Lead or Follow?

A colleague was recently asked to speak at a conference panel, and one of the suggested talking points was, “How to evaluate new technologies for your business (e.g. set/lead or follow trends and standards?).”

In almost any instance like that, given a choice between X and Y, I almost always try to go with “Purple.”

Let’s be clear on something: we’re not using the word standards to refer to things like protocols or other industry-wide agreements. That’s what something like HTTPS is: an industry-wide agreement. By following that agreement, we can create interoperable software and hardware. Cool.

No, in this context, standard means, “what everyone else is doing.” That’s a distinct difference. Java is a “standard,” as is Microsoft .NET. For years, IBM AS/400 minicomputers were “standard” for a number of industries (and regrettably, remain so in many).

So the question, “do you set/lead or follow trends and standards?” essentially means, “are you going to do what everyone else is doing, or not?” And that’s a stupid question for a businessperson to even consider.

One of the great joys of my life, and something I’ve gotten to enjoy at literally every conference I’ve ever spoken at, is someone walking up and saying, “I hear what you’re laying down, Don, but my company is different.” Fun fact: all companies are different. That’s the only major thing they have in common.

There should be no such thing as a “standard” tool, technology, framework, or process. There should only be the ones that are right for you, right now. That means you can’t, as a technology leader, take the lazy way and just say, “well, everyone’s using Java, so that must be a safe bet.” Business technology isn’t about safety, it’s about adding value to the business. And business is, to a degree, about taking risks. Choosing a technology just because a lot of other people also chose it is malfeasance. We’re living and working in a time of unprecedented technological diversity: there are tools and technologies purpose-made for nearly any task you could imagine. As a tech leader, you need to do the hard work of finding the best-fit for your company. 

Want to know something absolutely terrifying and depressing? Many tech leaders feel forced to choose “standard” technologies so that they can find team members who know how to use it. Yeah. Your business is constrained by the talent you can hire. If all that’s on the market is Java programmers, well, come on in, Java, and make yourself at home, even though you’re a terrible idea for our particular situation.

Why do companies allow this to happen?

Two reasons.

One: Companies do not know how to manage workforce skills. Every company that uses the term “Culture of Learning” probably doesn’t get it. A few do; I’ve met them, and it’s why I wrote The Culture of Learning in the first place. But most don’t. Most companies don’t know how to assess the skills they’ve got. They don’t know how to identify the skills they need. And they don’t know how to manage the difference between those two on a continual basis. Skills are not agile within most companies; they’re not equipped to manage skills, or not interested in investing in the capability. I mean, some are, which is nice, since it’s literally what my company does for a living. But the overall level of maturity in “tech skills management” is pretty low in the world.

Two: Due in part to the above, companies are lazy. They don’t want to build the skills they need, they just want to hire people who are already skilled, and ignore the fact that by doing so they’re limiting themselves to what’s on the market. Non-lazy companies are doing things like apprenticeships, where they bring in malleable young people and learn ’em up the way the company wants them learned up. Those apprentices end up making great money, the company ends up spending net less money, and they end up with a workforce that is used to learning on the job, which makes that workforce more skills-agile for most of the rest of their lives. Yes, it’s a big investment. Yes, it takes a lot of planning and work. But it’s worth it.

So, “set/lead or follow trends and standards?”


Get your company to a point where it can truly manage skills, and where you have people who are willing and eager to be continually learning. Adopt the technologies that bring the best value to your business, and move your skills in the directions those technologies require. Let skills follow the business, not lead it.

There’s a saying in the world these days: “all companies are tech companies.” That’s because there are very few businesses left that don’t rely utterly on technology for their day to day business and to be competitive. If that’s true, then all companies need to be skills management companies, because the only key to unlocking technology is being able to build the skills to use it.