The Single-Basket Problem

Don’t think technology is a single basket? Flip back in your diary to the year prior to the last IT project you worked on and tell me if any of these phrases sound familiar: “We’re not going to change that now; the new system will take care of that.” Or: “When the new system is up, it will be easier to look at what is really going on.”

And then, six months later, when the system is being implemented: “Let’s get this new application in place, then we can talk about changes in version 2.0.” Or: “We can change that now, but it’s going to cost us another $1.5 million and take another year.”

And afterward: “We just put that new computer system in, we can’t change it now our people have been through enough.”

When we start toward a technology solution, all other change and improvement efforts stop. We hope to include it all in one easy to sell package. Sounds like the very definition of a single basket to me.

This past Easter, my four-year-old daughter explained, with great happiness, that all the eggs were in her basket. To which I quipped, “You shouldn’t place all your eggs in one basket, sweetheart.”

“Why not, Dad?”

The quick answer was, “It’s just a saying.” The longer answer would have made us even more late for church, but it made me think. I must have heard that expression a thousand times from my mother, who I imagine picked it up from her mother, who at 92 still speaks of her time growing up on a farm in Czechoslovakia with great affection. She knows what it’s like to collect eggs, take them to market and rely on the security of knowing this week’s income is not completely dependent on a single straw-woven basket riding on a rickety wooden cart pulled by an old horse.

Today, most of us probably think of the expression when we think of investing strategies, or when our children dream of playing for the Cardinals after going one for four at the plate. Don’t put all your hopes and dreams in one solution, and keep your eye on the ball. Smart advice. Advice we seem to give freely, but tend to forget at work when either the dream is so bright it blinds our common sense, or we think we have exhausted all other options.

In this month’s first blog post, Ken talked about where we feel change is promised, but rarely happens in government. In our “Rated PG” podcast, we touched on a few general areas, and our next blogs are going to expand on those. We feel they deserve more attention because when we put our eggs in these baskets, we are almost guaranteed to have yolk on our face.

Today’s target — technology. The great hope of our generation. The hope that the cloud, the social networking, the smart phone, and the iPad are going to swoop in and save the day. That if we can only scrape together the $120 million needed for the upgrade to our ERP solution that the real clouds will clear and the sun will shine. But above all, we finally will be able to deal with all our capacity and free up time to do more good.

When we put our hope in technological projects, we are putting them in a single, very fragile basket. According to a survey conducted by the Project Management Institute, 50 percent of our projects are going to crack and break long before we see the fruits of our labor. And at millions of dollars an egg, we are betting a lot of hope on a coin toss.

So Why Do We Hope?

We hope in part because technology is cool. Let’s face it, the picture on my 400-lb 35-inch television that needed its own furniture to support it was just fine. But a paper-thin HDTV with a built in nightlight? Now, that’s cool! (It also uses .008 percent less power, so it’s super green too!) But no matter how cool my new TV looks on the wall, I still end up watching the same crappy shows. Cool doesn’t mean better.

Last year, I heard an IT leader announcing that a state would be off the mainframe in six months and thought to myself, “Flat screen TVs for everyone!” A totally server-based data center may be more modern, may be green, and may even run better. But the shows of government hardly change because we bought new TVs.

But Bill, you say, technology makes things easier.

There is a belief that the sheer introduction of technology makes life and work easier. When I first married my wonderful wife, we bought an ice cream machine. It had a hand crank; it was romantic. It also was replaced by motorized version within the first year.

Easier? Yep, by far. Did it increase the amount of ice cream we ate? Well, not the homemade kind. Easier to turn didn’t mean easier to prep, clean and chill.

The technology made only one of the factors easier. Yeah, I hated turning that crank till my arm went numb, but I also hated the time it took to mix (and, ironically, cook) the ingredients, clean up the dishes and then disassemble and sanitize the maker. I wasn’t cranking, but I also wasn’t making any more ice cream or eating it any faster. Was it cool? Yes, both literally and figuratively. Was it easier? Yep. Did it get me my outcome faster? Nope.

