Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Engineering Leadership

By: Gary J. Salton, Ph.D., Chief R&D and CEO
Professional Communications, Inc.

This research blog shows that all levels of engineering share a consistency in their information processing (i.e., “I Opt” strategic style) approach. The research also discovered statistically significant style differences based on rank. The blog gives direction on how engineering development can leverage these differences into more effective leadership at an earlier point.

The “I Opt” scores for 456 professional engineers were drawn from the “I Opt” database. These were divided into 3 categories. The Vice President category consisted of 44 people from 24 different firms. These people carried the title of EVP, Sr.VP, VP or Chief Engineer.

The Manager category consisted of 102 people taken from 41 different firms. They typically carried the title of Manager or Director. They were drawn from a variety of engineering areas. The subfields include mechanical, electrical, hydraulic, chemical, civil, process and a host of others.

The Professional category consisted of 310 people from 62 different firms. Titles vary widely. They include prefixes such as senior, research, design, project, process, industrial and many other kinds of engineering.

Table 1 summarizes the source data. The size, diversity and multiple firms involved suggests that sample is a reasonable estimate of the engineering as a whole. It probably can be trusted as representative of the field.

Table 1

People have information processing preferences. They choose different inputs, favor different outputs and have different strategies to get from input to output. No one is completely objective in choosing the processing method they use. They normally have a standard starting point and move forward from there. If we had to decide on how to decide every decision, nothing would get done. Adopting a conventional starting point is a necessary part of life.

“I Opt” refers to basic information processing approaches as strategic styles. These are the short-term decision strategies. People use a particular starting point because it works in the environment within which they live. The discipline of engineering has a consistency that creates something of a common environment. This should evidence itself in a common approach. And it does.

Engineers work on things with a long gestation period. There is time to think. The things they work on can involve large capital investments. There is a lot of incentive for getting it right the first time. In addition, people actually use and not just think about the products of engineering. Do it wrong and health or safety can be affected. This creates moral as well as legal imperatives. Engineering is a world intolerant of error.

Engineers respond to these common conditions in a similar way. It does not matter if they are VPs or practicing professionals. Their most frequent starting point is the Hypothetical Analyzer or HA strategic style. The HA style is characterized by exhaustive research, complete evaluation and a through review of all options. This is the dominant starting point for engineers.

The engineering setting also creates approaches which are to be avoided. Engineers put least reliance on the spontaneous Reactive Stimulator strategic style. The RS option uses expedient means to quickly resolve issues. It is favored where speed matters and/or where the penalty for failure is low. Neither of these conditions are typical in engineering. We would expect this option to be least favored among engineers. And it is. It is at the bottom of the list for everyone from VP to engineering intern.

The distribution of the HA and RS strategic styles are shown in Table 1. Each style registers at a consistent level across all ranks. Statistical tests reveal that there is no significant different between VPs, managers or professional engineers for either the HA or RS style. This consistency can be seen as a product of the common environment that all engineers share.

Graphic 1

Rank does have environmental effects. The decision horizon extends farther into the future with higher rank. More time is spent on unusual issues. Executives “do” less and direct more. These changes should be reflected in the engineer’s profile as rank increases. And they do.

The differences can be found in the relative strengths of the two remaining strategic styles—the idea-oriented Relational Innovator (RI) and the disciplined action of the Logical Processor (LP) styles. Graphic 2 shows a statistically significant difference by rank. Yellow coloring highlights this difference.

Graphic 2

A loss in Logical Processor (LP) commitment is the most pronounced strategic style effect of moving up in the hierarchy. The LP style is detail sensitive, focused on certainty and concerned with perfect execution.

The LP style declines as engineers move to higher levels. Problems become ever more obscure as rank increases. For example, detail availability decreases with lengthening horizons. Ambiguity rises and this lessens the value of proven methods. Certainty of outcome becomes more questionable with the volatility inherent in a longer perspective. The LP strategy that is optimal in an operating echelon can become dysfunctional at the highest ranks.

The other change happens with the Relational Innovator (RI) style. Between professional and managerial levels there is no change at all. The same strategy that worked at the professional level will probably work at the managerial level. New skills or competencies may have to be learned. However, the basic way the world is perceived and interpreted remains the same.

Moving from manager to VP is another story. The focus changes from what is or can be to what might be. Possibility becomes more important than probability. Variables unconnected to the current situation take center stage. New and unexpected solutions emerge from the morass of factors churning in the VPs world.

Organizational development faces challenges in engineering. Engineers seeking advancement need support in reducing their reliance on the disciplined LP style. This sounds easy. It is not.

