The false promise of technology

Part 7 of a series on toxic technology.

For all the wide-eyed futurology surrounding the potential of digital technology, it commonly fails to meet expectations. Start-ups fail considerably more than they succeed. Digital ‘transformation’ initiatives commonly overrun and under deliver. Many products and features fail the ultimate test – users just don’t find them useful. This isn’t surprising – building with digital technology is experimentation, trying something new. 

In some respects, the optimism of digital is a virtue. It creates the conditions for the boldest reforms, and the biggest ideas. But where this optimism becomes a problem is when it comes with a disregard of pragmatic pessimism. Optimism is toxic when it leads to avoiding questions of feasibility, viability and the conditions for success.

Digital technology is a particularly dangerous place for this blinkered optimism. It’s an unpredictable medium, in an industry bursting with hype. If you’re willing to believe it, the worlds’ hardest problems can be solved with AI, or blockchains, or internets-of-things. If you do believe it, you’re almost certainly going to be disappointed.

In markets

Companies can tap into broader market optimism for the potential of hyped technologies. This is typically by expressing an intent to use it, rather than showing proven success. In November 2019 there were a flurry of articles reporting that HSBC would use blockchain for a ‘custody platform’ by March 2020. 

“HSBC aims to shift $20 billion worth of assets to a new blockchain-based custody platform by March”

November 2019 Reuters news article

There is no corresponding press coverage in March 2020 to indicate this really happened. But the announcement had already served its purpose to generate positive market sentiment for HSBC. It’s unlikely blockchain was a necessary technology to solve the problem, but its use turns a bland corporate IT initiative into a story about supposed innovation.

In governments

Governments frequently make assertions of future delivery. This helps cement strategy across huge bureaucracies, and encourages public engagement. It is also low risk to reputation because governments are pretty effective at managing the message around its technology delivery failure.

A current example of a government promise on technology comes from the UK government’s National Data Strategy:

“We will drive data discoverability across government through developing an Integrated Data Platform for government, which will be a safe, secure and trusted infrastructure for government’s own data.”

UK government National Data Strategy, September 2020

This announcement sets false expectations:

  • That much of the UK governments’ data can be put onto a singular ‘platform’.
  • That a named thing needs to exist called the “Integrated Data Platform”.
  • That such a thing will come into existence reasonably soon (perhaps within the next spending cycle in the UK government).
  • And, at some point, funding will be allocated to make this all happen.

The language may appear subtle, but published strategies start to shape the funding pots, and the £multi-million programmes that emerge. The complexity needed to solve data in government is immense, but a ‘single platform’ is appealingly simple to fund and easy to announce. The wider strategy does explore the complexity of data in government, but these more concrete, announce-able things will have a more enduring impact.

In politics

As technology plays a greater role in society, we’re likely to see ever more technology-based promises from parties seeking votes. This from the 2019 UK Conservative Manifesto is an example:

“We will use new air traffic control technology to cut the time aircraft spend waiting to land”

2019 Conservative Manifesto

This promise of a real-world outcome, achieved by introducing new technology, is hugely appealing to many voters. But how this will be done, and the uncertainty involved, is not forthcoming. Which technology would be used, and why? When would aircraft waiting times reduce? And to what cost to taxpayers? Instead of a strategy, we’re asked to vote for a promise that cannot be made, and the belief that a government will be competent enough to deliver on it. Whilst this pattern of trust in political promises isn’t new, the unpredictability of digital technology will increasingly expose the gap between intent and delivery.

Expectation vs reality

It’s hard to trust assertions about when and how digital technology can deliver outcomes. The internal complexity and interdependencies of digital technology mean even the most experienced professionals rarely get their estimates right. Most software developers can tell you the time they spent days solving a problem they thought would take a few minutes.

Technology initiatives don’t overrun or under-deliver – instead, people have irrational expectations of certainty. CEOs, Ministers and managers crave this certainty to build a reputation as a person-of-their-word. Customers, workforces and electorates crave this certainty because it reduces anxiety around something they need, or want.

This mismatch of expectation and reality isn’t just a disappointment or a financial write-off. Tactics and fire-fighting must make up for failed plans – reducing the quality of digital technology. These are the ideal conditions for toxic technology to emerge – poorly designed, insecure and unstable technology which is harmful to the organisation and its users. Sometimes organisations work this way for years, reinforcing the culture of false promises. Inevitably it’ll backfire spectacularly such as the glitchy dystopia of Cyberpunk 2077 or the IT meltdown at TSB. If organisations don’t learn from consistent failure to meet expectations, then they normalise the accumulation of toxic technology. 

The accumulation of broken promises

The tech industry narrative of success is dominated by survivor bias of the few commercial giants – each an example of when bold predictions came to pass (at least in their origin stories). Yet the majority of organisations are filled with toxic legacy and broken promises. The historic strategies of these organisations did not anticipate today’s glacial pace of change, system workarounds and disruptive incidents.

Inside established sectors, like government and traditional banking, these false promises repeat cycle after cycle. Somehow, the next Big Technology Transformation will solve all the problems, despite being funded, governed and promised in the same way as previous attempts.

The powerful – CEOs, government ministers, or those with the ability to gain media or community attention – have a unique role in how promises are made. There is pressure on them to make promises – relieving anxiety that something needed will be delivered, or creating a buzz around a future product. At worst, this is a tool of command and control management – creating unrealistic expectations in public to motivate teams in private. But even the most throw-away announcements can be exploited by command and control cultures. Leaders must take care with announcing new investments, plans or strategies – they communicate intent, but they also set expectations far beyond the leader’s control – and these expectations are not always reasonable. 

Making better promises

We still need to make promises, and to do so with optimism. It’s essential to positive, forward-looking organisational cultures. Optimism is what encourages teams to take risks and try something new. Promises are how trust is built. 

But we all need to make better promises when it comes to digital technology.

Leaders should balance their optimism with pragmatic pessimism. They should ensure this is woven into the culture, practice and process they encourage. They must make sure they don’t consistently over-promise and under deliver, even when the culture might reward it. They must wary of where the burden of expectation will fall, as often it will be with others.

Funders and those that govern should recognise that upfront large-scale approval for funding and headcount encourages false promises. They should work to reform accounting and governance based on greater trust within organisations, making it more incremental and iterative. They should listen to digital leaders and delivery teams as peers, putting aside their role in ‘holding to account’ to collaborate on strategy and reform.

Technologists should use their experience to counter naive optimism. They must remember what caught them by surprise – when the simple became complicated, and the complicated became simple. They must be aware of their own bias in setting expectations of delivery, particularly. when estimates depend upon their expertise. Technologists must be skeptical of hype, even when technology is exciting and new.

Designers should value and understand their medium of delivery as this is where viability and feasibility becomes clearer. Like an architect appreciates wood, steel and construction techniques, a designer of digital technology must appreciate software, data and the craft of technologists. This can be done best in a multidisciplinary team – finding the right experts for the right design challenges.

Product managers should embrace risk as a peer to value as a core part of their discipline. This helps ground bold ideas in achievable reality – it ensures product managers have a more complete set of information with which to make decisions, and make promises.

Delivery professionals should embrace uncertainty. They shouldn’t accept the false certainty of specific and singular estimates (e.g. “complete by July next year”) – ensuring they consider a range of potential outcomes from the best to the worst cases. They should be skeptical of estimates and conscious of bias. Delivery professionals should take a lead in exposing and challenging unreasonable expectations from leaders. Delivery professionals should hold to account those who consistently set poor expectations or provide inaccurate estimates.

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