The Antidote to Value-Destroying Vanity Projects

Choosing the solution that is 100 times more expensive sounds absurd. Nevertheless, that is what the U.S. Congress has decided, which is why NASA is struggling to get its SLS rocket off the ground. It has nothing to do with putting a man on the moon and everything to do with keeping the big NASA factory in Alabama running. They don’t have the technology to compete with newer space companies like SpaceX but are cobbling together old Space Shuttle parts. They’ve actually been going around to museums in the U.S., taking out old space shuttle engines for the quixotic project foisted upon them by Alabama Senator Richard Shelby.

Some organizations face a similar challenge: The CEO or someone else in senior leadership has an idea for some technology, and IT is ordered to deliver it. It doesn’t matter if such a vanity project is practical, feasible, or cost-efficient. You cannot fight this kind of project individually because they are highly connected with the ego of one individual.

The solution is to establish a standard evaluation process for technology projects. Every project needs a business owner responsible for calculating the business benefit. Every project also has a technical owner responsible for calculating the cost, including the ongoing running costs after completion. If the benefit comfortably exceeds the cost, the project is qualified to enter the competition with other claims on company investment.

You might not have such a process because a rational decision might also kill some of the IT department’s most beloved resumé-enhancing projects…

Unnecessary Complexity

Why use a proper screwdriver when you have a multi-tool? It is true that it is a lousy screwdriver, but it can do a dozen other things. That’s the thinking behind using Microsoft Windows for Point-of-Sale terminals. It turns out to be a bad idea. It can take up to 40 minutes for a Windows 11 machine to install the latest update, and in the meantime you are unable to do business.

The problem is not throwing an overpowered machine at the task. A Raspberry Pi works fine for a home weather station even though it is only using 0.01% of its capacity. The problem is adding unnecessary complexity. A Windows 11 workstation is running literally hundreds of services, 98% of which are not necessary for Point-of-Sales functionality. The more components you have, the more potential problems you will have, and the harder it will be to find them when they occur.

You would never allow your IT architects to use over-complicated components with dozens of unnecessary interactions, would you?

What Happens Then?

There is an easy way to avoid making stupid decisions: Asking “what happens then?” A decision is exposed as stupid when it turns out that the decision-maker did not carefully think through the consequences. Bad decisions occur when someone only looks at the immediate result.

New York City dodged a bullet when they started implementing bike lanes in the narrow streets of Manhattan. They could easily have made the stupid decision of simply marking a part of the street as a bike lane. Fortunately, someone clever at City Hall asked herself: What happens then? If you had simply painted bike lanes on streets, thoughtless New Yorkers would have wiped out bicyclists by the thousands with their car doors. So New York decided to paint a separation area between the car parking area and the bike lane. Clever.

Next time you are faced with a decision, try asking “what happens then?” several times. You might find this saves you from doing something stupid.

Don’t Ask Half Questions

Asking half questions leads to dangerous outcomes. We just saw an example when irresponsible Reuters pollsters looking for a scoop simply asked Americans “should NATO establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine.” They got a resounding 74% approval.

Another pollster asked the question with the qualifier “knowing that this will lead to direct war with Russia” and support dropped to 34%.

A complete question asks “are you willing to accept this downside to gain this upside?” Organizations get an idea, focus on the upside, take a cursory glance at the downside, and then take erroneous or even disastrous decisions. Who has the job of ensuring the downside is examined as well as the upside? You might need someone external to provide this.

There is Always an Alternative

There is always an alternative. Not looking for it is either intellectual laziness or willful manipulation. Margeret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK for a decade, was known among friends and enemies alike as “TINA” due to her usual insistence that “There Is No Alternative.”

As an IT leader, you are bombarded with requests to make specific technical decisions. Many of these are attempts to railroad you into choosing a technology that the team would like to play with and put on their CVs. When presented with a single option, ask for more. When one of the options is the obvious slam dunk, examine what has been left out of the presentation of the others. Binary selections are common in computer programming. In the real world, there are always many choices.

Pay attention to the rules

It’s probably time to start paying attention to the rules. Inspired by the Silicon Valley ethos of moving fast and breaking things, many organizations have been rolling out technology without much concern for existing rules and regulations.

Uber, Airbnb, and the myriad e-scooter startups are on the back foot all over Europe as the state reasserts its authority. Even in the U.S., regulators have started to put their foot down. Tesla is having to reprogram 50,000 vehicles that were intentionally programmed to disrespect stop signs. If the car was driving slowly and couldn’t see anybody else around an intersection, it would ignore the stop sign and continue into the intersection. That’s illegal, but humans do it all the time. It turns out authorities were less than thrilled to see bad human behavior programmed into Tesla’s cars.

We have rules for a reason. Some of them are ridiculous (like the ubiquitous cooking consent), but good citizenship includes adhering to the rules until you can persuade the rule-maker to change them. Don’t be like Tesla.

Evaluate the Options

Just like the rest of us, you’ve got too much stuff. We’ve got too many gadgets, and we are increasingly aware of the fact that we are consuming more than the planet can provide.

Next time you feel you need something, spend a little time evaluating the alternatives before your rush online to buy it. You might be able to repair something instead of buying something new. Or you might not really need the latest version. If you do need it, you might be able to get a used item instead of a brand-new one. If you need to buy something, you can buy it from a vendor who uses fewer resources, green energy or builds things made to be repairable.

Every decision has many possible options. It’s a good idea to get your thinking brain involved in the decision-making instead of just going with your first impulse. Sitting quietly for a few minutes every day gives your conscious mind the chance to help you improve your decisions.