Pragmatic Lessons from a Broken Toilet

One evening, my wife and I noticed that our toilet tank began to leak. Fortunately, the drops were easily caught in a small dish. Since this appeared to be nothing more than an annoyance, I figured I would fix it at my next free moment. My wife disagreed and suggested that we call a plumber to take a look.

As with many of my assumptions regarding home repairs, I was wrong.  Two nights later, my wife woke me up around 3 a.m. to ask if I heard running water. I told her she must be dreaming and to go back to sleep. She persisted and asked me to check the bathroom. As always, she was right. The toilet tank had emptied its contents onto the bathroom floor and water had leaked onto the floor below. What a mess! Fortunately, the water was clean. Otherwise, I don’t want to imagine the consequences.

I mopped up the floor. The following day, I decided to fix the toilet. It took countless hours and four trips to the home improvement store before I realized that even though I have an engineering degree, this seemingly simple task was over my head. Wrong parts and bad advice from the home improvement store were my undoing.

I admitted defeat and called a plumber. Within minutes, the plumber pointed out my mistakes and soon our toilet was fixed. The plumber also taught me how to fix it myself the next time. This experience reminded me of the assumptions and mistakes that many companies make.

Mistake 1: Assuming a problem is a low priority and can be addressed some other time. This is the “ignore it and hope it goes away” strategy. The leaky toilet wasn’t a big deal until it caused a flood. We often use this misguided strategy on problems that are challenging (or uncomfortable) to address.

Mistake 2: Assuming that training in one discipline enables someone to be successful in another discipline. While it is true that I was trained as an engineer, my degree is in chemical engineering and not anything that would prepare me to work on plumbing. Just because someone has worked at your company for years in engineering or development does not mean that they can do the job of product manager. Use of the product or product knowledge does not by itself mean you can think strategically and develop a winning go-to-market or pricing strategy.

Mistake 3: Assuming that you can fix it with internal resources. Fixing a toilet seemed simple but it was more complex than I anticipated. I wasted a lot of time trying to do it myself and was fortunate that I did no further damage to the toilet.

Mistake 4: Assuming that outside expertise is too expensive. The plumber’s fee was $125. However, the cost of my time, the cost of the wrong parts that couldn’t be returned and the cost of replacing the first-floor ceiling tiles was far more than $125. Making these four mistakes cost me time and a few hundred dollars. It forced me to admit that as usual, my wife was right. Fortunately, in this case the overall impact on my life was not that significant. However, when executives make these mistakes, the implications can be enormous to their organizations and careers.  At least four times a year, I get calls from executives who overestimated their ability to solve critical issues—or ignored them—and subsequently were fired.

The following checklist will help determine whether outside expertise is needed.

  1. Are there significant implications of not solving this problem immediately?
  2. Have we prioritized this challenge correctly among our other priorities?
  3. Have we had success solving similar problems and achieving our desired outcomes?
  4. Do we have the required skills and experience to solve this problem quickly enough?
  5. Do our resources have the bandwidth and inclination to solve this problem?
  6. Is this the best use of our resources, even if we have the capability and capacity?
  7. Are we aware of our knowledge limitations and the extent of the risks?

How confident are you in your answers? Honestly answering these questions will help you recognize when to consider leveraging outside experts. And it may just keep your career from going down the toilet.

Neil Baron

Neil Baron

Neil Baron is managing director at Baron Strategic Partners

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