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The Complexity of Choice and What it Means for IT

AUTHOR: Daryl Bishop

I recently listened to an interview with Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice1. In his book he explores the modern Western industrial society tenet that, as individuals, in order to maximize our welfare, we all need to have freedom—and the way to maximize individual freedom is to maximize freedom of choice. So what happens if consumers, for example, have seemingly unlimited choice?

Schwartz’s hypothesis is that the sheer volume of choice in front of consumers today causes paralysis rather than liberation. Instead of selecting “a thing” that best suits us, we are confused by all we have to choose from and are often dissatisfied with our ultimate choice (the pursuit of perfection effect). The author goes on to suggest there may be a causal link between the increased percentage of depression cases in Western societies and the choice paradox. Schwartz suggests that the magic number for choice in retail is between six and eight; under six and it feels like we have no choice, and over eight—too much choice.

I have observed this effect for quite a few years now, and I term it the “Boost Juice effect.” A number of years ago in Australia, there was a surge of juice bars, the most recognizable being Boost Juice. There was one other major juice bar chain (its name escapes me), and several smaller ones across the country. At the time, Australia was going through the juice version of the Dutch Tulip craze—juice bars on every street corner.

The difference for me between Boost Juice and the also-rans was not the quality of product, rather that Boost Juice had a limited menu, and it was relatively simple to choose your juice. If I wanted a smoothie, there were six flavors to choose from and similar for a fresh juice. The other bars went with the total freedom of the “make it yourself” formula. I had one juice from this store, and to be honest I found the process to make my own juice confusing, and frankly it took me too much time to make my mind up. Sure the juice was fine, however my experience wasn’t great. While I’m not saying the other stores disappeared solely due to “the paradox of choice” conundrum, I do believe it was a contributing factor.

So What Are the Implications for IT?
My position is that a contributing factor for failure or missed objectives in technology programs and transformation endeavors is too much freedom of choice. With so many conflicting and complementary options from different vendors, CIOs and IT management—with the best of intentions—strive for perfection and, for the same reason as consumers, are ultimately let down by the experience. Instead of looking for the best-of-breed products at each level in the stack, make decisions from a viewpoint of integration, solution-orientation and integrated services.

When assessing the purchase an IT solution, ask whether:

  1. The vendor provides an integrated solution; do I have to buy plug-in components from other vendors to complete the stack? My observations are that for some of our customers integrating so-called best-of-breed products versus single vendor solutions often drives integration and support issues during and after the project. It’s the old adage, “perfection is the enemy of delivery.”
  2. Are there clear reference sites where you can verify the integration of the vendor solution? Similar to throwing meat into the water and telling a shark not to eat, some vendors will promise any and all without providing clear evidence.
  3. Is the vendor strategy clear, concise and is the strategy and roadmap complementary to your IT and business objectives?

Definitely use competition for your own benefit; however don’t go mad with choice. Limit choice, and be smart and focused on your desired outcomes and long-term objectives. VMware provides product suites—cloud infrastructure and EUC solutions—that are heavily integrated and backed up by strategy and technology consulting services. Over time other vendors will follow, providing suites or solutions rather than point products. The VMware vCloud Suite for example, is a complete cloud infrastructure solution covering the hypervisor layer right up to the cloud portal, managing and monitoring layer. This suite removes complexity by simplifying choice, while being flexible enough to meet customer needs.

As a consumer, you don’t need to buy separate hypervisor, automation, security, monitoring and management components and then throw the integration dice. Of course, you can if you wish—choice hasn’t gone away. It’s up to you how much choice you want, and you can dial it up or dial it down. I believe too many years of “dialed-up” choice is one of the contributors to project blowouts caused by cost overruns and missed delivery targets.

Above all else, IT management should strive for 100 percent perfection in project delivery and lifecycle management. Ask yourself whether the level of choice is providing a better project outcome or rather is increasing the risk of project delivery. Where possible, limit choice and think strategically around proven integrated solutions to meet your business objectives.

1Listen to Schwartz’s “The Paradox of Choice” TED talk
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Daryl Bishop is business solutions architect for VMware Accelerate Advisory Services, based in Melbourne, Australia.

VMware AccelerateTM Advisory Services can help you define your IT strategy through balanced transformation plans across people, process and technology. Visit our Web site to learn more about our offerings, or reach out to us today at: accelerate@vmware.com for more information.

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4 thoughts on “The Complexity of Choice and What it Means for IT

  1. Iwan 'e1' Rahabok

    Thanks for the article. Too many choice is indeed why we have the complexity in datacenter the way it is.
    I normally use other products as examples to drive the point of standardization. For example, does Enterprise need 2 email systems? We can argue that we should use 2 email for a variety of reason (cost, security, availability, etc), but at the end no one use 2 email system as it complicates matters.
    Same goes for Directory. We don’t use 2 directory anymore, and NT (now AD) has completely eliminated Netware.
    Same goes for middleware, a product used to glue other products in message bus or SOA architecture.
    Some products are by nature “horizontal”, and it makes sense to standardise on 1. Hypervisor (and its associated core/basic management, vCenter in vSphere case) is one such product. Multiple hypervisors will not know how to share the physical resources with each other, defeating the very purpose of having hypervisor to begin with.

  2. Daryl Bishop

    Thanks for the feedback Iwan, agree wholeheartedly in regards to product standardization. IT, I believe, is swinging back from the ‘best of breed’ mentality to one where consolidation rules the day, choice has not delivered the business outcomes whereas limited choice potentially will.

  3. Susan Bilder

    Simplicity in an industry that isn’t known for being simple is important. If you are throwing too much information at potential customers it’s just going to confuse them and turn them off.

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