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Ideas are better than ideology

Paul Glen | Oct. 13, 2015
Using a core set of beliefs about the right way to do things can seem like the most professional approach to evaluating ideas. It isn’t.

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As an IT manager, you probably spend a good part of your day dealing with ideas — weighing them, refining them, rejecting them and embracing them. You’re bombarded by ideas all day, every day. They might come from you, your subordinates, your boss or even people like me who write for the media.

  • “If we rewrite that section of the SQL to avoid using cursors, it might improve performance substantially.”
  • “If we deploy a mobile reporting app, the salespeople will be able to see what their clients already have on order.”
  • “If we refuse to help users who try to bypass the help desk, they will have to follow the support process we designed for them.”

Regardless of where the ideas come from, it’s your job to handle the flow. How well you generate, solicit, select, collect, evaluate, modify, prioritize, test, implement and communicate about ideas determines, to a large degree, your success as a manager. Pick the best ideas (in other words, make good decisions), and you’re a hero. Choose and/or implement badly, and things won’t go so well.

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here and say, “Choose well.” But in the day-to-day chaos and ambiguity that is IT work, how do you do that?

In my experience, managers choose one of three archetypal options when making decisions (or combinations of them), all of which, by the way, have virtues to recommend them.

Approach 1: Analyze each idea. Subject each idea to a rigorous process that predicts the costs, benefits, probability of success and cultural fit. Examine the stated and unstated assumptions underlying the idea and assess how well they fit with known facts, current interpretations and past experience. And then decide whether the idea is worth pursuing. Done exhaustively, this is quite time-consuming. Decisions may be better, but they may be too late to matter.

Approach 2: Go with your gut. Monitor your general emotional response to the idea and use that as a guide. Emotional responses are not completely divorced from analysis or evidence. Emotions serve as an instant synthesis of experience, biases, preferences, knowledge and assessments. If it feels good, implement it. If it feels really good, do it with gusto. This is usually much faster than rigorous analysis, and better accounts for the fact that decisions are always made with incomplete information. At the same time, biases and personal comfort alone often lead to poor decisions.

Approach 3: Check your ideology. Evaluate each idea for its consistency with firmly held beliefs about the “right way” to do things. If it fits and seems important enough, then do it. Otherwise, discard it. In IT, this is not usually a political ideology, but a set of beliefs that defines a “one true way” to do things. Many people base these beliefs on well-developed frameworks or methodologies like CMMI, PMBoK, ITIL or Scrum, which synthesize the experiences of many people. Some managers rely on their own personal experience, expecting to repeat past successes with identically repeated activities.


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