In challenging times, why the obvious solutions aren’t always the best

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When is a recession not a recession? Much as this might sound like the opening line of a bad joke, the only punchline here is the fact that we still don’t really know. With every new release from the UK Office of National Statistics comes yet more uncertainty – the most recent showing that here in the UK, the GDP actually grew last November. While the UK economy might continue to flirt with recession, it’s not there yet.

Nonetheless, tougher times are clearly ahead. If past economic challenges tell us anything about what CTOs might expect through 2023, it’s that the same old issues and priorities will remain hugely relevant. There’ll be pressure around new product delivery, tech teams will need the right mix of skills and talent (which are always in short supply), and there’s no getting away from the age-old need to do more with less. Added to this, the focus on the customer – and the kind of experiences they’re looking for – will continue to occupy the minds of lines of business heads and ultimately the leaders.

The ability of CTOs to address these – and the many other BAU issues you have to deal with – is of course critical. At the same time, they can very easily disguise what I believe is the real priority here: the ability to think differently about the way we do things. If tech leaders are genuinely going to do more with less, etc., they’re also going to need to mix things up and inject some fresh thinking into their approaches.

With this in mind, I think there are three big questions that any CTO needs to ask and answer over the next 12 months.

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What do your customers actually want?

When times are good, no-one tends to challenge the status quo. What you’ve been doing has worked out just fine so far, after all, so why risk upsetting things when there’s no need? The danger with that approach, of course, is that when tough decisions need to be made, it’s easy to find yourself too wrapped up in business-as-usual to focus on what really matters to your customers.

The past few decades are littered with examples of organisations that thought they had a handle on what their customers wanted – but didn’t. Now, as markets tighten up and customers naturally have less money to spend, the ability to prioritise your own operations around what customers actually need becomes an essential capability. A “tech for tech’s sake” mentality has no place here.

So what do your customers want? Plenty of people will try to tell you, but the only ones who know for sure are your users themselves. So ask them. Shake off conventional wisdom, put prior experience to one side and perhaps even find the budget for some really good user research. This will give you a better return on investment than simply throwing extra engineers at the ‘problem’ – because it might not be what your customer-facing teams think it is. Once you know for sure, you can re-focus activity on what your users actually need.

What can you learn from those outside your circles?

The echo chamber is a dangerous place to be at the best of times. In a downturn, it’s more or less the gateway to guaranteed failure. When the pressure’s on, it’s only natural that most people want to keep their heads down and focus on the task at hand. Tempting as that may be, however, doing so can limit your ability to learn from others – particularly those who typically sit outside of your regular circles.

Introducing fresh thinking into your processes is tough, and tougher still when you’re trying to do it in isolation. If we’re not careful, it can still be hard even when we introduce new people into an organisation – “culture” and “fit” can easily become codeword for “people who think like me”, after all. Diversity of thought is important, and that’s true not just in terms of the people we hire, but the people we interact with in general.

Be it professionals from other disciplines or other industries, inviting them in to your circle – and being prepared to embrace some alternative ideas – is one of the most important things you can do.

How do you make the space for creative thinking?

As alluded to above, creative thinking can be hard to come by when the focus is on ‘getting stuff done’. Nonetheless, creativity and technology go hand-in-hand. As part of their leadership responsibilities, it’s crucial for CTOs not just to maintain their own innovative thinking, but to create a working environment in which creativity can thrive across their wider team as well.

It’s important to be purposeful about that responsibility, too. Just as prioritisation is key when it comes to giving your customers what they need, the only way to give your mind what it needs is to carve out time for yourself – to prioritise your own creativity whenever and wherever you can. Whether it’s a lunchtime walk or an evening with your peers, creativity demands stimulation outside of the day-to-day.

Delegation is similarly vital here. The old adage about it being “lonely at the top” is true; while most CTOs will have the support of their CEO, support from below is equally important. Creating a framework in which you can trust your team to handle business as usual while you focus on the bigger picture is essential.

Thinking differently demands effort, that much is clear, but the returns are more than worth it. Take it from me, and take it from the many 101 Ways customers that we’ve helped to do just that. From the property website that needed a way for estate agents to develop listings on the go, to the food delivery marketplace that found that its true priority was a better user experience for restaurants (not just diners), thinking differently pays – downturn or no.

We’ve love to continue the conversation. Drop us a line and let’s keep talking.