Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Unwritten Laws of Engineering - Part 2

Relating Chiefly to Engineering Managers

Mechanical Engineering magazine continues its 3-part series on The Unwritten Laws of Engineering in their November 2010 issue.  This series of articles, based the articles and book by W.J. King and James G. Skakoon,  continues with Part 2 subtitled Relating Chiefly to Engineering Managers.  So whereas part 1 was for the newbies at work this one is for their bosses.

The odd thing is that while these laws of engineering seem like common sense, they can be as equally hard to implement for a manager as the other rules are for novice engineers.

Individual Behavior and Technique

Do not try to do it all by yourself. Simply stated by the authors, "You must delegate responsibility even if you could cover all the ground yourself."  Delegation is simply a matter of opportunity cost - even if you could do it all yourself, what other things, more valuable things, aren't you doing?  I was fortunate enough to work for one boss early in my career who not only delegated work but would support you and your work if challenged.  Speaking as a control freak, delegation isn't easy.

Every manager must know what goes on in his or her domain.  Even though Part 1 advised beginners to keep their bosses informed of everything significant, at the end of the day it's still your job as boss to cultivate your own awareness.  In my early years my employer collected a weekly progress report (i.e. 1 or 2 sentences) from each member of the group and cobbled those together into a report for the entire group (i.e. worthless).  Keep in mind that this was back when the report was typed by a secretary on a typewriter.  Some of us more anal-retentive types will have regular meetings and maintain extensive documentation in some software tool while still others may practice "management by walking around."  Find what works best for you and apply it.

Cultivate the habit of "boiling matters down" to their simplest terms.  The authors state it best: "The mental discipline to instinctively impel one to the heart of the matter is one of the most valuable qualities of a good executive."  We all know people who get mired in all the details.  Certainly engineering is complex and involves tradeoffs among many factors, technical and otherwise.  But for management, the so-called view from 50,000 feet is the only way to make decisions that propel progress.   I know an engineer who tackles a problem by starting with the most complicated example of the problem he can think of.  By contrast (back when I got to do a lot of engineering) I'd start by solving a basic version of the problem and then add complexity layer by layer.  I don't know what that has to do with getting to the heart of the matter but it's a good story.

Cultivate the habit of making brisk, clean-cut decisions.  This is a hard skill to develop.  You'd like to think that you earned your managerial position based on skill and accumulated wisdom and decisions would be relatively easy.   But studies have shown that fear of making a mistake can delay decisions and can, over time, cripple one's ability to lead.  And forget about trying to please everyone - Mom was right - you can't.  My experience is that decisions generally don't get easier with time and delays often introduce problems you wouldn't have had otherwise.  Often what plagues engineer managers is the lack of data upon which to base a decision.  You have to balance that lack of data with your experience.

Managing Design and Development Projects

Learn project management skills and techniques, then apply them to the activities that you manage.  As a project manager you'll be executing your organization's standard processes and procedures for defining a project's objectives, monitoring progress toward those objectives, and adjusting the plan along the way as bottlenecks occur (and they will).  It's a matter of ensuring that all participants have the same set of expectations.  A musical analogy is the symphony conductor - not necessarily an expert on every instrument but essential for keeping the musicians on tempo and on beat.

On Organizational Structures

Make sure that everyone, managers and subordinates, has been assigned definnite positions and responsibilities within the organization.  Just like you don't send nine guys on the field to play baseball without assigning them positions, you need to make sure all your people have well defined roles and responsibilities.  It's easy to understand that if your people don't know what to do the team's efficiency will suffer.  But more importantly, you have to realize that finding out indirectly that your job has changed or finding out that you're doing the same thing as someone else is sure to kill morale.

Make sure that all activities and all individuals are supervised by someone competent in the subject matter involved.  This isn't the quandary it seems.  You only have to be competent, not superior, to your subordinates.  After all, they deserve to have their performance judged by someone knowledgeable in the field.  Perhaps your organization isn't setup this way.  Not to worry - this is where a mentor from outside the chain of command can help.

What All Managers Owe Their Employees

Never misrepresent a subordinate's performance during performance appraisals.  This seems like something you shouldn't have to say.  It's a simple matter of honesty and integrity.

Make it unquestionably clear what is expected of employees.  In order to evaluate everyone's performance it seems only fair that you set explicit goals and expectations in order to provide a quantitative basis for evaluation.  The article introduces the idea of SMART goals: goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based.  As engineers, we should all be comfortable with this idea of making things measurable.  But too often we approach supervision of personnel as something soft and squishy.  Or we project our own thoughts onto the other person thinking "of course it's pretty obvious what to do."

You owe it to your subordinates to keep them properly informed.   These rules were originally written back in the 1940s otherwise they would've said "Don't treat your subordinates like mushrooms - don't keep them in the dark and feed them shit."  Notice that information sharing is a two-way street.  They are to keep you informed (but it's still your job to actively remain in-the-know).  But you need to let them know what's expected of them, inform them when they aren't meeting expectations, ensure they know how their job fits into the overall organization, and keep them up to date on relevant industry trends.

Never miss a chance to commend or reward subordinates for a job well done.  This is another aspect of management that's harder than it sounds.  When people do well it's too easy to claim they're just doing their job.  It take discipline on your part to remember to recognize their efforts and to do so publicly.  To provide a counter example, I'd recommend not doing what one of my bosses once did.  After describing what we'd been working on he replied "pretty easy stuff" and walked away.  (For the record, we had been doing a good job.)

Always accept full responsibility for your group and the individuals in it.  At the end of the day, the buck stops with you.  Being a manager means having the authority but being a professional means assuming the responsibility.  When they succeed, it's all due to them.  When they fail, it's your problem.

Read my thoughts on Part 1, What the Beginner Needs to Learn at Once.

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