In the highly respected book, “A Brief History of Time,” Stephen Hawking states, “A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements. It must accurately describe a large class of observations based on a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.” Throughout my entire career, I have been struggling to put some kind of logic into the world of business. I have read and studied as much business material as I could absorb and quite frankly found most business theory to be extremely subjective and difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. Still craving some kind of scientific rationale, I set about identifying the key elements that would predict the likelihood of the success or failure of any tech implementation or strategic IT project. It seemed the logical place to look would be in the world of science. After all, is technology not a science?
Tech projects and leadership: Is there a connection?
This research path led me to the study of leadership. It is our tech leaders who build the strategic plan and provide our technology direction for all projects. But still, there was no compelling evidence to suggest that the success or failure of a business was contingent upon a certain leadership style. Moving from project to project allows one the luxury of working with various leaders whom we may grow to respect or not. Mostly, respect for leadership resides someplace in the middle of that continuum. As my career traveled this path, I realized that my opinion of various leaders did not correlate to the success of their strategic plan, the longevity of the organization, or even the balance sheet of the organization which they helped to lead. This greatly disappointed me as I truly wanted to believe that my experiences and opinions mattered.
And so, I started to gather my own observations and to record and compare them. Over time I realized that the differences between each business I was associated with were so extreme it was difficult, if not impossible, to compare the inputs and the results. About the Stephen Hawking quote above, not to mention my obsession with the intellectual ability of scientists, I started to wonder if the reason I could not find a quantifiable correlation between successful technology projects and implementations was perhaps because there are too many arbitrary elements, or variables, within the business processes. In some cases, the business processes between departments appeared to be so diverse that they would clash in their attempts to reach a common goal.
So many variables!
And then, I started to question whether it is even possible to predict success or failure based upon current business theory. In technology implementations and even the overall strategic IT plan, there are multiple variables. The reason there are multiple variables is that we cannot hold human behavior constant. If we apply scientific theory, it turns out that there are too many variables to provide definite predictions. In scientific experimentation, we have the ability to hold all values constant except for one variable, and we can test our predictions by testing the impact of each variable in this way.
As I worked with multiple businesses, I would watch, sometimes participate in, and sometimes facilitate their strategic planning sessions. The qualitative methods that were utilized left many variables, some of which were not even identified or monitored. Nonetheless, the business would base its financial targets on the estimated results of the intermixing of these multiple and often random variables. And sometimes, for limited periods, they would succeed. But then, eventually, targets would be missed.
Strangely enough, when the strategic and financial goals are being set, they are based upon the perceived knowledge of the current leadership and the market dominance of the organization in question. However, interestingly enough, when the targets are missed, the reasons stated are oriented around the current economic situation. Do businesses truly believe that success is based upon the organization’s ability while failure is the fault of the current economic cycle? Could it be true?
Can results be predicted?
The bigger question is, is it possible to apply scientific principles to the world of business theory to return predictable results? Or are there too many arbitrary elements in business to make this a reality? I believe there is the possibility of limiting the arbitrary elements in business and therefore increasing our probability of success. However, when businesses diversify, rather than controlling the arbitrary elements they increase the number, thereby increasing the probability of failure. And since we live in a profit-maximizing world, diversifying our business offerings is a key element of growth. This in itself would contest the viability of any bureaucratic organization and would definitely question any logic behind government-run businesses. And yet, in some cases, these organizations survive and even thrive. Let’s remove government-run businesses for now. Since they are assured of a steady influx of capital for which they are not accountable, they fall outside of the realm of rational business. Let’s try not to think about that right now.
A further challenge we are faced with in business is that when we document a current state, we are usually only documenting the opinion of specific business users based upon their observations. Once again, we cannot apply scientific principles since the observations of the different business users would vary. It would seem that while technology is indeed a science, we cannot apply the rules of scientific experimentation or discovery. One of the reasons being that in business, we incorporate emotion into any business decision. This is a good thing. Without any emotion attached to our business decisions, we would lack engagement. Argue all that you want, but human beings are emotional creatures, and that can work in our favor. Successful technology is contingent upon engaged users. Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok know this.
The bottom line on successful tech projects
My years of gathering data in the hopes of proving that the application of scientific principles can help us to predict the success or failure of our tech projects, therefore, proved fruitless. Except for one thing. It confirmed the importance of the leadership we engage. Since technology as a science behaves somewhat differently from other sciences, we need the engagement of leadership that has the vision to take us to the next level. They say that the best leaders are born, not made. It’s that combination of vision, laser focus, and the ability to earn the engagement and trust of the right people who can make the vision come to life. Without this kind of leadership, we may survive if the economic cycle is in our favor. But that is not a recipe for longevity.
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