Welcome back to part two of our manifesto on successful engineering consultancy. Part 1 (click here to read) covered the first three essentials. Read on for the finale, covering the remaining two essentials.
4. Simplicity Is Complicated
We are surrounded by incredibly complex devices that operate in simple ways. From TVs to mobile phones, dishwashers to traffic lights, successful engineering involves managing complexity and providing simplicity. This process is difficult and takes time. Clients should be aware that commercial off the shelf (COTS) solutions that appear simple are likely to represent a significant history of complex engineering undertaken to achieve that simplicity.
Consider how the classic Project Management Triangle applies to engineering consultancy. The triangle has three vertices: fast, cheap and good. In any project, one has to position their strategy within that triangle. Optimising any two factors sacrifices the third. Hence the maxim: fast, cheap or good; pick any two.
When expediency and low engineering cost are priorities, adoption of COTS solutions where possible is highly advised. Where customisation and low unit cost are priorities, allowance must be made for the complex engineering task of making things simple. In the rare circumstances where the COTS solution is cheap, novelty is sacrificed. COTS solutions only become cheap when they are heavily commoditised and the market no longer finds them particularly valuable.
Note the subtlety here associated with the “cheap” dimension - it refers not to the engineering cost but to the final solution cost. Since engineering consultancies sell their time, the “fast” dimension represents engineering cost as well as calendar time. The “cheap” dimension refers to the cost of replicating or manufacturing the final solution. Finally, the “good” dimension represents the quality and the novelty of the work performed. A successful consultancy will be comfortable with trading off any of these dimensions for the sake of the others, in order to satisfy the client.
5. Never Underestimate The Power Of The Prototype
Once one acknowledges that initial requirements are incomplete, and that compromise is inevitable, the utility of an early prototype becomes apparent. If the target market is not well understood, or the applicability of new technology has not been proven, or there exists other doubts about what the ideal solution entails, an early prototype may prove an excellent investment. Stakeholders are notorious for being difficult to engage at the planning stage - it is very difficult to know what one wants until one sees it. Often stakeholder input can be unlocked by providing a far from ideal solution first.
Experienced consultancies will be aware that it is far easier to criticise an incorrect solution than it is to specify a correct solution. Successful consultancies can capitalise on this fact by advising clients where appropriate on the value of aiming first for an imperfect prototype, rather than a perfect product. Projects that forge ahead in a sea of uncertainty towards anticipated perfection, without the input of crucial stakeholders, are doomed. The client will be pinned between a consultancy that considers the project complete, and stakeholders that consider the outcome unsuitable, with a poor result for all.
Far better is to take stakeholders on a journey. Few will be able to articulate their expectations at the beginning, and fewer still will appreciate the effort involved to reach a deliverable. If instead, an early and incomplete prototype is produced, stakeholders have the opportunity to realise their needs and to witness the process of compromise. Having stakeholder buy-in near the beginning of a project maximises the likelihood of stakeholder acceptance by the conclusion of the project. Lists of requirements, constraint-free sketches and even 3D models do not produce buy-in, but a box held together by sticky tape that lights up with buttons to press and interfaces to handle can do wonders.
In recommending an early prototype, a very important caution arises: an early prototype is not a production prototype. The power of the prototype can lull stakeholders into an excessively optimistic expectation about the path to production. For this reason, it is advisable to call the early prototype a *proof of concept*, to convey the purpose of proving feasibility and suitability, and that detailed design and development still remains.
The role of an electronics engineering consultancy varies - sometimes product designer, sometimes circuit board or code cutter, and sometimes project manager. The successful consultancy will adapt these roles to suit the client and keep them informed, rather than expecting a certain type of customer and adopting a presumed role. Above all, the client needs to be informed about the project’s progress and the impact of their decisions. Ultimately, like many areas of life, effective communication is the best predictor of success.