Regardless of the topic du jour–whether or not to adopt Agile, whether or not to revamp product requirements, where the market development opportunities lie, how to use Web 2.0 as a vehicle for marketing–the downturn inspires two distinct reactions in technology companies:

  • We live in the best of all possible worlds. We may need to economize a bit, but we don’t need to explore any significant changes to how we do business. All we need to do is wait, and not do anything stupid.
  • We could improve what we’re doing. In fact, even if the downturn hadn’t happened, we’d be in the middle of a discussion about how we might [fill in the blank] better.

Of course, there’s always a strong argument behind the first position. Aside from Old Man Inertia, the other culprit here is the perceived cost and risk of change. The perception is important–moreso, in some organizations, than the measurable costs, benefits, and risks of change.

Pity The Poor Indolent
That’s not intended to be a condescending statement, equating "perceived risk" with "delusion." We might be talking about the concept of "rapid cognition" that Malcolm Gladwell touted in Blink. "Perceived risk" might also be a busy person’s way of avoiding the opportunity cost of making an ROI calculation.

However, it may only be anxiety, or fear of losing one’s privileged position, or plain stubbornness. And, needless to say, not every proposed change is a good idea.

Unfortunately, change is always necessary, which is why it’s probably a good thing that some people are risk-takers, and some people are not. (Whether the difference comes from genes, brain chemistry, or boredom is besides the issue.) If our species consisted only of risk-takers, we long ago would have died out, having jumped off one too many cliffs, or tried to pet one too many wild animals. If we only had risk-avoiders in our gene pool, we would never have built a civilization, for fear of losing the familiar comforts of subsistence agriculture and occasional mastodon-hunting.

It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding Revenue)
Now that civilization is firmly established, economic downturns prove the value of both risk-takers and risk-avoiders. The dot-com bust of 2001 happened because many companies had no real business plans, or really daffy ideas for how to make money. Painful as it was, as downturns go, it was necessary for the long-term health of the technology industry.

Many of the companies that survived, including some successful start-ups, decided not to buy into the notion that millions of hits on did not shatter underlying economic rules. That was risk-taking of a different sort, in the face of rocket-propelled stock prices and insanely expensive acquisitions.

Unlike the earlier cataclysm, the downturn of 2008 isn’t a direct verdict on the technology industry. Unfortunately, in the old Schumpeterean, "creative destruction" view of capitalism, firms can’t pick and choose which economic shocks demand a response. Many of shocks come from outside the technology industry. Unfair, perhaps, but that’s life.

The Memes They Are A-Changin’
Fortunately, in the same "creative destruction" philosophy, crises provide an excuse for making necessary changes. For example, whether or not Americans wanted to admit it, the United States was already an important global player. Sadly, it took two world wars for American elites to adopt a more internationalist foreign policy, and for American voters to approve it.

Perhaps, when we ponder notions like taking Web 2.0 more seriously, or revamping the way we collect requirements, or exposing the product roadmap to salespeople and customers, we need to look not at our feet, but the road ahead. When the downturn ends–and it will, just as all calamities end–will technology companies be operating the same way? Or will the survivors have found, in the press of necessity, different ways to operate?

I’ll leave it to your genes, or brain chemistry, or boredom with the status quo, to answer that question.