Is that what you really want? Solving the right problems

conscious businessThis post originally appeared here – as a guest post on my friend Pat Sweet’s blog Engineering and Leadership.  

Just about any engineer you ask will tell you that our profession is all the problem solving. I’ve been taking various entrepreneurship courses and have learned that business is actually all about solving problems too.  Interesting huh?

I can’t help but think of a book that I read a few years ago called Conscious Business:  Building Value through Values by Fred Kofman in which he told a very simple parable to illustrate a powerful shifting idea around problem-solving.  I’ll paraphrase:

Ask me for a glass of water it would seem that your problem is that you do not have a glass of water. If I did not happen to have water with me and I will have to tell you: No, I cannot help you. I cannot solve your problem.

But is lack of a glass of water really the problem? Do you *want* a glass of water?  No.  You want to drink the water, but that’s not your problem. The problem is that you’re thirsty; what you want is to not be thirsty.

So in this example, let’s say I don’t have water, but I happen to have an orange or some juice or some sparkling water.   I can solve your problem, and I can help you, if I recognize that what you really want is not to be thirsty.

The point is that we don’t generally ask for what we want.  We ask for what we think will get us what we want.

In my first engineering job I was working for an automotive manufacturer.  We were solving the problem that people did not have cars.  That’s right: solving it by making more new cars.

Or were we?  The problem really was that people needed to get around.  They were asking for cars because they thought that would get them what they wanted.  What if we had offered horses?  Or scooter?  Or maybe electric cars?  Or (way more fun) jetpacks or teleporters?   In today’s business environment, where things are changing so fast, many large companies are retooling their business models to survive.   That is, they are solving the same problem with a completely different solution.  Orange instead of glass of water.

Nimble business models win the day

Entrepreneurs can have an advantage here because they are likely much more nimble than large corporations.   So it’s still about problem-solving but requires a constant ability to re-evaluate and move along with customers – or to pivot as it is known in Lean Start-up circles.

So I have come to a conclusion that neither engineering nor entrepreneurship today is not just about problem solving.   It has to be about problem identification as well.   Especially with the complexity of the biggest problems we are solving today, we need to bring in the skills to zoom in and zoom out on a problem and think about solving it from many angles and at many levels.  Unlike on the exams we took in school it’s not the best course of action to just in and solve for x!

Making it personal

Applying this principle to your personal career and leadership journey, what do you really want?   Do you want want to run a marathon?  Buy a new car?  Score a big promotion, a fat raise?  Take 6 months off?   These are all great and worthy goals.   Put a timeline on them and they will downright SMART!

But anytime I hear people talking about an outcome that they want to achieve, I think about that glass of water and orange example. What is it that you really want?  How sure are you that you can get it by achieving that specific milestone?  How else could you address that same area?  It may involve taking a smaller bite, shifting your way of thinking about what your need/problem actually is.  Try it sometime with your own goals.

Then try doing a bit of reflection.  Drill one level down.  Your goal is the glass of water – the thing you’re asking for.  What’s the orange – the thing that would serve you just as well?  Generate some alternatives.  Zoom out and think sideways a little.  You may end up changing your goal all together – that is, finding a better solution that solves the problem in a more efficient way.  And isn’t efficiency the definition of good engineering?

I would love to hear your results from taking this approach.

Look for the orange!



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Engineer Profile #2: The Point of Quantum Mechanics with Lindsay Watt

Engineer Profile #2:  The Point of Quantum Mechanics with Lindsay Watt

Hello engineers!  I am really excited to bring you the second in the Engineer Profile series with tech-business-finance-traveling man Lindsay Watt.  He is a true thinker and a doer, and a natural story-teller. I think you’ll really enjoy this interview.

Click here to listen now!  (And by the way here is Engineer Profile #1 if you missed it)

If you’re a student now, or if you are an engineering educator, I am sure you will find Lindsay’s take on engineering education really encouraging and interesting.  He also references Lebron James, Thomas Edison and Mark Vandreesen (though not all at the same time!), defines his most important ABC (great advice), and reveals his top three criteria for picking that perfect first job:


1) Make sure it has something that you’re passionate about in it.

