Engineers can imagine a new frontier and make it happen. Without them, low-noise earthquake-proof bullet trains that can hit 200 miles per hour will not be a reality since 1964. We will still be vacuuming with clogged up vacuum bags and poor suction powers if James Dyson did not imagine bagless vacuum cleaners in 1991. Today, a SpaceX rocket launch can be 97% cheaper than a Russian Soyuz ride in the ’60s thanks to engineers who asked rocket boosters can be returned to Earth in a reusable condition.
It is evident that the power to realise the future lies in the hands of your team of engineers. It is thus imperative that leaders empower them to drive creative technology innovation in the business that they are operating in.
Engineer, don’t code
Here at Funding Societies, we always encourage our engineers to ‘engineer, don’t code’. Engineers solve problems, while coders implement solutions. For technology innovation to happen, we need to involve engineers in the process of ideating solutions instead of simply asking them to follow through and execute. This means that we have to consciously expose engineers to end users and the market to deepen their understanding of the problem at hand.
Problem solving is not a mindset unique to engineers. It is also applicable to business persons in the firm. By having a strong understanding of the problem, we will be able to devise and continuously improve on strategic and targeted solutions that will propel the business forward.
Baby steps are the way forward
According to Boston Consulting Group, 70% of large-scale digital initiatives fail primarily due to organizational inertia from deeply rooted behaviors. This is unsurprising as large-scale projects are daunting and filled with risks. Taking such a large risk can do more harm than good as employees may be reluctant to cancel and repeat failed attempts, which may translate to higher project abandonment rates. As much as leaders can try to push a new company culture of trying new ideas and being open to failure, employees will still likely be unsure of what to do and still be paralysed by the fear of failure. Trying to revamp the company culture overnight never works.
Instead, leaders can ease in with incremental risks. I’ve learnt from experience that the best foot forward is to take small steps. This way, your team will feel more comfortable with the manageable level of risk, speed, transparency, and uncertainty. Through risk management, over time, you will be able to build a culture of innovation. If you fail, simply adjust and retry. This builds resilience.
People and culture are the two greatest assets in a firm. To build both, leaders can guide their team towards small, measurable improvements. This encourages a bias for action and reduces inertia. Baby steps are, ultimately, still progress.
At Funding Societies, we remind our engineers to set blocks of time for focussed work. As leaders, we can facilitate this by limiting meetings and questioning the purpose and necessity of meetings. The truth is that scheduling a bunch of meetings throughout the day can keep your team very aligned, but you are also disabling your engineers from contributing significantly and doing actual work. There is a fine balance to be struck between asynchronous and synchronous time to ensure that the team has pockets of time to do deep work.
(Many quick) baby steps are the (best) way forward
Scaling is scary, and understandably so. According to Boston Consulting Group, complex platforms and ecosystems fail at a rate of 45% during the scaling phase.
However, I find that when you take many baby steps quickly, each step is easier to take, and each fall is easier to recover from. The cumulative distance travelled will be further than if you took your own sweet time to take a wide stride every now and then. When you lose your footing, these wide strides will also give you a harder fall that is tougher to bounce back from.
The above illustrates the concept of rapid iteration, which is a term for problem solving by making a lot of changes quickly. While you expose yourself to risks with each change, it also allows you to learn fast and multiply successes to make progress.
Success is a numbers game, celebrate failure
No firms want to fail, and you do not see Key Performance Indices (KPIs) promoting failure. However, this mindset should be changed.
Thomas J. Watson, pioneer in the development computing equipment for IBM, once said that “The way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” Success is a numbers game. The more times you try, the more times you succeed. The longer you try, the less number of attempts you accumulate, and the lesser times you win. This is all simple mathematics.
To reduce the time for each try, the attempts themselves need to be on a small scale. As such, promoting small incremental changes works well in this model. Leaders can measure attempts, highlight learnings and correct them if they are on the wrong course. To achieve this, team members need to feel comfortable with failing regularly and quickly. This means that leaders need to shift away from blaming, and celebrate failure and learnings. This can sound contradictory, but it is necessary.
Funding Societies holds blameless post-mortem reviews after each incident of failure to ensure that everybody learns from the mistakes made. During these reviews, we come up with clear steps to improve on processes and systems to prevent any recurrence of the incident. At the end of the day, failure is never an individual’s fault and should be viewed as a learning opportunity. This approroach of having blameless post-mortem reviews is also done by leading companies such as Google. Mphasis train batches of 10-20 people, both new and old employees, in “out-of-the-box” learning by encouraging them to ‘struggle’ with difficult problems and finding their own solutions.
There is no such thing as a perfect system – every system can and will fail at some point. Engineers need to create, iterate, refine and sometimes even kill off softwares.
When errors happen, we need to retry, or continue operating in a limited manner until the problem is resolved. This reduces risk through design and improves the system quickly, cost-effectively and dramatically over time.
However, how do we work with system failure? To quantify the amount of time your system can exhibit errors without any adverse business impact, leaders can set an appropriate error budget. In Funding Societies, we make it a point to have a team of advisors continually decide and revise the error budget. Too small a budget and you end up spending too much time on fault tolerance features instead of user features, too big a budget and you may lose users.
Engineers are a creative bunch who changed the world
Many people have the misconception that the engineering mindset is purely rational and methodical. While it is logical and driven by reason, the mindset is also a creative one. Most engineers were drawn to the career due to a fascination with how things work. Since engineers can connect the dots and solve problems, they often think outside the box and visualise alternative solutions and scenarios.
Behind every innovative idea is an engineer. As society continues its rapid growth in technological advancements, engineers are facing problems they have never remotely seen before. This is why training your team of engineers to think over and beyond is crucial.
3M, Google and Facebook have all initiated programmes that allow employees to set aside time to work on creative side projects where they can fail safely. This led to post its, Gmail, Google Maps, and AdSense, which continue to be staples in our day to day lives today.
At Funding Societies, we too strive to create a space and time where engineers can be productive. Afterall, no creative work is done in a tight 9-5 schedule. On top of this, we also block time out for our engineers to do innovative work through hackathons and dedicated ‘spike’ tasks in sprints for research. This way, we encourage our engineers to build innovation skills as part of their job instead of adding on extra work. In fact, these hackathons provide a fun platform for our engineers to build any project of their choice that is aligned with a broad theme such as ‘solving SME problems’. We support them throughout the ideation and iteration stages as well. The hackathon outcomes are not limited to the honing of innovation and technical skill sets, but also include feelings of solidarity through bonding amongst engineers across departments as well as numerous new and interesting ideas that add value to Funding Societies as a whole.
Disclaimer: The information provided to you in this blog post is intended only for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice on any subject matter. The materials and the information provided are not intended to be and do not constitute an advertisement or solicitation. In no event will Funding Societies be liable to any party for any direct, indirect, incidental, special, consequential or punitive damages for use of such information by you or any unauthorized third party.
- Empowering the creative engineering mind to drive innovation - May 11, 2022