Monday, June 23, 2014

Strategic Planning Analogy #531: Would You Want an Auto Mechanic to Cut Your Hair?

Would you want an auto mechanic to cut your hair? Think about it for a moment. Auto mechanics are very skilled at using tools to accomplish a task. Isn’t that what hairdressers do?


Okay, I thought about it for a moment. No thank you. I think I’d rather go to a hair-cutting professional than an auto mechanic to get my hair cut.

Just because someone is skilled at using automotive tools to repair an engine does not mean they would be skilled at using scissors to cut my hair. First of all, the tools are different. Second of all, the objective is different. Third, knowledge needed is different. Fourth a good hair stylist has a great intuitive sense of style and fashion, something not needed to be a great auto mechanic.

It seems so obvious. Give the task to the person who is skilled, trained and has a natural affinity towards it.

But that is not what I see in many areas of business today, particularly in the world of social media and other digital businesses. There seems to be this notion that nearly all tasks in the business should be done by engineers. After all, engineers are supposedly good at solving problems. Therefore, if everything is done by engineers, then all the problems will be solved. Right?

Well, to me that makes about as much sense as saying that because an auto mechanic is good with tools, I should give them scissors and have them cut my hair.

Even being the best mechanic in the world does not ensure that the person is any good at cutting hair. Similarly, being one of the best engineers gives no guarantee that the person has a clue about what it takes to be a great marketer, great strategist, great leader, etc.

No thank you. I think I’ll stick with the specialists.

The principle here is that the skill sets needed to be great in disciplines such as strategic planning are not the same as the skill sets needed to be a great engineer. Therefore, do not fill those roles with engineers. Here are four reasons why.

1. Different Problems
Yes, engineers are good at solving certain types of problems, but that doesn’t mean they are good at solving all problems.

In particular, engineers tend to be good at the “how” questions:

  • How do we get this done?
  • How do we overcome this design roadblock?
  • How do we turn an idea into a prototype?

However, there are a lot of questions that don’t begin with the word “how”:

  • What problem should we be solving?
  • Where is our competitive differentiation?
  • Why should we win in the marketplace?
  • Who is our key consumer and why will they prefer us over the competition?

In other words, engineers may excel at getting things done, but there are others who are probably better trained and more skilled at knowing which things should get done. Or to put it another way, engineers may be good at answering questions, but strategists are better at knowing which questions to ask.

Engineers like to talk about speed in execution, using buzzwords like “scrum” or “agile”. It’s as if speed is all that matters. But moving faster in the wrong direction does not get you closer to success. This is what I call the “lottery strategy”: the sooner I scratch more losing lottery tickets, the sooner I will scratch a winning ticket. That’s not strategy—that’s relying on luck. The odds are so low that you will most likely lose more money on what you spend on the lottery tickets than what you win.

No matter what many engineers may believe, success is not getting something done. Success is building an enduring business built upon a business model which is designed to win in the marketplace. Without the winning position and business model, all you may have succeeded in getting done is failure. Where’s the pride in that accomplishment?

Strategists are skilled in asking the right questions—to focus businesses on activities where they are more likely to succeed. Strategists can help engineers move from games of luck to games where the rules are in their favor.

2. Different Place
Engineers tend to spend their time focused on the lab. People like marketers and strategists focus their time in the marketplace.

In the lab, everyone is an engineer. They think all this technology stuff is cool just because it is technological. So putting the functionality of a smartphone into a watch is cool to them just because of the technological challenge. And since there is no dissention in the lab, they press on.

Out in the marketplace, things are different. There are problems which need to be solved. There are images which need to be maintained. And there are lots of firms offering a wide variety of options for solving these problems.

Consumers want to consume the best solution to their problem. To them, it is irrelevant whether the solution comes in a watch or in a magic orb. They will consume whatever is best for their needs. And it may just be that putting the functionality of a smartphone on a watch is not the most compelling solution—no matter how cool the engineers think the technological feat is.

Yes, you need people like engineers focused on the lab. But you also need people like strategists who are focused on the marketplace.

3. Easier to Learn Industry than Discipline
I’ve talked to a lot of people in retail store operations over the years and they all say the same thing. They’d rather hire someone with good people skills and train them in the retail industry than hire someone with lots of retail experience who has no people skills.

The reason is because some people are more naturally gifted in certain skill sets than others. These gifts are difficult to train to someone who doesn’t naturally have them. Without the right natural skill sets for a particular function, knowing the industry where you want to apply those gifts is not very useful. In fact, training about the industry to the right person is far easier than training in skill sets gifts to those who are in the industry but don’t have the gift.

As we’ve already seen, great engineers tend to be naturally gifted differently than marketers, strategists and others. Yet, these engineer-driven companies are hesitant to bring in non-engineers to help, because they are afraid they will not understand the industry.

Trust me, it is easier to hire great, naturally-gifted strategists and marketers and teach them your business than to take engineers who know your business and train them to think like marketers and strategists.

4. Remember the Failures
I have heard people say in response to the line of argument in this blog: “But look at all those successes like Google. They are engineer-driven and it worked. So I should be, too.”

My answer is this: For every successful firm like Google, there are thousands of failures using that same engineer-driven approach. Evidence would show that the engineer-driven model has produced far, far more failures than success. I see no evidence that the odds of success are improved when engineers are placed in positions for which they are not naturally gifted.

Just because an engineer is smart and good at getting things done does not mean that engineers should take over nearly all the functions of a business. Like everyone else, they have blind spots. By hiring a diverse set of people with different skill sets, you eliminate the blind spots and get people who are more naturally gifted in each particular job. Hiring a real strategist to run strategy is an asset because they can help focus engineers on getting the “right” things done.

Just as you wouldn’t want to have an auto mechanic cut your hair, I don’t think you’d want an auto mechanic defining how others should cut your hair. Yet, when I look at some job descriptions for strategists, it appears as if the job was defined by an engineer. The strategist position is defined as more of a project manager (engineering mindset) than as a strategic thinker (strategic mindset). If you leave out the natural giftedness of the strategist from the job description, you won’t get true strategy. You’re designing failure.

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