Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Some thoughts for Mike

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 14, 2008

Mike is Jo’s husband.  He’s an engineer and, like most good engineers, he’s increasingly moving into a management role in the large engineering firm for which he works.  I promised Jo that I’d write up some thoughts on engineers in management so here, for what they’re worth, they are.  If any actual engineer/managers out there, including Mike, would like to leave a comment it’s a topic I’d like to explore some more.

I like engineers.  I’ve worked with lots of them over the years in a number of different organisations, and they often make excellent managers.  Also, my father was an engineer so I was exposed to engineering – particularly aircraft, as he was a civilian engineer with the RAF – from an early age.

Engineers can make outstanding managers and business people.  Some of the most successful companies in the world have been built and run by engineers, of course.  They think in systems terms (see numerous previous posts) and the ability to see connections and understand inter-relationships is critical to good management.  That’s not just me saying that: see the post which mentions former engineer and learning organisation guru Peter Senge.  Although formal systems thinking emerged largely from biology, engineers have been thinking about systems ever since the first machines were built.  To be good at engineering you have to be good at building and operating good systems and the same point applies to managing organisations.

Engineers are good at lots of things which it’s useful to be good at if you are going to be a good manager.  They are good with numbers: most of them study calculus on their courses, although according to an engineer I know this is mainly a test of their mathematical machismo: they rarely have to use it in anger.  They are also good at making things happen (aka project management), taking decisions and so on.

However, one vital area  of management that engineers can sometimes find rather tricky is the inevitably touchy-feely business of working with people.  I once did some work for a large multi-national engineering company.  A large number of their senior managers worked at a complex of factories known, amongst those in the company as The Evil Empire.  The engineer/managers here practised a style of management which we consultants call Management By Shouting.  If someone didn’t do what they were told to do, they just told them again, only louder.

Why do engineers sometimes find people tricky?  Well, people aren’t rational.  They do not behave like machines. With machines, you can usually feed in an input and be pretty sure what the output will be.  If you you don’t get what you expected it’s because you either built the machine badly or something has gone wrong with it.   People, on the other hand, often behave in entirely unpredictable ways.  Each of us thinks we’re completely rational, but our personal view of rationality is often very different from everyone else’s.  If it wasn’t, we’d all vote for the same political party or hold the same views about life, the university and everything.

So my advice to Mike would be to learn a little psychology.  Psychology is entirely about why people are different from one another.  One of the most useful psychological theories I know is called cognitive dissonance.  In a nutshell, it says we all believe what we want to believe.  If we discover that what we want to believe isn’t in line with the what seems to be going on in the world around us, we change our interpretation of what’s going on so that we can retain our preciously held beliefs.

There are lots of other psychological theories – particularly from social psychology – that are useful to know about if you want to try to understand people.  Often these theories aren’t intuitively obvious.  Much of the rest of management is very obvious indeed: you can simply apply another version of the reversal technique I mentioned below to work out what to do   For example, if you want to understand pretty much all there is to understand about marketing, accountancy and, er, the other things that comprise management, just think about the worst possible way to do them and then turn all the negatives into positives.

Lastly Mike could read this book (haven’t read it myself but it’s very long and has the right title, so it must cover everything).  Or he could maybe take an MBA. Most of what he’d learn would be intuitively obvious, but the people he’d meet, the connections he’d make, and the time it would give him to think and reflect would be much more valuable.

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