Technology often automates only a portion of our work, and if we aren’t careful, it is often the wrong portion. We see tons of projects that track work, automate routing of work, and that help us schedule work, but they don’t fundamentally address the work we do. So while we get the benefit of knowing where stuff is and avoiding the internal mail service, we rarely helped our customers get to their outcomes any faster.

Pure, unadulterated peer pressure also drives public hope in technology.

We see the stories in every publication and hear the speakers at every conference. It seems like everywhere you turn someone has a new idea on consolidation, a movement to get to the cloud, an application that will slice, dice, and puree. It seems that everyone is basking in the glow of technological achievements while we can’t find money for toner. Everyone is doing it.

There are a lot of real-life examples of peer pressure that I am not looking forward to living through when my kids hit that age. But let’s sum it up by saying not everyone got to go see “Porky’s,” head to the Shout at the Devil tour without dad, or experiment with funny things. As I have traveled around the country talking with technology leaders, the truth is that we often celebrate our intentions more than our accomplishments. We all struggle for money, and sometimes the stories with the most attention are based on the smallest pilots with little hope of scalability. Careers have been made on good intentions and better publicity, but the unintended consequence is this false hope that if everyone is doing it, it will work for us too.

Some of that pressure is driven by the outstanding marketing efforts of our vendor partners. Having worked closely with many of them, I believe in my heart that they have a sincere desire to improve the work we do, and what they are selling sounds so right, “It’s access, it’s ease, it’s green, it’s secure, it’s fast…quit cranking by hand, quit spending an afternoon dusting that old TV, and come to Porky’s with us.”

Yet sounding good and delivering on the ideas are very different concepts. I’m not blaming vendors for our project shortcomings (more on IT projects and their dismal success rate later this year), but I do know they play a role in fostering the peer pressure and selling the hope.

There is one final sale of hope I want to highlight: our desperation.

Generally, society believes that technology will help us because we feel something has to work. If it’s big and expensive, surely it will have a return on investment. Above all the other reasons, this hope is the most misleading. The idea that if we can find a way to afford the technology, it alone will fix everything is simply not true. The price tag does not correlate with quality, reliability, or value and just because you are going to pay a lot for that muffler, doesn’t mean your car is going to run any better. When you hear the words “the new system will do that,” I hope you cringe a little. No, I hope you cringe a lot. It’s the sound of false hope.

False Hope and Cracked Eggs

Unfortunately, radical change does not happen through technology. Technology is not the solution, because technology is not the problem. Technology did not create systems where you need seven levels of approval to order a new computer; it did not create all the hand-offs and inspections; it did not create a culture of CYA; and it has not increased the volume of customers who need our services.

Because technology did not cause these things, it cannot fix these things. It can make turning the handle easier, and it can make shipping documents faster, but it does not address the fundamental issues that have gunked up our pipes. We talk about process improvement in our IT projects, but more often than not, it is code for, “We are going to change how you work to match the technology solution you purchased.”

And if we decide to customize the system instead of changing our processes to match it, we drive up costs and miss implementation targets. In the end, we find ourselves with maybe 15 percent improvement and leave millions of dollars and thousands of frustrated man-hours in our wake.

Technology is a good thing. I’m writing this post on an airplane on my new 3G iPad, while listening to the new Blink 182 album, and downloading a movie on the plane’s WiFi. I love technology. But I can’t pretend it’s going to help us increase our capacity to do more good. Change doesn’t happen in the data center and while it will play a crucial role in our future, the false hope we put into this basket is costing us millions and bringing our improvement efforts to a standstill.

Join the Discussion: Tell us about your last technical solution. Successful or, well, less than successful… Big results, or big busts! Do you think technology is the answer or is this basket to delicate and too costly?

*Originally published as Don’t Put All Your Eggs in the Technology Basket (Public Great @, June 21, 2010)

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