To Use Technology Effectively, Ask the Tough Questions

To Use Technology Effectively, Ask the Tough Questions

12.23.13Ron Ashkenas

Managers who want to minimize the complexity caused by technology need to think about two sets of questions

Over the years I’ve talked with hundreds of managers about the reasons for complexity in their organizations – and in almost all cases they cite “technology” as one of the main culprits.  But in the next breath, they also acknowledge that technology has revolutionized the way they work, increased personal productivity, and given them a whole new world of capabilities.  It’s an odd dichotomy: the notion that technology is a blessing and curse, a driver of improvement, and a source of frustration.  This often leaves managers wondering what they can do to increase the benefits and minimize the pain, both for themselves and their organizations.

To tackle this question, we first need to understand what’s behind this perception of technology as a paradoxical phenomenon.  In my experience, there seem to be two main issues: the accelerating rate of technological change and the often-unrealistic expectations that technology creates.

The exponential increase in the speed of technological introduction and commercialization was first described by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book Future Shock.  Although primarily considered as a harbinger of the virtual society, one of Toffler’s key insights was that the cycle time between technological discovery and widespread commercialization was continually shrinking, which would force people to deal with continuous, rather than episodic, change.

For example, after the invention of the telephone, it took more than 80 years for much of the world to be connected (and even more in rural and economically depressed areas).  In contrast, the cell phone was invented in 1973, became commercially available within a decade – and now, only 40 years later, there are more than five billion such phones being used around the world.  Moreover, mobile phones these days are not just used for making calls, but for a host of other applications – with new ideas and technology being introduced almost daily.

The pace of these changes presents challenges across industries. Not long ago, I was facilitating a customer advisory board meeting for one of my technology clients, and the main recommendation was to slow down the introduction of new features because their organizations could not absorb them fast enough.  In other words, from their perspective, the continual onslaught of new technology was making things more complex and harder to manage.

On the other side is an increasingly unrealistic set of expectations about what people can accomplish with technology. Yes, we have the capacity for instantaneous, global communication, search, and transaction processing. But does that mean that all business should be conducted at warp speed? Many managers seem to report that this is what their customers, partners, and senior executives seem to expect, which drives them to work longer hours and continue business processes (e.g. emails and texts) while traveling, being with family, or on vacation.  This leads to a lack of time to think, reflect, recharge, or step back, which not only creates more complexity but also doesn’t allow managers to get control over their time.

Managers who want to minimize the complexity caused by technology therefore may need to think about the following two sets of questions:

  1. What technological innovations should we actually adopt in our business, and what could we defer or delay?  And if we do accept new technologies, how can we absorb them without creating confusion or complexity?  The key here is to make sure that new technologies – or even new features and functions of old technologies – actually produce business value.  All too often we adopt new stuff because it is “cool” or sounds good, but we don’t examine whether it will actually provide a return on the investment.  And sometimes we don’t stop to ask how well our existing structures can support these innovations.  Unfortunately, if it doesn’t drive business value, then the only thing it might produce is more complexity.
  2. How can we create more realistic expectations with our customers, clients, partners, and each other about the pace of work?  Are there ground rules that we can institute or ways that we can at least make the expectations more transparent and understood? Questions like these can help make it possible to be more explicit about the differences between handling high priority work and everything else. One easy mistake to make in our world of instantaneous communication is treating all activities as being of equal value. If you are clear on what types of projects or questions warrant a quick response, it will help the rest of your team prioritize.

Obviously answering these questions won’t immediately reduce technologically-driven complexity.  But they might be a good place to start.

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