Reproduced with kind permission from Forbes.
“Nobody gets fired for buying IBM” is a phrase anyone working in technology has come across. When I first heard it close to 20 years ago before having it repeated in tens of the large organizations I’ve worked with, I remember being immediately puzzled “Why didn’t they? Why were they doing so in the first place?” and how the responses of patient industry veterans seemed unsatisfactory and to this day, they still do.
According to them, it was the only safe bet – when employees in various organizations were mandated to find the best piece of software or consultancy they could for a certain project, should they have bought it from IBM, this was to shield them from repercussions if anything had gone wrong as they presumably had the strongest of reputations for not allowing that to happen.
Why isn’t this “things our grandparents used to say”
If we are to closely examine where this comes from, above the simplistic idea of “they are a mammoth who can pay for it if it all goes belly up” it’s a fascinating lesson in branding as IBM was known for only taking on a project if they firmly believed they could deliver what was expected of them, and that they would stay on to see it through, no matter the consequences and above the monetary motivation.
In other words, they were supremely dedicated to providing quality service to their clients. Leaving aside the consideration of why that should ever be anything but the norm in business in general, if we speak to IBMers that have been around “in the olden days”, they will confirm the conscientious stance was not PR but a strongly held internal belief of only engaging when they believed they could over-deliver. They -along with most everyone else in technology- would also admit that is no longer the case.
Over the past 30 years, IBM, as any other company has changed considerably and the software and services they provide are in no discernable fashion by default better than the competitors big and small, or even the opensource alternatives and as such, it’s nothing but sad that this hasn’t registered with parts of the market (it certainly has registered in places like China if you look up their history with the company) and that the phrase still reverberates today.
Job security at all costs
It would be interesting to examine who this motto truly pertains to. Is it the developer lead asked to do the comparison between IBM and another piece of software who suggested the latter who would go? Is it the head of procurement that approved it? Is it the P&L holder or really the executive who had nothing to do with the actual decision, but whose head would ultimately roll when the project proved a failure?
The answer is largely a function of the size of the company, the project, and the purse, but it would still make for a fascinating journey in workplace psychology if we could ever find out what level it originated at and where it is still held today.
One of the reasons this still exists as a shield against negative consequences, is that while the same people who would be “buying IBM” are the segment of the workforce with most opportunity and mobility, they remain industrial-era-recession-level terrified of the alternative of having to change employment.
Lack of ownership
Part of what causes “IBM-buyers” to shy away from alternative decision making is a general sense of “I don’t own this place, l just work here”.
Creating a sense of real investment in the organization is simultaneously increasingly difficult and increasingly necessary. Now more than ever, we need employees who feel like they are truly part of the journey, as invested in a big brand’s every move to success as the first employees of a start-up. Truly hands on. Truly willing to be daring enough to examine “what it takes” and “go there”.
Organizations everywhere (and banks in particular) need employees to find themselves at “NASA-janitor-meeting-JFK” level of the heart where they feel their every move contributes to the wellbeing of a company they love.
Inside Risk Aversion
The “IBM-buyers” don’t feel entitled or mandated to take what appears to be a risky decision on behalf of the company.
As organizations are only as psychologically fit as their last employee, taking an honest look at this lack of empowerment is paramount.
A lot of it comes from a lack of self-confidence that long-term employees of large organizations often develop in time as a result of a myriad of institutional factors such as lack of exposure to the wider market; lack of incentive to keep learning and developing; lack of valuable personalized KPIs; existent or perceived lack of inside and outside opportunities and above all, an overall belief that taking any chances has a higher likelihood of failure than success and that failure, irrespective of causes will be attributed to the employee and it will be terminal.
There is no belief in a pay-off to taking a risk and nowhere near enough belief in one’s own self-worth, whereas there’s an overwhelming fear of the consequences of possible insuccess.
While coming from the same need for security, “nobody got fired for buying IBM” ultimately stands for ill-understood, self-reinforcing prophecy, not workplace psychological safety.
Psychological safety doesn’t come from having enough risk-aversion strategies to hide behind, but from having learned the value of being daring and experimenting with bravery for the good of the company. Employees instinctively know this.
The people behind this phrase are well educated, fiercely knowledgeable and incredibly skilled individuals, if they bought IBM not to get fired while thinking they didn’t offer the absolute best solution or service, they know they did wrong and went against their beliefs for a sense of security that they ironically know in their heart of hearts to be either wrong or at the very least, short-lived, and whether they consciously recognize it or not, this adds to their lack of overall psychological safety in the job.
Organizations that learn how to create and then religiously foster true bravery are incommensurably more successful than those that don’t and the gap only stands to become more pronounced in the years to come where the human element of decision making will become the competitive advantage.
“We “don’t “buy IBM” around here”
Hopefully, this article doesn’t need the evident disclaimer but for certainty: IBM does make some wonderful products and services that are world leading and should absolutely be bought should they have demonstrated they stand head and shoulders above the alternatives.
This is not about a certain brand, but about an attitude that is damaging to every industry where it happens, be it by the harm it does to the organization where it occurs or by how damaging it is to the competitors who were robbed of an opportunity.
It is undoubtedly a lack of courage issue or else “Got fired for buying non-IBM” would be on one’s LinkedIn list of crowning achievements and if we agree we need courage in spades to create the bold images of the future of customer experience we all like to fantasize about, then we need to do away with this phrase and any other justification for cowardice out there, and see more teams in big organization sporting “We don’t “buy IBM” in this shop”honor badges.
If organizations want to transform this old institutional excuse into a transformative positive and to one day, be able to to use it as a yardstick for how much they have succeeded to empower their people, they should aim to see it replaced with: “Nobody got fired for augmenting their innovation and progress efforts with software solutions they believed would achieve that in the best of ways”.
Moreover, they should aim for having employees so aware of their own self-worth that they ought to be able to add one more part to the above: “...and even if they did, it wouldn’t stop them”.