Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 11/6/2003
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Herding Cats: The Art of
Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [email@example.com]
I remember a Superbowl ad that ran a few years ago that showed some
cowboys on horseback riding the range trying to herd … cats.
The ad was memorable, but I’d have to say it wasn’t terribly
effective because I have no recollection of what product or service they were
advertising. In any event, the
cowboys were trying hard to get all of the cats moving in the same direction
at the same time toward the same goal, but were having a lot of difficulty
because, well, cats don’t really like to be herded.
This reminds me a lot of managers attempting to “manage” engineers. The desired intent is there, but the results are often not
what is intended or desired. Like
cats, engineers don’t want to be “herded” or “managed”.
In fact, they may simply refuse to be “managed”.
There is really an art to “managing” engineers, and if the
proper approaches are not used, the results can be frustration and failure.
If the “managing” is done right, the result can be positive
almost beyond comprehension.
Engineers are really different from other people.
It’s not my intent to stereotype them, so please take the following
with a grain of salt, but engineers typically are highly trained, intelligent,
technical, logical (Spock from StarTrek is often their “ideal”;
certainly far more so than Jack Welch or Warren Buffett), and independent
minded. They are motivated by challenging work (generally far more so
than by money, as long as the money is sufficient), and are resistant to being
overtly managed. They respond far
more favorably to logical reasoning than to emotional manipulation.
They see beauty in the logic of their ideas, and look with disdain on
hype and sizzle with little real meat behind it.
It can be difficult to properly motivate engineers, but it is very easy
to de-motivate them and turn them off.
Engineers come in many different personality types, and often in surprising
and complex combinations. In this
e-Newsletter I will talk in general about “managing” engineers.
In subsequent e-Newsletters I will discuss some of the different
engineer personality types and ways to more effectively motivate and guide
them. In later e-Newsletters, I
will put Managers (or often, more accurately, Mis-Managers) under the
microscope, and address their personality types, impacts, and ways to handle
In most business organizations, there is a hierarchical structure, where “the
boss” has control over his or her subordinates; the higher the level of
the boss, the more the level of authority and control.
“The Boss” controls the work, the assignments, the pay, the
perks, etc., and the subordinates are expected to respect the command and
authority of “the boss”. In
most situations, “the boss” has earned his or her stripes, and the
subordinates bow to his or her experience and knowledge and seek to do things
the way he or she says to do them. If
decisions from “the boss” are not followed, there is hell to pay.
In engineering organizations, there is a hierarchical structure in theory, but
often not in reality. “The
Boss” may have earned his or her stripes, but often in what are now
aging or outdated technologies or disciplines, and his or her subordinates
often have more current technology expertise than “the boss”.
Often, it even becomes difficult for the subordinates to even explain
their “new” approach to the “old” boss. The reality is that “the boss” does not really
have the authority and respect that occurs in other organizations.
More often than not, “the boss” is more dependent on his or
her subordinates than his or her subordinates are dependent on “the boss”,
since the subordinates are the ones with the knowledge and expertise to make
products come to life. They are
the ones who, through their intelligence, can turn complex concepts and ideas
into practical, implementable products. Thus,
in reality, the engineers are really the ones with the power, and not “the
Engineers often don’t want to be troubled by such trifle notions as
schedules, or revenues, or profits; typically they don’t really even
understand what these are or why they’re important.
They just want to develop products that are things of creative beauty
and logical perfection. When “the
boss” doesn’t “understand” this, they get upset.
They may even rebel, and say things like, “Just let me do my job
and I’ll deliver the product when it’s ready”, or, “It’s
impossible to invent on a schedule. My
estimate of the time it will take is just that, an estimate.
If it’s wrong, then that’s just the way it is.
Learn to live with it.”
Getting engineers to do all the things management wants them to do by telling
them to “just do it or there will be hell to pay” will usually
backfire. Telling them to “do it my way or it’s the highway”
will turn them off and result in poor results (if the engineer even decides to
stay around). Telling them
they’ve got to do their work from 8 AM to 5 PM every workday will also hit
them wrong. Instead, it is key to
explain to them what needs to be done and why, in logical terms meaningful to
engineers, in order to get them to buy in to what needs to be accomplished. If they understand what’s really important and why, and
agree with the logic behind the needs, they will generally go out of their way
to make things happen. You will
often find engineers working all hours of the day and night to get things done
that they feel are critical, but their motivation to do so will come from
within, not from externally imposed demands.
Effective Managers don’t really “manage” engineers; they nurture,
or guide, or convince, or encourage, or cajole, or motivate, or empathize
with, or collaborate with them. And
they do this in a sincere way that shows the engineers that they are valued
and appreciated. If done right,
engineers will work their hearts out, putting in enormous time, blood, sweat,
and tears to make a project and product happen.
And the results can often be nothing short of astounding.
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