Are You an Engineer Building a Management Career? – Part I: Ditch the Zero or One Mode

Engineers in management positions bring many great advantages to the position: Their analytical thinking skills, ability to research, analyse complex problems, persistence, confidence, and a lot more. But a manager needs a few more things that are sometimes opposite to these skills and values.

Challenges Engineers Face:

A common challenge engineers face when working as managers is their need to find formulasor what I like to call “zero or one” mode. In other words, their need to simplify things into categories based on formulas, deduction, and calculations. Real life is not like that. And that makes the engineer’s judgement as a manager a bit suspect, unless the engineer observes and accepts what many call “The grey area” If this is a bit ambiguous, it is even more important that you keep reading on.

Management From An Engineer’s Perspective:

An engineer will look at a situation, analyse it and come up with a conclusion, and then make decisions based on that conclusion. When the conclusion is certain, like finding a bottleneck in a process or unacceptable performance of a system, the engineer can handle it very well, but when the issue is related to people, here the problems start.

People are not “zero or one” They have an ego, emotions, aspirations, prejudices, etc that makes them a bit harder to fit into a simplified model of zero or one. In response, engineers try to fit people as much as they can to this zero or one mentality by labelling situations with uncertain and subjective ways. This leads to miscalculations and wrong assumptions.

Real Life Example:

An example of the zero or one mentality is this: If you are having a problem with a colleague, it is easy to come to conclusions related to what the other person is or is not doing and causing the problem. So, if I am not getting the reaction I need from Bob for example, I can say he has something against me, or does not like me, or prejudice, etc. Based on that, I take counter measures and become uncooperative myself. But what if the reason for Bob’s attitude is something else. If we go a level higher, why should I waste time trying to guess why Bob is doing what he is doing? Instead, would it not be better to stop guessing, and see from my side what I can do to make the situation better? Remember once you decide to take action based on a person’s hidden intent, immediately problems arise, because the whole situation becomes personal. Instead, if an engineer can approach the situation in a systematic fashion, but without trying to guess the reasons behind a behavior from someone else, and instead focus on factual statements about the situation, like what the situation is resulting in, and then look at things under the engineer manager control to remedy or improve upon the situation.

Engineers Are Captious:

Another problem with the engineering mentality is insisting on finding the flaw and fixing it. Sometimes, there is no flaw, and no fix. Sometimes there are multiple flaws. Sometimes, the flaw is not the issue, focusing on what is working can sidestep the flaw. But engineering thinking always wants to find the flaw and fix it, which in business might not be the solution or might not be feasible.

Learning about critical thinking versus analytical thinking helps engineers deal with this challenge. I recommend reading about strategic thinking, disruptive problem solving, and focusing on asking the right questions instead of finding the right solutions.

Want to read part two? Part Two

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