Cog. Engine. Engineer. Inventor.

The Four Mindsets Every Founder Needs to Build a Better Business

We’re all familiar with KPI (Key Performance Indicator) a measurable value that demonstrates how effectively a company achieves its objectives. I couldn’t find one that made intuitive sense to me, so I developed the Ultimate KPI™, a behavioral framework for tracking and encouraging constant improvement.

The Ultimate KPI l™ is a concrete way to practice making replaceability part of your job. Remember that being replaceable does not mean being replaced. You’re not trying to make yourself or those around you obsolete. You’re not trying to put people out of a job. 

In fact, irreplaceability is the enemy. Really. It renders you stuck. It means if there’s no one else who can do what you do, you are a liability. If what you know only lives in your head, there’s no transparency, no transfer of knowledge, and most importantly, no growth for you or the business. 

Replaceability means practicing detachment, relinquishing the notion that you and you alone can “do that thing” or “solve that problem.” Replaceability removes bottlenecks. It means you and your team can work on more substantive projects.

It allows growth. 

The process of making yourself more replaceable involves first analyzing how you do what you do.  

  • How do you go through various processes?  
  • Where do you allocate your resources? 
  • How do you spend your time?  
  • What requires your attention but not your expertise? 

We can answer those questions using The Ultimate KPI™. 

Think about the 20 things you do regularly, activities, tasks, projects, reconciling bank statements, leading the team, brainstorming, podcasting. 

Did you know that every one of those tasks fits under one of four mindsets? 

Cog, Engine, Engineer, and Inventor.

The cog focuses on the minutiae, the boring, the prescriptive. They’re doing the requisite tasks necessary to get the company through the day. In terms of flexibility, they’re in a cage. They can’t go anywhere because if they do, the business will grind to a halt. And forget the notion of freedom. Cogs are barely able to keep their head above water.

Many founders recoil at the notion of being a cog. I get that. It sounds neither glamorous nor impactful. So the way to cast off the mantle of cog-ness is to acknowledge that you may very well be suffering from terminal uniqueness. 

Granted, you might’ve been unrivaled when you started the business, but at some point, you stopped being as singular as you imagine. No disrespect. I’ve been there. You started doing the work of cogs because it had to be done. There are other people and tons of automations that can do cog work. So maybe ask yourself, why are you doing it? Because anyone, even you, can jump that line and become the engine. 

Now you’re the driving force in the business. You are not a part of the engine. You are the engine. You still have to be there, wherever there is, so freedom at this point is elusive. You can’t go very far without the business halting, and your focus is firmly on the organization’s work. But, you’ve got enough headspace now to get interested in other work, ideas, projects, pursuits. But you can’t because you are otherwise occupied. 

But possibilities are the fuel that propels you to go from engine to engineer. Here is where you’ll discover the difference between working in the business and working on the business. Your hands-on engagement gives way to the cultivation of ideas. It’s more about using your voice instead of your hands. Maybe you go back and forth. Perhaps you spend more time brainstorming, but projects get done whether you are physically there or not.

Engineers focus on challenging scenarios and accelerate meaningful growth. You see some real possibilities in terms of freedom and flexibility. You can self-identify as free-range. Mostly. There are still limits. But many people happily roost here. They hit what I call the “good enough” line. There’s freedom, check. Focus? Check and some flexibility, and it’s good enough. But the problem is that good enough is a trap. 

Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some Gordon Gecko, hungry hungry hippo baloney. It’s about your mental enrichment, which, come on, will slowly atrophy if left alone. And good enough is probably not good enough for your competitors. When you accept that reality, it’s simple to jump the line to inventor. 

The inventor gets to focus on their genius, the things that bring them the greatest joy and have the most impact. They have the flexibility to work anywhere, anyhow, anytime.

A good way to think about the difference between Cog and Engine, then Engineer and Inventor is the difference between using your hands or your mouth. If you are engaged in Engineer and Inventor work, you’re talking. You’re brainstorming, you’re interacting with other people. You’re going back and forth. Then somebody else runs with it and makes it happen. 

The Cog and Engine are literally hands-on contributions. When your hands are involved, you have to be physically situated someplace; in an office, in front of a laptop, behind a cash register. 

It’s important to note that the goal is not necessarily to eradicate cog activities. There are certain businesses where the cog work is the thing you do; carpentry, landscaping, bread baking, rock climbing instructor. 

The business cannot operate without the Cog, because it’s not just essential to the business, it is the business. So there is a place for Cog work. We just don’t need to get bogged down in it.

Also, it’s always going to be one task, one mindset. There is no grey area.  

For example, you may enjoy doing something and feel like it’s clearly Inventor work, but if it requires you to be someplace, it’s going to be the work of an Engineer. And it has to be identified as such.

Remember, each mindset contributes equally to the smooth operation of any business. But who is engaged in these activities can be the difference between a scalable business and a stalled one. 

If the founder is doing Cog work, there is no leadership. 

If the Engine holds on too tightly to any system or process, there is no transparency. 

If the Engineer is working in the business, instead of on the business, there is no forward motion. 

And if the Inventor is doing anything other than contributing a vision, the business will not grow. 

Putting it Into Practice 

I created an actual “pen to paper” planner to help you organize your productivity journey It’s called The Ultimate KPI Planner, which is so not clever but entirely accurate. 

Here’s how to use it:

  1. Write down 20 tasks, activities, projects you perform regularly.
  2. Identify each activity as either cog, engine, engineer, or inventor. 
    1. Cog – Is it manual and repetitive?
    2. Engine – Are the tasks essential but frustrating?
    3. Engineer – Are you working IN the business or ON the business?
    4. Inventor –  Does a project require your unique focus? Is there flexibility to work on it anywhere?  Does it allow the freedom to explore outside the business? 
  3. Pick 16 things you will no longer do at year’s end. 
    1. Use the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent must be offboarded in order to grow.
    2. Is the activity excessive, unneeded, unnecessary, inefficient, irrelevant? 
  4. Determine the Replacement Plan
    1. Optimize – offload or eliminate
    2. Automate – software system or process optimization
    3. Outsource – delegate internally or externally
  5. Monitor Continuous Change (Kaizen) 
    1. Monthly check-ins – with yourself and your team 
      1. How many tasks are gone, reassigned, outsourced? 
      2. Set a goal and if you do not reach it, go back and reimagine The Replacement Plan. 

The Replacement Plan is the holy grail of this practice. It makes zero sense to commit to a thorough house cleaning, and inventory the work you are doing, only to replace tasks with equally inefficient systems and processes. Or worse, get frustrated and fall back to your old ways; which would constitute a productivity relapse and those are simply awful.  

If you employ my OAO (Optimize, Automate, Outsource) Methodology, you will see forward momentum almost immediately.  The early successes you’ll feel will be the necessary fuel to keep you going on this road to focus, freedom, and flexibility. 

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