Never Start with Technology

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Technology moves at the speed of light, literally. The electrical impulses that carry information across the Internet to your mobile device or computer travel at a speed of about 186,000 miles per second — the speed of light. This means that information can travel from Atlanta, Georgia to Melbourne, Australia in 1/20 of a second. To put this in perspective, it takes about seven times as long to blink your eyes just once. That's how fast technology moves. So it comes as no surprise that a lot of businesses instinctively jump on the latest technology, hoping it will help them grow or improve in some fashion — whether that means expanding into new markets, boosting sales, improving productivity, or even delivering products and services in record time. They think that because technology moves at the speed of light, adopting the right technology will help their business grow at the speed of light. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Business at the speed of light never starts with technology. In fact, technology can slow your organization down to a crawl and cost you more time and money than it's worth. If you want to grow your business at the speed of light — whether that means increasing market share, retaining more customers, attracting better employees, becoming or remaining an industry leader, or something else — you have to start somewhere much more basic. You have to start with your specific business goals, then use technology in a carefully calculated way that will not only achieve those goals, but do so at a substantial return on time and money.

Even "Technology" Companies Didn't Start with Technology

Now I know that it seems obvious, even cliché to start with goals. But don't gloss over this section just because you think you've heard it all before. Think of some of the most wildly successful "technology" companies you are familiar with. Amazon, Google, Apple, and maybe even Wal-Mart come to mind. Contrary to popular belief, these companies' successes didn't start with technology. In fact, when they started, much of the technology that is ubiquitous today didn't even exist. At best, it was experimental and reserved only for the most elite geeks and engineers. These companies started with something much simpler: specific, measurable, coherent, and valuable business goals. Technology was simply the tool they used to achieve those goals. The lesson here is simple but profound: technology should never drive goals. When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Companies that allow their goals to be driven by technology are always going to be behind because they're depending on someone else's innovation. Companies that start with specific goals are the ones that innovate.

Well Developed Goals Always Trump Technology

Apple is one such example of a company that started with specific goals and is now doing billions of dollars in business at the speed of light. Today, Apple is known for the iPad and the iPhone. But both of these devices are based on an earlier, much simpler device called the iPod. When Apple introduced the iPod, then-CEO Steve Jobs said that the goal of it was to allow people to carry around all their music without having to lug around a bunch of binders filled with CDs. Jobs didn't use any technological jargon in describing the iPod because he didn't need to. The technology was only of secondary importance. What made the device truly attractive was the goal it fulfilled. The iPod went on to become the top-selling digital music player of all time, but it certainly wasn't the first. Prior to the release of the iPod, other digital music players existed, but went almost entirely unnoticed. One of the digital music players I owned was made by RCA, an American company that was a technological giant in the early 20^th^ century and had seen great success selling television sets and vinyl record players. The RCA digital music player I owned only held a handful of songs, and it was slow and cumbersome to add music to. I personally liked the device because of the "geek factor," but it was clearly not designed with the intent of replacing one's entire CD collection. It was technology for technology's sake.

Just Having Goals Isn't Enough

If you're already putting goals before technology, you're on the right track. But just having goals isn't enough. What conventional wisdom on goal-setting largely neglects is the goal-setting process. Worthwhile goals aren't arbitrary. They aren't pulled out of a hat, voted on, or brainstormed in a strategy retreat session in the Swiss Alps. Arbitrary goals are like joyriding. At first, it seems fun and exciting. But after a while, you get bored and want to actually go somewhere and do something meaningful or productive. A common mistake in the goal-setting process is brainstorming goals then running with them. Brainstorming can be useful to spark ideas for goals, but that's about it. When you brainstorm goals, the goals that you brain comes up with are not fully fleshed out. They may be contradictory, unclear, or simply not worthwhile. Not exactly the characteristics you need for achievable goals. In order for a business goal to be worthwhile, it has to have four characteristics:

1. Specific

Imagine we're at a restaurant, sitting at a table together. I ask you to pass me the glass. What do you do? You don't know if I'm talking about a glass of water, the glass salt shaker, the glass pepper shaker, or the glass candle globe. Instructions that are not specific cannot be carried out until they're clarified. One of the things perpetuating the common myth that "execution is hard" among business leaders is the utter lack of clear and specific goals. If your goal isn't specific enough to communicate to another person easily, it's not specific, and it's not a real goal. Make sure your goals can be easily and concisely communicated. A good indicator that you have a specific goal is that the average high school graduate can understand it easily.

