Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Can I borrow your Lawn Mower

The first job I ever got paid for was mowing lawns. To be precise, I received a pittance for mowing my family’s acre lot. Uphill. In the snow. Both ways. As I got older I branched out to the neighbors, who seemed to be on the same pay scale as my Dad. One time my lawn mower broke in the middle of a job, and I had to finish the yard with scissors. You can’t make this stuff up.

Shared systems, Certified Technology Assets, Reusable Objects, and Infrastructure. These are all terms we use to discuss the value associated with reduced complexity, reduced costs, and improved scale, governance, and agility that comes with leveraging a solution across applications. I got to thinking about this just last weekend.

I was outside pushing my five year-old mower over my still-brown-from August lawn, and noticed how much greener my next door neighbor’s grass was. He always mows on Wednesdays. Two doors up from me lives Mr. Riding-Mower-with-a-Canopy, who manicures his yard every week. Twice. There’s one in every neighborhood. Today, he’s washing his driveway.

It occurred to me, that in 25+ years of home ownership, I cannot recall a single time when I was out cutting my grass and one of my neighbors was cutting his. Don’t get me wrong, everyone in the block takes care of their lawn, and I don’t think any of them pays for a service - they do it themselves. And yet - no two of us are ever mowing at the same time.

Being an advocate for shared systems, I began to consider the logistics of sharing lawn mowers. I figure, that if my neighbors and I pooled our resources we could get one honken mower - canopy, drink holder, and even a GPS. After all I figure, the electrical system is shared by all of us, as are the natural gas pipelines, the sewage system, and even the cable TV. So why haven’t we already taken the obvious step of sharing a lawn mower. Heck, we wouldn’t even need a community calendar - 'CAUSE WE NEVER MOW AT THE SAME TIME!

This issue comes up all the time in the Architecture Review Board. We see some solution that is used by multiple teams and someone asks, “Why don’t we turn that into a shared commodity?” It’s what I call the Lawn Mower Paradox. If shared solutions are good in some scenarios, shouldn’t they be good in all?

No. Most emphatically no! I like the flexibility that having my own personal lawn mower gives me, especially when I’m accountable for the way my lawn looks. I get it; each home owner could never build their own water supply or electrical grid. A municipal sewage system really is better than a septic tank, and I really, really don’t want Mr. Wash-His-Driveway dorking around with natural gas pipes.

And yet, having a mower to call my own gives me options and flexibility that a community solution would not. In this case, flexibility trumps costs. But what about a lawn service? Some communities collect an association fee and use some of it to pay for landscapers to address their lawn care needs.

A lawn care service is illustrative of two important points. First, accountability for the lawn’s appearance shifts from the homeowner to the lawn care provider. Homeowner flexibility is no longer an issue. Second, a lawn care service is significantly more than a shared mower. Just because two business units have a common need, does not mean that sharing a common product addresses that need, anymore than two homeowners sharing a lawnmower addresses all their needs.

Shared technology assets are good, and where technology, accountability, governance, funding, and execution can all be combined into a customer-centric product or service, consolidation should be considered. But it isn’t wrong just because there are two, or three, or more of something. Other factors, such as accountability or flexibility could be more highly valued than commoditization. Got to go, it is fall and I have to buy a new rake. Wait, what if....

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