Opinion by Paul Glen

Ideas are better than ideology

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.

Although most IT people think of the “gut check” as the quick and lazy way of doing things, relying too heavily on ideology is really the quickest and easiest way of all. The rubric against which an idea is judged is not the messy, complex, idiosyncratic situation at hand, but simply a set of rules or principles. Comparing an idea to an idealized worldview is the shortest shortcut there is. Of the three generic approaches, ideology is the only one that relieves the decision-maker of the burden of professional judgment. In fact, taken to extremes, which happens all too often, ideology prohibits personal judgment, prescribing approaches and activities as moral virtues rather than as potentially good ideas to be vetted and considered.

And this is where problems begin to happen. When managers replace professionalism with ideology, they turn their success over to an abstract system of thought. The best decisions are made when managers retain responsibility for their own decisions, applying their own judgment, leveraging all the tools at hand, including analysis, gut checks and the wisdom contained in ideologies, rather than accepting them as delivered truth.

is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at info@leadinggeeks.com.

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