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Commentary & Analysis

Legacy Decisions and Facing Uncertainty

Every established business works with previous decisions, no matter their subject (technology, business strategies, or personnel), they all share a common challenge to change. You are faced with moving from a certain state (your legacy decision) to an uncertain state (the better results you seek).

By Jennifer Matt
Published: June 7, 2011

A few years ago I met a friend of my father's who was a top executive at IBM, he had a forty-year career with the company. I asked him of all the incredible changes that had happened over the timespan of his career, what was the greatest change to his day-to-day job? He went on to say that during his initial leadership positions at IBM he made a few decisions a month. In the last twenty years he was literally making a few decisions a day.

Pace isn't a surprising comment on what's changed over the last forty years, but his follow up was even more interesting. He said his batting average (good vs. not so good decisions) had definitely suffered under the increased velocity, which led him to have to develop the courage and skill of reversing, letting go, and backing out of previous decisions.

Being decisive is challenging – especially within organizations that value politics and activity levels over results. Decisions are risky and we tend to be captivated by the delusion that more study, more consideration, always equals a better decision. Quite often ANY decision made immediately with conviction is better than endlessly weighing options for months on end.

It requires neither vision nor courage to continue to consider options or do another study, buy another report, hire another consultant, or form a committee or task force. What I find ironic – in all this consideration we are searching for and sometimes paying for something that is NOT AVAILABLE ANYWHERE. We are looking for certainty in an uncertain world. Why do I believe the world is uncertain? Because so much of what's going on is unchartered waters (things that haven't happened before) but also at a pace that is unprecedented. Facebook is amazing as a phenomenon but what makes it really crazy? The pace of its growth, we may see the one-billionth user of Facebook before they go public!

This is a real quandary – we are faced with a pace of change that is unprecedented, one that requires us to not only make decisions more often but also be courageous enough to reverse a proportion of our decisions (openly accept mistakes). Combine that with a work environment that is political rather than results oriented and you get a recipe for disaster. In a politically dominated work environment nobody risks making real decisions, while the world changes around them, their business inevitably suffers.

I attended the The World Domination Summit this weekend in Portland, Oregon; Jonathan Fields talked about his decision to leave his high paying attorney job in New York City. Everyone in his professional life had the same basic argument – you're going to throw away the investment you made in law school, the experience you have at this firm, and the potential to make partner? He reframed the question brilliantly – he said yes, I'm going to change course because the SEVEN years investment isn't worth holding onto if it means I do something I hate for the next FORY years of my career. Reframing a decision can really help you understand the true cost of staying the course. Everyone was looking at his decision based on what he'd done up until that point. He was looking at it from the angle of what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. 7 years or 40, your call.

Change, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the need for change is difficult because it requires you to go from a "certain" state to an "uncertain" state.

Legacy business decisions are complicated, there are usually many people involved and many view a change of course as a stamp of failure on the previous decision. Change, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the need for change is difficult because it requires you to go from a "certain" state to an "uncertain" state. So, even if your certain state is an absolute failure, we tend to feel way more comfortable with the familiar.

Leaning into uncertainty, rather than shying away from it is one of the keys to success in the digital economy because the rate of change requires you to become very comfortable with not knowing what will come next. If there is one thing I believe that truly does separate digital natives from laggards – it is their comfort level with the rate of change. They accept it as a "normal" part of their environment.

If you selected the wrong technology path, hired the wrong individual, or chased a market that doesn't make sense; try reframing the solution not based on the past investment but rooted in the future opportunities the alternative can bring. Uncertainty can be harnessed to mean potential rather than paralyzing fear. Your call.

Jennifer Matt is the managing editor of WhatTheyThink’s Print Software section as well as President of Web2Print Experts, Inc. a technology-independent print software consulting firm helping printers with web-to-print and print MIS solutions. You can reach her at jen@whattheythink.com.



By Wayne Lynn on Jun 07, 2011


I've been reading your posts since you joined the What They Think team. This was the best yet. I suspect the reason it resonated with me strongly is that I am covered up with legacy decisions that need to be unraveled and re-thought. Not an easy task!


By Erik Nikkanen on Jun 07, 2011

Very intelligent article. Thanks.

A whole industry can be based on Legacy thinking that is faulty but has been woven into the fabric of the culture. An accumulative result of decisions or lack of decisions made.

The process of making decisions is very interesting. The ratio of the right decisions to the wrong ones is not so important. What is important is that in a string of decisions on a specific issue, if the last one was the right one, then you have made progress.

In the end, who cares if the first 9 decisions were not correct as long as the risk was managed and the last decision succeeded.


By Jennifer Matt on Jun 07, 2011

Wayne - first of all thanks for reading my stuff, much appreciated. We are all in the same boat (covered up in legacy decisions), ranging from the decision to have one more beer last night to hiring that sales executive that hasn't delivered on $1 of net new revenue.

We are programmed to protect ourselves from the unknown, that worked brilliantly when we were hunting and being hunted, now it just holds us back from making bold decisions to move forward. I think we can all learn to LEAN INTO that feeling of uncertainty and learn to accept it as something that indicates we're heading in the right direction!



By Jennifer Matt on Jun 07, 2011

Erik - I agree, legacy decisions can get indoctrinated into the "industry culture" then its not just you who is resisting change, the resistance is supported by the industry.

I find the other barrier to change is that there is always business on both sides of change. For instance I think software solutions should be deployed in the cloud on a subscription basis, but that leaves the business of licensed software hosted by the customer on the legacy side of change. The move to digital printing leaves the investment in traditional offset printing behind - not only are you fighting your internal straggles with uncertainty, there are segments of the industry that would benefit if you DON'T change.


By Steve Harney on Jun 07, 2011

Jennifer- your thoughts I believe are spot on . After nearly $500k investment and 2.5 years we recently had to make an agonizing decision to unplug our Hiflex MIS System. This during the toughest economic time in our 41 years I made the decision to revert back to something that worked.
Reaching for promised automation to move our company forward was a good decision . Not knowing who you are buying from and believing hype was a very poor one.


By Jennifer Matt on Jun 07, 2011


Looking backwards (on your investments and decisions) can easily convince you to stay the course. Reframing the decision towards the future vs. the past is critical to making a decision based on future outcomes. The past should help us make better decisions, not prevent us from making them.



By Javier Rodriguez-Borlado on Jun 07, 2011

Very interesting post. I think you are right, most of the times we are looking to what he have already done and not looking to what we have to do now for the future, and I absolutely agree that the main different of the native digital is that they are living in a constant change in such a way that they do not perceive nor are afraid of it.
You may know it but just in case you may want to see this speech of Carly Fiorina talking about "the Dynamics of Change of Fear"


By Jennifer Matt on Jun 07, 2011

Javier - I of course watched the speech the minute you pointed me to it, thanks it builds on what I was thinking. I think one of the most interesting points in this whole topic of ability to change is the fact that we have to go against our instinct to stay with the familiar.

Courageous people without fear, they just know how to move forward in spite of fear.




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