Refocusing on the essence

I am a great admirer of the work of Col. John R. Boyd (he was an ace fighter pilot, dog-fighting instructor, engineer, military strategist, historian of science, and often unacknowledged influence in the military and business worlds. I highly recommend Robert Coram’s biography: Boyd).

Boyd was called in to consult on a fighter engine project (the aircraft in question became the F-16) and the engineering team was getting heavily bogged down trying to build their three favourite engines in one. They were bringing with them their assumptions based on previous projects, and a consequence couldn’t reconcile their ideas in a way that would work. The engine they were headed towards building would be too heavy and too low-powered to get off the ground, let alone meet the desired performance for a manoeuvrable dog-fighter. Everything was too complicated, and the debate about trade-offs was going in circles.

Picking his moment, Boyd, a forceful and charismatic presence, said essentially: “Let’s assume that a jet engine is just a pipe. Cold air goes in the front, hot air comes out of the back – we call that thrust. As to what happens in between – all bets are off.”

Released from their assumptions and wrangling, the team produced an engine which exceeded the required performance criteria.

You can use the same pattern to redesign a product, service, or business model:

  1. Refocus on the need you are trying to meet – what are the absolute minimum requirements for something to qualify as a solution? What has to come out? And what has to go in? Make this list as short as possible
  2. What else needs to be true in addition: thing like absolute level of output? input-output ratio? suitable ROI measure? Again keep this list to a minimum.
  3. What are actually “want to haves”, “like to haves”, masquerading as “must haves”? This list will be a longer one – keep going until everyone has dried up.
  4. Set aside everything except the essential function and musts (1 and 2) – get a blank sheet of paper and start designing from there.
  5. Protect your new design from any of the considerations from the third list for as long as possible.


© 2012. Andrew Bass. All Rights Reserved.