The Do-it-Yourself Trap (and how it might be keeping your business stuck)

flying clock

I remember unboxing it.  

One of my colleagues had ordered a benchtop milling machine for our engineering lab by convincing our team leader that it would help us avoid costly schedule delays by allowing us to make minor tweaks to prototype parts in the design work we were doing.  I recall my thoughts toggling back and forth between being excited to have a geeky new capability in the lab and a hint of concern that the “real” model shop was there for a reason.

Sure enough, within a few months, we too were hopelessly bogged down in our little “model shop” in the back room.  It turns out we were pretty inefficient machinists (since it wasn’t our day job). Secondly, when we were making chips, the design work wasn’t getting done.  Even more insidious, we got into the habit of making minor changes to the part without completing the changes to the documentation. It wasn’t long before the milling machine was moved to the “real” model shop.

So how did we go wrong?

This article is a follow up to this piece, in which I introduced the five ways firms put off or unintentionally delay real results.  We talked about how these are rooted in our unconscious biases towards work that is lower in risk, less complex and without conflict.   By becoming unwitting victims to these patterns of thinking, real benefits end up getting deferred from what appear to be perfectly logical decisions.

When we are doing breakout work in our firms, we are constantly faced with sequential problems to be solved.  Many times it’s in solving those problems that the real intellectual property and know-how is discovered. However, this must be carefully balanced with applying expert resources (when available) to solve issues faster and more completely in an effort to keep the project on track.

These tradeoffs abound in our firms.  

This is not to say that all “do it yourself” entrepreneurism displayed in firms is misplaced.  There are many times when a roll-up-your-sleeves approach yields huge paybacks.  The difference I see in firms that do this well, is that they are constantly taking a step back, and looking at the potential value add for their hard-earned attention and investment.

To tie this to our example in our “mini shop,” we did indeed learn things more quickly when we made updates ourselves.  Beyond just solving a fit issue or adding a new feature, we frequently discovered deeper insights about what would be a difficult operation to complete in production – or a better choice of material.

Where we went wrong, is when we would compromise the design based on our limited machining capability or time constraints.  It became far too easy to just take care of the 5 or 10 pieces that needed to be modified than walk to the next building and negotiate with the model shop leader to put it in queue.  It was in this subtle sub-optimization that we were losing our perspective and quickly our hands-on approach took us to mediocre outcomes.

So the question becomes this: how do we set up our teams to move forward in the optimization of the learning we need to advance our goals of serving the customer, while not overpaying for learning that an expert resource can inject to quickly move us along?

This branches into two logic paths.  

The first pathway is where there is not a body of expertise that the firm can turn to on this particular topic.  The principle to apply here involves getting yourself to the highest spot in the food chain where the most value can be added,  so that you can decompose the project down to first principles and serve as the value-added integrator of the work.

To use a second example, our strategy team was tasked with developing a high-leverage, assets and services play for a client firm that needed its own mission critical communications.   Because of the very unique insight we had into this group of clients, we needed to control the proposal end to end.  What we could to accelerate the deal was to chunk it down into the financial considerations, the spectrum considerations, the infrastructure equipment and the real estate.  We could have done all of it in house, but by parting out the work, we saved months, had a much stronger product, and were ready to go to proposal in record time.

The second pathway is where the knowledge area is well known – just not by our team.  In this case it makes sense to use a “turn key” vendor that we can use to accelerate our learning.  By carefully choosing the right relationship, you can quickly find the intersection between the industry know how and your unique knowledge.  In many cases, firms that have gotten used to “going it alone” are very wary of considering an investment to shorten the timeline with a specialist in the area – and this is where time can really drain away quickly.  

The underlying issue here is diminishing returns.  Just as in the first example above, it was inefficient to have engineers making chips in the “mini model shop.” There are many tasks that you could take on and perhaps make progress on, but this progress can be greatly accelerated with some support from someone who has seen this class of problem dozens of times.

An example of this in action is the difference between having an in-house facilitated strategy session and hiring an outside resource who is skilled in bringing out the best of the team.  When you look at the stakes and the executive time and travel to hold the meeting, my clients frequently find that the investment for an outside facilitator pays for itself in round off error.

And yet, this do-it-yourself trap persists.


I would point to three ways we have a hard time letting go:

  1. When we are a young firm, we’ve likely used sheer grit and hustle to get where we are.  To let go of the insight we would gain through the hard work of figuring it out seems like “know how” that we’ll miss down the road.  The truth is that done well, using expert resources frees you up to work in your zone of highest return.  The magic is then to put that hustle to work on the big problems of the day that only your team can do.
  2. It’s hard work to find people that we know, like and trust to be work partners.  We’ve all seen the classic issues with delegation and have seen what happens when a job has been done poorly and we have to go back and redo it.  The truth in the cases above, were that our fears were overblown, and in the case of the private communication deal, the product was much stronger than we could have done our own.  The key is to take the time to do real bi-directional discussion upfront to make sure that expectations are well communicated and understood.
  3. A fear that the competency that we need will be lost by having an “outside” resource take on key parts of our work.  This is the classic fear of “hollowing out” our firm.  The truth is that by being intentional, you can edit and strengthen the core of your firm more quickly by strategically using your in-house talent. One of the ways modern startups can disrupt an industry with small teams is the use of strategic resource partners in their offering.

Remember – the only thing you can’t purchase more of is time.  Time when your competition is gaining share, defining a new platform, or getting ready to remake that niche ahead of you.

If you’ve experienced that sinking feeling that your firm is being held back by a pattern of over engagement in lower value activity, the good news is that the perspective building to get to that high leverage point is quite doable.  The first step is a conversation. To get started on that journey, please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or use this link to set up a 20-minute (no strings attached) consult.

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