How Engineers Create New Markets

How Engineers Create New Markets When engineers see a big opportunity, we want desperately to move the company in the direction of our thinking, but find it difficult to change the behavior of others.

Our method of choice is usually a full frontal assault, explaining to anyone that will listen the opportunity as we understand it. Our approach is straightforward and ineffective. Our descriptions are long, convoluted, complicated, we use confusing technical language all our own, and omit much needed context that we expect others should know. The result – no one understands what we’re talking about and we don’t get the behavior we’re looking for (immediate company realignment with what we know to be true). Then, we get frustrated and shut down – opportunity lost.

To change the behavior of others, we must first change our own. As engineers we see problems which, when solved, result in opportunity. And if we’re to be successful, we must go back to the problem domain and set things straight.

Here’s a sequence of new behaviors we as engineers can take to improve our chances of changing the behavior of others:

Step 1. Create a block diagram of the physical system using simple nouns (blocks) and verbs (arrows). Blue arrows are good (useful actions) and red arrows are bad (harmful actions). Here’s a link to a PowerPoint file with a live template to create your own.

Step 2. Reduce the system block diagram down to its essence to create a distilled block diagram of the problem, showing only the system elements (blocks) with the problem (red arrow).For a live template, see the second page of the linked file. [Note - if there are two red arrows in the system block diagram, there are two problems which must be solved separately. Break them into two and solve the first one first. For an example, see page three of the linked file.]

Step 3. Create a hand sketch, or cartoon, showing the two system elements (blocks) of the distilled block diagram from step 2. Zoom in so only the two elements are visible, and denote where they touch (where the problem is), in red. For an example, see page four of the linked file.

Step 4. Now that you understand the real problem, use Google to learn how others have solved it.

Step 5. Choose one of Google’s most promising solutions and prototype it. (Don’t ask anyone, just build it.)

Step 6. Show the results to your engineering friends. If the problem is solved, it’s now clear how the opportunity can be realized. (There’s a big difference between a crazy engineer with a radically new market opportunity and a crazy engineer with test results demonstrating a new technology that will create a whole new market.)

Step 7. If the problem is not solved, or you solved the wrong problem, go back to step 1 and refine the problem

With step 1 you’ll find you really don’t understand the physical system, you don’t know which elements of the system have the problem, and you can’t figure out what the problem is. (I’ve created complicated system block diagrams only to realize there was no problem.)

With step 2, you’ll continue to struggle to zoom in on the problem. And, likely, as you try to define the problem, you’ll go back to step 1 and refine the system block diagram. Then, you’ll struggle to distill the problem down to two blocks (system elements). You’ll want to retain the complexity (many blocks) because you still don’t understand the real problem.

If you’ve done step 2 correctly, step 3 is easy, though you’ll still want to complicate the cartoon (too many system elements) and you won’t zoom in close enough.

Step 4 is powerful. Google can quickly and inexpensively help you see how the world has already solved your problem.

Step 5 is more powerful still.

Step 6 shows Marketing what the future product will do so they can figure out how to create the new market.

Step 7 is how problems are really solved and opportunities actually realized.

When you solve the real problem, you create real opportunities.

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Mike ShipulskiMike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior.  He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.

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