When Is Something Really Worth Doing?


Wednesday, 9.09pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Everything that I’ve learned about computers at MIT I have boiled down into three principles: Unix: You think it won’t work, but if you find the right wizard, they can make it work. Macintosh: You think it will work, but it won’t. PC/Windows: You think it won’t work, and it won’t. – Philip Greenspun

I was at the supermarket today picking up a few things and noticing the way technology had infiltrated my life.

I used the self-scan tool at the supermarket, wandering about and scanning purchases as I went and marking them as bought on the grocery list app that we use as a family.

What was interesting about that exercise was that I literally didn’t need to speak to anyone – not even my other half.

Either of us could add items to the shared list, pick them up, notify the other and get on with life.

We now have a shared stock control management system, formed by linking together these pieces of technology.

And that got me thinking about when technology is good and when it’s rubbish.

There’s a concept called additionality which in essence says what extra do you get when you do something new over what you would get anyway if you did things the same way as you’re doing right now.

And I think this is important because we can think an innovation we come up with will result in additionality but it really doesn’t.

It could make things worse, or make such a small difference that it isn’t worth doing.

And a LOT of technology results in exactly those things happening.

Take Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, for example.

The one thing you can guarantee when using a CRM is that the amount of time you need to get the job done will increase.

That’s because you now need to log everything you’re doing – make notes and share information. You’re adding to the work involved and what are you getting as a result?

To understand that you need to do four things.

1. Understand the outputs from the innovation

What do you get exactly from this innovation?

Is it a report or some analysis?

With my shopping example what I get is an electronic shared todo list.

The app has more features but this is the only one that we use successfully.

It’s not always clear what the outputs are from something.

Often you’re told they can be anything you want – which now needs you to know what you want – and that isn’t easy to answer either.

2. Can you measure the impact?

If the answer is yes then it’s probably quite a simple innovation.

As the saying goes not everything that matters can be measured and not everything that can be measured matters.

Be careful when you try and measure the impact of anything.

3. Are the outcomes real?

An outcome is a claim that something has improved as a result of doing something.

Let’s say sales improve as a result of implementing something new – can you be sure that there is a cause and effect link there?

On the other hand if you point to a survey that says people are happy you need to check that you aren’t seeing the Hawthorne effect in action.

This is where people who are being asked a question give you the answer they think you want to hear or show you what you’re expecting to see rather than the real thing.

4. Are you controlling for loss

With anything new the chances are that something else starts to go wrong somewhere else.

It’s the unexpected consequences of change – and that can cause all kinds of problems.

Comparing business as usual with the new thing

If all this seems negative it’s because change is not always a good thing.

New things aren’t always better and don’t always result in improved quality.

The bad effects are not always obvious.

When you’re doing something like trying out a shared shopping app the consequences of failure are low.

No one is going to get fired or divorced as a result.

When you try a major infastructure change the impact may be larger.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t change – it just means that you should try and get a clearer grasp of additionality – what you really get over and above what you have now.

You may worry less and sleep better when you take a rigorous approach to assessing additionality for any project.

As an aside why did I start this article with a computer quote?

If you work a lot with text, as I do, and are a committed Unix fan, all you need to produce work is a text editor and a terminal.

The application that has truly provided some additionality is Dropbox – with its ability to store files in the cloud.

Almost every other tool degrades my attempts to write.

But that’s my business as usual scenario when contemplating a change.

Your situation will vary and how you make the decision will be very different.

Which is why there is almost never one true way.

There is only the way that works for you.

And the way you choose to go as a compromise when working with others.


Karthik Suresh

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