Constraints Are Your Friends
At least that is what Jack White says
Every so often you might end up in a meeting with some person who wants you to create the NEXT thing that your company will rally around and deliver the future to your customers. Being able to know how to deliver that next thing that no one else has is akin to magic. Apple did it with the iPhone. Ford did it with the Model T. DuPont did it with Nylon. How exactly do you capture magic?
If I knew I probably wouldn’t be writing this newsletter, but it’s a good question to ponder. I suspect that there are some ways that are ineffectual at capturing magic, at least in chemistry, and it's when there is a lack of constraint. When that person is asking you to invent that NEXT thing that no one else has and everyone will want/need. Hopefully, they are paying you market or above market rate here too, but how would you know? I digress. Anyways, when that person asks you to deliver this you need to ask this question:
What are the constraints?
If they are not ready to deliver on those constraints right then and there they are:
Have little to no understanding of how this process actually works
The worst thing they could say would be, “I don’t want to limit your creativity. Anything is on the table.”
This is bad for numerous reasons, but the primary one would be that there are too many options. When someone doesn’t have constraints it means they haven’t done their homework and without constraints there are no problems to solve. When someone doesn’t provide you with constraints it means they want you to come up with them and trying to create in a vast open white space is super difficult. Jack White waxes poetic about this for awhile in the documentary, “Under The Great White Northern Lights.”
Ideal Scenario(s) Of Constraint
Now, if you are in that same meeting and the person tells you this:
I’d like to create a snap curing thermosetting resin that is emission free, can be processed with vacuum assisted resin transfer molding at relatively high temperatures, finishes curing in under 10 minutes once fully molded, and only costs 30% more than the current best epoxy or polyurethane system. If this product isn’t possible to manufacture with current assets we can probably figure out how to build it since if successful this means we’ve completely revolutionized composite manufacturing. You have five years to get to market.
That level of constraint isn’t bad. I’ll list it out:
We know it’s a thermosetting resin that is emission free. Any addition polymerization could be possible as long as one monomer can react 3 times and the other a minimum of 2
We know temperature plays a role and the system cannot be too reactive
We understand who our potential customers might be—vacuum assisted resin transfer molding customers and likely other composite manufacturers.
We know that going outside of the internal manufacturing grid is possible, but it’s still going to be ideal to stay inside current capacities.
We have a constraint around price—30% markup against whatever the best benchmark is right now
It could be too low or too high, but better to pick something. I once knew of a product that cost more than what it sold for (epic miscommunication failure) and it was difficult to sell!
With both manufacturing capacity understanding and/or going for tolling or investing in upgrading or building new capacity it becomes relatively easy to figure out
Time to payback of any CAPEX at potential margins once a technical solution has been identified
Theoretical maximum cost from a tolling/contract manufacturer
We have about 2-3 years of actual technical development time
Maybe 1 year for finding a “hit” or something viable in the lab
1-2 years for customer trialing with your hit and understanding if it’s viable to manufacture and potentially tweaking in the lab to better fit customer needs
1-2 years for scale-up and big customer trials and validation by your customer (maybe pulling the trigger on investing in CAPEX here)
0-2 years for finalizing CAPEX investments, getting regulatory clearance, securing your raw material supply chain
With constraints in place we can probably guess as to what monomers might be commercially viable AND if we have to make our own monomers, catalysts, or bespoke processes we know what our theoretical maximum costs are upfront. There are very few options, lots of problems to overcome, and sometimes there are situations where you have two technical things that are in opposition that need to not be in opposition. This is the area where talking to your in-house patent lawyers and knowing the rules of how to deal with IP sensitive materials is important.
With constraints we also understand the timeline. Knowing that we have 5 years to commercialize we can back calculate everything else and you should quickly understand how feasible it is to deliver in time. Sure, you can stack some things in parallel, but spending a solid 8-16 hours with your cross-functional team in MS Project building a Gantt chart in the beginning is going to be a great use of time and you’ll always have a document to reference. Shit, hire someone to just spend all their time making sure things get done on time—it’s called project management.
Constraints Let You Know What’s Possible
Sometimes a new MBA hire as a product manager or marketing manager might try and push some aggressive timeline to impress their boss and will come up with constraints that just are not possible. Guess what you get to tell this person.
Sorry, this isn’t possible. I can give you a detailed response as to why it isn’t and why you are wasting our time.
I don’t think we say this enough or perhaps we are too afraid. Life is too fucking short to waste years of our time on stuff we know will not work. If someone says, “well how do you know if you don’t try,” you can tell them they can get in the lab and figure it out and report back. An executive’s goal for a chemicals product team should be to find people who are:
Know the business and the markets
Admit they don’t know enough and ask for more information until they are #1
In summary, no constraints is bad because there are too many answers and indicates the person doesn’t necessarily know the business. Too aggressive of constraints (usually too short of a timeline) is bad because it indicates the person doesn’t know the business. Your best bet is to inform them of their error. If they get offended then just point them to this newsletter. Something in the middle is ideal and even then your chances of success are not guaranteed. It’s important keep trying.