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The Sky Is Falling!
Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [email@example.com]
“The sky is falling! If we don’t fix this problem
immediately we’re doomed! Drop everything else you’re doing now! There’s
simply no time to think, just to act!” Have you encountered people who
find and react to problems in this way? Do they have credibility that
causes people to respond quickly, or are they the company cranks who see
every problem as a crisis?
We all encounter problems every day in our work lives (and for that matter
in our personal lives). Some problems are simple. Some are complex. Some
problems seem simple but are, in reality, quite complex. Some
seem complex but are, in reality, quite simple. Some problems are
emergencies and must be addressed immediately with whatever resources are
required (the sky really is falling!). Some only seem that way
or are made to seem that way (advertently or inadvertently). What matters
is determining what the case is really, and then determining the best ways
for such problems to be addressed and resolved.
First, what is really the case? Is the sky really falling? Are people
overreacting? Is a fast, but possibly wrong, solution an approach to even
consider, or is there time to think and do things right? I’d argue that
there is always time to do things right (and if not, time to do things over)
eN-070705 – Doing Things Right vs. Doing Things Over). And
acting without thinking is not only dangerous; in some situations it can be
fatal (to a problem or project, if not to people). How do you best respond
Whenever people encounter a problem and look for solutions, they bring their
own experience and perspectives to bear. A marketing person will initially
examine the market impact of the problem and how potential marketing
solutions can help to alleviate or eliminate the problem. A financial
person will similarly examine the financial impact and potential financial
solutions. An engineer will examine the technological or design impact and
potential engineering solutions. A process expert will examine the process
that led to the problem and potential process solutions. And so on. There
are cases where a single approach from a single perspective may quickly and
significantly alleviate or eliminate a problem, but it is more often the
case that a balanced examination of a problem from a variety of perspectives
to identify the true root cause(s) and the best combination of potential
solutions will yield the best result.
Getting started can often become a stumbling block. You need to act quickly
but deliberately, with careful but rapid examination. What organizations
should be involved? Who from those organizations should be involved? Which
organization should lead? Who should lead? What should be the roles and
responsibilities of the members of the team? Who lays this out and assigns
specific duties? How do you keep lines of communications open? When do you
pull in the reins when things start to go off track? How do you keep things
focused? How do you avoid looking too narrowly? How do you avoid looking
too broadly? How do you deal with different personality types? How do you
build consensus? How do you avoid group think?
Let’s take these briefly one by one.
● What organizations should be involved? The organization
that is most likely the cause and the one that is most feeling the effect
are the most critical to be involved. They’re the real stakeholders in
solving the problem. Other organizations who can contribute to effective
solutions or who can provide insights to the cause(s) and possible solutions
can also be involved. Parties who don’t fit these descriptions should stay
out of the fray.
● Which organization should lead? The organization with the
strongest vested interest in an effective solution should lead. It must be
understood up front that the goal is solving the problem, not casting blame.
● Who from those organizations should be involved? The people
closest to the problem (either cause or effect) should be involved. The
intent is to add light but not heat to the situation. The goal is
solutions, not warfare.
● Who should lead? This should be the person from the lead
organization who can most effectively marshal the team toward rapid but
thorough assessment and toward finding the most rapid and effective
solutions. This must be a person who is respected, inclusive, and
● What should be the roles and responsibilities of the members of the
team? The team members should be only those who can meaningfully
and quickly contribute, all recognizing that the goal is a solution, and who
can work effectively in a team role. The leader should assign clear roles
and responsibilities to each person on the team, and clear deliverables and
timeframes, and an overall plan for reaching an effective solution.
● Who lays this out and assigns specific duties? The team
● How do you keep lines of communications open? Frequent and
ongoing communication between team members that is fostered and encouraged
by the team leader is essential, as are frequent brief meetings to gather
status, get everyone on the same page, and modify directions as appropriate.
● When do you pull in the reins when things start to go off track?
When group or individual efforts are not directly addressing meaningful
solutions to the specific problem, it is time to pull back, reassess, and
redirect. This should be done frequently to avoid false starts and
● How do you keep things focused? Clear definition of the
goals and frequent assessment of progress toward the goals, frequent
communications, and rapid redirection when things start to go off track will
keep things focused and on track.
● How do you avoid looking too narrowly? How do you avoid looking too
broadly? If the initial assessment of the problem is done properly,
the scope of the problem will be understood by all. Ongoing communications
and frequent brief meetings will help keep the scope properly focused.
● How do you deal with different personality types? This can
always be a challenge. The following articles can help provide some insight
on how to handle a variety of personality types. See
eN-030508 – Are You Part of the Solution, or Part of the Problem?,
“Herding Cats” series [eN-031106,
eN-040122], “Mis-Managers” series
eN-090108 – Can You Pass The Red Face Test?.
● How do you build consensus? By being open and welcoming of
the opinions of others, but laying out the logic and rationale behind
decisions that are being made, members of the team will feel heard and
understood, yet will understand why particular decisions have been made and
can accept those decisions even though they may have some questions about
● How do you avoid groupthink? Having one or two people
dominate the group without challenge can lead to the danger that a single
approach will be adopted without proper consideration of other approaches.
By challenging decisions thoughtfully and rationally and seeking and getting
responses to those challenges, groupthink can be avoided.
The key to effectively solving the problem is first reaching consensus on
what the problem really is, and then reaching agreement on an appropriate
response to effectively solve it. The difficulty is often getting the
various people who are involved to take off their blinders and understand
and appreciate the perspectives and ideas of others (see also
eN-081204 – Walk a Mile in Your Boss’ Shoes!). Get opinions
from people you wouldn’t even think of. You’ll be amazed at the value of
getting other perspectives. Those involved need to be prepared to step
outside their comfort zones, and shouldn’t assume their view and proposed
solution is the only one or even the best. A respected leader to direct and
guide this effort can get things on track to a rapid and meaningful
solution. The problem may be very real and serious, but addressed in the
right way, you will find that the sky is not falling.
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