Our brand is worth everthing

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that statement. Too many, I expect. Unfortunately it usually means that engaging with the root cause of the problem we’re trying to solve is too awkward or uncomfortable, so it’s time to reach for the magical (technological) pixie dust. The glib, absolute statement thrown onto the table is a flag that the root cause of the problem is cultural, or even a leadership issue. Solving the problem is going to require a bit more than a little technology delivered by smiling consultants.

Every couple of years I seem to come across another glib “Our brand is everything”. (Though, at the moment the rise of cloud computing is providing more “but its not secure” glibness than anything else.) I’ll be sitting around a table with some senior IT and business folk talking about a broken manual process. More often than not it will involve a workflow based on emailing spreadsheets around the team.

The risks are fairly obvious. Aside from the double entry problems and the risk of lost orders, there’s always the chance of litigation over an implied contract in some casually sent email (or tweet). There’s also the risk for a disenchanted insider sending something they shouldn’t to someone they should not.

After wandering around the issue for a little while, we start discussing possible solutions. My first question is usually something like “What resources are you willing to commit to solving the problem?” It’s at this point that the comment is thrown onto the table; usually in earnest. “Our brand is worth everything.”

Rather than go to the effort actually trying to engage with the problem we’re dealing with, the statement indicates the desire for a magical cure-all. If we sprinkle magical technology pixie dust over the problem then it will just go away.

Technology can only ever go so far to solving a problem. We can use technology to speed something up (swapping paper shuffling for bit shuffling). Or we can use technology to stop specific things from happening (i.e. enforcing governance policies). We can’t use it to prevent something we never imagined.

Most interesting problems — like the manual workflow example — are rooted in peoples’ behaviour, and only have a small technology element. While the action, the bad event might change in each instance, the intent behind the action is probably the same. Even if we were given a blank cheque (which is probably the next thing I should ask for), we can’t hope to make more than a small dent in the problem. It’s like squeezing a ballon in your fist. Each time we push in one bulge, another one (or two) pops up in a different gap.

If we want to have a significant impact, then we really need a mandate to change the way the organisation works. Are the organisations own policies actually incenting employees (or partners, or customers) to work against the best interests of the organisation? (Like the point guard mentioned in the No-stars, all-star{{1}} article.) Do the existing IT solutions cause more problems than they solve? Just why did the problem happen in the first place?

[[1]]The no-stars all-star @ The New York Times[[1]]

Even a mandate has its limits though. Ultimately the behaviour of an organisation is determined by the behaviour of its leaders. The behaviour that caused the problem was a result of the culture created within the organisation.

The most useful tool to solve this sort of problem is the time and attention of the leadership team, along with a willingness to admit that no one is perfect, that mistakes will happen, and a sincere desire to improve the organisation.

When someone drops “Our brand is worth everything” on the table these days, I like to point out that bad things can happen, and will always happen. We can use technology to trap a few things, but the only long term solution is to create an environment when everyone involved — all the way from employees through partners, channels and customers — is naturally inclined to do the right thing.

Yelp seem to be learning this the hard way{{2}}. Accidents will always happen, and speedy and considerate response is acknowledged as the best we can do. However, creating a culture where “doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason” is accepted will eventually get you in trouble that you might not be able to get out of.

[[2]]Inside Yelp’s “Blackmail” Lawsuit: CEO Stoppelman Seems to Hate His Advertisers[[2]]

And hence we arrive at the real problem. A brand’s worth, after all, is a measure of what people think of an organisation; both customers buying your products or services, or the investors who want to know where you”re going. When bad things happen, and sometimes they happen quite regularly, the only real long term solution is to change the way we manage the organisation so that the root cause is no longer present. This means the people at the top need to change what they are doing. And give that the rules of IT have changed{{3}}, and we need to change with them.

[[3]]Some new rules for IT[[3]]

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