I begin this essay with my concluding prescription; my recommendation:
Make sure people who deeply understand the central goal of your business are driving your technology program.
In other words, if your business is being managed by an Information Technology team that doesn’t have the first clue about what is important to your customers, or how you differentiate yourself from your competition; you’re doomed.
When Evolutionaries Fail
I am not sure if Mitt Romney is an Evolutionary. He needs to buy the book and take the test. But I am sure that several people on his campaign staff were full-tilt-headstrong Evolutionaries. Somewhere along the way the Romney campaign worked to develop a program code named “Orca.” They called the program Orca because the Obama campaign was using a program called “Narwhal”—the whale with long pointy tusk. An orca is the only known predator to the narwhal. Make no mistake; cool codenames are a huge part of any project’s success in the 21st century. The Orca program was designed to offer a huge tactical advantage to the Romney campaign on Election Day. In an article posted on CNET we get the rundown:
“Here’s how Orca was supposed to work. On Election Day, the Romney campaign would deploy 34,000 volunteers with an Orca mobile web app in swing states to monitor turnout. In Boston Garden (now called TD Garden), 800 staffers would direct get-out-the-vote efforts in key precincts based on incoming data from volunteers on the ground and other sources.”
The effect would be a huge amount of real time information pouring in and allowing the folks at mission control to direct efforts to get out the vote in key districts. The sheer size of the effort would create a sample size that would blow away the analytics of traditional polling methods. The Romney campaign would know more, faster, and have more confidence than any other campaign in history.
Trust me, this effort reeks of Evolutionary thinking, people like Romney campaign communications coordinator Gail Gitcho. They could see it as clear as day. They convinced the entire campaign to make a big bet with Orca.
With all of this genius and momentum, what could possibly go wrong?
It turns out there was a cascade of problems. There were issues with the program itself. The system is said to have “buckled” for 90 critical minutes. Many of the top volunteers in the field were frustrated and unsure what to do. There were issues with volunteers needing official permission to work in the polling places.
The really bad news is that there was also some success with the program. In these situations, “some success” can be a bad thing. If something simply “doesn’t work” we walk away, adapt, and overcome. But when something “kind of works” or “intermittently works” we stay the course and keep pouring time and resources into the effort.
Meanwhile there is evidence that Narwhal was swimming along freely and delivering a very sophisticated package of information to the Obama campaign. While neither side believes that the Orca problems cost the election for Romney, it was yet another miss-fire in information management for Republicans. Fewer Republicans turned out for Romney than McCain, and more of the Democratic core turned out for Obama in 2012 than came out in 08.
(use German accent) But Vat Does it Mean?
Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher (1889-1976) offers an explanation about what tends to go wrong when humans design and deploy technology “solutions.” (I am paraphrasing here, and over-simplifying as well), but one of his main points is that we will always be trapped by technology if we are for it, or against it, or worse yet—perceive it as neutral. If we think of it only as a means to an end—we miss something fundamental and we become snared.
Orca failed because the human beings that designed and deployed the program failed at a human level, at a leadership level. Indeed many are saying now that the “technology was fine” but it was not explained, introduced, tested, or managed appropriately. Imagine 34 thousand dedicated volunteers wanting to do the right thing for their candidate who are now focused on a confusing system that “kind of” works. Heidegger would tell us that to the precise degree that they were focused on the technology itself; the technology was in a state of utter breakdown.
But as we step back and look carefully at this profound social experiment we call Democracy; we see that real ground is being broken with Narwhal and Orca. Heidegger writes:
“Technology is therefore no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing. If we give heed to this, then another whole realm for the essence of technology will open itself up to us. It is the realm of revealing, i.e., of truth”
The Evolutionary leaders who convinced the Romney campaign to move boldly with the Orca plan were not wrong, but they failed the way many Evolutionary leaders do. They outran their headlights. They expected “the vision” to be apparent to everyone else as it was apparent to them. They didn’t listen to negative information closely enough. They confused success with deploying the system; “going live”; when they should have been focused on the real task of motivating an electorate to get out the vote.
Wake Up and Smell the Data
Here is the deal. Business leaders no longer have the option to debate the pros and cons of crowd based demographics and business intelligence systems. These analytics are here to stay. We are generating huge amounts of data about data. Woe unto those of us who would simply ignore this trend. Great leaders are going to use these resources as another way to see human potential revealed. We will begin to train our people to incorporate data and statistical systems into our everyday decision-making. We will engineer systems that offer the right information at the right time—to work on behalf of people who have their eyes on bigger prizes—like beating cancer; building better batteries; saving coral reefs; and making Democracy work in this new century.
So yes, make damn sure that your information technology team gets the value proposition that is the heart of your business. The thing that breaks technology is the people using the technology in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons. Technology “works” when the human systems around it “work.”