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Jason Kolb

Designing a Disruptive Technology Strategy

Growing up, my sister Christina was always interested in architecture and I wasn’t–at all. She was constantly visiting houses, churches, and corporate buildings for fun. I thought it was the most boring thing in the world.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I gained an appreciation for architecture. Only after giving in and promising to open my mind to what was there did I agree to visit some places with her. And when we visited these incredible buildings I realized that I had secretly appreciated architecture all my life without realizing it. Because she pointed out how these places made me feel when I was in them, and why. It took an expert, my sister, to show me that an artificially constrained entryway makes the space it leads into feel even bigger and more spacious. She had to show me how slightly dropped ceilings can set off an area and make it feel like a separate room without using walls. The thoughtful design and implementation of these features was affecting me even as I had no idea.

I’ve since become a big fan of architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright being my hands-down favorite) and I love visiting these buildings with my sister regularly. But the real point here is that design affects you even if you’re not conscious of it — awareness requires training and experience, or an expert to guide you. Any capable engineer can build a house that won’t fall down, but it takes an architect to achieve a higher purpose.

Architecture, of course, applies to technology as well.

Technology, of course, can also be designed to achieve higher purposes than just “not falling down”. Any engineer can build software. But only by purposefully designing an architecture can you build software that can be extended into the future in ways that you might not even know are needed yet. And only by designing at an even more purposeful level can technology architecture be applied in strategic ways to disrupt industries by enabling new business models.

I believe there are three stages of technology architect “enlightenment” for lack of a better word:

  1. As an Engineer you are good at your craft. You are familiar with all the best practices: test-driven development, modular functionality, and proper code structure. Just like a builder who can construct a house that won’t fall down, you can program software that won’t break. You think in terms of reusability, but you haven’t done it enough times to know when it will stop helping and start hurting the long-term viability of your technology.
  2. As an Architect you have practiced and honed your craft for long enough that you understand higher design patterns like decoupling, service-oriented design, and frameworks. You have failed enough times that you have found the right balance between reusability and practicality. You can easily switch contexts between different types of tasks and environments, giving you a level of system-wide understanding that is crucial in complex enterprise environments.
  3. As a Technology Strategist you have reached a new level of understanding about how technology works within a business environment. This allows you to foresee the ramifications of seemingly minute design decisions and how they will affect not just the extensibility of the technology itself but how it will either limit or facilitate the business that sells it. You gain the ability to understand *which* design decisions matter, because you’ve seen them matter in the past

Becoming a Technology Strategist means that you know the right moments to ask crucial “what if” questions, and you understand that what might seem a near-term insignificant detail will dramatically affect the long-term direction of the business. It’s the difference between designing a feature toggle or an app store, because you can see that a slight change in the way a single feature is built might enable an entire third-party ecosystem.

To others who haven’t gone through some of the soul-searing experiences it takes to get there it might seem like the Technology Strategist is focusing on unimportant details or that they have slightly odd opinions about obscure aspects of the overall system that don’t make sense on the surface. But almost without exception those same people who question the importance of these details end up with an understanding over time. They understand once they see how those small choices affect the trajectory of the business, once they reach a place that they couldn’t have possibly gone without it. It’s the technical equivalent of my sister taking me into a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece and explaining how he used horizontal lines to lead me to a certain area in the house.

Understanding technology strategy changes the way you think about aligning your organization. It causes you to think about how you can design an organization so that the small details that have oversized impacts aren’t missed. You begin to pay very close attention to making sure that not only is technology constructed well but that it’s constructed in a way that will strategically enable the organization rather than cripple it. And the entire business itself can move much faster as a result because you can avoid “replatforming” exercises that are the callsign of technology that wasn’t designed with strategy in mind.

I will come right out and admit that I didn’t understand how technology can be used strategically to change the course of a business until after I had gone through selling a software company and integrating it into a giant corporation (Cisco). Only by going through that entire process did I understand how my design decisions affected our ability to enter and penetrate markets.

I’m sure there are other ways to get to the Technology Strategist stage without founding and selling a company. Perhaps finding a great mentor or simply having a front-row seat to an acquisition, with visibility into the business side, would work. I doubt it can really be taught in school, it’s far too abstract for junior engineers to comprehend. Perhaps a different blend of business and technical education might do it somehow. I don’t pretend to know that answer, but I do know that designing technology with strategy in mind can alter the trajectory of organizations and where they can ultimately go.

The only way to truly disrupt is to make things possible that weren’t before. If you build things the way you’ve always built them this won’t be possible. The house won’t fall down, but it won’t achieve a higher purpose, either. By approaching the act of technology building in a strategic way, with an understanding of what the higher purpose is, you can create enable new ways of solving real problems using technology–which is how we can start getting really disruptive.

Reference: Designing a Disruptive Technology Strategy from our JCG partner Jason Kolb at the Jason Kolb blog blog.
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