2. Coherent or Complementary

All of your goals have to be in agreement with one another. If you take two steps forward and two steps back, you haven't broken even, you've wasted time. It's not uncommon for an IT organization to implement so many security systems and procedures in order to protect the business from system downtime that it actually slows business processes to a crawl. Make sure your goals don't step on each other. Ideally, goals should not only agree with, but complement one another. The achievement of one goal should make the achievement of other goals that much easier.

3. Measurable

A goal that is never complete is a time vampire. Eventually, it will drain you emotionally, physically, and usually financially. A goal has to have a specific point at which it is complete. Otherwise, you may end up spending much more time or money than you had anticipated and budgeted for. When a goal is measurable, you are free to definitively stop execution at a predetermined point and move on to the next goal.

4. Valuable

Finally, goals have to be valuable. A goal that has no known value is a goal that has zero return-on-investment (ROI). If you don't know the real tangible and intangible value of a goal, you won't be able to justify it to yourself or others. Not being convinced of the value of your own goals is one of the biggest reasons for failure. Viscerally, you know that if a goal isn't valuable, it is a complete waste of time, and you simply won't be able to put your heart into it, let alone get others to put their hearts into it.

Your Values: The Source of Your Most Valuable Goals

This may come as a shock: In order for business goals to be truly valuable, they have to be based on your values and the values of your organization. Values are, as you might imagine, the ideals, people, and things that you value. Some examples include honesty, integrity, health, service, and quality. Contrary to conventional wisdom, organizational values are not a sideshow or a "nice-to-have," but they're often treated that way because businesses don't really know what to do with them. Values don't come after or alongside goals, values are the one and only source of all valuable goals. Later on I'll show you how to take your values and translate them into immensely valuable business goals that will propel your business forward at the speed of light.

To understand the relationship between your values (plural) and value (singular), imagine you're eating at a restaurant. When the server takes your meal order, he gives you the option of having either a baked potato or steamed vegetables as your side. The baked potato comes at no charge, but the vegetables cost extra. Assuming one of your core values is good health, which do you choose? If you pay extra to get the vegetables, you're showing that you value your health. It costs a little extra, but you're willing to pay it precisely because good health has value to you. Hence, your values determine what you value — that is, what you're willing to invest time and money in.

When you set your goals based on your values, you're driven to achieve them, and you're satisfied when you do. But what if you set your goals based on something other than your values? Suppose that instead of ordering steamed vegetables, you order a baked potato because you've had a bad day and want some comfort food. Aside from feeling a little guilty, you may trigger cravings that drive you to consume more sugar or alcohol than you should. You may start to feel too tired to work out or finish a task you had planned to complete afterwards. When you make decisions or set goals on something other than your values, you end up with goals that contradict your values, contradict each other, and make you miserable.

One of Amazon's core values is "Customers First." (Note that this is not a goal by itself, as it doesn't meet the criteria for goals above.) Every successful goal Amazon works toward is based on that value. I have used Amazon for decades and can honestly say I've never had a problem with their customer service. That is no accident. Amazon's "Customer First" value quite literally drives everything they do.

One of Wal-Mart's core values is having the lowest prices anywhere. This is not a cute slogan or rallying cry. They are so adamant about expressing this value that they are willing to lose profits to match competitors' prices and make enemies of labor unions by cutting employee benefits and hours — all in the name of providing the lowest prices anywhere. Wal-Mart has gotten into a lot of trouble over the years for sticking to this core value, and whether you agree with them or not, one thing is incontrovertible: Wal-Mart remains of the most successful businesses in history. The lesson here is clear: Make sure everything you do is based on your values, and don't abandon them for anything.

