I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

You say you want a devolution...

"This isn't to say that alternative approaches to management are dead, or that they have no future. It is to say that in the absence of serious upheaval - the destabilization / disruption of established organizations, or the formation of countervailing power to the trends above - the alternatives to the Freds will thrive only on the margins (in pockets within organizations) and in the emerging (e.g., equity-funded tech start-up firms)."

-- Me, September 2013

I wrote that nearly 5 years ago. That previous summer I cracked the spine on some management books I had last read a quarter of a century earlier. When I first read those books in the 1980s, there certainly did seem to be a management revolution afoot. In the late 1970s, large industrial firms in the US were plagued with quality and performance problems, a rank-and-file that was fully aware of but apathetic to them, and management that was clueless about what to do. The epitome of the industrialized era in western nations turned out to be a company that would systemically disappoint both customer and investor alike. The long dominant organization-as-machine model was commonly perceived to have matriculated to a state of intellectual bankruptcy. Out went command-and-control, in came employee empowerment and team autonomy. Meet the new boss!

Yet when I read these management books anew in the early 2010s, it was clear that the revolution had been stopped dead in its tracks somewhere along the way. Same as the old boss!

I have had reason to re-visit this recently, this time in the context of enterprise technology platforms. A company that develops recomposable, atomic components that can be consumed in a self-service manner by other developers can help to yield more coarsely-grained solutions more quickly. Making those coarsely grained solutions recomposable components as well should enable an organization to create with both greater ambition and speed.

The objective of a platform is not to build both big and small things more quickly or to build more efficiently, but to create more effectively. A platform should allow for a greater number of experiments and more comprehensive feedback. Employees closest to an opportunity - current and potential consumers, technology, competitors, people and capital - are the ones best positioned to pursue that opportunity through exploring, learning, and adjusting. In an emerging area of business or tech, a local team muddling through stands a better chance of success than a distant management imposing its will over a market. In practice, muddling through experiments and feedback requires some degree of authority devolved to the team level, so that a team can decide and act for themselves.

The notion of authority devolved to the team level brings up the question of the autonomous organization yet again. Plus ça change...

The same old idea comes with the same old questions. What does an organization of autonomous teams look like? Can it work? How does it scale?

Before we ask, "can an organization of autonomous teams work?", we have to ask, "what does autonomy at team level mean?" Does it mean the authority and responsibility for what they do and when they get it done? Does it include design and architecture? Can they act on things that are nominally the responsibility of other teams? Do they get to pick and choose the people on their team and the providers they source people from? Do they have to secure their own funding? Who do they answer to? How are they measured?

It may mean all of these things, or it may mean just a few. Autonomy is in the eye of the beholder. To some, just having operational autonomy - authority over what, when and how a team fulfills delivery goals - is sufficient. To others, operational autonomy without owning the P&L and balance sheet - everything from capital to compensation levels - is merely responsibility without authority under the guise of self-direction.

Every firm that has gone down this path has come face to face with the same questions and challenges. Every firm of any scale that has achieved any degree of success has ended up with some hybrid implementation: some things are decentralized, some things centralized; some for a short period of time, others for a longer period of time, and some permanently. For example, we want teams to be responsible for the production operations of their creations, but we must first incubate an ops capability; once we are comfortable that ops has completed its gestation period it will be broken up and absorbed into the line teams. However, to alleviate administrative burden and to avoid violating labor laws we will have a centralized HR function, but we do want ideas to compete for funding, so we will have utility and risk capital allocation processes.

One question, many different answers, and answers that change at different points in time as circumstances require or allow.

When there are many different answers to a single question, it is the wrong question to ask. Looking for specificity where there is none will only sow seeds of confusion and ultimately doubt. And, while there is plenty to be learned from the experiences of others, self-reported testimony must be taken with a grain of salt, and the success of others comes with no guarantee of portability.

A better question to ask is, how convinced are you that team autonomy is a solution to whatever challenges you face? You need to be overwhelmingly convinced that it is, because you need a high tolerance for the ambiguity, uncertainty, and constant adjustments and experiments you will have to run to find and maintain the right balance - that is, construct the right hybrid - for your set of circumstances. You also have to be comfortable without a lot of hard evidence that it solves whatever you had hoped that it would. Even had you not devolved a greater degree of decision-making to the team level, that product might have been a success, that innovation might have emerged, those employees might still have joined your firm. Can't prove the counterfactual.

