People before business. Business before technology. Technology making people’s lives better.

Inside our workplaces, there is a familiar tension between business-focused objectives and technology-focused objectives.  Technology, in business terms, is like a division of a company. It is therefore not surprising that many businesses form a division called IT, or information technology. What is surprising is our tendency to think in terms of tension over teamwork.

This is a classic us vs. them myth. In a company, ‘us’ means all of us. Our competition, that is, other companies, are them. The challenge is indeed from both directions. The business people perceive a lack of understanding of the needs of the business. The tech people perceive a lack of understanding of the infrastructure needed to achieve their goals. With repeat cycles of this mutual perception, we see each other as obstacles and stereotype future engagements.

One Layer Deeper

If we are to unravel this challenge of business first thinking, we need to go one layer deeper. A business that moves past this challenge thrives in people first thinking. If you have worked in the work world for a few decades, you have likely seen people try to imitate the actions related to people first thinking without learning to actually do the people first thinking.

 There are two sides to people first thinking; internal and external. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins said to get the right people on the bus in the right seats. In Nine Lies About Work, Marcus Buckingham and Ash Goodall stated that it isn’t a great company that people want to work for; it is a great team. If our teams are working with each other, we will have happier people in their seats on the buses.

Together teams accomplish more than the total of what individuals can do collectively. The need for good culture isn’t just for business profit. It is for sustainability. Turnover tends to drive more turnover. When the company mentions how long someone has worked at the company, do the other employees see that as a positive or a negative? The positive should be the norm. This also impacts the ability to find talent and staff moving forward.


That covers the internal side of people, but people don’t do business with companies just because the people who work there love their jobs. We need to also make the journey for the customers a winning personal experience. The right customer has a seat on the bus just like the right employee.

How does that relate to technology? Companies form mission statements and vision statements. It seems we also believe reading a mission and vision statement transfer the sense of mission and vision. In Dan and Chip Heath’s book, Switch, they mention how the game changer for the developers was actual customer contact. There are so many businesses and tech people avoiding that contact. Some use the excuse that our tech people are better with machines than people. Perhaps, but if that is true, then they are also not good matches for the mission and vision of the company. If we want to change that, we need to get our staff in contact with the end customers and clients.


Application Changes Everything

One of my technical books, “Fundamentals of Software Architecture” by Mark Richards & Neil Ford, leans into the two rules of architecture.

  1. There are always tradeoffs.
  2. The why is more important than the how.

The tradeoffs are essential because it needs to be the right mix. There is a term for software, application. Random lines of code would not achieve the goals of our software. When the code aligns with the goals, software only becomes an application when it can be applied to the why for which it was written.

As we discussed earlier, the application is about the business aligning itself to serve the people who choose to become patrons of the products and services provided.  Application, what a wonderful term when it is built in the right direction. Software looking for an audience is an application that has not yet earned the title of application. If it is a good match, we hope if finds it’s home. The wiser path we should take is, to begin with the end in mind, the people it will serve, and the needs and desires it fills.

Let’s make this easier to understand. Cars are not trains. A train is, by definition, a vehicle that rides on a track. Trains do not steer themselves. They trust the track where they travel. Designing a train that steers is technology before business thinking. It is geeking out on the idea without awareness of the people that the technology serves. Cars have a place in our world, and so do trains. Looking forward to a ride on a hyper-train one of these days.  Trains and cars are similar, but the differences are significant in who they serve and how they serve.

Action Items

Messaging matters. If this were not true, we would not give titles to the positions in our businesses. Imagine we call our developers ordinary coders. We call them chief information officers for a reason. With that in mind, perhaps we should not create both IT and Business departments because it signals IT is not about business. Too radical, perhaps. The outcome is what matters in this case. New titles are not the focus of this first item; it is communication.

We mentioned above knowing the business is served by technology. This also means knowing the business mission. Dollars are an excellent way to know if customers want what we offer. Dollars alone, though, don’t make for a sustainable business. Without knowing the customer and the experience from the outside in, where things are going in the future, we tend to build income at the cost of making our business more fragile. So the goal is sustainability from the customer to the staff.

Technology is the leading factor in business disruption. While we should be business first, leaving technology out of the picture is another way to achieve a fragile business presence in the market. Adding technology alone will not prevent this challenge. The solution requires agile practices, so when a pivot is the path forward, we are ready and not surprised.

Let’s recap.

  • good communication
  • sustainability
  • agility

The list looks simple because it is simple. The work of keeping these in place is work. Regular steady investing will outperform limited-time opportunities most of the time. In different seasons the right area of work and opportunity focus will change. These ingredients will always be in winning businesses, but they will look different from business to business as well as season to season. Some businesses will succeed through pivots, while others will understand the pivot and succeed not by legacy practices but through wise persistence.

How will you influence your business technology today?