Recently, I was sitting with some peers at an employee celebration luncheon. One of the guys on our team is part of the millennial generation, while the rest of us represent either the baby boomer generation or Gen X. Someone made a comment that referenced a TV show from the 1970s; our Gen X friend did not get the reference, which lead to a whole lot of questions and jeering about things that were common to those of us from prior generations.
For example, our friend had never owned a vinyl record, he had never known the days without MTV, and he had certainly never stopped at a pay phone to place a call. All this seemed funny as we discussed among ourselves the “good ol’ days” before we were married to our cell phones.
The next morning, I attended a monthly quality meeting. As in the celebration luncheon, the attendees were made up of various generations. We never discussed the hundreds of cases that occur in our organization daily that go right, yet we always brought up 2-3 events that went wrong. To the defense of the group, the purpose of reviewing mistakes is to make sure you do not repeat them, so I guess going over the ones that went right would not add as much value.
You can bank on the fact that in every one of these meetings, some of the blame for what did not go right will be placed on technology. It is inevitable. In this particular meeting, the focus on how technology either predicated the error or could have prevented the error really stuck out to me. This meeting is made up of very bright, educated attendees who represent several generations; you could group those generations into those who grew up with technology and those who did not.
Yet, despite the generational customs in these meetings, each generation seems to rely on technology evenly. I started thinking, ‘what did we do before technology in these areas?’ Fair enough, the younger team members never had a time in their lives “before technology,” but the older ones had. There was a time when their training and their craft was built using assumptive cognitive skills and a pencil and paper. Now, everyone has a set of expectations of technology that almost seems to excuse human accountability.
So how did we get to this point? Are we right as human beings to have these expectations of technology? How has the invention of automated workflows, decision support, and electronic reporting desensitized us from responding to what the human eye observes? At what point is a mistake really a mistake and not the fault of something or someone else? This is not necessarily a new question, but one that leaders face all the time. Leaders have to clearly look at a situation and ask what part they played in the outcome. That is not always easy or comfortable. For example, one may think that they communicated clearly, only to find out that the recipients were unclear on what the plan was. How much of that can be blamed on the individual communicating and how much can be blamed on the technology platform used to disseminate information? At the end of the day the leader is responsible, and no lack of technology, glitch in technology, or poor choice of technology can excuse accountability for the outcome.
So whether you come from the vinyl, parachute pants, or pay phone generation, or the cell phone, iTunes, and skinny tie generation, technology will never be a substitute for accountability. As a leader, it will never be acceptable to blame technology. That does not imply that we should not look for ways to improve or utilize technology; what it means is we should never rely so much on technology that our instincts, intellect, and good listening skills should go dormant. I try to teach this to those I serve and instill in them the need to take ownership for the part they play in each situation. As a technologist, I am very excited about the outstanding advancements that have been made in my field. However, at the end of the day, I need to remember what life was like before technology and always question what I am seeing, what I am hearing, and what I am thinking and encourage others to do the same. After all, isn’t that how technology advancements occur anyway — human creativity applied to mathematical equations that result in technological discoveries? Let us always lead technology and never let technology lead us into blind action.