How to escape from a submarine


Photo by Fuzzymucka

Bob Sutton is my favorite business writer, partly for his most recent The No Asshole Rule, but mostly for his older Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense on evidence-based management. His argument is that we can be more successful by relying on real evidence to make our decisions. This sounds obvious, but he's great at pointing out how we're actually hard-wired to use all sorts of other criteria instead. As George Orwell said, "To see what is in front of your nose requires a constant struggle".

He recently reminded me of a great example: the history of submarine escape technology. The first people to escape from a sunken submarine let the water flood the vessel until the pressure equalized, opened the hatch and popped to the surface, exhaling as they went. The knowledge that this was feasible was never taught to subsequent submariners, and instead elaborate and hard-to-use pieces of escape technology were developed over decades. Eventually a British study of actual escapes in World War II showed that unassisted ascents had saved as many lives as those with equipment, and the technique was finally taught in basic training.

As technologists, we know that when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. On a larger scale, when we have new technology and features, every problem looks like it needs it. For enterprise software, effective user adoption is considered the most critical factor by 70% of decision makers. Organization change and process alignment are next with 16% and 13%, while the actual functionality is down at 1%.

This backs up my personal experience that most new technology introduced into businesses fails because nobody wants to use it. The key to success is building something that people want to adopt. That's where some of the lessons from the consumer world are so useful, online services live or die by their usability. Keep your features minimal and do actual usability testing on your product, and you'll be ahead of 90% of business vendors! Don't keep building devices that will just sit on the shelf.

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