October 24, 2009

A Healthy Dose of Skepticism

To believe or not to believe that is the question.

Very frequently in life, we are confronted with incomplete information, yet by necessity, we must make a decision and act—one way of the other.

Sure, we can opt to wait for more information to trickle in, but delay in action can mean lost opportunity or more painful consequences.

The turmoil over the last couple of years in the financial markets is one example. Many people I talk with tell me they felt something was going to happen – that the stock market was heading off a cliff. Those who acted on what they perceived, and moved their financial assets to safety (out of the stock market), are certainly glad they did. Those who hesitated and waited for the painstaking days of 500 point drops wish they had acted sooner.

In relationships, sometimes those who fear commitment and don’t make a move to “tie the knot” may end up losing the ones they love to the arms of another. On the other hand, making serious commitments before really knowing another person can end up in painful heartache and divorce.

Similarly, with technology, we often hear about the “first-mover advantage.” Those who recognize the potential of new technology early and learn how to capitalize on it, can gain market share and profitability. Those who jump aboard only once the train in moving may end up just trying to keep up with the Joneses.

These days, not only must we make decisions based on incomplete information, but sometimes we don’t even know if the situations we face are actually real!

Daniel Henninger, writing in last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal (22 October 2009) wrote: “The ‘balloon boy’ floating over Colorado last week got me thinking of…[Air Force One] photo-op airliner flying around lower Manhattan last April at 9/11 altitude…it’s getting harder to know what’s real and unreal in a world that always seems to be slipping slightly out of focus.”

He reminds us of the “sensation” that Orson Welles caused in 1938 when he announced, on a “‘reality’ radio broadcast,” a Martian invasion. The response was widespread panic.

With all the chicanery and half-baked ideas and products and services being marketed and sold—whether to get on reality shows or for salespeople to “hit their numbers”—people have become cynical about everything and everybody. Mistrust is not longer for New Yorkers anymore.

The realization has hit us that most things we confront are not simple fact or fiction, but rather shades of gray, and so we shy away from taking a definitive stand, preferring instead perpetual limbo or “analysis paralysis.”

This cynicism is embodied in a CFO that I used to work for that was mistrustful of everyone—almost habitually, he called people inside and outside the organization, “snake oil salesman.”

In corporate America, we often call the art of shaping people’s perceptions “marketing” or “branding”. In politics, we typically call it “spin”. And a good marketer, or “spinmaster,” can overcome people’s skepticism and actually influence their perception of the truth.

As an IT leader, though, we can deal with incomplete information as well as “spinmasters” effectively. And that is by treading carefully, gathering the facts and testing reality. This is what market and competitive analysis, pilots, and prototypes are all about. Test the waters, before making a full forward commitment.

We can’t be swayed by emotion, but rather must vet and validate—do due diligence, before we either duck out of the fray or leap into action.

Leadership lesson: Act too harried, and you risk making serious mistakes. React too slowly or with too much skepticism, and you will not be leading but following, and your legacy will be truly unimpressive. Listen to what others have to say, but make your own call. That is what true leadership, in an IT context or anywhere, is all about.


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