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Embracing the unexpected
by Robert Hillard

The nineteen century belonged to the engineers.  Western society had been invigorated and changed beyond recognition by the industrial revolution through its early years and by its close the railroads were synonymous with the building of wealth.

The nineteen century was the era that saw the building of modern business with the foundation being established for many of the great companies that we know today.  The management thinkers who defined the discipline cluster around the first part of the twentieth century and it should be no surprise that they were heavily influenced by the engineers.

Business was built around the idea of engineered processes with defined inputs and outputs.  I’ve written before about the shift from process-driven to information-driven business.  In this post, though, I am really focusing on another consequence of the engineering approach to the running of businesses, the expectation of achieving planned outcomes.

There is a lot to be said for achieving a plan.  Investors dream of certainty in their returns.  Complex businesses like to be able to align production schedules.  Staff like knowing that they have a long-term job.

When you’re building a bridge or a railroad, there is certainty in the desired outcome.  Success is measured in terms of a completed project against time and budget.

When your business has a goal of providing products or services into a market, the definition of success is much harder to nail down.  You want your product or service to be profitable, but you are usually flexible on its exact definition.  However, internal structures tend not to have this flexibility built in.  Large businesses operate by ensuring each part of the organisation delivers their component of a new project as specified by the overall design.

This sounds fine until you look at these components in more detail.  Many are fiendishly complex.  In particular the IT can often involve many existing and new systems which have to be interfaced in ways that were never intended when they were originally created.  Staff trained to achieve a single outcome in the market keep on testing customers until they gain (or even bludgeon) acceptance for the product or service design.

Because of the scale of these projects, failure is not an option.  The business engineering philosophy that I’ve described will push the launch through regardless of the obstacles.  However, there is a growing trend in business to try and use “big data” to run experiments and confirm that the design of a new product or service is correct before this effort is undertaken.

There is also another trend in business.  Agile.  Agile methods are characterised by an evolutionary approach to achieving system outcomes.

Individually these trends make sense.  Taken together they may actually be starting to indicate a deeper change.  In a future world we may treat business as an experiment in its own right.  We know what the outcome is that we expect, but we will push our teams to embrace issues and look for systemic obstacles to guide us in new, and potentially more profitable, directions.

When customers don’t react positively to our initial designs, rather than adjust the design to their aesthetic, business should ask whether the product is appropriate at all and consider making a radical shift even at the last minute.

When IT finds that a system change is harder than they expected, they can legitimately ask whether there is a compromise that will deliver a different answer that might be equally acceptable, or sometimes even more useful.

One of the major differences between scientists and engineers is that the former look for the unexpected in their experiments and try to focus on the underlying knowledge they can get from things not going as planned.  Perhaps twenty-first century business needs less people thinking like engineers trying to railroad new products and services into the market and more who are willing to don the lab coat of a scientist who is willing to allow the complexity of modern business to flourish and support their innovation.

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