Engineering Planning During Uncertain Economic Times

close up businesswoman accountant using stylus pen to explain the planning strategy and profit at office workplace with dashboard on tablet screen for data management of business financial and economy  

It’s no secret that the current uncertain economic climate is taking a toll on our work and personal lives. During times of uncertainty, executive leadership teams make more conservative financial decisions in order to prepare for and/or prevent any major difficulties for the companies that they lead. These decisions and preventative actions have repercussions that engineering leaders and their teams must face. If your budgets are cut, how will your teams adapt? How will your new priorities change? Do you need to make tough decisions about team headcount?

None of these questions can be taken lightly, and this post will examine how planning can change during these uncertain circumstances.

The Questions to Ask During Uncertain Times

Unstable economies are just one catalyst for an engineering leader to re-examine the current strategic plan. Acquisitions, quarterly sales results, and new rounds of funding will require teams to work with management and determine the next steps. Through each of these circumstances, difficult trade-offs must be made. Plans must be re-visited, goals must be adjusted, and often resources must be reallocated.

Some of the most important questions to work through, regardless of the specific scenario include:

  • Which R&D work currently focuses on new markets, new customers, and/or is a high-risk investment? Can this work be reallocated to other priorities?
  • During tough economic times, it’s difficult to justify putting resources behind efforts that seek to expand to new types of customers. Why? It’s usually much more costly, and time-consuming, not just for Engineering, but for all parts of the business.
  • Are we focusing enough on existing users and our current customer base? Could we reallocate resources to double down in these areas?
  • During difficult times, it’s important to double down on your commitments to your current customer base. These are the customers that will keep the ship afloat when the waters get choppy, and losing them is more detrimental than ever.
  • What products and features are driving the most return on investment (ROI)? Are there existing product lines that are not driving the top-line growth, and what is the justification to continue supporting them?
  • ROI is important to quantify during both growth and decline, but it’s crucial when you need to clarify what to de-prioritize when there are budget limitations.
  • What product lines and/or features are expensive to maintain and require significant time or budget investment?
  • Showing work Allocation towards products/features can help reveal what to consider de-prioritizing when times become difficult. Once you know the costs to support certain initiatives, you can combine this with the knowledge from the previous question to gain a clearer picture of what the new focus areas need to be.

Some scenarios will require more specific questions to be answered. Let’s examine a few common scenarios in this next section.

Slowing Hiring

Even when companies are not as impacted as others by uncertain markets, they likely find themselves treading cautiously. This often means pulling back on hiring goals or pausing hiring altogether. Those less fortunate impacted by the economy will face difficult decisions that could include layoffs.

When you get the news to slow hiring, it’s important to re-evaluate all hiring decisions. For example, if you were hiring for backfill roles, ask whether those roles will still be required. Product decisions can have big impacts as well. If you’re choosing to sunset a legacy product rather than spend the effort supporting it, can you reallocate headcount to other priorities instead of hiring new staff? Creative solutions and decisions might just save jobs and keep your team intact. Be sure to re-evaluate your priorities on a quarterly basis, so that when you’re forced to make these tough decisions, you’re able to decide, and move quickly on hiring strategy.

Acquisitions

Acquisitions will throw a wrench into planning, and the key to handling them best is to ensure you truly understand the reason why the company was acquired. Knowing this will help leaders make sound decisions regarding how resources will be leveraged and reallocated across the collective teams. Is there a new technology team that will fold into your org? Are there overlapping skill sets that might fulfill backfill and/or hiring needs? Are there redundancies?

An acquisition presents a unique challenge where the volume of resources at a leader’s disposal increases instantly, but at the cost of transparency, operational efficiency, and in some cases role redundancy. Visibility and deeper understanding of the new combined engineering organization become more critical than ever. Technologies like Engineering Management Platforms can help leaders on this issue by showing leaders the types of work those teams are working on, team skills, strengths, areas for growth, etc. With this knowledge, leaders are better equipped to make sound and creative decisions regarding how they will leverage their new engineering talent.

Getting Ahead of These Questions

The reality is that when most leaders first come into a leadership role, they don’t see managing budgets as the sexiest of responsibilities. But it’s the closest thing to an operating plan for the current leadership vision. That’s why during economic turbulence, it’s important to remain diligent through the planning process. Ask the tough questions, workshop creative solutions, and make the case for your engineering teams. Your company’s future might depend on it! And if you’re able to reallocate resources successfully when times are tough, you’re most certainly going to be the one to pull your team together into the next stage of growth.

This article was originally written by Kevin Dallaire at Jellyfish, and republished with permission.

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