Murphy’s Law, “Whatever Can Go Wrong, Will Go Wrong” Best Exemplifies The Mindset Of A Great Engineer
An engineer’s outlook is inherently pessimistic, although some may simply call it “practical.” This is appropriate when building stuff, but when speaking with CEOs or board members, that sort of approach doesn’t fly.
“I figured out a simple, effective structure so that my answers gave all the information they needed while still making me and my team look confident and on top of things.”
When I first started out I was frustrated by conversations about achieving deadlines. The best example is the question, “How confident are you that you can achieve the result?” This question has been asked of me in every investor meeting I’ve ever taken. It’s necessary, sure, but it’s also bullshit.
I’ve been on both sides of the question, and today I acknowledge it as a necessary evil. Investors, executives and leaders are short on time, so we mean this question as a shorthand way to identify risk in projects.
Unfortunately, this question is crude at best. The board doesn’t want to hear your concerns, they want to know you’re the best person for the job. This means that this question is easily gamed by people trained in sales and body language who know the tricks.
Frame Reality With Reassurance
Engineers and scientists struggle with this question more than most, because our daily jobs depend on our ability to identify and mitigate risks before we encounter them. We over-emphasize risk because our job is to engineer contingency plans against the unforeseen, not obscure challenges behind fancy words. The best solution is to incorporate both elements into your answer, making sure to acknowledge concerns while framing them with self-assurance.
“If you sound too tentative or uncertain and your superiors aren’t going to trust you…”
I talk a lot on this blog about balancing two extremes, and here, reassurance and reality are another pair of yin and yang. If you sound too tentative or uncertain of your team and solution and your superiors aren’t going to trust you to get the job done. But if you give them the impression that nothing can go wrong, when the first problem appears, you’ll be the one they blame for not having prepared them.
And trust me, there’s always something that you didn’t expect. Remember Murphy’s law!
I was tired of trying to come up with an answer on the spot, so I figured out a simple, effective structure so that my answers gave all the information they needed while still making me and my team look confident and on top of things.
Before I start, I explicitly remind myself that a startup is an exercise in navigating the unknown and I discount my internal risk assessment. This means I will always be pushing outside of my comfort zone and experience. You need to be confident in your ability to adapt and overcome problems, not necessarily to know how to solve them before they arise.
- First, I always respond “I am very confident in our ability,” because this is always a true statement as long as I authentically intend to try.
- Second, I negotiate commitments vs. goals using the four pillars of [link “managing up”]
- Third, I mention any concerns I may have, but make sure to include my plans for how to solve them. I like to reassure my audience that I am already solving issues before they arise.
- And finally, I remind them I’m the [link “best person for the job”], and why I think the opportunity warrants the risks I just described.
Done well this communicates all the necessary risk/reward your company needs to be aware of, while assuring them your plans are the right ones. It’s not about concealing inevitable risks, it’s about showing them you’re the solution!
Sometimes these meetings mean refocusing your team or company’s goals. Learn why it’s so important for your goals to evolve You’re Wasting Your Entire Tech Budget If You Aren’t Talking About Goals