How can I influence significant decisions?

In our research we encountered some frustration among engineers about decisions that affect their work. The frustration often came from a perception that the people making these decisions did not understand engineering issues, and hence made decisions that resulted in less than desirable engineering outcomes. Sometimes this frustration was directed at clients who seemed to make short sighted decisions that resulted in problems that required more money to fix in the longer term. At other times, engineers seemed to blame bad decisions on ‘politics’, or the influence of people with enough power to overturn what the engineers saw as a more logical choice.

In some extreme cases, engineers would say something like “This company is run by f——-g accountants!” (Expletive has been replaced by dashes.)

Many engineers know that part of their role is to prepare a business case for new investment, or proposals with the aim of persuading clients to commission them to take on a new project. Engineers often have to conduct detailed technical analysis for the documents that go to clients, and often are also responsible for forecasting commercial outcomes. Net present value calculations and commercial sensitivity analyses are often part of this work.

It can be disappointing for engineers to put in long hours only to see the results ignored and what seem to be sound proposals passed over for seemingly illogical reasons.

An extreme example is the efforts made by drilling engineers on the BP Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 who tried to influence their shore-based managers to allow them to interrupt the drilling schedule to investigate what seemed to be signs of danger. They were told to continue drilling even after raising their concerns, and 11 died in the subsequent fire and explosions. BP nearly failed as a company in the aftermath. In that instance, an organisational culture that saw production and safety as a trade-off had developed making the task of influencing that fatal decision extremely difficult. This culture sidelined what is obvious in hindsight: without safety, there is likely to be zero production and huge claims for damages.

So how can you, as an engineer, exert more influence over decisions that affect your work?

This is one of the key issues explored in detail through the book and I can only summarise some of the important issues here. The best response to the question, therefore, is simply “Learn from the book!”

The first issue is language. We engineers tend to think that if we explain something without using technical jargon in a concise and logical way, the person listening or reading will immediately understand and see the logic in the “right” way and make the “right” decision.

What is really hard for many engineers to understand is that people often understand our words in completely different ways, ways that are no less valid, just different. Even though our audience speaks English just like we do (or whichever other language is used within your organisation) it does not mean we all understand words in the same way. In the online appendices for the book, you will find a list of common engineering words, words that don’t seem technical, that can have completely different meanings depending on the context. In Chapter 7 I demonstrate how such a simple phrase as “can do” might connote completely different meanings. Therefore the first step that can help you influence decisions is to become much more sensitive to the language, the meanings of words used by the people you need to influence.

Beyond that, in Chapter 8, I have explained how prior knowledge and experience influences the way other people think and understand what you are saying. Also, I have explained research insights from education and learning psychology that can help you motivate a listener to pay close attention to what you are explaining.

In Chapter 11, I have explained how financial decisions are often made, taking into account perceptions by investors (and clients) who often have little or no understanding of technical issues in engineering. Yet it is these same people who enable you to have fun spending their money, so they deserve your respect and the assumption that they are making what seem to them to be very sound decisions.

The expert engineers that I interviewed for this research seemed to have learned that influencing decisions is a vital part of being an expert. While several talked about frustrating experiences, they were better able than most other engineers to see things in terms of creating value for their clients. In doing so, they had mastered the language in which significant decisions that affect engineers are often discussed.

As I have explained in Chapter 4, anyone with enough determination can learn the skills needed to become an expert engineer, provided they find ways to evaluate their performances so they can improve by learning from experience. Learning to influence important decisions is no different: anyone can learn to do that, but it takes time and some insights. I have done by best to explain this in the book.

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