This is a guest post by Patrick Sweet, P.Eng.
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt like it was impossible to make a decision? Or have you ever gone all-in on a big decision just to find out you made a huge mistake?
I’ve done both, and I’m sure I’m in good company. Paralysis by analysis is a terrible state to be in – especially when you realize you’re in that state and can’t seem to do anything about it. It’s even worse to realize you made a terrible big decision – there’s no turning back the clock, and you’re stuck with the situation you’re in.
Luckily, there’s some simple advice that we can use to avoid either situation in the future. In his book Great by Choice, management expert Jim Collins explains what great companies do to make smart decisions. Great companies fire bullets first, then cannonballs. I believe that you can take the same advice and apply it to your engineering career and life.
The idea that Collins presents is simple. Before spending a lot of time analyzing something to death, try learning through experimentation instead. This is what he calls “firing bullets”. Small, focused efforts should be made in order to determine how close you are to the bull’s-eye.
In engineering design or professional development, this might mean building a simple prototype to see if an idea you have makes sense and to see if there are any immediate flaws or issues you need to deal with. When looking at making a career change, experimenting through taking on an internship, moonlighting, or volunteering in a new role can teach you a lot about whether it really is something you might like to try.
Once you’ve conducted an experiment (i.e. fired a bullet), you can take what you learned, adjust course, and try another small experiment. You can repeat this process of aim, fire, aim, fire, aim, fire, until you believe you’ve determined the best option.
Then, double down
Once you’ve shot enough bullets to be confident that you’ve hit the bull’s-eye, it’s time to start firing cannonballs. You can now start working very hard towards implementing whatever decision you’ve made, whether it be engineering career related, or a personal decision. If it has to do with a new career path, firing cannonballs might be to accept a position in a new field or industry, or maybe to start a master’s degree. Big moves like this can be intimidating if you’re not sure it’s a good idea. It becomes much, much easier if you’ve shot enough bullets first to know you’re going in the right direction.
What should you be doing?
What issues are you trying to work through in your personal or professional lives? Are you stuck on anything right now? Try to think through what small, low-risk, low-cost experiments you could run in order to learn more about your situation. Then, take action and actually run them to see what happens. Please feel free to share the results in the comments section below!
About Patrick Sweet
Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA is a product and engineering management consultant, speaker, and the creator of EngineeringAndLeadership.com. He helps engineering teams and OEMs create profitable products, boost productivity, and manage complexity. You can reach Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org or @engileader.
Please leave your comments, feedback or questions in the section below on making big decisions.
To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success