If you are convinced, and decide to add your name to the list of those that have elected to crack this nut, the operationalizing questions are much different. The one that you will ask again and again and again is the obvious: how do we strike the balance: what do we think that hybrid should be today? what do we think it could possibly be? how do we go about figuring that out?

In addition, given the cyclical love-hate relationship with devolved authority, you must also ask: what makes it more likely, and what makes it less likely, that it will have staying power in your organization?

Sunday, December 31, 2017

And you may ask yourself, how did I get here?

It quickly became clear that the problem was not to explain why the market was in decline. it was to explain why the market had ever been so large in the first place.

— John Kay, Merry Christmas, whether or not you celebrate it with a sherry

Managers become interested in innovation when their company’s fortunes start to wane. Innovation is a hoped-for remedy to arrest the decline, spark new growth, and convince nervous investors that management is up to the task.

I have written previously that executives looking for business innovation should not start by looking at technology, but at socio-economic changes that can be exploited or responded to in part or in whole by a technological solution. For example, what makes the sharing economy possible is a willingness for people to monetize their vehicles, home, and spare time because real wages have been stagnant for over a decade and homeowners are underwater on their property mortgages. Similarly, what makes robo-investing viable is a change in investor attitude which once eschewed “average” returns but not embraces them in favor of trying to beat the market. In each case, the stage is set for change by socio-economic factors, not apps and algorithms.

But before figuring out what to try and do next, John Kay makes the point that executives should look at the historical context of their own businesses to understand how it got to where it is - or once was, if past its peak of glory - in the first place. A product or market that was simply “of its time” - and regardless how long, whose time has come and gone - will not benefit from incremental innovation and promises only to consume a lot of investor capital in pursuit of "radical reinvention."

Management that understands the socio-economic factors that gave rise to the opportunity for the business in the first place will recognize the change in conditions, monetize the decline if the change is permanent, and respect investor capital by trafficking in facts. As unflashy as it may be, sometimes the best strategy is not a capital intensive boondoggle in pursuit of a product revival, but periodic marketing campaigns that appeal to consumer nostalgia.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Looking for disruption? Don't look to technology

The chattering classes would have us believe that technology disrupts. It does not. Socio-economic conditions change to create an incongruity that is ripe for exploitation. By way of example, the technology to enable the sharing economy existed for years, but monetizing everything from spare time to the spare bedroom only became appealing when mortgages went underwater, wages stagnated, and the labor participation rate dropped. That computer technology was at the center of this disruption should be no surprise given the rise of the Information Age several decades ago. It certainly wasn't going to be steam engines.

Rather than understanding the disruption phenomenon through the lens of change that has already happened, it is worth looking at the change that has not happened but should have given the availability of technology to bring it about.

For at least 40 years now, we‘ve been told that technology will revolutionize education. Kids can learn from home in immersive media-rich environments, receive continuous feedback on their work intertwined with their lessons, learn at their own pace with tutors and resources delivered to reinforce or accelerate their learning, and so forth. And it could: plenty of technologies exist that make it practical for students to learn advanced subjects in virtual environments, tapping into tutors for private study and multi-media libraries on-demand to experience subjects as never before.

But the revolution hasn’t happened. Kids today are still transported en masse to large brick buildings to get talked at for hours on end, just as they have for decades. If better ways of educating the masses are in their second, third, even fourth generation, why are we still closer to the one room schoolhouse than "I know kung-fu"?

We are because entrenched interests create stationary socio-economic inertia that is difficult to overcome. Consider:

  1. K-12 education is free daycare: with real wages stagnant, high levels of single-parent households, and record levels of household debt-to-income, most families do not have the luxury of having a stay-at-home parent.
  2. Education is publicly regulated, publicly provided, and publicly financed: power dynamics of education are political, not commercial, because politicians define education standards, schools are funded by tax revenues, union dues finance political action committees, and teachers (and bus drivers, and school administrators) vote.
  3. Education is big business. Tax reform that targets university endowments has elicited quite a cry from what are arguably hedge funds that happen to be associated with universities (the top 4 US universities have combined endowments over $103,000,000,000). There is also $1,200,000,000,000 in student loans, a debt market that, like all fixed income markets, has an insatiable appetite for growth.
  4. School sports is big business at the high school and collegiate levels. To wit: it is a little bit shocking that the highest paid public employee is a professional entertainer, rather than a professional administrator or legislator. Of course, sports is big money to the institutions with limited compensation - scholarships pale in comparison to the television revenues - to the athletes.

