Influencing other people is an important skill for engineers

I explain it like this. In spite of what many people think, engineers never build anything, except perhaps for a backyard barbecue. Engineers organise and coordinate work done by lots of other people, and they have special knowledge and insight to understand what’s important and what has to be got right, and how to measure whether it is right. Without being able to influence other people, engineers have negligible impact. As one engineer put it to me, no amount of reliability calculations achieves anything until a maintenance fitter uses tools in a different way.

Engineers can’t do anything without money, and usually lots of it, so influencing the way the money gets spent is critical.

The real challenge for a technically minded engineer is how to ensure that the key technical ideas are sufficiently well preserved through multiple reinterpretations by the people who implement them and that’s all about influencing. It’s all about organising a large collaborative technical performance by lots of people and that’s the core topic in my book.

Many engineers start out with the idea that giving someone a concise and logical explanation is sufficient to get them to understand what’s needed. That’s how many engineers get their education, in lectures, when engineering educators do their best to be concise and logical. While many students walk out of the lecture thinking they have understood, they soon find out how little they actually understood when they attempt the homework assignments.

When you ask experienced engineers what they have to do when it’s absolutely critical that others have to act on their advice and get it 100% right, with no mistakes, you learn just how complicated that can be. A concise and logical explanation is nowhere near enough, though it can be a good place to start.

Influencing people in engineering so they get the technical ideas implemented sufficiently well turns out to be a complicated series of social performances extended over time. It’s not simple because everyone involved has their own idea on how it should happen and how it’s going to happen. Each person reinterprets the original ideas in the light of their own knowledge and experience, and what comes out of that does not necessarily align with the original intentions. Therefore the challenge for engineers is to ensure that what comes out in the end is aligned closely enough with the original intentions so the actual performance matches the predictions that justified the undertaking in the first place, closely enough for the clients to walk away happy.

I have tried my best to explain how expert engineers manage to do this in the book.


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