you to create those new features (oh look, an application interface that makes it faster to create brighter blinking lights!). Or it may remove a barrier that slows or prevents your ability to deliver on the goal (finally, accounting software that automates our ability to charge customers for those blinking lights!).
Alexis Davis, founder of H.K. Productions, has a four-step process when the company contemplates a major tech shift:
We revisit our mission.
We ask, “How can we best utilize this new technology to better serve our audience, customers, users?”
We research—learning from the best as well as learning from others’ failures.
We put the pieces together to create a plan of execution.
That’s not a bad plan.
Document your process! Take the time to write down your goals—and the problems that are preventing you from reaching them. Otherwise, you might buy a solution that’s a great answer—to the wrong question. In addition, the act of writing down the goals and problems helps you ensure that your team shares the same perceptions.
Plus, in the long term, you can learn from your own mistakes. Let’s say your company does adopt the new technology. Two years down the road, look at this documentation to judge how well you estimated the goals, identified the problems, and predicted the issues.
For example, Praveen Puri, management consultant and president of Puri Consulting, listens to his clients describe what they want to do. “I ask them questions such as, ‘Why do you want to make the change?’ and ‘How is the customer affected?’ Usually, this is a multistep process, where I have to keep asking the questions to get the next level of answer.”
The conversation might go something like this:
Client: We want to change the website.
Puri: Why do you want to change the website?
Client: Because it uses an old design.
Puri: How would the change affect the customer?
Client: It will look more modern.
Puri: Do the customers complain about the appearance?
Puri: Will the customer be affected any other way?
Client: Yes, the system will be more secure, so their information is more secure.
Puri: OK, then it is innovation worth doing.
Measure the Promise Against Your Goals
Sometimes, the situation is obvious: you’re in danger. The existing hardware keeps crashing, and it’s more expensive to fix than to purchase a new system. You see a competitor gaining ground and taking business away from you. A vendor has become unreliable. You recognize that employees are wasting time (and thus money and energy) because they use different software whose data is perpetually out of sync.
When you know something has to change, you’re already one step ahead, because you’re working in service to the team’s goals.
Spreadshirt is an ecommerce platform for on-demand printing of clothing and accessories. Its platform evolved over more than 10 years, says its CTO, Guido Laures, beginning as a PHP monolith back in 2003. But, says Laures, the system reached the “point of no more innovation” in 2013. “Any improvements or even small new features required major development efforts,” he says. “Every change had become risky because of the many interdependencies from rather unrelated parts of the platform. Changing something at one place caused multiple issues at other places of the architecture.”
Obviously, something had to change. Even if the existing system generated significant revenue for Spreadshirt, its fragility was evident. “But how do you get rid of a system that is unmaintainable but generates millions in revenue?” Laures asks.
If you have never owned a database before and you see a need to adopt one, the only issue is, “Which one?” You can make a choice based on your feature wish list, your budget, and your heart’s desire.
It’s more complex when fixing one problem raises new ones, as Spreadshirt discovered. Sure, the Turbo Ninja Plus (hypothetically) promises to help your development team create its products faster, which certainly would make happier customers and stuff more cash into the company’s coffers. But adopting it means that staff have to be trained to use the new tool, you have to upgrade the company’s servers, and you may need to argue with another department about changing the workflow. Sure, the Turbo Ninja Plus is better than what you have now—but is it better enough? It might bring in more money—but are the profits more than the costs?
In either case, you need to investigate the opportunities and measure them against the team’s mission. It’s a good idea to make a list of the criteria to use in deciding to jump on board. Whether the Turbo Ninja Plus’s promises originate with a vendor, from the tech community, or via a fad, often we can be distracted by features that sound appealing, but can’t demonstrate that they support the team’s goals.
“The question to ask about anything new is whether it adds real customer value,” Puri says. “It must either allow customers to do something new that they want or need, or it must make core functions better, faster, or easier.”
“Remember that innovation is applied creativity,” Puri adds. “Cleverness which does not add value to the underlying business needs is throwing good money after bad.”
