Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 7/7/2005
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Hear Me Now?
Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Dwayne Long, an e-Newsletter subscriber, responded to my last
e-Newsletter (see eN-050602
– Speaking in Tongues) that while he clearly sees the problems of
different groups in his company speaking different “languages”, his
particular problem is communicating engineering needs and requirements to the
senior management team in his company. He
started the engineering department there 5 years ago and it has since grown to
12 people. Prior to his arrival
the company had almost no experience with engineers or engineering.
He feels that “the bulk of the difficulty stems from the thought
process itself”. Engineers tend
to think in very specific terms, while senior management tends to think more
in broad generalities. Consequently
when he is asked to “take a look at this”, it is often a struggle
to understand what is really being asked of him (and engineering).
Should he be looking for some specific functional characteristic of “this”
(e.g. manufacturability, economic feasibility, etc.) or be looking for any
way in which “this” may benefit the company.
So understanding what is really being asked is the first part of his
problem. The reaction to
Dwayne’s responses, however, is where things really get tricky.
If his response isn’t what they were really looking for, he often
gets no further guidance as to what they had in mind.
The “language” barrier often prevents knowing if both
parties are even on the same wavelength.
He finds that this problem is more pronounced with engineering than
others, as his senior managers see the engineering “language” as by
far the most foreign to them. He’s
found that the rules for communicating with people who speak different “languages”
are that there are no rules; you just have to stay flexible, do your best, and
“accept the fact that you win some, you lose some, and sometimes you just
don’t know if you’ve won or lost”.
Dwayne’s experience is not unusual, particularly in organizations where
engineers and engineering are fairly new, and/or where technology and its
complexities are fairly new. This
is generally less the case in organizations that grew out of engineering
backgrounds (e.g. high technology startups).
Here, the founders are often engineers themselves, and already speak
the “language”. Even
here, though, as these companies start to grow, professional business people
are often brought in to move the company to become more “market driven”,
and “language” difficulties with engineers can begin to arise,
particularly if some of the founders leave the company.
So what should you do when “language” difficulties arise, and when
senior management “can’t hear you”?
Here are some suggestions:
► First, when asked by a senior manager to “take a look at this”,
immediately ask what aspects of “this” caused this person to bring
it to your attention. A few
seconds of further discussion at the outset can avoid a lot of fruitless
research in areas that were never intended, and enable you to “win”
more and know whether you’ve “won or lost”.
► Recognize that you are the “outsider”, and you need to make
the efforts to learn their rules to join their club.
► Make an effort to learn their “language”.
Don’t expect them to make the effort to learn yours.
► Learn senior management’s “hot buttons” and discuss
engineering issues in terms that address those “hot buttons”.
► Learn to explain technical concepts in the “language” of
the people you’re speaking to, be it “business”, “finance”,
“marketing”, etc. It
is incumbent on you to become an effective translator, and that means
understanding their “languages”.
► In general, learn to explain technical concepts in non-technical terms
that are easy for non-technical people to understand.
Avoid “techno-speak” and acronyms and jargon.
This applies across the company at any level.
► Learn to translate business “languages” to your engineers
in terms they can understand. By
doing this, they will, with time, not be viewed as speaking an entirely
foreign “language” and will be better able to converse with others in the
company. You’ll find that
it’s amazing how quickly the walls come down when people are able to
► Teach your engineers some “Business 101” concepts so that
they can understand financial, marketing, or sales terms, and express their
thoughts in such terms. Even more importantly, if they learn more about business and
what drives other organizations, they will have a better understanding of what
drives decision-making in the company and how their work fits into the overall
picture. It’s very difficult
for “us versus them” attitudes to continue when it all becomes “us”
that are working together to make the company a success.
► Help to educate others, and particularly senior management, in the “language”
of engineering, so it isn’t so foreign, mysterious, or intimidating.
This doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) be to the level of detail that
engineers go into, but in broad terms that they can readily understand and
appreciate. Then they won’t
view engineering as so foreign.
Remember, you report to “the powers that be”, and it is your
responsibility to make the effort to ensure you are understood.
By making the effort, when you next ask, “Can You Hear Me Now?”,
you’ll find that the answer will be “Yes!”
2005 Effective Engineering Consulting Services, All Rights Reserved