In the past few weeks, I’ve written about engineering management using landscaping as an analogy. I’ve really enjoyed it, so here’s another one.
In my last blog post, I talked about Unsolvable Problems, that is, problems that don’t have any easy or good solution. Following up on another post where I talked about Training vs Experience, here’s a good example of an Unsolvable Problem, and how to address solving an Unsolvable Problem.
Let’s look back on the Training vs Experience discussion. As we discussed, it takes experience to be able to successfully deliver a project. But if you’re hiring new talent and growing your business, how do you build that experience? You can send people to training to have them learn skills, but you can’t speed up a person’s gaining experience to be able to know “how to make the yard pretty”.
It is true, especially for smaller businesses, that your sales pipeline is your lifeblood. You have to be constantly working to get new customers, new projects, and new revenue. But you have to also be able to scale to meet that demand. As you get more and more customers and projects, are you able to continue to deliver at the quality needed?
Let’s say you have four or five landscaping projects in front of you, but you only have one or two people who have the experience to know how to design a yard. You can build a bench of people and train skills so that they can plant trees and mow grass, but it takes time for someone to gain the experience to be able to lead a project. So how are you able to deliver on your commitments?
“More companies die of indigestion than starvation”— Bill Hewlett, from “The HP Way”
The risk here is that you charge forward anyway and end up with a reduction in the quality of the yards you design and create. And with that reduction in quality, this can have short-term impacts with delivery delays and cost overruns, and long-term impacts with eroded customer trust and an eroded sales pipeline.
So what to do? There do not seem to be any easy answers here. This is where you hit the Unsolvable Problem.
Stare at the Wall.
When I was faced with this specific problem in the past, I followed the advice I gave in that previous post and spent some time Staring At The Wall. This is really about taking the time to digest the problem, think it through, and dig at the true root causes. Then you can look at the root causes and figure out how to address those.
When thinking about it from this perspective, what this problem actually is, is about scalability. How can we transform the yard-designing process from a time-intensive manual exercise by someone with the right experience into something that can be delivered over and over again? And the answer there is to treat the problem like you would treat any process optimization: create reusable, repeatable design templates for the yard!
“You need to constantly be thinking about how to inject scalability into what you’re doing.”https://aws.amazon.com/blogs/startups/how-to-scale-your-business-like-amazon/
Instead of having each yard be customer-designed from scratch, have the person with experience instead design multiple ready-to-go blueprints of different kinds of yards: the meditation walking garden, the swimming pool, the sports-and-games open lawn, and so on. Then as part of the sales pipeline, you can ask the same questions that would have been asked to design the yard, but instead have a decision tree or rubric that, based upon the answers, leads you to a specific yard design.
This ends up having several benefits. Customers can see pictures of what the finished yard will look like because you’ve done it before. You have a really good idea of how much it will cost because you’ve done it before. And you also have a really good idea of how long it will take because you’ve done it before. You have addressed the issue of not having enough people with experience, and at the same time helped reduce a large amount of project delivery risk.
Another option is to research and try something innovative. This can be risky but at the same time, it can potentially have a great impact.
“Are you pricing your products right or are you leaving money on the table?”https://theadaptivemarketer.com/2012/01/14/a-pricing-lesson-from-the-concorde/
I remember one time, speaking with someone that I was at college with. This person ran their business building and repairing computers. Business was good, so good that he had more customers than he could handle. He was faced with the same scalability issues, in that he was the one person in his shop who knew how to repair computers and he couldn’t duplicate himself or create more hours in the day. There were multiple options to scale out, including hiring and training more people, but he decided to try something innovative instead. He slowly raised his prices until his work dropped off to the point where he could happily handle it. He was servicing fewer customers but interestingly with the higher prices, he was making more money than ever before.
Yes, this idea was risky, but it was also innovative and worked out well for this business.
As a leader, you are faced with hard problems, the Unsolvable ones. After all, if it was easy, then anyone could do it. You’re not paid to do easy things, you’re paid (by your company or your customers) to do the hard things. But figuring out ways to deal with the hard problems is where you can show your value to your company and your customers.