Putting Why Before How

September 24, 2019 | Le'Rhone Walker

Technologists are naturally curious. It's not enough for us to know that something works; we want to understand how it works. What components make this thing tick? Why were certain decisions made over others? Is there a better way to approach this problem? I've heard many stories over the years from team members who took electronics apart as kids and attempted to put them back together merely to satisfy their curiosity.

While a desire to tinker and understand how things work are excellent traits, left unchecked on a project they can lead to tech debt – i.e., solutions that are cheap and easy to implement in the short term, but in the long run, can be significantly costlier than a more comprehensive solve. Exploration is essential, but it has to be subordinate to strategy.

This is more easily said than done. The marketing landscape is riddled with technology buzzwords and vendors who promise the world. As key decision-makers, we have to stay focused on our objectives and the strategy that supports and connects them – and resist the polished pitches of sales teams eager to sell another AI/chatbot/social/personalization/big data solution.

That’s why we have a process built around simply asking, why? The question, and the answers that follow, allow us to fully understand what our clients need so we can make a recommendation that directly and effectively addresses it.

In this way, instead of trying to make every client request fit a predefined list of solutions, we’ve created a process that’s technology agnostic. We try to understand more about the business, the team, and the people that will ultimately be using our products. Does the internal team have a preferred technology stack? Are there platforms that have been embraced (or dismissed) by the client that we should consider? What are the goals of the project and how can technology best support them? There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, so we must be open to exploring a range of options.

While this may sound commonsensical, it runs counter to the cult of novelty that predominates in tech circles. Sometimes a thing is valued not for its utility, but the fact of its newness. Emerging tech, of course, has its place. What I find most interesting about technology is that it is ever-changing. The frameworks, philosophies, and best practices evolve as the industry and the needs of our clients and their customers change. And like many agencies, we've explored practical applications for emerging technologies within the structure of our clients' requirements. But while it's exciting to talk about artificial intelligence, the latest cryptocurrency offerings, and benefits of moving to the cloud, it's also important to point back to the why to ensure we're aligning with a larger strategy. Introducing AI for the sake of following a trend, or keeping up with the Joneses, is easy. What’s harder is making an AI recommendation that can meaningfully improve key performance indicators.

Strategically rigorous doesn’t mean slow, either. There are scenarios where a client presents a problem, and we can rely on our experience and understanding of their objectives to make quick recommendations. For example, our vast experience in financial service means we can lean heavily on our existing expertise in marketing, regulation and accessibility matters, security protocols, and relevant policies and procedures to move swiftly from challenge to solution. However, everything still ladders up to an overall strategy. Throwing ideas at the wall and hoping something sticks is risky and we're in the business of minimizing risk and maximizing impact.

This whole idea is core to who we are, and it points back to our mission; we create digital experiences that make a difference. In the technology, that means making recommendations that move the needle for our clients instead of defaulting to what's new and shiny. It's important to take note of how our industry is changing and emerging technology trends, but the why will always be central to what we recommend.