Sometimes, familiarity rightfully wins out over coolness. “We tried to implement a new instant messaging solution to address email overload problems,” says Sushil Kumar, CMO of Robin Systems, a small but growing company. “There are lots of discussions under way at any given time, which can form the basis for critical business decisions.” Traditionally these conversations happen in email threads, which can be difficult to archive and to share with new employees. Kumar decided to test-drive the newest, coolest messaging application. “However, we could not get people to use it,” Kumar says, “partly because of the product issues and partly because of the cultural issues.” Most users stuck to email, which meant more complexity—since employees now were having conversations in two places instead of one. “We therefore decided to abandon the messaging app implementation until we were ready for it,” Kumar concluded.
That’s why it’s important to understand the value creation process in your business, says CA Technologies’ Berkes. He suggests answering these questions:
What specific value will it bring to your customers and your business?
What are the risks? What are the opportunity costs for adoption?
Is it something that you can try to adopt incrementally, or will it require a “big dig”?
Consider the Consequences of Adoption—and Failure
Many people ask, “How well does it solve the problem or improve our ability to deliver on our promises?” But there are at least two additional issues to consider, as you analyze the Turbo Ninja Plus’s suitability to the task.
What consequences would you encounter if you implemented it?
What would happen if you didn’t?
As much as we’re drawn toward new and better solutions, implementing them affects the way we do business. (If they didn’t, why bother?) We like to think about the positive effects, such as improved efficiency or faster delivery time. But what else might happen? How likely is it to occur? What could you do to ensure the best outcome? What would have to change in order for the adoption to be a success?
The earlier the innovation appears on the technology adoption curve, the more often your answer is, “I have no idea,” and the more you should assume the associated costs are relatively high—at least in the short term.
For example, imagine you are considering adopting a new programming language that is optimized for part of your knowledge or technology domain. Only a handful of developers have any level of expertise programming in that language, so they’re harder to find and they command a higher salary than the average programmer on your staff. Training resources are difficult too; nobody’s written a book about the language yet, much less created a track for it at your favorite programming conference.
Those concerns are balanced, presumably, by the advantages of being first to market and getting a head start on the learning curve, and by the actual benefits of the new language. Plus, you don’t want to adopt the technology too late and miss out on its competitive advantage.
But those advantages are difficult to prove. And what happens if your assumptions are wrong?
Almost by definition, you are proposing a major change. How comfortable are the players and stakeholders with the disruption caused by the tech adoption?
Don’t think only in terms of the managers and other people who have to sign off, who may never actually touch the new system. Consider the line-of-business worker. For instance, your chief financial officer may decide that it’s time to replace the expense reporting system. Until now, every employee has had to email a spreadsheet and PDFs of receipts; that’s a pain for the accounting staff, especially as it has no useful reporting procedure and they need to construct their analysis manually. But if you consult only the CFO and accounting staff about what’s needed in a new SaaS expense-reporting application, you won’t learn about the features most valued by the employees who have to use the software.
Unless you meet with each group of people affected by the proposed change, you also won’t learn about their fears and desires, which absolutely reflects their willingness to make a change.
The following questions may help you evaluate the consequences.
Does the Turbo Ninja Plus require you to change infrastructure? What depends on the current and proposed technology, and what does it depend on? What do the changes cost, in dollars, time, and complexity? Will those downstream changes turn into a yak shaving experience?
What’s the reliability of the Turbo Ninja Plus? Based on what metrics, measured by whom? How does that compare to the current system?
What’s the performance like? How does that affect what happens at a later stage in the process?
How can you measure its value? How long will it continue to provide value?
Do you need to provide training? How available is it, at what cost? How much staff time needs to be budgeted for the training? What work won’t get done while they’re learning the Turbo Ninja Plus’s intricacies?
How do you judge your team’s ability to implement the change, based on existing in-house knowledge?
People and team consequences
How much support do you have from company leadership? How much has the boss bought in to the proposed innovation?
What will it take to convince management of the suggested path? How do you keep them up to date during the transition? What happens to the company, project, and your reputation if it fails?