The status quo is not without its defenses. This is important to understand because these defenses are a bulwark against disruption. One defense is that community schooling develops social interaction skills. Another is that team activities like sports and music extend the educational experience beyond fact mastery. These justifications are increasingly without merit. There are no social benefits to bullying, peer pressure, and substance abuse among teenagers; clearly, we can create healthier environments for children to come to terms with diversity, open dialogue and complex social interactions than the toxic environment that is the modern education system. And with so many schools cutting back on arts programs and non-revenue sports (every sport but football and basketball), families increasingly have to go private (meaning, pay out of pocket) for their children to be able to participate in them.

The way the status quo in education has been defended is akin to how the status quo has been defended in wealth management. As passive investing emerged as a threat to active management, defenders of active management argued that passive investment can at best yield "average" returns (that is, returns that match the market) - and who wants to be "average?" That sentiment, twined with selective data flattering to returns on active investing (such as Peter Lynch's aggregate performance and selective years from selected funds), kept money in active for decades despite a preponderance of evidence showing superior performance of passive over time. Stationary inertia is not only quite powerful, it is vigorously defended.

It isn't difficult to imagine just about all primary, secondary, and 100 and 200 level university courses delivered digitally: there just isn't a lot of room for variation in teaching Principals of Financial Accounting I, and how many ways can we dissect James Joyce that machine learning can’t match? And, although there would still be a need need for physics, chemistry and medical labs, it would not be necessary at the basic levels: while there is quite nothing like playing with chemicals, a lot of STEM experiments can be modeled in virtual reality, allowing a student to live like Wile E. Coyote without having to depend on cartoon physics to survive the experience.

Technology may have influenced education, but it hasn’t transformed it. At best, technology has been co-opted to reinforce the classroom model. The technology exists today to make primary through associate degree education a utility. If unleashed, technology would allow for much more advanced and exploratory work at the boundaries of research. But something has to threaten the easy money in education before that happens. Technology cannot do that by itself.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Would-Be Innovator's Dilemma

It is appealing to think of your trading partners and competitors seeing your company as an industry leading innovator. More soberly, you know it's only a matter of time before the fundamental economics of your business shift not only out of your favor, but out of what you've always known them to be.

Unfortunately, as we saw last month, innovation is an increasingly expensive game. You aren't the pied piper who will lead industry change, nor can you afford an escalating arms race developing weaponized technology. How do you play the innovation game to win if you don't have infinitely deep pockets to finance voyages of discovery and if you don't have the clout or the charm to convince others to finance your vision?

Do You have the Financial Profile of an Innovator?

It is unrealistic to ask a debt-laden utility to suddenly find its creative mojo. Because it must extract maximum cash flows to service its capital structure, it is organized for maximum operating efficiency. Given that efficient utilities are intolerant to irregular operations, it goes without saying that they are similarly allergic to excessive bouts of creative thinking.

Companies that loaded up on debt in recent years have taken themselves out of the innovation game. Innovation is risk, and equity - not debt - is risk capital. A company that is serious about innovating cannot be beholden to investors demanding predictability. It must have sufficient high-risk capital to engage in high-risk investing.

Changing capital structure doesn't imply foregoing operational discipline. Ambitious innovation - that is, not the incremental kind - is expensive. The bigger your war chest, the longer you can stay in the game. Not to mention that having positive cash flows from operations means not having to beg investors for cash infusions just to keep the dream alive. Retained earnings are investment capital with the lowest cost of capital a firm can get. The operative word is "retained": operational efficiency doesn't fuel innovation if cash is pledged to investors. In exchange for foregoing distributions, you have to convince investors that they are wagering on value through innovation.

Before you go hunting for innovation, you must first thoroughly understand the financial incongruities in your business model that benefit you so that you can be prepared for them to disappear and, more importantly, set the terms for you and your industry peers for sacrificing them. Technology drives out inefficiency. For example, software firms have had to move away from a lucrative license revenue model (pay up front) to a metered cloud-based subscription service (pay as you go). When you go looking for innovation, expect that you will open Pandora’s box and unleash the commercial forces that conspire to contract those incongruities. More importantly, prepare your own company for the evaporation of easy money and prepare it to compete on different commercial terms - before someone else forces them on you.

Know Your Business, Know Your Commercial Ecosystems

It is alarming how much business knowledge erosion has already occurred. Some because of attrition, some because of acquisition, and some because expensive knowledge workers were swapped out for cheaper labor paid to simply turn the crank. Whatever the reason, you can't have much hope of ambitiously innovating if you don’t have people who know why your customers derive value from you for the things that you do.

