Saturday, June 22, 2019

Open Your Eyes to Technology Blindness in Your Decision Making

If you make or recommend technology decisions, you've probably seen your share of good and bad ones with both expected and unexpected outcomes. Technology decisions are tough, and one of the reasons is a kind of blindness we have about technology. In this post we'll examine some different types of technology blindness and what you can do to prevent them from steering you in a wrong direction.

Solving the Wrong Problem

"If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions." ―Albert Einstein

Asking the wrong question can derail the decision-making process from day one. Imagine you work in auto sound systems and are asked to make the speakers louder. If you take the request at face value and start working on making your speakers louder, you could well be solving the wrong problem. Instead, you should probe into what the real problem is by inquiring what the impetus was for the request. If you investigate, you might discover the real issue is that the car has poor soundproofing (nothing to do with speaker volume). Or perhaps someone is hard of hearing and the solution to their problem is a hearing aid, not louder speakers. It's critical to understand the actual root problem and not be swayed by someone's suggested solution.

The XY problem is a well-known phenomenon where someone asks "How can I use X to solve Y?" when they should have been asking "How do I solve Y?" The emphasis on a proposed solution throws all the attention in the wrong place (X), the root problem doesn't get studied, and other potential solutions never get considered (quite possibly including the best solution). You want to understand the real problem at hand and not have a decision colored by an initial suggestion.

The XY problem is something we're all probably guilty of, but once aware we can stop it from continuing. The XY problem is particularly difficult to contend with if it comes from a high-ranking person in your organization that no one is willing to challenge. Sadly, you may at times run into the XY problem not out of ignorance but deliberately, because someone stands to gain something if decision X is made.

If you suspect an XY problem, approach it constructively by asking the right questions to get your group to understand what the real decision question is. From there, you can consider multiple solutions in addition to the one that was originally advanced.

Be sure you're asking the right question, and steer clear of the XY problem.

The Bright Shiny Object

"It is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect. Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that." —Neil Postman  

A bright shiny object is anything we're enthralled with. Whether as children or adults, when human beings are fascinated with something they look through rose-colored glasses. Whenever we're shown new technology with some obvious benefits, we tend to focus on the positive and not think very much about negatives. The history of technology is full of examples of things we've rushed to embrace, only to later discover they also come with consequences, sometimes disturbing ones.

The automobile provided many benefits, including freedom to travel; the ability to work and shop beyond walking distance; and they were fun and cool. When automobiles started to be widely embraced in the 1920s, the public was focused very much on those benefits. There were secondary benefits, too: mass producing the automobile led to jobs and manufacturing innovations like the assembly line. Despite all these benefits, there were also consequences but they went unrealized for a long time. The automobile also polluted; led to traffic jams and highway deaths; and dissolved the traditional practice of multi-generational families living close together.

Television's huge popularity has given us a multitude of ever-increasing programming for decades, some of it quite good. However, it too has negative repercussions. It's been a huge contributor to obesity; has been shown to have negative behavioral effects on children; and also can't be trusted to be truthful. In the book Amusing Ourselves To Death, author Neil Postman explores what television has done to public discourse and our ability to think and debate critically. Television's nature means entertainment and ratings are king; any other considerations such as truthfulness and accuracy of content are subservient to those top considerations.

Today we hear a lot about "fake news", usually associated with social media. When social media started getting traction, people were focused on benefits such as being able to stay in touch with friends and family far away; and re-connecting with people from your past. Other benefits followed: a relative could see pictures or video of that birthday or graduation they were unable to be there for; and we can now check lots of reviews before we decide to purchase something or go somewhere. Among all the good, we're only now becoming aware of the downside: social media lets people spin what they share; encourages addictive behavior through dopamine-rewarded interactions; distracts drivers (sometimes fatally); and channels our attention on things that go viral. Of course there is fake news on social media: the fundamental nature of these platforms promote this behavior, whether intended or not.

The good and bad effects of examples like these are obvious in hindsight but much harder to realize at the time you are confronted with a new technology. That's why it's so important to be on the lookout for them. When you consider any new technology or product you should evaluate it as fully as you can. Not having the full picture means you may have missed a significant negative or not accounted for its true cost.

Recognize that every technology is a double-edged sword that comes with consequences as well as benefits. Identify them so you are making an informed decision. If a technology is so new there isn't much known about its consequences, ask yourself if you're really willing to risk those unknowns. If your company culture encourages you to take risks or make big bets and you're looking to use a new or unproven technology, you should at least anticipate that there may be unintended consequences and have a fallback plan.

Get the full picture on any technology, product, or platform you're considering. Make an eyes-open decision that takes into account consequences as well as benefits.

Success Blindness

"If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it." ―Peter Drucker

So, you've made a decision. Was it a successful one? You'd think the answer to that would be fairly obvious once some time has gone by, but you'd be surprised how often a decision's effects are less than clear. On more than one occasion I've watched leaders paint a decision as successful when there is no basis for that claim, and it's a sad form of self-deception. On top of that, some people just won't admit to failure and will lie about the state of things to their superiors.

Don't be deceived and don't be dishonest: know exactly where you stand and have the courage to honestly evaluate the success or failure of your decisions.

Success blindness is almost guaranteed if you haven't devised a way to measure the success of your decision. Without measurement, it's too easy to find something positive in the state of affairs and attribute it your decision without knowing if there's any correlation. Be aware that it's rather self-serving to come up with a success measurement after the decision has been put into effect, so be sure to address measurement early on.

If you want to get better at decision making, technical or otherwise, you need to get in the habit of measuring the success of your decisions. You made that decision in order to bring about a positive result, right? Then there should be a way to measure that result. If you're unsure how to measure the effects of your decision, you can learn how to measure well. I recommend How to Measure Anything: Finding the Intangibles in Business by Douglas Hubbard.

Overcoming Technology Decision Blindness

Solving the Wrong Problem, Bright Shiny Object Syndrome, and Success Blindness are common afflictions that plague technology decision making. Technology blindness is something we are all susceptible to; overcoming it requires acknowledging it. Start with yourself by taking a hard look in the mirror. Seek to uncover your own blind areas and decision biases. Then influence others to do the same.

Constructively ask the right questions in meetings and documents to focus on the real problems you need to understand and shed light on blind spots as you consider solutions. With awareness, you and your colleagues can make more successful decisions with confidence. With measurement, you can get better and better at it.

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