Getting anything serious done means trying to deal with difficult projects and people. This post in Solidsmack makes some good points.
Now for the reality. Engineering usually falls under the larger umbrella of “business”, and business isn’t always as logical, ordered, or congenial as we engineers tend to like things.
That 3-pound blob perched on top of your body likely has some pretty kick-butt ideas in it. Sometimes it may feel like getting that gem of an idea into the real world is like pirouetting through a set of mobile lasers to extract from a glass case, well, a gem. We have all seen the dude with the blue Mohawk going nuts, as an incredible multi stage marvel of engineering safely lowered a robot onto an alien planet. What we didn’t see is that the hair on the side of his head wasn’t shaved off, but pulled out from stress and frustration.
Now take some deep breaths and light some candles as I take you on a guided journey to engineering enlightenment, or what we’ll call Zengineering.
Do the Opposite
It happens to the best of us, we get stuck. Trying to keep ramming at the problem, maybe from slightly different angles, just isn’t working. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. Option 1: Take a break. Often when I walk away from the problem for a while the solution comes to me. Get some sleep, take a walk in the woods; activities like these allow other parts of our brain to activate and subconsciously absorb and process the problem. Serendipity often steps in and I will see the solution in a toy, a household item, or some other totally unexpected place. Option 2: go deeper, way deeper. Many times the solution has been under the very last rock there was to turn over. In a way this makes sense, because if the solution was obvious, it would have, well, been obvious. A simple but very effective trick I have found is to always make sure you are using the correct jargon when doing research. If there is specific industry terminology for what you are working on, make sure to use it. This will lead you in the direction of COTS vendors that make the exact thing you need, or to the research or similar industries where the solution to the problem may be found. Keep searching, call experts, go down rabbit holes, don’t give up.
“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this - you haven’t.” - Thomas Edison
Cover Your *Butt*. I have borrowed this concept from personal improvement guru, James Altucher, and modified it slightly to apply to the engineering world. The concept is pretty simple, at the end of every single day, write a detailed memo of what you accomplished and send it to your manager. This Teflon coats you. Not to be too cynical, but others don’t always have your best interest at heart, and some will even go so far as to throw you in front of the bus; so having a record of your accomplishments makes dragging you down a lot harder. This will also save your boss time in reporting, scheduling, and planning. Therefore, you are generally making their life easier, and you will be appreciated. Always try to put yourself in other people’s shoes, and ask how you can make their life easier. Isn’t that what you would want?
“The best offense is a good defense” - Proverb
The question isn’t whether issues outside of your control will arise; the question is, how will you respond? What will you do when a vendor is behind schedule? Will you panic, play the blame game to protect your own skin, and potentially damage the vendor relationship? Or… ask if they can get to a partial order on time to fulfill your immediate needs, and be a hero on both ends? If they can’t do that, maybe you can take your customer to the facility and watch the parts getting built. This may be exciting for them, and will help them understand the elaborate and time consuming process. I call this “Karmanufacturing” (first coined right here?). That is just one example. Every situation will be unique based on the subtleties. The point is to always try to find a positive spin. I recommend books about Samuel Zemurray (the American banana king), or Richard Branson, two masters of turning perceived negatives into positives.
“I don’t believe in the No-Win Scenario” – Captain Kirk
Get Reinspired (Reignite That Spark)
On long projects, it is easy to get caught in the weeds, and become numb to the fact that what you are working on is pretty amazing and cool. And that there is a finish line. When you feel this happening, do a motivation recharge. Find pieces of popular culture that get you inspired. This can be movies, books, blogs, shows, podcast, etc. This can even be subjects outside of the field of engineering, where people are inspiring through their creativity, or their perseverance in achieving lofty goals. Another way to recharge is to talk to someone with an outside perspective about engineering or, if you can, what you are working on, and watch them light up with excitement and interest. I like to talk to my train/machine loving nephew. Find what works for you, and keep a constantly growing inspirational stockpile. The comments section might be a great place for people to share lists of some of their favorite inspirational media.
“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing. That’s why we recommend it daily”. –Zig Ziglar
Dealing with Difficult People
Some engineers get disillusioned after years of not following the zengineering approach, and this can lead to the engineering grouch archetype. The best thing to do is always rise above, and treat people on all levels in your organization with respect. That way, even if you lose, you win. Try to relate to people in a real way with no objective. Find commonalities if possible, or be open to hearing their stories and passions. It can make your work environment much more pleasant. Also, make sure to give credit freely and fully. Give others credit above and beyond. Remember, in the connected/Linkedin world; your reputation is increasingly important. Finally, call your mom more.
In my experience it’s much harder to deal with difficult projects than difficult people. At least the project will end at some point, one way or another. People you have to build a relationship with. Which is not possible if you are conatantly looking down your nose at them or disparaging them. The smallest group that everyone is a member of is one. But you can’t really accomplish much by your self.
Also there’s something great when somebody drops into your cube or office with that great idea for the thing that you have all been struggling with. Even the most difficult person isn’t difficult all the time and sometimes when the sparks fly, something wonderful happens. Sometimes out of the conflict and fighting better responses and better innovation and engineering happens. The important thing is to not make it personal. Don’t invest so much into some part of your solution to the problem that you cannot accept that others may have different opinions and ideas. In the end of the day it doesn’t matter which idea prevailed so long as it works. And don’t let the project wreck the working relationships that you have invested time in building. That is the core of zengineering.