What needs to happen to ensure user acceptance? Especially given that “new and different” is jarring? How can you overcome resistance to learning the new technology?
Do you have time to make changes and adjustments?
Process adjustment consequences
How does the innovation affect current processes or procedures? For whom?
Does this have social implications? Does it mean changes in collaboration or communication styles?
What are the direct and indirect costs? How does this interweave with other budgetary priorities?
What is the effect for the development or implementation teams? How does this affect their existing workload and work stress?
In each case, also ask yourself: what would happen if we waited?
Many of those questions may yield heartening results. For example, if the Turbo Ninja Plus really is as fast as the vendor promises, your answers largely may be positive: customers get their products faster, employees aren’t frustrated by having to respond to downtime problems, and you can break into new markets.
These questions should raise opportunities, not just challenges.
For example, Puri worked with a major bank that acquired a smaller bank. “The original plan was to shut down the smaller bank’s banking systems and switch their customers to the acquiring bank’s system,” Puri says. “They found, however, that the smaller bank’s software was rated higher on user surveys. We ended up combining the systems. Now, all their customers use the smaller bank’s frontend software, while the older bank’s backend software handles the combined customer volume.”
Even after you resolve all those questions, you still won’t think of everything. In fact, it’s the problems you didn’t consider that are apt to hurt you the most, because you put nothing in place to address those issues.
Sell the Change
Let’s say that you personally have concluded that the Turbo Ninja Plus is a good option. Now you need to convince other people of that direction—even if the decision is yours to make.
“Successful organizational change requires a shift in perspective,” says Reinvention Consulting’s Osolind. “Employees become an integral component of the entire change equation.”
Remember the technology adoption cycle? You might see the opportunity of the Turbo Ninja Plus, but it is unlikely to be equally evident to everyone in the company. When you discuss the new option’s advantages and disadvantages with managers, users, and other stakeholders, consider their worldviews too.
For example, when you talk with an early adopter about the Turbo Ninja Plus, you can bring up its technical specifications, its likelihood to give the company a serious competitive advantage, and the irritation of putting up with its growing pains. To a technology enthusiast, it’s often worth taking a chance on something new, and such supporters are happy to invest in at least a pilot project.
But if you aim to insert something truly new into a corporate environment, acknowledge your listeners’ mainstream attitudes. The same sales pitch you gave to the early adopters can turn off conservative decision makers. Buyers in the early majority can understand practical value, but they want to be reassured that they aren’t the very first to encounter problems. Stress the business references and metrics collected by other reputable organizations. You can comfort these people by citing the Turbo Ninja Plus’s conformance to industry standards and its sustainable improvements.
Not every person says no because he is a technology laggard. Among the reasons people prefer to wait before adoption are:
- Their needs are latent
While they suffer the same effects as those who are excited about the proposed improvement, they haven’t actively identified that a solution exists, let alone considered a product or service. A trusted comrade can speak to the situation (“We never realized how much time we spent doing that!”), and hopefully you’re the person with that reputation, but in general these folks are immune to any marketing beyond word of mouth. Help them see that they have a problem worth solving, and they will be ready to consider a solution without friction or interference.
- They perceive a high cost of change
That can be monetary: surely the budget can be spent on something with a safer and predictable outcome? Or we know the product price will come down when the technology is more established? These people also may view the cost in terms of the difficulty of moving data and procedures from one system to another, such as a database transfer or rewriting code. Consider how your implementation answers each of these concerns.
- They are wary of losing competence
Even minor changes affect employee routines and rituals, such as adding yet another social media client or recreating an invoicing process. Even when a dusty old tool is substandard, it’s familiar, and you know how to work around its foibles. A new system means discovering the new weaknesses (usually the hard way) without any idea of how to fix the problems. Yet again, education can make a difference; so can creating documentation that guides users from the “old way” to the “new way.” For example, when Microsoft worked (successfully) to displace WordPerfect with Word in business environments, it emphasized how easy it was to import WordPerfect files.
“It’s important to address each challenge head on, while making sure everyone is comfortable with the change,” says Kumar. In practical terms, you need to build safeguards against unexpected roadblocks or failures. “Education and realistic expectation setting is key to making sure adoption happens at a pace that is acceptable,” Kumar says.
