Mission Impossible? Not so fast…

Mission ImpossibleI once headed a team of engineers who was making a small demo of a new technology for a consumer electronics product. Given the success of Apple (and how everyone followed their lead), I knew that thin was sexy. At the end of the project kickoff meeting I challenged the team to make the demo a specific thickness which was very thin. I was immediately met with a chorus of vehement exclamations that my request was impossible. After letting everyone go a little crazy on me, I said that I understood it was a challenge but thought it was both doable & important, and laid out why on both counts (I had thought through the number I gave them so it would be defensible when it was questioned). I then ended with this: “Let’s set this thickness as the target, and as soon as any group hits a problem with maintaining this, let me know right away before any design decisions are finalized. I don’t want to force the impossible, but I want to know specifically *why* it is impossible before we stop trying. Fair enough?” Everyone agreed it was a fair approach and the kickoff meeting ended.

So what was the result?

We achieved the target thickness, and when we showed the demo to the VP of Best Buy at the Consumer Electronics Show, he said “Wow, this is so thin & sexy. I’ve seen a lot of demos of this technology and they always look like a tank! I’m glad to see that someone FINALLY gets it!”

You know, though, what amazed me the most? I never got a SINGLE notice of a problem with meeting the thickness target throughout the project. Not once did anything come up–never. The same team that literally told me it was “impossible” at the beginning NEVER had a specific issue with it in any stage of the design & build of the demo. Crazy, huh?

Besides the obvious take-away of “you can accomplish more than you think is possible”, that we hear all the time, I actually learned a few specific lessons from this experience:

1. Being able to defend the thinking behind a challenge is a must. By this, I mean both the thinking behind HOW it can be done as well as WHY it must be done. Without this, you will have lost respect among the team. Over time, this lack of respect will completely undermine your effectiveness.

2. Giving people a pre-determined path to resolve problems is key. Think of it like the safety net below the trapeze artists. Teams of engineers, in particular, can accomplish amazing things but they need to know they are not taking the risk alone and that someone has their back all the way.

3. Once a well-reasoned, supportive environment is established, stand your ground and shut up! I did not have to continue selling my request throughout the whole project. I made sure it was understood at the beginning and then I was done. From that point on, the onus was on the team members to notify me if there was a problem, but I no longer need to harp on it.

I have found that 3 step method works pretty well in most areas of my life, and I think it can in yours too.  Make your position clear and logical, make sure others know you’re coming from a position of cooperation not competition (this has to be real & not faked), and then shut up.  Unless you want to leave a comment, then please don’t shut up!  :)

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