That knowledge only covers the current lay of the landscape. You have to have people who understand customer and supplier needs as well as the needs of those who could be but are not doing business with you. You may have deep insights and lots of data about a universe of companies you work with today, but that does you no good if you’re not winning the business of people who will do business with you tomorrow. You can find that out through experimentation, but experimentation without context is just guessing. Context is tribal knowledge. It's hard to win the business of a new generation of buyer if none are members of your tribe (i.e., you don't employ anyone of that generation).

If the definition of value and the foundational economics are are being blurred in your industry, you probably can’t project your idea of the future all alone. That means selling your ideas on partners and convincing them to move in concert. That requires a thorough understanding of your trading partner’s businesses so you can explain why the innovation that is good for your business is also good for theirs.

Build Versus Buy Versus Co-Opt

We tend to think about innovation as something we have to go out and make. Big pharma showed that M&A can be an effective substitute for R&D. One is not a shortcut to the other as each is defined by a complex set of competencies and capabilities. Making requires competency in experience empathy, product management, design, analysis, engineering, analytics and many other skills. Acquiring requires competency in valuation, negotiation, financial engineering, integration (which itself extends to things like corporate culture) and rationalization. Do not go in pursuit of either making or buying in a big way until you build confidence that you have capability to execute competently in a small way.

Of course, the business landscape is littered with expensive technology boondoggles gone awry, and M&A is more likely to be value destructive than value generative. Sometimes the best use of capital is co-opting an emerging threat to the prevailing economics. Whether banks were ever quaking in their boots at unregulated peer-to-peer lenders stealing their most lucrative borrowers, the banks certainly did a good job fueling P2P lending growth to a point of dependency. The tightening of the credit cycle caused banks to pull back their buying, creating a crisis with peer-to-peer lenders that resulted in those would-be disruptors filing for banking licenses themselves - becoming the very thing they set out to disrupt in the first place. Instead of competing by creating a competitive marketplace or buying an emerging competitor, the established banks effectively greenmailed the threat.

Restructure to Innovate, then Innovate or Die

If the easy money of the idea economy has long past, and if “big ideas” are the only ones that will move the needle, then innovation is not incremental but wholesale in scope. This makes it a serious investing activity that encompasses the enterprise, not a lab in the business or a side R&D function. That requires the appropriate capital structure and investors (innovation is risk), the right knowledge (invest in what you know), and the acumen to choose when to act through making, acquiring or co-opting. Leading innovation doesn’t have to mean creating “the next big thing”, but it always means being prepared to exploit it.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Innovation Exhaustion

"We've tried nothin' and we're all out of ideas."

-- Ned Flanders' mom, "The Simpsons", season 8 episode 8: Hurricane Neddy

We're constantly being told by the popular business press that we live in an "ideas economy," where survival is a function of disruption because consumer behaviors and emerging technologies are conspiring to obsolete the economics of established businesses. There are plenty of examples - music publishing, mass-market retailing, local transportation - where new entrants have left a wake of creative destruction in their path.

Management consultants love to trot this stuff out, because fear of the unknown (who will destroy your company?) twined with tantalizing prospects of runaway riches (you could be the next air-b-n-amazon-uber-twit-book!) make for eager and pliable clients.

What those management consultants don't tell you is, it's expensive being in the ideas business. R&D isn't cheap: there is far more demand for engineering labor than there are engineers to be hired. And, a lot of R&D is terminal: you have to try a lot of things before you find something that pays for itself. Costly research that tells you only what not to do is cold comfort when you're trying to figure out what it is you should be doing.

It also appears that the economics of the "ideas economy" have been slowly eroding for a very long time. According to this paper, the number of people working in research has grown at a much faster rate than economic growth. Consider semiconductors: "The number of researchers required to double chip density today is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the 1970s." Inflation has risen only 6.5 times since 1970. Yowza.

Of course, that could mean there are too many slackers in research jobs, or that we have more eggheads than our economies can afford. But the real culprit seems to be a scarcity of ideas: they're just getting harder to find. As Izabella Kaminska wrote in the FT, "if research productivity is declining it stands to reason it is being offset by increased research effort. This essentially implies that it is getting harder to find new ideas as research progresses."

A big reason for this is economic maturation. There were far more impressive productivity gains in the early stages of the industrial revolution and microcomputer revolution than there were later in their respective lifecycles: the once factories were mechanized and all the back-office accounting computerized, the big and easy gains were made.

