When you're faced with having to make a major decision, you might want to go the "safe" route and pick a tried-and-true solution. Sometimes, however, you can have a bigger impact by making an unexpected choice. Change the game by making a bold decision.
As an IT professional, you can have a large impact in an organization. Although it may not have the global impact of a presidential decision, the decisions you make can affect just about everyone in the organization as well as potential customers and vendors. Make the wrong plan, pick the wrong technology, assign the wrong person to a task and before you know it, entire systems can shut down, costing the company millions of dollars.
Therefore, you're probably very careful and thoughtful with the decisions you have to make. You don't want to go too far out on the limb. It's safer to pick systems and procedures that you know and trust. In the process, however, you may miss out on a larger opportunity. You may also find a situation were a "safe" decision may get you closer to a goal but not quite make it, whereas a riskier decision may put you well beyond your goal.
A political example
For a 20/20 hindsight example of where a bold, yet debatable, decision made a large impact while a safe decision resounded with a thud, look no further than the current Presidential election with the Vice Presidential picks. No matter who you agree or disagree with on either side of the political fence, the picks and their outcome thus far are illustrative.
On the Democratic side, Barak Obama found himself at the beginning of August with a wide lead in the national polls. Although nothing is a foregone conclusion in politics (ask Hillary Clinton), going to the Democratic convention, it looked like Obama would win in the fall with a pretty safe margin. Obama had many high-profile options for a Vice Presidential pick, including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Sam Nunn, and others. One of the top picks on the list that filled in many of the questions about Obama's inexperience was Joe Biden. Although another pick like Hillary might have been more risky, Biden was a nice, safe pick.
On the other hand, John McCain was far behind in the polls and was faced with "safe" choices like Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Tom Ridge, and Rudy Giuliani. Each potential pick was tried and true and helped complement McCain as the Republican presidential nominee. They weren't, however, that bold of a choice. McCain decided that he needed to go for a long ball to reenergize the campaign. He had thought about Joe Lieberman, which probably would have caused a riot on the convention floor. Instead, he picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, a short-term governor and former mayor.
Since making the bolder choice, McCain went from being behind in the polls to in some cases being 10 points ahead. The safe Joe Biden has almost disappeared from the radar, while Obama finds himself struggling to get back in the game. Where the race was once practically over, now McCain actually stands a chance of winning.
What does that have to do with IT?
If you've been in IT long enough, you've probably heard the old mantra "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." Today that would be "Nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft." IBM did and Microsoft still does represent in many cases the safe, solid, smart solution. Along with Cisco, Oracle, HP, Dell, and others, they can represent the Joe Biden VP picks of IT. Smart. Well considered. Safe.
There are probably many cases when people SHOULD have been fired for buying IBM or Microsoft because even though they were the "safe" decision, a better one could have been made. In today's IT environment, you sometimes have to go with the long shot.
Apple, Linux, open-source in general, and so on can be considered the Sarah Palin VP picks of IT. Picks with less of a track record. Picks with lots of potential. Picks that garner lots of passion from their supporters and interest from people who are undecided. Picks that may or may not work out in the long term, but at least get you noticed.
You're tasked in your career with certain goals and objectives. The last thing you want to do is create additional problems and headaches. Your first job is to get the job done. In most cases, you want to make sure you pick the safe solution. However, in those cases when you have little to lose or have two solutions — one safe with a low reward and one not with a large reward — that are equally viable, you might be able to benefit both the organization and your career by making the bolder pick.
The bottom line for IT leaders
Naturally when you're making any decision, you want to make sure that whatever you decide is in the best interest of the organization. In most cases when you have the choice between two alternatives that will fit the needs, one of which has a track record and one that doesn't, the best choice is to pick the proven solution. However, don't make a knee-jerk reaction by automatically dismissing the bolder pick. Balance the risk and the reward.
You may be able to advance your career and have a bigger benefit for the organization by making a risky decision.