Saturday, May 8, 2010

Stick to your line

We've had a lawnmower ever since I gave my son, Bubba Jr. the contract 4 years ago when he turned twelve.  This week the inevitable finally happened - it broke down.  Should we take it to the repair shop?  nope, too long.  Borrow the neighbors? nope, short term solution.  Buy a new one? stupid.  So with the grass at our knees and our backs against the wall I did what any leader would do:  I turned to my son and said:  "Fix it, Sam".  And despite having never attended a single small motors repair class, or having any help aside from the internet and his size 8 cranium (my skills in the area constitute techno-comedy) he rebuilt the carburetor and made it run as good as new.

That led me to reflect on conversations I've been having with a good friend.  He has a job leading a series of big market facing initiatives and he's not getting the support he needs from the back office technical and communications teams.  Frustrated and needing help, he was constantly being dragged into their meetings to solve problems to get the support he needed 'unstuck'.

This is the wrong approach.  My son solved the lawnmower problem because he had to.  While no expert, he's a technical whiz and he knew that I had faith in his ability to deliver.  I asked him to do something new but well within his capabilities and he did so.  The same is true for technical support of any kind:  it's a mistake to solve their problems for them - it infantilizes them - you get down in the weeds, it becomes your problem, your fault.

The right way to deal with technical delivery is to do your homework - define what outcomes you need, compare them to what competitors or other industries achieve and demand that your team meet or exceed that standard.  Then get out of the way and let them do it.  Either they'll succeed and so will you or they will tell you that they can't keep up - that's the time to either eliminate their legitimate roadblocks or find new support.

The key concept is Comparative Advantage, best articulated by David Ricardo in 19th century England:  while you may be able to do everything that your support team does better, it is best for you to focus on your best and highest use - the thing that the market values the most about you.  By doing so and demanding excellence from those that support you, you'll get the most out of your efforts.  Out on the Openwater.

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