Engineering Engagement Patterns and Human Inertia

Indeed, the roles and responsibilities of engineering leaders and other executives in high-growth engineering firms usually are focused on meeting contractual requirements and deadlines, resolving organizational structural problems, fostering innovation, meet budget guidelines, driving revenue, and gaining market share. Today, many of those same leaders must make rapid decisions about controlling unforeseen roadblocks – supply chain issues, human resources shortages, engineering and operational challenges or even the occurrence of a pandemic in the middle of a design and build project  – that drastically alter the scope of their roles and priorities. This is not an easy scope transition. Those in charge will be tested in areas where they have not fully developed their leadership muscles, and the learning curve will be steep. In this crisis the leaders need to cultivate four behaviors in themselves and their teams. They must decide with speed over precision, adapt boldly, reliably deliver, and engage for impact. The tactics below can guide you as you coach your leaders in these key behaviors to avoid human inertia.

Behavior #1: Decide with speed over precision. The situation is changing by the day, even by the hour. The best leaders quickly process available information, rapidly determine what matters most, and make decisions with conviction. During a crisis, cognitive overload looms; information is incomplete, interests and priorities may clash, and emotions and anxieties run high. Analysis paralysis can easily result, exacerbated by the natural tendency of matrixed organizations to build consensus. Leaders must break through the inertia to keep the organization trained on engineering and business continuity today while increasing the odds of mid-term or long-term success by focusing on the few things matter most. A simple, scalable framework for rapid decision-making is critical. Thus, leaders should:

  • Define priorities. Identify and communicate the three to five most important ones. Document the issues identified, ensure that leadership is fully aligned with them, and make course corrections as events unfold.
  • Make smart trade-offs. What conflicts might arise among priorities you have outlined? Between urgent and the important/ Between survival today and success tomorrow? Instead of thinking about all possibilities, the best leaders used their priorities as a scoring mechanism to force trade-offs.
  • Name the decision makers. In your central command “war room,” establish who owns what. Empower the front line to make decisions where possible, and clearly state what needs to be escalated, by when, and to whom. Your default should be to push decisions downward, not up. 
  • Embrace action, and do not punish mistakes. Missteps will happen, but research indicated that failing to act is much worse.     

Behavior #2: Adapt boldly. Strong leaders get ahead of changing circumstances. They seek input and information from diverse sources, are not afraid to admit what they do not know and bring in outside expertise when needed. Thus, leaders should:

  • Decide what not to do. Put a hold on large initiatives and expenses, and ruthlessly prioritize. Publicize your “what not to do” choices.
  • Throw out yesterday’s playbook. The actions that previously drove results may no longer be relevant. The best leaders adjust quickly and develop new plans of attack.
  • Strengthen and/or build direct connections to the front line. In triage situations, it is crucial to have an accurate, current picture of what is happening on the ground. Whether running a supply chain, overseeing an engineering company, leaders must get situational assessments early and as often as possible. One way is to create a network of local leaders and influencers who can speak with deep knowledge about the impact of the crisis and the sentiments of customers, suppliers, employees, and other stakeholders. Technology can bring the parties together; think internal wikis that capture issues, solutions, innovations, and best practices. Effective leaders extend their antennae across all the ecosystems in which they operate.

Behavior #3: Reliably deliver. The best leaders take personal ownership in a crisis, even though many challenges and factors lie outside their control. They align team focus, establish new metrics to monitor performance, and create a culture of accountability. Thus, leaders should:

  • Stay alert to and aligned on a daily dashboard of priorities. Leaders should succinctly document their top five priorities (on half a page or less) and ensure that those above them are in accord. Review performance against those items frequently – if not daily, perhaps weekly – and make sure that leaders share this information with direct reports. Review and update your “hit list” at the end of each day or week.
  • Set KPIs and other metrics to measure performance. Choose three to five metrics that matter most for the week, and have leaders regularly report back on each.
  • Keep mind and body in fighting shape. To reliably deliver, leaders must maintain their equanimity even when others are losing their heads. Establish a routine of self-care: a healthy diet, exercise, meditation, or whatever works best for you. Stock-upon energy, emotional reserves, and coping mechanisms.

Behavior #4: Engage for impact. In times of crises, no job is more important than taking care of your team. Effective leaders are understanding of their team’s circumstances and distractions, but they find ways to engage and motivate, clearly and thoroughly communicating important new goals and information. This point deserves extra attention, because although a technical problem creates an engineering crisis, it has sparked a financial crisis as well. The leaders need to reiterate new priorities frequently to ensure continued alignment in this time of constant and stressful change.  Thus, leaders should:

  • Connect with individual team members. Reach out daily for a “pulse check” with least five; block out time on the calendar to do this. Relate on a personal level first, and then focus on work. For example, a leader could conduct 30-minute “wind down” sessions with direct reports each Friday afternoon via Zoom. People share their states of mind along with the week’s highlights and low points.
  • Dig deep to engage your teams. When communication breaks down and leaders act without team input, as can more easily happen when work is remote, they get subpar results.
  • Ask for help as needed. The best leaders know they cannot everything themselves. Identify team structures and assign individuals to support key efforts.
  • Ensure a focus on both customers and employees. To support customers: Reach out, but first do no harm. Track and document intel across your customer base. To strengthen relationships and build trust, keep the focus off yourself and explore how you can truly help your customers. To support employees: Lead with empathy and a focus on engineering excellence and safety.
  • Collect and amplify positive messages – successes, acts of kindness, obstacles that have been overcome. Whatever your purpose, celebrate your daily heroes.

As leader of leaders, you must be always be alert and ready to navigate new and ever-changing priorities with limited time to react. Some small investments in support and coaching can go a long way toward boosting your leaders’ effectiveness. Moments of crisis reveal a great deal about the leaders below you. Once the immediate fire is under control and you have a moment to catch your breath, think about who rose to the occasion, who struggled, and why. Consider how roles will change in the postcrisis world and whether your key executives are positioned for success. Last and most important, ask yourself whom you want at the table both in the current crisis and in the longed – for tomorrow when we emerge to a new normal.