The first step is to explain “why” a change is needed. The LP strategy is skeptical. A logical, consistent and verifiable explanation is needed. “I Opt” technology is an ideal starting point. Showing the effects of shifting time horizons, increased ambiguity and competing values typical of larger scale projects are usually enough to get the initial buy-in. After hearing the explanation engineers will grant that there are changes that have to be accommodated.

A second step puts an emphasis on “how” to make the needed changes. Routine suggestions such as to “think broadly” or “take a chance” will not work. What is needed is a formula not a specific prescription. Engineering covers many areas and it is unlikely that a single global approach will be viable in all of them. However, there are options.

One option is to leverage the engineers strong analytical HA tendencies. For example, a procedure can be setup where the first step is always a challenge. Does the use of detailed, exacting and highly certain methods make sense for this issue? If left on automatic, you may find that strong LPs will be spending more in time and money than the thing they are trying to perfect than it is worth. This initial challenge sets the stage to offset this tendency.

The second step is to have the engineers themselves design another alternative. This will typically involve breaking an issue into its components. For example, is speed important? If so, the little used expedient RS strategy might work. Or, how valuable is precision? If it makes little difference the exacting LP methods might be relaxed.

This is a natural strategy for engineers. This is what they do. All you are doing is redirecting it to the choice of a strategy rather than the actual resolution of an issue. As a bonus, the result will be a plan that is appropriate for the particular kind of engineering being done.

The Relational Innovator (RI) style takes on value when moving from the manager to corporate officer. This means that development efforts can be confined to the relatively few engineers who are candidates for the highest level offices. Fewer people mean that more individual attention is possible.

The process of enhancing RI capability first involves explaining exactly what is needed and why it is desirable. Again, “I Opt” technology is ideal for this purpose. It can explain the why and how of the RI style in a logical, rational and totally transparent way.

For example, the ideas created by the RI are not just creative. They are totally unique. They have a breakthrough character. They cannot be derived from the analysis or study of the issue. That approach will create ideas but they will tend to be enhancements to existing technology.

The way the RI achieves a “breakthrough” level of creativity is by working with things totally unrelated to the issue in question. Anything will work. For example, Einstein speculated about the speed of light and in the process “saw” the connection between time and space. No space, no time.

No amount of study, analysis or assessment of then available thought could have led Einstein to his space-time fabric. It requires seeing the connection in unconnected things.

Teaching engineers to enhance their RI strategy involves a little counter-intuitive thinking. Logical connections are discarded, detail is ignored and the engineering tools hard won in years of education are abandoned. This is how you get “fresh eyes.”

Your engineers must return to the fundamentals of their education. They need to focus on how systems and theories themselves are created. The concept of causal relations—x causes y—is basic. Sequence in time continues to be vital—cause precedes result. Connectivity is important—change x and y changes every time. The principles that underlie any theory about anything are the tools of the RI.

The basic process is simple. Use ANYTHING that comes to mind (i.e., the variables). Last night’s dinner, the color of the sky today, the sound of tires as you drove to work—anything. With no natural common denominator, your engineers will be forced to look for one. The “common denominators” that are discovered are the ground from which breakthrough ideas will spring.

The search for denominators is best done using pictures rather than symbols. The reason is that pictures contain as much information as you want to see. Focus on any part of a picture that you can hold in your mind and a thousand aspects (i.e., variables) will appear. In effect, pictures allow you to quickly run a dragnet over a host of possibilities.

One outcome of the “dragnet” may be more pictures. Thinking of the sound of tires might give rise to images of rhythmic waves on oceans. The wave images can cause your engineers to think of aerodynamic turbulence. The pothole that interrupted the sound of the tires might generate an idea on how to modify an equation that will resolve an issue at hand.

This kind of thinking can be a challenge for engineers. Their world is one of exact connections and precise symbols (mathematical or symbolic). It can take a while for engineers to appreciate the value of the unpredictable RI “dragnet” strategy.

This research has shown that developing engineers for management is a two stage process. The first stage involves controlling LP tendencies. This development stage applies to all levels.

The second stage applies to engineers ready to move from managerial to corporate officer levels. It involves enhancing the engineer’s RI capacities. This is challenging. But everyone has some RI capacity in their behavioral inventory to begin with. It is always a matter of building on what exists. It never involves creating the capacity from scratch.

Identifying the strategic style changes needed as engineers rise in the corporate hierarchy has satisfied the purpose of this research blog. It is beyond the scope of the blog to fully outline how to adjust the LP and RI capacities. However, it is hoped that enough insight was given to launch development efforts in the right direction.