February 18, 2015

When to call domain experts


Unknown unknowns

When breaking new ground, you don’t know what you don’t know, or what you need to know, or even where you’d go to find out and what things mean when you get there. It’s possible to get into things that you don’t understand.

Say you need to store some imported alcohol for a product you’re developing, can you do that? Do you need a bonded warehouse? Which regulator looks after this stuff? What are the rules?

Domain expertise

When your team is light on domain expertise, the most important early decision you have to make is to learn it for yourselves or buy it in.

Some decisions makes themselves – do-it-yourself brain surgery anyone? – but most situations aren’t black and white; given enough time and a following wind, smart teams can work out most things on their own. When the world looks grey, how to decide?

Buy or build

The criteria:

– risk of getting it wrong – cost, reputation, litigation, regulators, cul de sacs, re-work

– complexity and the time it take’s to get it right – it looked easy at the beginning, but I once lost six months chopping about in the long grass of US regulations

– cost of paying for the short cut – cash and its opportunity cost

– something you need to learn – or something you only need once.

If it looks simple, low risk, won’t take long and will come out of your kit bag time and again, work it out amongst yourselves. If it’s on the critical path and looks risky, call an expert.

The danger of course is wading into the shallows thinking it going to be ok, then not noticing as the water gets deeper. When this happens, when you can’t make out your feet or feel the progress – like my US experience – and you’re bobbing for air by relying on favours, it’s time to cut your losses and pull in the domain knowledge you’re lacking. Forget the sunk cost, it’s gone.

Skippy Strategy: In your current plan, what are you and your team working out as you go along that would be easily solved by someone else? Could they save you months of hassle? Who would you call for help? Should you?