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.

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?