“Selling a change impacts the entire ecosystem of an organization, from employees and customers to strategic partners, vendors, the supply chain, and processes/procedures,” says Osolind. “Change leadership works best when you invite the entire ecosystem to help you rewrite the storyline. When folks make decisions and feel like they are choosing for themselves, they’re more likely to be committed to the outcome.”
“Beyond communicating a clear vision, allocating the right resources, and aligning performance management systems, the key to successful organizational change is removing barriers and creating circumstances in which employees’ inherent motivation and drive is freed and channeled toward achievable goals,” says Osolind. “Doing so requires that aforementioned shift in perspective, where employees at all levels are not merely informed about change or trained to manage and handle change but rather deemed to be an integral active component of the entire change equation. Start a small groundswell. Create a grassroots movement. Train the trainer. Consider perks for ideas and usage adoption at various levels.”
Some organizations are more open to change than others. For H.K. Productions’ Davis, opinions are welcomed when backed with proactive suggestions. “We listen, apply what’s useful, and move forward,” says Davis. “And as progress is made so are the minds of those who were hesitant in the beginning.”
Ideally, you’d like to work for a company with a culture of innovation, where it’s okay to experiment and fail. But that doesn’t have to mean, “Be the company that takes big chances.”
“Any company has a culture that it should look at as an asset when it’s contemplating change,” says Dave Gray, management consultant and author of The Connected Company (O’Reilly, 2014). Those aspects shape decisions, including the choices you reject.
For example, says Gray, both Nokia and Samsung had similar strengths in manufacturing. Nokia saw the digital culture on the horizon, so it sold off everything that wasn’t related to mobile phones, and invested heavily in software. “They took major risks that were (in retrospect) obvious mistakes,” says Gray, because the culture of software and manufacturing directs different kinds of risks.
But instead of repeating Nokia’s mistakes, Samsung recognized its culture and its capabilities, and chose a different path, says Gray. Samsung’s attitude: smartphones are coming, and we don’t know who will win—but whoever wins, they use Samsung hardware, whether it’s a Samsung phone or screen components that form part of Apple’s supply chain.
“The culture is the huge center of gravity you can use to accelerate on your path, like spacecraft going around Jupiter,” says Gray. “But often, companies disregard their greatest asset.”
Consider a Slow-but-Sure Approach
In general, the smoothest solution is to change as little as possible. Try the Turbo Ninja Plus in only one department, for instance. Use it on only one product line.
It’s important to discover if the advantages outweigh any costs before you roll out to the entire company, says Wowza Media Systems’s VP of engineering, Barry Owen. “Better yet, do a pilot project on one team and verify if the benefits are real,” he says.
This approach minimizes the disruption by keeping explosions small. Problems are dealt with locally so that they don’t ripple across the entire project. It also gives the company an opportunity to identify “Oh, I didn’t think of that effect” problems and to solve them early, before implementing across the organization.
Incremental adoption helps avoid several types of risks. Among them are testing the solution for actual readiness and discovering the transition’s unanticipated social and environmental issues.
To mitigate the risk of adopting too early, consider:
Performing benchmarking and quality evaluation of the technology itself.
Measuring the upward compatibility of existing systems to become informed about the impact of the change.
Creating alternatives, so that a project’s success does not depend on the new technology being adopted. (For example, create a plan for the project to still be accomplished with the previous technology, even if the old technology increases the budget or schedule.)
Measuring and monitoring pilot projects so that project estimation tools can be refined to reflect early experiences.
Coordinating the new technology’s impact with support tools so that the entire set continues to work together.
Here’s how Spreadshirt’s Laures went about the process with his ecommerce upgrade. His situation may include technical decisions and processes that don’t apply to your own Turbo Ninja Plus, but most of the steps have rough equivalents.
Define the order of migration
Once Laures and his team committed to modernizing the company’s technology stack, they defined the order of migration. “We analyzed those areas of the business that suffered most from the inability to change,” he says. For example, most of their online marketing directed traffic to the website frontend. The company’s user experience experts had concepts sitting on the shelf that could never be implemented because of missing flexibility in the old, monolithic system.
