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 Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 7/7/2005

This is your monthly e-Newsletter from
Effective Engineering Consulting Services (www.effectiveeng.com).  If you would like to receive Effective Engineering e-newsletters as they are published, please send an email to e-newsletter@effectiveeng.com, and we will add you to our distribution list.  Comments and suggestions are welcome and encouraged!


Can You Hear Me Now?
  By Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [tdennis@effectiveeng.com]

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 “thismay 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 effectively communicate.

► 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!

Copyright © 2005  Effective Engineering Consulting Services, All Rights Reserved

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