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Digital transformation introduces a paradox of choice

(Image credit: Image Credit: Wright Studio / Shutterstock)

These days, technology and the prevalence of apps have given us unlimited options at the touch of our fingertips. With Uber Eats, we can order our favourite food from hundreds of restaurants in our area, and with Netflix we can choose from over 10,000 movies or TV shows. But this uncontrolled amount of choice can lead to total decision paralysis.

The same goes for companies embarking on a “digital transformation.” With so many new tools and software platforms designed to help you tackle digital transformation, how do you choose when to choose?

Smart business leaders recognise the excessive number of options in today’s technology landscape, and the chaos it creates in IT departments. These leaders do not fall victim to that chaos. Instead, they make a handful of key technology choices, empower their teams, and then direct their full attention towards the customer.

How simple became chaotic

Just 20 years ago, there were few choices to make when it came to building web technology. If you wanted to build a web framework, you could pick Java Server Pages, Classic ASP, Cold Fusion, PHP, or raw HTML with JavaScript. There were only a few relational database options, and if you wanted to deploy code you put it on a physical machine.

But times have changed. Today, each programming language offers multiple web frameworks to sift through. There are a dozen different options for hosting software in public clouds like AWS and Microsoft Azure. To get that software running on one of those hosts, there are an endless set of deployment automation tools to pick from. There are far too many choices for database engines, and then you still have to choose among on-premises, cloud-hosted, or managed offerings, followed by dozens of ancillary choices to make before calling your software complete. They include logging frameworks, monitoring tools, message brokers, networking services, and mobile notification services.

The paradox of choice

This new technology is amazing. We do things with software that we would not have even dreamed of 20 years ago. But there is a problem: choice gives us freedom and flexibility, but also causes what author Barry Schwartz calls the “paradox of choice”. There is a cost to all this choice: it delays decision making, causes distress, and leads to post-decision regret.

  • It delays decision making. With so many options available at the supermarket or car dealership, we agonise over what to choose. “I’ll just look at just one more.” It is the tyranny of small decisions. You keep adding more items to consider.
  • It causes distress. Loss has a higher psychological impact than gains. When we worry about making the wrong choice, it stresses us out. And because our concern for status among our peers leads us to always stay alert for the “next big thing,” we can never relax.
  • All this choice results in post-decision regret. Even after we made a choice, we feel worse. We take longer to make a choice in order to minimise regret, but the nonstop deluge of opportunities that arrive after our choice keeps us from enjoying our decision. Our pleasure is short-lived.

Where to have opinions

If you do not want to fall victim to the paradox of choice when making your digital transformation, the key is to establish some opinions. The below opinions can ensure you stay focused on outcomes, and not waste time endlessly debating things that will not matter in the end.

Choose opinionated technologies

“Opinionated technologies” means technologies that steer you in a particular direction. They have default behaviours based on best practices. They integrate a set of components in a certain way for you to use them. Contrast that with unopinionated technologies, which offer a blank canvas.

Both have their place. For developer frameworks, something like Spring Boot is opinionated. When you choose this, you get a set of default behaviours (which can be overridden) oriented around time to value. Spring Boot is about limiting the choices you have to make around undifferentiated infrastructure configuration, and putting your focus squarely on the software itself.

Have opinions about the technology that runs your platform, too. Instead of asking your team to assess, debate, and choose among an incrementally different set of application runtimes, pick one. And stick with it. This removes one more choice that gets in your way. Find opinionated tech that bundles together lots of micro-decisions into more macro ones.

Create an opinionated services marketplace

What database, messaging, machine learning, and app monitoring tools should you use? All of them? One of them? You could literally spend a year evaluating tech in each category, and are the endless bake-offs between products worth losing market share to competitors? For mature categories like relational databases, pick two options, stop there, and stick with them.

Instead of creating a Wild-West scenario where everyone can choose any tech they want, have opinions, and make it easy to self-service those choices through a marketplace. For instance, choose a handful of products for each category, add them to your platform, and let developers loose. As new categories emerge or dissatisfaction rises with existing choices, reassess your opinions.

Establish opinions about app modernisation

The software you have got you where you are today. Celebrate that. But now it is time to figure out how to unlock new value, or prepare that software for more intense usage or uptime demands. App modernisation is not a project, it is a lifestyle. You’re never done.

To be successful here, you need a repeatable way to assess and execute. What does it mean to make something cloud-ready? Does every team follow the same approach? What is “must have” versus “nice to have” when replatforming to a new stack?

Our happiness and success are often driven by our ability to choose our own adventure. At the same time, we sometimes want decisions made on our behalf! When plotting out a successful digital transformation, you need less choosing, and more doing. Find technologies, approaches, and partners that you trust, and form opinions that help you stay focused on what matters most.

Richard Seroter, VP of Product Marketing, Pivotal (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Wright Studio / Shutterstock

Richard Seroter is the VP of Product Marketing at Pivotal, an 11-time Microsoft MVP for cloud, and the lead editor for cloud computing.