David Boast, General Manager – MENA at Endava, argues that it is time for boardrooms to step up to the plate and move away from short-term thinking to really drive sustainable digital acceleration.
As a term now synonymous with the Middle East, innovation is on every boardroom’s agenda. Organisations need to constantly push the boundaries of what’s possible.
Failure to do so could render even industry heavyweights irrelevant, with their market share eroded by agile up and comers.
Innovation isn’t just a remedy for staying relevant either, it’s a prerequisite to commercial progress. A quick look at the meteoric rise of Netflix, and OpenAI, or closer to home, Swvl, and Kitopi, is testament to this.
But innovation isn’t without potential downsides. The constant need to pioneer new paths has an unfortunate side effect — short termism.
In the rush to be first to market, the end result is all that’s prioritised, with little consideration for the execution path to getting there, which results in saddling the organisation with technical debt — the rework and additional investment needed to undo the shortcomings of quick fix tech solutions that are destined to become weak links in the long run. Instead of creating a springboard for success, organisations unwittingly end up building a house of cards.
If it isn’t broken why fix it
When all eyes are on the road ahead, not enough attention is paid to what’s in the rear mirror. And as long as things go right, few bother to question this myopic mindset.
After all, business stakeholders haven’t had the need to understand the technicalities of product design, development, and delivery.
CEOs need to think about the company’s performance for the quarter, and CFOs need to concern themselves with budgeting and forecasting. This way of working forces CTOs and CPOs to be tactical.
The unintended cost of innovation
Bubbling under the surface though is a problem that has the potential to entirely derail business operations. Tech debt is the silent killer of the modern enterprise, and a consequence of its willingness to build skyscrapers over sinking sand.
There are many elements that contribute to tech debt — not having the right architectural foundation to support modern software development, and rushing digital services to market are perhaps the greatest offenders.
But so too is insufficient testing, the lack of comprehensive documentation, or poorly written code.
These problems are magnified in the region due to the revolving door of IT professionals who have little insight into how legacy investment really works. And this contributes to a precariously poised IT environment that could fail at any instant.
One step back, two steps forward
It might seem counterintuitive but given that these are the factors that cause tech debt, innovation roadmaps can actually benefit from organisations taking a step back to consider their risk profile, rather than blindly surging forward.
But herein lies the challenge. With the way that innovation is currently handled within large organisations, the short-term mindset is an inevitability rather than an unexpected outcome.
After all, how can boards expect leaders and employees, who are evaluated on a quarterly basis, and whose average tenure at organisations is constantly shrinking, to consider the long-term implications of their actions?
Boards and C-Level executives have to instil a longer term, stewardship behaviour that enables a culture of innovation, and technology planning well beyond the current horizons.
This is why there’s a strong case to be made for technology advisory to be brought into the boardroom. Just as the board assesses and outlines the long-term business strategy, so too it must take ownership of the innovation roadmap.
This may in some cases mean pausing new digital transformation initiatives and instead giving the organisation’s infrastructure a long overdue health check and to see how viable it is to build products in an agile way, which in most cases is not technically possible without an upgrade.
It will require a careful look at organisational needs, not just as they presently stand, but as they are likely to evolve in the face of expansions, evolutions and changing regulatory environments.
It might also require a change in the company culture, from being an organisation that is easily swayed by the attractive, though often unattainable, promises of ‘disruptive and sweeping’ innovation, to one that embraces continuous improvement, implementing iterative advancements that can be given the time needed for perfecting.
In it for the long haul
It might be hard to imagine that in today’s era of constant digital acceleration, an organisation that prioritises getting things right, rather than getting to market first, can come out on top.
But the fact that Apple is the world’s most valuable company, and still sells more smartphones than any of its competitors, proves that being a perfectionist can be more important than just being a pioneer.
Once organisations are ready to forgo their near-sighted view, they will easily see that innovation without long-term intent is a recipe for disaster.
And who better to set this long-term roadmap, than those who are unencumbered by the pressures of hitting quarterly commitments, or annual appraisals.
It’s time for the board to see that it’s not just the business, but the tech strategy that they need to take ownership of. It will then be them who can take credit for eliminating tech debt.