Engineering Engagement Patterns and Human Inertia

A company’s engineering strategy along with the project’s contract strategy must reflect the corporate strategy, and therefore the engineering leader should make sure that the project’s domains, responsibilities and deliverables are aligned without longtime frames and exposure to change and risk, or overbudgeting. Thus, it is required a monthly comprehensive review of the company’s engineering and contract strategy, along with its structure, and culture. Additionally, the engineering teams must work more closely with the client from the early stage of the project’s commencement. Further, it has become evident that engineering projects should be ran by rather smaller project engineering teams, led by dedicated expert engineers which demonstrate on a daily base high efficiency, entrepreneurship, and motivation to handle imminently the engineering gaps and issues of the project. The old engineering model thrived on the existence of large, specialized teams working separately and in silos, because engineering, business development and sales were considered different functions, each with their own incentives, culture, and values. Of course, today, we know that such a set-up prevents effective and agile innovation. Since over 70% of a product’s total development costs are determined by engineering design decisions, researchers must find ways to collaborate with their supply chain and marketing partners, rapidly redesigning offerings to accommodate time-to-market and budget constraints. Thus, the best way to encourage cross-functional integration is to create smaller, more networked teams.

A specific form of cross functional integration that is crucial to innovation is that between technical and business design. According to a British multinational telecom chief technology executive, Matt Bross, “there are no breakthrough technologies, only breakthrough market applications.” For example, the engineering teams at companies like Google, and Microsoft have all included microeconomics to help design business models, pricing strategies and alliances for disruptive innovations. And with the rise of emerging economies like India, China, and Brazil, engineering solutions should be fine turned to meet the unique market conditions and customer needs in different regions. For example, at PepsiCo a multinational food and beverage corporation, the R&D team is deeply attuned to the business needs of its different geographical areas, having setup regionally focused R&D centers of excellence in China, Mexico, and the USD. At each, it develops products that are created specifically for the tastes and needs of consumers in that region. No business model is set in stone. Every model needs to be fine-tuned continuously, based on ever-changing customer requirements and market conditions. And engineering initiatives need to mirror these business model changes. Integrating engineering with business development and design can help achieve these important objectives.       

Experience shows that is too hard to begin the frugal engineering transformation process in established western engineering companies, that’s why engineering companies find it easier to get the ball rolling in their emerging market subsidiaries. Emerging markets, being new to engineering R&D, have the advantage of starting afresh (rather than being weighed down by corporate convention), and are used to work in changeable markets and with fewer resources. Many large, developed world engineering companies have already established engineering centers in India, China, Brazil, and Africa, and are even making these engineering departments global centers for frugal engineering. Some companies are now moving to the next phase in the process and integrating these frugal engineering hubs with their developed world engineering centers, so their market insights and ideas now flow to developed markets too. For example, GE health care created a whole new generation of affordable medical devices in its Indian and Chinese engineering centers for sale not just locally but in western markets too.

Large companies find it hard to respond to new market engineering opportunities quickly and cheaply. This is because engineering innovation is not in their DNA. While startups because they lack legacy issues and they are hungry to make their mark, typically have no such difficulty. Just as large engineering companies can look to emerging markets, for a way to do frugal innovation, they can also get inspiration from start-ups in their home markets. According to Beth Comstock, a chief marketing executive at GE, he believes that GE has learned four main lessons from startups:

  • Keep things simple. Although, GE may seem complicated from the outside, its laser-like focus on its core activity – technology – gives the company a unified sense of purpose.
  • Work fast. GE has drawn on the lean startup ethos to develop FastWorks, a set of tools and principles to help the company do things more quickly and efficiently.
  • Find solutions through multiple partnerships and ask the wider community when the firm lacks relevant expertise.
  • Do not be afraid of uncertainty. Many GE startups did not turn out as originally planned, but were useful, nonetheless. For example, the Durathon battery marketed today as a green backup power source for mobile phone towers, started life as a hybrid locomotive battery.

Good leaders can overcome human inertia in a crisis from internal and/or external catastrophic events. When an engineering crisis is occurred, it comes down to the speed and nature of the response. Engineering management must be quick to make the problem a top priority, by rolling-out extensive engineering, and resources. At this point the differences sprang from ability, strategy, and leadership skills. The idea that leadership matters is nothing new, of course, and we have already drawn valuable lessons on leading during major engineering crisis. Good leaders need to be direct and bold (yet not inhumane), especially in a crisis. They must be decisive and unite rather than divide. The truth is that in normal, predictable times, leadership is not that critical; the quality of institutions, organizations and other structures is far more important. Leaders are more symbolic than practical; they are figureheads who can inspire, but they do not actually do all that much. Whatever virtues leaders have, whatever appetites, skills, and communication talents they bring to the table, they may be unable to overcome deep-seated organizational inertia, transformational though they may try to be. But in crisis, even the strongest organizational habits, structures, and resources may be inadequate to meet challenges that are formidable and sometimes completely new. In those circumstances, strong leadership is crucial. Rough seas demand a skilled captain.

For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, everyone’s favorite was Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, whose approach seems to have been paid-off handsomely. But an even better example may be the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Unlike New Zealand, Greece is plagued by structural problems: its population is aging, its institutions are weak, its civil service is ineffective, and its National Health System is badly under-resourced. What is more, Greece was only just beginning to climb out of the longest and deepest recession in its history when the pandemic struck. Yet, it has mounted one of the most effective responses in the world. Mitsotakis has kept the population wary but not panicked, cajoling the notoriously independent-minded Greeks into a surprisingly high level of compliance with social distancing, shop closures, and other measures to contain the virus. Even more impressive, he has overseen a well-run state operation that has earned the public’s trust, and he has leveraged the crisis to digitize and rationalize a cavernous bureaucracy in record time. Granting that sever difficulties surely lie ahead for a country so heavily dependent on tourism, his was a remarkable feat. As we start to emerge from the crisis, there will be less scope to initiate reforms, the urgency and momentum of which will no longer be enough to overcome inertia. Leaders will again take second place to the civic infrastructures over which they preside. That fact points to a clue about which ones will have truly managed the pandemic well. It will be those who not only got their countries through it but also seized the opportunity to reform the state, giving their nations a stronger infrastructure after Covid-19 than they had before it.

Countries and companies must hope that their leaders are not just helping them survive the pandemic but are using the crisis to make a lasting difference. The crisis, in other words, can make it easier to experiment with new mental models or attitudes about your career and how it fits with your life’s purpose, and it can serve as a catalyst for your own reinvention, as a leader in all parts of your life.