But even Amazon is showing signs of innovation fatigue. In the last 6 years, sales are up 5x, but employee headcount is up 10x. Liabilities are growing as fast as cash, suggesting free cash flow isn't improving with time. And, Amazon's growth rate is far lower than what Wal-Mart's was at a similar point in its history. If growth has slowed, capital intensity is up, and total labor spend is up, either platform monopoly economics aren't what we think they're supposed to be or they will take a very, very long time to materialize. This isn't to say Amazon isn't going to grow, or be a threat to traditional retailers and other industries, but it is to say that even Amazon is showing evidence of idea exhaustion.

What about the major disruption that appears to be on the horizon, like distributed ledger technology?

Blockchain could eliminate redundancies across companies, reduce fees for simple transfers, and usher in all kinds of innovation. It can, but the economics won't materialize as rapidly as ideas of yore. As long as the network is stubbornly difficult to secure and access, trust will remain with the institutions using the network, not the network itself. As long as trust remains with institutions and not the network, the institutions will have no choice but to maintain their own ledgers for a long time. That means that companies in ecosystems that adopt distributed ledger technology will find opportunities for innovation and gain some efficiencies, but will not be able to exploit its full potential for quite some time. Innovation and productivity from disruptive ideas, while still present, will fall short of potential.

This is the storyline with all emerging disruptive technologies. We may get autonomous long-haul trucks but we will still require drivers in the cab, we have shared ledgers but a lot of that data will remain duplicated throughout consuming organizations, we allow initial coin offerings but we regulate them as securities. There are economic benefits, sure, but the economic windfall they promise is just out of reach. That revolutionary new economy is delayed at the airport.

The chattering classes are telling us that we live in an "ideas economy" a full half-century after it was ripe to traffic in ideas. A more appropriate term might be the "ambition economy", because to reap the benefits of the possible requires a significant break away from the known and familiar. That's more than innovation driven by a single firm; it requires moving ecosystems of consumers, suppliers and regulators.

For those caught in the crossfire - firms that don't much like the prospect of winning a participant trophy in a costly innovation arms race, and don't have the gravitas to lead ecosystem change - what alternative do you have? We'll look at the options next month.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Partners

"Greed and patience don't live together very well."

-- Keith Jackson, ESPN 30 for 30, Who Killed the USFL?

Businesses rely on a network of suppliers to operate and grow, including providers of components, back-office operations, distribution, marketing, retail, information technology and even office supplies. They do this for a variety of reasons, ranging from areas of specialty (assembling large finished goods is different from manufacturing small, precision components), depth of expertise (some companies are better at selling things than making things), accessibility of labor (difficult to hire in a location where there are too many jobs chasing too few employees), and appeal to the people with the skill set (a wholesaler doesn't offer that much career growth for an attorney).

All relationships, whether personal or commercial, are based on need. A buyer looking for widgets will go to another supplier if they can't get the widgets they're looking for. Similarly, a seller may choose not to sell widgets to a cheapskate buyer, and will find other customers instead.

Although rationally the statement of cash flows should triumph in commercial relationships, we're very often asked to extend our balance sheets to help someone else. In a commercial context, this is the point at which terms like "supplier" and "vendor", "client" and "customer" are ditched in favor of the aspirationally higher ground implied by the word "partner". Rather than evaluating transactionally (this relationship comes at a high cost to me), we evaluate strategically (this relationship is important to me).

Choosing to underwrite a shortcoming in a relationship is to make a leap of faith that there will be tangible or intangible rewards for doing so. The executive who keeps changing the specifications but always gives a glowing recommendation, the company that provides your firm with the annual revenue if not the timely cash flows. A partner puts up with deficiencies because they get much more out of the relationship.

Partnership, then, encompasses more than just a relationship of need, but a relationship worth it to both parties to make sacrifices to sustain. When we partner, we each agree to ebbs and flows in the relationship - "in sickness and in health" - and that we will not merely tolerate, but accommodate. A seller that has to roll somebody off a team because they can't travel; a buyer that has to reduce the amount they spend. In these situations, a partner sets aside the short-term impairment for the long-term benefits of continuity and consistency.

Of course, there are more benefits than merely convenience. Each partner changes independently, and those changes keep the partnership relevant and fresh. In the process, each learns continuously from the other, evolves what they do and matures how they do it. Strong partnerships make stronger individuals.