Translating Lofty Values Into Concrete Goals

The process of translating those values into specific, measurable, coherent, and valuable goals is simple but vitally important. Without a set of crystal clear goals that you have developed based on your values, no amount of technology can help you grow your business at the speed of light. It goes without saying that there are infinite possibilities for goals that are based on your values. Narrowing down a universe of possible goals into a small number of achievable ones is a fun and rather quick process. Be prepared to arrive at some very exciting goals in a very short amount of time. After all, this is about growing your business at the speed of light, not at the speed of the Pony Express.

Just Because Technology Can Doesn't Mean It Should

One of the biggest mistakes businesses make is using technology to achieve their goals. Yes, you read that right. It is a mistake to use technology by default just because it's available and can help you achieve your goals. Many years ago while doing some technical work in a small office, I overheard an older man getting onto a younger man for using a flathead screwdriver to pry the lid off a metal can of paint because it damage the screwdriver or the lid. The older man had a point. The screwdriver would do the job, but it might damage the screwdriver or the lid, making it impossible to reseal the paint can and causing the paint to dry out. I wouldn't be surprised if the older man knew from past experience that it would be cheaper and quicker to just locate a pry bar than to replace the screwdriver or purchase a new can of paint. When you use technology — which is a tool — in ways it wasn't intended, you may be able to accomplish your goal, but there is often some costly fallout. Technology should be used only if it can help you achieve your goals and deliver a substantial return on time and money.

Will Technology Make Your Business Awesome or Apoplectic?

If you've been involved in or close to the IT world for some time, you know that even when technology is used successfully to achieve a business goal, it often costs a lot more money and takes a lot more time than anyone anticipated. The reason this happens is quite simple: nobody sat down and correctly calculated the return-on-time (ROT) or the return-on-investment (ROI). It's not enough for technology to just achieve your business goals. In order to grow your business at the speed of light, technology has to help you achieve your goals in a way that delivers a substantial return on both time and money.

ROI is a measure you're already familiar with. It's simply the difference between how much money you invest and how much value you get in return. But what you may be surprised to know is that the perceived ROI of technology is often completely wrong. This could be due to ROI being crudely estimated, guesstimated, or — in the best case — simply miscalculated. But it's still wrong. This is unfortunate because the budget of an IT organization is greatly influenced by the ROI it can show to the business. IT organizations that are given a perpetually low budget are either not achieving goals well, or they're grossly underestimating the ROI of what they bring to the table. IT organizations that have a substantial budget generally not only achieve business goals well using technology, but accurately calculate their contribution to achieving those goals. I should note here that ROI isn't just a financial measurement. There are intangibles that must be considered as well — things such as customer retention, employee satisfaction, reputation, and even relationships. These intangibles quite often carry more business value than financial measures. Furthermore, they can and should be be quantified.

Time: The Only Non-Renewable Resource

But ROI is only half the story. The other half is the one that is almost universally neglected by IT: return-on-time or ROT. If ROI is the difference between how much money you invest and how much value you get in return, ROT is the difference between how much time you invest and how much value you get in return. In business, speed is critical. Nothing illustrates this point better than the Android vs. iPhone battle for the smartphone market. Android phones actually pre-date Apple's iPhone, but Apple moved quickly and got the iPhone to market first. There were other factors in play, to be sure, but there's no doubt that Android would have taken a much larger share of the market had it released something rather than nothing. Even the first iPhone was far from perfect. It had no downloadable apps and was riddled with problems. But that didn't stop people from shelling out $600 for the phone by the thousands. Speed wins.

The Hidden Time-Costs of Technology

Most businesses and IT organizations don't measure how much time technology consumes versus how much value the business gets from it. Whenever a business uses technology in pursuit of a goal, there are five common time-costs that must be considered:

1. Limited Future Opportunities

Once technology is implemented in an organization, it becomes inflexible and can actually interfere with the business' ability to quickly achieve new goals in the future. In The Technology Paradox: How Technology Can Slow Business Down, I discuss exactly why this is so and, more importantly, how it can be avoided.

2. Learning Curve

It takes time for anyone using a new technology to get familiar with it and learn how to operate it. Think back to the first time you used a smartphone. Some of the tasks that now take you seconds probably took you a couple minutes or more to figure out. That initial learning curve is negligible when it affects one person, but when it affects an entire organization and its customers, the impact can be incredibly costly. And although the time to overcome a learning curve is temporary, it is real and needs to be taken into account.