2) Look for a position where you can learn as much as possible, and they will just keep throwing things at you!
3) Is in a place where things really get done, so you can put thing out there in the world and see how it feels.

You might be surprised by what he said is not so important in that first job.  And I was certainly surprised when he explained the relevance of the Quantum Mechanics course he took in school.  He tells us his perspective on the five-year plan, and why he choosing to study engineering was such a great choice for him.    He also dishes on why his first start-up failed, and the benefits he experienced of getting an MBA.

Please leave a comment below and let me know – was Lindsay’s advice what you expected?  What provoked most insight for you?  Any temptation to research a new interest or aha’s about your next steps after listening to this?  (A degree in Engineering Physics , perhaps?) :)    Enjoy!

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So what does an engineer do? 4 data points from real engineers

So what does an engineer do?  4 data points from real engineers

‘Engineer’ is an identity I have worn quite comfortably for the last decade or so, and it’s a profession I have enjoyed practicing, but when I started the Engineer Your Life project I realized I wasn’t clear even to me exactly what an engineer does.

Was it what I was doing?  Who could tell which activities were really engineering, and which ones were just, well, what I happened to be doing at the time?  When I made photo-copies, was that duplication engineering?  (Silly example, but you get my point).

As a starting point to figuring out just where that line lay between true engineering and incidental activities, I asked a group of fellow engineers:

What the single most important thing that your engineering education gave you?

since I knew that tell me how what they acquired at school actually gets used and which sits on the proverbial dusty top shelf of their minds, never to be used.

Some of the answers touched on the benefits of being an engineer, rather than the activities involved, which was nice to know but not very informative:

  • The freedom to take big, exciting risks, secure in the knowledge I will always have a job to fall back on because my skills are useful and transferable. I can get stuff done!
Some answers hinted at the benefits of the experience of engineering school itself, in that you find your tribe:
  •  My friends. The amazing women I met during my education are pillars of strength – they inspire me, encourage me to take risks, and love life. It also taught me how to live the life I love – and gave me my first opportunties to “write my chapter” differently.
  • Connection to other people like me…which gives courage to be even more me!
 Awww!  Very sweet.  But it does not really answer our question either.
Then we started getting somewhere:
  • Single most useful thing I learned: how to build and test hypotheses. Being an engineer, I took it for granted that this was the way people thought; after graduation I was amazed to see that most other people don’t think like that
  • An organized problem-solving approach that requires being explicit about your assumptions. Very useful in academic research, and in life.
  • The ability to think critically, the desire to challenge everything and the skills to sound like I know what I’m talking about. :):)
  • Critical, organized thinking, and a desire for making evidence-based decisions.
  • The ability to problem solve and to consider – and discard – ideas based on evidence and data until you find the best fit. Being comfortable with best fit rather than perfect fit.
  • And probably most important of all, understanding that the public good is paramount, tap, tap, tap.
Okay so to summarize.  What does an engineer do?
1) Think critically.  Respect evidence.  The ability to build and test hypotheses is thought to belong to the realm of pure science or research, but it nonetheless shows up as a well-worn tool of practicing engineers today.  Take an idea, strip it down, test it out, and put it back together.
2) Know your biases.  Explain yourself.  All that knowledge in your head is going nowhere and accomplishing nothing if you have no ability to relate your framework, approach, assumptions and ideas to those around you.
3) Solve problems.  Be comfortable with real life, not perfect conditions.  At some universities, including mine, the Engineering Faculty is referred to as ‘Applied Science’.  So don’t spend all your time nerding out on theory.  Roll up your sleeves and solve something.
4) Recognize your responsibility to public welfare. In Canada, we wear an iron ring to remind us of our responsibility to do our work properly.  The tap-tap-tap refers to the sound we make with the ring to taunt the younger, not-yet-ringed students.  The complete story of the iron ring is found here.
I have one more answer that doesn’t fit into the question I am exploring in this post, but it did make me laugh!
  • To see everything as black and white. Some times that cause issues on “normal” life (at home for example) :):)

How about you – do you agree that these were the most important takeaways from your engineering education?  How you do draw the line between engineering and not engineering?  Leave a comment or a tweet!

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