We like to think that we’re all individuals and the things that drive our decisions are made rationally, independent of what others say, and from a totally objective viewpoint. Marketers, of course, know that isn’t the case and do what they can to use all sorts of tools to sway our opinions. Sometimes these tools turn out to be our coworkers and professional peers. That’s because decisions that we make – including the technologies that we deploy – are often based more on the opinions of others than on objective reality. What’s worse, this can occur without our even being aware of it.

The Wisdumb of Crowds

The Wisdom of Crowds was a book dedicated to the proposition that, taken as an entirety, groups of people will make better decisions than highly trained individuals. Likewise, our entire capitalist economy is based on the premise that “the Market” will dictate the best possible products at the best possible prices. While in a macro sense both of these may be true, in a smaller group setting, this often isn’t the case.

Today I came across an article entitled 5 Psychological Experiments That Prove Humanity Is Doomed. Among the experiments listed are the Asch Conformity Experiments. This was a set of experiments performed on unwitting college students in the 50s. One student, along with a bunch of people who were in on the experiment, would sit together in a room and observe charts similar to this one:

They would then be asked to state in front of everyone which line on the right was the same length as the one on the left. Clearly the answer is C, but in a group setting if enough of the “students” answered wrongly, the subject of the experiment would also answer incorrectly. Although in this case the crowd was intentionally incorrect and thereby caused the individual to make a bad decision, there’s nothing to say the same thing couldn’t happen if and when the crowd made a poor decision on its own.

Don’t follow fashion, that’d be a joke

In business, we see the same thing. The line used to be “Nobody got fired for buying IBM.” Many times they should have been. Especially in the mid-80s, IBM started making products that weren’t very good but continued to be purchased because of that old cliche.

Today you can do a Search And Replace and put Microsoft, Cisco, or whatever you want in that phrase. People will knee-jerk to the “most popular” solution and pressure you to make the pick just because of market share, whether or not the decision is the proper one for the organization.

That being the case, you may just go with the flow and make recommendations and decisions that seem right because everyone is in agreement on a technology. Don’t fall into that trap. Remember that many times people in your organization are looking to you for guidance. After all, you’re the IT professional and you’ve been hired to help guide the way the organization uses IT. No matter what level you are in the organization you bring certain knowledge and skills to the table. For the entire organization to succeed, you have a duty to yourself and others to state those opinions and guide the final decision to the proper end, whether or not it’s the “popular” choice.

Pick your battles

Clearly there are times when you don’t have the freedom to state your own opinion. This is most often the case when someone higher in an organization wants your input and already has made a decision. In this case, they really don’t care about what’s best; they merely want validation about their own decisions. If not validation, they at least want someone else to blame when the technology tanks. You can’t really avoid these situations and just have to go with it. You can qualify your statements, and try to sway the ultimate judgment, but it’s often not worth the battle.

It’s a better choice to pick your battles and maybe try to exercise more influence at a lower level or in group settings. Choose allies wisely and exercise influence on them. Make sure that your decisions and recommendations are based on objective facts and are stated in such a manner that’s easy to understand. After that, stick to your guns.

The bottom line for IT leaders

Be aware that some of the decisions you make may come from the subtle opinions of those around you. Don’t be swayed into making a decision or a recommendation just to go along with your peers. Although it may be the politically correct thing to do at the time, if it’s not going to cost you your job, then you should state your opinions and stick by them. In many cases, it’s the right thing to do, even if you DO stand to lose your job.

Remember, you’re the expert in your field and your employer is paying for your expertise. You’re doing your company and yourself a disservice if you act like nothing more than a sheep.