I used to make little pieces of plastic come to life.
It was my first job out of college.
And quite honestly it was one of those, “first place that would hire me with a newly minted MechE degree” decisions.
As it turned out though, it was actually a pretty cool gig.
We’d get news of a new Ford, GM, or Chrysler vehicle in development about 2 years out from launch.
Get some pretty CAD data that we’d get to import and play with.
And then plug in our components to start the long, back-and-forth process of negotiating with the engineers on the other end of the Webex screen share until we decided on a final design to release.
That was the fun part.
There wasn’t an engineer that worked there that didn’t secretly love sitting around in the design conference room and spinning around their latest Pro Engineer model on the big projector screen.
Adding a radius here.
An extra error-proofing feature there.
But when it actually came time stop designing, and start executing; to kick off all of the tooling, assembly equipment, and plant process documentation…
All hell would break loose.
No one could give a straight answer on when the equipment would be ready.
No one knew quite where the assembly cell would sit on the production floor.
And all of the SOPs, tooling agreements, and quality control documentation that we were supposed to be carefully and methodically working through step-by-step would get pushed off until the last possible second, and pencil-whipped into shape right in the nick of time before the supplier auditor made his visit.
The big problem underlying the chaos was, once the design was released, there was a hard deadline sitting on the other end of all of that work.
The final approved process and product had to be ready to the day promised… lest the red-faced Detroit attack hounds be released upon you, yelling obscenities and threatening to cancel every contract you’d ever had or ever will have in the future.
Ahhh yes… the life of a Tier 2 automotive supplier.
Now, after observing this cluster-F the first few go-rounds, little ‘ole naive me wondered why this was all happening.
Why was it a fire drill of epic proportions every single time a new product was sent down the development pipeline… when in reality this should be the most predictable and repeatable part of the process?
Long story short, I spent the next few years working on a side project.
And in the end, we built out an integrated Microsoft Project system.
You could plug in the final project milestone (the date the approved parts were due to the customer).
It had carefully constructed finish-to-start dependencies all the way back to the design release date, and resource assignments that would tell each department…
Exactly how much work was coming their way and where it should be prioritized in the queue in order to hit each of the 20+ active deadlines in the system with ease and precision.
It was beautiful.
It was a real solution that worked.
It was… a complete anti-climax because the company got acquired and I left along with 95% of the other salaried employees who worked there.
It revealed something about how most of us plan ahead.
We start where we are now.
Then we think out as many steps as we can into the future.
Until things start to get hazy.
Our projections get less and less certain.
And at some point in the planning process, we get tired and say to ourselves…
This is exactly what happened with almost every single project that ran through that company in the 5 or so years that I had worked there (apart from the few run by other rogue project engineering cult-members I managed to recruit to support my mission).
It’s also exactly what happens with most marketing campaigns.
A few steps forward.
Fatigue and “eh, we’ll figure it out.”
Back to what we were doing before.
With the only evidence of its existence, a scattered trail of incomplete work:
A “who knows whether this is doing anything” Adwords campaign running in the background…
Empty company logo accounts littered across five different social media platforms…
I take it as a personal affront when this happens.
When all of the work you do prior to launch disappears into the aether of a generically-labeled Google Drive folder.
It makes me feel yucky.
It’s one thing when you plan, execute to a tee, measure the result, and deem it all a failure. Then at least you have clear information on what doesn’t work and you can move on with your life.
But it’s another thing entirely to fail before you even get to the starting line.
And that’s why I’m so intent on working backwards.
What’s the goal?
What is the exact step that occurs right before someone becomes a client?
What’s the exact step before that?
And before that?
In a way, I think I might just be continuing that project I never got the chance to see through when I was an engineer back in Maryland.
But I also think it’s the most important thing specialized consulting firms should be doing with their marketing efforts.
Don’t engineer more traffic, more subscribers, more inbound requests, with the idea that these things in and of themselves will somehow materialize into new business.
Instead, reverse engineer the result, and work backwards to establish what the inputs need to be.