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Doing for 10 shillings what any fool can do for a pound

By Nathan Wrench - Last updated: Thursday, June 25, 2015

Last weekend saw the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, in which the Duke of Wellington and the armies of the Seventh Coalition decisively defeated Napoleon. This remarkable turning point in history led not only to the creation of modern day Belgium, but also more famously inspired ABBA’s victory in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, launching them on the path to world pop domination.

To be the cause of two such significant world events would be enough for most men, but The Iron Duke went on to be a highly influential politician and eventually Prime Minister of the UK. However, seeing him in the news again, I was most forcibly reminded of one of his aphorisms, which went entirely unremarked by the media:

“To define it rudely but not ineptly, engineering is the art of doing for 10 shillings what any fool can do for a pound”

For those too young to remember that an old GB £ Sterling represented twenty shillings, one might translate this into “a good engineer can do for 50 cents what any fool can do for a dollar.”

It’s not a bad sentiment to bear in mind whenever embarking on a design challenge or a new product design. Note that the optimum outcome is not just to achieve the lowest possible cost, but to achieve the same result at the best price.

How often have you seen a product development team arguing over the best route forwards, with one party arguing passionately for a “better” solution against another wanting a less complete one…but one which is significantly cheaper? The arguments can go on – one solution requires much less development effort or cost, even if it’s not quite the optimum design…the other will be cheaper and better if it works, but it seems riskier. I’ve seen projects paralysed by these discussions, and with teams unable to come to agreement because they’re not seeing enough of the big picture. Should you use a number of off-the-shelf modules and the bare minimum of code…or design from scratch with a single low cost chip, but significantly more design effort?  Whose £ are you spending…and what would the fool do?

Unlocking such an impasse is difficult; success or failure of your innovative product development may hinge on the result. Remember then that there are two components to development success, especially when designing a complex system:

Doing the right thing AND doing the thing right

To put it another way, perhaps at a lower level, in a component or sub-system design review – constantly ask the two questions:

  1. What are the requirements for this part?
  2. Does this part meet the requirements?

Taken together, these questions can unlock the impasse…or at least reveal the further questions that frame the comparison. If your requirements are complete, then which solution is truly better and which has ‘benefits’ which are actually irrelevant, should become clear. The reason your team can’t agree on the best approach is probably down to a missing, unclear or ‘implicit’ requirement. If the decision hinges upon cost – and it often does – then make sure that the cost comparison takes in design effort, manufacture, installation, service, time to market…the whole womb to tomb. When you’ve satisfied the two questions above, the better choice will be the cheaper one – almost always. Spotting this and defining the most elegant solution is the art of which Wellington speaks, and where Cambridge Consultants can help you unblock your product development.


Less is more, everywhere. Frugal innovation for developed and developing markets. » Innovative Consumer Product Development Said, September 10, 2015 @ 10:32 am

[…] Nathan recently wrote a blog about engineering being about doing for 10 shillings what any fool can do for a pound. It got me thinking about how increasing global population will make minimising the use of resources even more vital in the coming years. […]


AuthorNathan Wrench

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