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Doing Less to Get Things Done

Have you ever been in a situation where someone walks into the room and announces that they just got off the phone with a customer you need to add some functionality, described in very specific terms. As described the feature could take a lot of work, so you bounce around some ideas about how to do what the customer asked for. Along the way you realize that maybe, perhaps, there is another way that you can add a similar feature that meets the needs at much lower cost. But no one asked the customer what problem they wanted to solve. So what do you do now?

Some options are:
  1. Saying, sorry, we don't really know what the requirement is, so come back when you have more to say.
  2. Spend the next couple of hours discussing how to implement all of the options you think of, and planning how to get them done in detail
  3. List some options for what the customer might really mean, then delegate someone to fine out more, using your options as a basis for conversation.
Option 1 sounds appealing, but doesn't actually help you solve the problem of efficiently building (eventually) what the customer wants. While option 2 has you thinking about the problem and solutions, at some point you're making the solution more expensive than the customer probably wants it to be. This is an easy scenario to fall into since people, and engineers in particular want to solve problems. But a long conversation without data doesn't solve this problem and keeps you away from making progress on other problems that you know enough to solve.

Option third option is a good compromise. Spend some time discussing what problems the customer might want to solve focusing on the problem, not the solution (implementation). Then spend a few minutes figuring out how you might implement each proposed option so that you can attach a cost to each. Then delegate someone to have a follow up conversation with the customer using your options as a starting point. Three options is a good rule of thumb.

It's very easy to get caught up in solving problems without asking if you're solving the right problem. Whenever you're asked to to build something very specific, ask yourself if you really understand the problem. By taking a step back you can save time, and in the end have happier customers.

(For more on figuring out what the problem really is see the appropriately named book: Are Your Lights On?: How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is)

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