As software developers, we spend a fair amount of time listening to folks struggling with the question of whether to build “it” themselves or buy a SaaS solution that does “it.” This question seems never to escape their purview as they work through their discovery process. The challenge I’ve seen time and again, beginning with this cost comparison approach, is that in almost every instance the effort and priority given to come to the answer to this question derails companies from the most critical questions they should consider for their business. Unfortunately, as a result, the most important questions a business should be asking are the ones that are never asked.
At MasterSteam ERP, we build software that automates a myriad of functions along the pathway of selling telecom services that starts with sales leads and culminates in commissions being paid. Without question, we’re best known for automating complex telecom quotes. This certainly describes a function, but there is another way to understand the outcome of this function. To us, automating complex quoting means we put mission critical information into the hands of salespeople in just seconds that typically took hours, days and even weeks for them to obtain before they met us. While it’s easy to look at the outcome of salespeople getting the quotes they need really fast, conclude the obvious time saving benefit of automating the quote process and move on, the more transformative results for our clients occur from the flexibility this function gives them when they choose to go down the path of asking better questions that delve into what really could be accomplished for their business. This requires a deeper introspective approach. How do I change my business when I suddenly experience saving an immense amount of time within a process? Do I continue to do the same thing as I always did and just do more of it or do I now have an opportunity to change the approach to serving my customer to something truly innovative and transformative? Saving time, for the sake of having more time will only allow for a company to grow so much, understanding where and how the advent of more time can best be utilized for a business is instrumental for transformational growth.
The trick to getting this right is addressing the known variable of time to be saved up front as the quantity of business capital that it is. Quantified. With this time quantified, the plan for this time can and must be a part of the equation of whether to build or buy or which solution suits a business best. Why? Because the intended use of this time in almost every instance will steer the very attributes of the solution that is providing the time. We see time and again that companies that take this approach end up concluding that the solution they originally thought they were shopping for should be built slightly different than what they thought it would be and for an exponential benefit to their business.
In our client engagements, the questions people come to us with are most often about salespeople quoting services to prospects and customers. Our clients typically are talking about a “Quote Tool,” either the one they have or the one they want, and therein lies the problem. The process begins with the client having the solution, a better tool in this case, already concluded as the solution to their problem. We can do so much better if we stop and ask better questions. I’m reminded of the Jobs to be Done theory pioneered by Tony Ulwick and his Outcome-Driven Innovation process. Ulwick’s process delves deeper into the need behind the solution which he coined as the “job” that needs to get done. An example often used by those who subscribe to this approach is credited to Harvard Business School Marketing Professor Theodore Levitt who used the analogy of someone going to their home improvement store to purchase a drill. “People don’t want a quarter inch drill, they want a quarter inch hole” he exclaimed. When people go to the store to buy a drill, getting the drill is not their real goal. The tool is selected to solve a specific problem or need, but it is not the “job to be done.” Their approach continues in this rather Socratic manner. If it’s not the drill, is a quarter inch hole really the goal either? As the notion goes, when you realize they don’t want the drill and then realize it isn’t about the hole either, then you can discover the real goal, which by way of Levitt’s example was a person wanting to hang a bookshelf. With the real goal now identified, absent of a pre-concluded solution, then real innovation to a solution for the right “job” can be found. Perhaps a shelving method that doesn’t require holes at all could be a better approach and therefore the hole and the drill become unnecessary. Taking it a step further, what if the solution was creating books that do not need bookshelves in the first place. Think Kindle. It’s a very innovative, thought provoking approach we use constantly.
In our world, a client that simply automates a function to save time may be missing out on exponential improvement that could occur as a result of the flexibility automation provides. When something as transformative within a business as obtaining mission critical information in seconds that previously took hours, days and weeks can occur it spins off an almost endless amount of opportunity to transform and innovate that deserves exploration. The answer to the question of whether to build or buy has a particular path that goes along with it and I would offer that it is not necessarily the most beneficial path that will reward your effort. The answer, you know, will end up being one or the other, but proceed with confidence that the best answer to that question will take care of itself and instead, choose the path of questioning that truly innovates the way you do what you do.