Partnership implies equivalency. Yet the commercial world is full of alleged "partnerships" that are superior-subordinate, making them inherently unbalanced. Companies stay in condescending or even abusive relationships because they're afraid of the uncertainty of the alternative. Sellers do this because suckling at the teat of easy revenue is far easier than hustling new business. Buyers do this because they feel held hostage by a supplier. Even though it comes at a high commercial cost (squeezed margins) and high human cost (second class status and compromised careers for those involved), such business "partnerships" can last for a long time.

Egalitarian partnership, then, is more often wishful thinking than willful practice.

Whatever else they may do, partners do not try to get the better of one another. If one party feels it has to out-maneuver the other in every contract negotiation, pad or dispute every invoice, cast doubt on quality or contribution well after delivery as a means of finagling a discount, or flaunt payment terms, it isn't a partnership. This isn't competition that makes for stronger individuals and better outcomes, it's subversion that prioritizes individual gain over mutual outcome.

There's nothing wrong with transactional relationships, and if we're honest, most commercial engagements don't have the potential to become genuine partnerships. Partnership is investment, and like all investments, there's only so many you can make and maintain. Over-using the term and confusing one type of relationship for another does the people and companies you do business with a disservice because it implies a commitment to them that you're not making. Transact faithfully with all (the world is a better place when it gets by on trust), and partner intensely with those who equally benefit from your association.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Invest in What You Know

Every day, millions of people buy expensive things they don't know much about: cars and residential homes, enterprise software and entire enterprises. Having a deep pocket - or investiture by people with deep pockets - is the only qualification required for an individual to have buying authority. As we saw previously, emotions have a share - often a disproportionate one at that - in buying decisions. This makes value a relative rather than an absolute concept, and absurd as a summable metric.

When purchases get large, we re-cast them as investments. As assets, acquisitions appreciate in value on their own (e.g., real estate) or they enable us to derive greater economic value than we otherwise would without them: a truck depreciates in value, but it is inefficient to run a flower delivery business without a truck, so having a truck on the asset line of the balance sheet boosts revenue on the income statement. Unfortunately, a lack of expertise in the things that we buy tends to give non-economic factors an important role in the decision. We may know horticulture and the asthetics of flower arrangement but not know much about forecasting operating costs and reliability in city driving, so our business investment comes down to factors like style, comfort, or just liking one salesperson over another.

Purely financial investments aren't immune to this, either. We're not experts in industrials or tech firms or utilities or the ETFs that collect them, so we develop criteria (consistent dividends, revenue growth), create justification frameworks (safety, income), and consult experts (research firms), but in the end we follow our emotions (I soooooooo love their products I'll park my IRA in their stock). We want to equate investing with rationality, but a lack of expertise - and the pressure to make investments - make it anything but rational.

Many people in the tech industry - myself included - have advocated recasting technology as a financial phenomenon that yields returns rather than an operating cost to be minimized. Well, more accurately, recasting some portion of technology this way. We don't need to measure return-on-the-time-and-expense-system: it's a tax on our business and all we want to do is pay as little per staff member as we possibly can. But we can't expect to create high-risk call options (R&D) or make strategic capital allocations (platforms) with stay-in-your-swim-lane staffing and structure. Form follows finance: because of the outsized effect that finance has on operations, we start by changing the funding model, which clears the path for new structure and process. Follow the money.

If tech is going to function as a financial rather than an operating phenomenon, it must take its guiding principles from financial investing. Benjamin Graham implied and Peter Lynch practiced the idea that you should only invest in what you know. Get to know the industry dynamics, the company in particular, and the people operating it before pledging any capital. You'll still have disappointments, but far fewer surprises. This separates thoughtful investing from reckless gambling.

In technology, "investing in what you know" requires substantial business domain knowledge and tech fluency with generous helpings of behavioral science and economics. Successive waves of efficiency gains mean we can't take intimate business knowledge for granted any more. All the organization, process, and ceremonies won't compensate for a lack of these things, the evidence of which is seen in the reference cases of Product organizations that create confusion rather than cohesion, and the large replatforming initiatives that require additional cash calls and goal reduction to be deemed successes. If we're going to "invest in what we know", the leadership imperative is in securing the fundamentals so that we have the basic competencies in place.

But that presents us with a recursive investing challenge. Developing the capability to competently invest in technology is an investment itself, and must be held to the same standard: are we investing in something we know? Do we know what we're looking for in that investment into capability? Or will investments in our future leaders be more emotional than rational?