THE BLOG

Hope or Fear? What Guides Your Company's Tech Future?

05/22/2015 03:02 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

Last year at the MIT CIO Symposium, I had the opportunity to participate on a panel regarding the Board / CEO relationship with the CIO. The panel was moderated by the Wall Street Journal's Michael Hickins. Earlier in the year, Michael and I spoke about the challenges of security and innovation in a post-Snowden / Target era. In the panel I recast this as part of a larger existential question of hope vs. fear. This became a micro theme of the event. This year as I return to the event I wanted to reflect on how preserving security has influenced enterprise innovation this past year and enterprises should move forward.

After the removal of Target's CEO, it became a natural reaction for any CEO and Board to slow down new innovations in favor of making sure things are "secure." However, it's more than likely this led to an overcorrection - one that puts companies at a comparative disadvantage in addressing the seismic technological disruptions that are sure to come. So how should technology leaders drive innovation for companies in a world that could be dictated by the fear of security issues?

Fight Fear with Fear
It is certainly more difficult for a CIO or technology leader to talk to his or her CEO about a new technology initiative while one mistake can cost that chief executive his or her career. It is this kind of scenario that can lead to a myopic focus, one that ignores long-term trends. In today's world, that 'other' fear--disruptions coming from those outside your industry--is likely an even greater threat. After all, it's seldom 800lb gorillas knock out other 800lb gorillas; more often the knockout blow is delivered by the yet unknown disruptor.

Self driving cars, 3D printing, robotics, wearables, biotech -- these innovations are compounding the already torrid pace of advancement of cloud, social and mobile technologies. We know software is eating the world, but now even the physical world is programmable by software. Disruptors in your space are pushing all their chips to the center of the table to attack your industry and each is doing it from a unique angle. Even with a proactive and well considered approach, you're facing a market that is investing more in disruption than you are. Retreating from this inevitable battle means handing your destiny over to competitors of whom you have little awareness.

Always Return to Hope
While fear can inspire action, it can never inspire. As leaders of organizations, you must show a path forward that excites and invigorates even when navigating through fear. Technology has the ability to raise IT from a business support service to a core part of realizing the vision of the company. With what hope inspires you can better serve your customers, create better experiences for your employees, be a better partner to the communities you operate in, and make your business more secure. In fact, innovation in security can enable the entire business to move faster -- like guide rails for a high speed train.

For a leadership team, fear may motivate you to move beyond the status quo, but to create lasting change you must show the organization a path to a better future.

Understand "Risk-Adjusted" Actions
Every financial analyst understands the notion of a risk-adjusted rate of return. For example making ten percent on your public stock portfolio would be considered great in most years, but making the same ten percent on a series of early stage investments in startups would be seen as too low for the level of risk associated with that type of investment. Yet clearly there is a level of return that more than justifies taking the risk to invest in an early stage startup. In IT we too often draw lines in the sand over what we can and cannot do rather than simply applying additional cost or value to action itself.

Inattentional Blindness is a well-studied phenomenon that shows that people are poor at reacting to unexpected changes if their attention if focused disproportionately on another stimuli. For Target or other retailers, the implication is that innovation is slowed because a disproportionate level of attention is paid to security-related matters. An often stated IT perspective is, "Well, you can't put a price on what it costs you to compromise customer data." The financial analyst would say "Oh, but you can." If Target were told that for $100B, they could be 100% secure, they would still want to understand the risk associated with a $1B or $10M spend-- only then can the company make the right decision on security investments.

In sports, especially in those with playoff series, we often see this overreaction pendulum in effect -- you're as terrible or fantastic as your last game. It is the job of the leader to bring sanity to the fray. He or she must create a rational awareness of risk and an appropriate set of responsive actions -- not an unsupported panic. With that measured approach, you may find yourself zigging (continuing to invest in innovation) while others zag (panic and drop innovation for security)...and come out the other side with a structural advantage over your competitors.

Summary

Hope and fear are close cousins. Great leaders balance the two and approach them in a measured way with resolve. Great technology leaders show how innovation can feed into--and balance--the two. The focus on fear in IT must give way to a lens of hope and possibility. John Lennon once said, "When we are afraid, we pull back from life." We live in an age of endless opportunity; for technology to be transformative, leaders must guide their organizations to think broadly and act bravely in pursuing the future. After all, if you don't, someone else will.