Migrate only what needs to be touched
“Tech people sometimes tend to work in an all-or-nothing approach,” says Laures. In their desire to avoid complexity, developers may conclude, “Let’s start from scratch on a greenfield and switch everything to the new platform once it is finished.”
If you can swing it, great. But at Spreadshirt that was not the case. “The monolith consisted of a couple of million code lines covering three different business models, ERP, and production processes,” explains Laures. A project to start again from scratch would have taken years, during which the old system would continue to suffer.
Plus, there are no real guarantees with that methodology. Laures has never seen a successful Big Bang migration in his career. “Touching only those components that will be modernized next is a better approach to reduce complexity, stick to the things that work, and still innovate in certain areas,” he says.
Once Spreadshirt identified the first component to update, they faced the next decision. “Besides the Big Bang approach, there are actually two additional paths to modernization,” Laures points out: duplicate and sync and rip and integrate.
With “duplicate and sync,” you start from scratch (only for the single component) and duplicate the business logic within the (in their case) new microservice. New components can use the new services, without being tied to the monolith. “To ensure that the service has access to the required data, database synchronization between the legacy and the new system is set up,” Laures says. “After that, new frontends can easily integrate with the new service using modern frontend technologies.”
The alternative approach, “rip and integrate,” tries to avoid error-prone and expensive data synchronizations by switching off the legacy component after the new microservice is available and reroutes all clients into the new service. This approach could also be seen as the last step of a component’s legacy migration, says Laures.
Assign one team per business concern
Don’t ask the entire company or department to be involved in the change. One team should own the entire business process. Advises Laures, slicing team responsibilities along technical layers (the frontend team, service team, database team) might lead to unintended friction points. And, when problems arise, it could result in some finger pointing between the dependent teams.
Organize the Transition
Don’t throw a ton of resources at something that seems like it might be a good idea without concrete evidence of value or customer need, suggests CA Technology’s Berkes. Start small, and evaluate progress at each stage. “Accelerate the development of new ideas that are proving their value; chances are that you’re not the first one with the idea,” he says. “And just as importantly, stop development of ideas that aren’t working out as hoped to make room for more promising ones with your limited resources.”
Owen followed this process well when Wowza migrated from one software development tool to another. The team began with a clear goal: “Modernize our version control infrastructure and get all teams on the same tool.” It articulated Git’s benefits to the organization: “Most new hires are much more familiar with Git than any other tool. And lots of new tools and source repositories only support Git.”
And then the migration got under way, with these guidelines and activities:
Any new project is started in Git instead of SVN.
Teams using Git help train the teams using SVN on best practices.
Develop a migration strategy and use tools to migrate existing SVN codebases to Git without any history loss. For example, one product used sequential build numbers instead of commit hashes; a way to replicate that in Git was needed.
Make necessary changes to the automated build system.
Practice migration. Fix and repeat as necessary.
Rip off the Band-Aid: “As of Monday we are using Git.”
Note that training came first, so that the developers familiar with SVN didn’t feel lost with the new tool. Owen’s team also tried to contain the change in a small group and to ensure the bugs were worked out before, as he puts it, the Band-Aid was ripped off.
Coping with Change
When we individually grasp the promise of a Turbo Ninja Plus—which surely is smaller, faster, cheaper, quieter, and more powerful than the previous technology—quite often we’re tempted to drop everything and move to the new tool immediately.
But human beings are slow to change, especially when their current solution gets the job done. If you work with other people, you need to get them to buy into your vision. Any new proposal needs to take their reluctance into account. It needs to resolve the reasonable questions, such as the late-stage mainstream buyer’s concern, “We want to work with proven vendors, not startups who might disappear overnight.”
You don’t want to be in the position of espousing change for the sake of change. Make sure you can articulate the benefits to the people it affects, says Wowza’s Owen. They need to understand why this is making their life better. You need to acknowledge the frustrations during a transition to the users. “Be practical and understand that you may lose a bit of productivity for a time,” says Owen. “Be patient but firm. There can be pressure to go back to what was comfortable. Continue to reiterate why you are making this change.”