3. Performance

Since technology operates at the speed of light, it's easy to assume that new technology is going to keep up with us and be as fast as we need it to be. The reality, however, is that there is an upper limit to how fast even the fastest technology can perform (I'm continually baffled at how long it takes a brand new $10,000.00 server to boot up.) How fast a system can perform and how much it can handle all need to be considered when calculating ROT.

4. Imposed Operational Changes

Adopting new technology sometimes requires changing the way the business operates. This is not always ideal, but it is reality. For example, switching from an old analog cell phone to a modern smartphone required you to change the way you dial telephone numbers. It was faster to dial a telephone number by hand on a 20-year old cell phone than it was on a brand new smartphone. That's changed since then with voice recognition making it possible to dial numbers just by speaking. But it took ten years for smartphones to get to that point. Never assume that newer means faster. Quite often, the opposite is true.

5. IT Resources

It is commonplace for IT organizations to spend countless hours tweaking, troubleshooting, and installing software and systems that contribute little if anything to sound business goals. Technology that requires a lot of "babysitting" by IT can potentially kill the ROT of a particular technology, even if that technology would otherwise help to achieve your business goals. IT's only job is to make a significant contribution to sound business goals. If implementing new technology will require IT to spend countless hours of fiddling and tinkering, that time-cost must be taken into account.

Assessment Quiz

Is your technology helping your business grow at the speed of light, or is it holding you back? Answer the questions below to find out. Next to each question is a numeric value, either +1 or -1. For each question that holds true for your business, add that number to the total to get your score.

1. Our business goals are clear and easy to communicate (+1)

2. They're consistent and not in conflict with one another (+1)

3. They're measurable such that everyone can tell whether progress is being made (+1)

4. We know exactly what each goals is worth in terms of tangible and intangible value (+1)

5. We sometimes use technology in a way that does not substantially contribute to our goals (-1)

6. Our technology is delivering a measurable return-on-investment (+1)

7. Our technology is delivering a measurable return-on-time (+1)

8. We utilize technology without first seeing whether no-tech or low-tech alternatives are more suitable (-1)

9. Our business decisions are influenced by what technology our competitors are using (-1)

10. We look at new technology and ask, "What can we do with this?" (-1)

11. We try to squeeze every drop of value from our existing technology investments (-1)

12. Our customers or employees are frustrated by some aspect of our technology (-1)

13. The business as a whole views technology as a "necessary evil" (-1)

14. When it comes to projects involving technology, things always take longer than expected (-1)

15. We adhere to "best practices" and non-mandatory industry standards, even if it costs more (-1)

16. We get rid of unneeded data and hardware that we are not legally required to retain (+1)

17. Our technology is extremely flexible and adaptable to changing needs (+1)

18. All of our business goals are based on our values and not on what others are doing (+1)

19. We value speed over perfection (+1)

20. We don't allow trends or personal agendas to dictate how we use technology (+1)

21. We believe using the latest technology is required to maintain a competitive edge (-1)


-10 to 0: Technology is holding you back. If your business is a ship, technology is the anchor that's keeping you from moving. When you let technology drive your business, you'll always be dependent on someone else's innovation and your growth will be stunted. Start by developing your own business goals based on your values (and "technology" is not a value), then get rid of any technology that doesn't help you achieve them.

0 to 6: Your business is highly dependent on technology in day-to-day operations, but it's not helping you achieve valuable business goals. Many businesses that fall into this range spend an inordinate amount of time and money on technology to make up for a lack of sound business goals. Technology does not easily adapt to rapidly changing business needs.

6 to 9: You put goals before technology, and you carefully determine whether technology will help you achieve them before making an investment. But you may still be overusing technology, using it for the wrong reasons, or using it without first considering the total return-on-investment and return-on-time. Businesses in this range typically have highly skilled IT organizations that expend resources on pet projects that don't meaningfully contribute to business goals.

9 to 11: Business at the speed of light! You have sound business goals and you carefully leverage technology to achieve them, but only after determining that technology will provide the best return on time and money. Your IT organization is singularly focused on achieving your objectives, and is careful to implement technology in a way that remains flexible and adaptable to rapidly changing needs.