Consider a Formal Change Management Process
“Fail forward, faster, and bigger. That is what leads to breakthroughs!” declare the people who lust for change. “You only miss the boat if you’re not moving fast enough!” These people are in the minority, and (happily) are rarely found in larger organizations.
Whatever the nature of your Turbo Ninja Plus, people are the biggest challenge in any adoption process, particularly when it’s forced upon them. Adoption should be a participatory process, with users prepared for and actively involved in the transition planning as well as in the implementation phases. Ensuring that everyone participates in the process encourages the adoption to be driven by the team and not imposed from above. The result is a team owning the adoption effort and tailoring it to its current culture.
If the innovation is disruptive enough, the change may be more formidable than even the best project manager can handle. It may behoove you to hire or retain a professional change manager to guide the organization through the process, support employees, and play the role of liaison and advocate for the business activities.
Modern change leadership combines information technology with human resources, sales, marketing, and business-process change, says Osolind, to reduce risk, overcome operational complexity and cultural resistance to change, and create future growth opportunities.
Learn from Your Experience
Even when we’ve done things a hundred times before, it sometimes takes a few iterations to get a process or product just right. That’s even more so when you adopt an unproven Turbo Ninja Plus, both in technical terms—the feature you need isn’t implemented yet—and in terms of integrating it into your workflow or finding the right business model. Sometimes it’s outside your control.
For example, Jacob Cantele, CTO of Concierge Auctions, learned that the first draft isn’t always the real innovation. Cantele’s company wanted to scale the business to respond to the volume of sellers wanting to put their property on the Concierge Auctions platform. But in the initial attempts they discovered that buyers were not ready to take the plunge—not until other mobile platforms created a stable ecosystem. “There wasn’t a lot of precedent for these types of purchases via app,” says Cantele. “It took Uber and other apps to make buyers feel more comfortable.”
Instead, Concierge Auctions refocused on improving its website and making it more mobile friendly. “That experience strengthened the product and marketing teams and helped them refine the user experience,” says Cantele. “The app was relaunched last year as Instant Gavel, and now 80% of the company’s auctions are done via app.”
Even when the transition goes well, you should conduct an honest postmortem to assess how well the tech adoption project went. For instance, after the SVN-to-Git migration, Owen assessed what went right (“We survived and now have all the teams using Git; no more SVN. All the teams now understand multiple branching workflows and adapt to fit their product”) and what could have been handled better (“There was a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt created by the change; and we could have done a lot better job with training on things like GitFlow and best practices and setting up test repos where folks could figure all that out”).
The assessment isn’t only after the fact. Know when to pull the plug, too. “You need to have a rigorous, data-driven system to evaluate the development of new ideas,” says CA Technologies’ Berkes. “Having well-defined gates, metrics, and effective governance of innovation is essential to prevent zombie projects that go on and on without ever delivering real value, or pet projects based on individual whim.” Rather than view this as giving up, look at it as a fact-based decision that celebrates the learning gained by having explored the idea. “Don’t fail fast—learn fast!” he says.
In any case, Berkes urges, have a process in place for continuous improvement, and develop a culture of introspection to identify areas of opportunity and formulate specific, actionable plans to address them. “For example, sharing technology across our many product teams has historically been a challenge,” he says. “Just a few months ago, we started an Inner Source program to allow easy and fast-paced code sharing across CA’s entire technology community. The program has really taken off, which is a good sign that it’s solving a previously unmet need.”
Ultimately, we search for balance. On the one hand, we want to develop cool, innovative stuff that sets us apart, using the most modern tools and technologies. On the other hand, we don’t want to bet on the wrong horse. And it’s all under pressure. Startups are nipping at your heels. Technology is automating everything, including our own jobs. Management is demanding research on a schedule. And users and customers relentlessly demand the next best thing (as long as you don’t actually change the things they like).
It isn’t simple. But perhaps with these guidelines, it’s a little easier.