Simon Terry

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Working Out Loud for Engineers

Working out loud has become a very popular change initiative in engineering organisations around the world. The practice of working out loud plays key roles to nudge the traditional perfectionistic expertise-oriented engineering culture in productive directions towards the agile, customer-centred, collaborative future of work.

Engineering is a rigorous discipline of expertise. It has to be. Mistakes and errors in a design can have dramatic, devastating and long term consequences for the business & its customers. For this reason, engineering expertise is highly valued. That expertise can focus down into very narrow domains of the design of engineering solutions. Solutions are heavily worked, pushed to perfection and at times gold-plated for safety. The demands and focus of this work can mean that attention shifts to the area of engineering expertise itself and less to the environments, systems and other contexts around the work.

As a result, engineering organisations can at times struggle with customer focus. Engineers understand the design far better than the customers. They know the materials, systems and technologies involved better than anyone else.

Engineers can also find collaboration difficult. If there is one expert on a particular solution in the organisation, why would there be any discussion around a design to that solution. Focus primarily on demanding engineering considerations, that expert may be less concerned about the input from sales, marketing or manufacturing into the consequences of design choices.

Working out loud is the practice of sharing work purposefully with relevant communities while the work is still in progress. Sharing ideas, drafts and other progress helps other to be more aware of your work, provide input to that work and to learn from the work that is going on around the organisation. Nudging a culture to be more open, more outcome oriented and more collaborative through the practice of working out loud can deliver significant benefits for individuals and the organisation.

Encouraging engineering teams to work out loud can contribute to nudging the culture in a number of constructive ways:

  • Do we really understand the problem? The business challenge may need engineers to deliver a solution but that doesn’t mean the problem is an engineering problem. Asking teams of engineers to work out loud as the define the problem to be solved can help them to gather inputs to better understand the outcomes needed, the constraints and other systemic issues through the input of the wider organisation or other stakeholders.
  • What ideas might we take into the design process? Many creative solutions are cross-disciplinary or even involve a complete reframing of the problem. Opening up the ideation can allow non-technical experts or experts from other areas to put forward ideas that might inspire a new direction of work. Innovative and effective solutions can be the result of new inspirations.
  • What other considerations matter? Narrating the process of the design and sharing the considerations that went into it opens up a discussion on other considerations that may be missed or might be relevant. Suggestions on things that the engineers might consider can come from anywhere in the organisations.  Some times it is those who know least who ask the best “emperor’s new clothes” questions.
  • Whose support do we need to put this design into practice? To the immense frustration of many engineers, their designs need the support of other stakeholders to be put into practice. Engaging those stakeholders throughout the process of the work through a constructive process of sharing work as it develops will help with the awareness and buy-in of stakeholders in the organisation.
  • How do we learn from implementation for our next work? Henry Petrovski’s To Forgive Design is a book that studies the lessons from major engineering failures. One of the key insights is that failure often happens when a new technology is pushed beyond limits that have not yet become obvious. The technology overcomes a previous limitation but its own limitations are not known yet. These kind of failures can be prevented if the engineers can stay close to the issues arising from the implementation of their work. For example, signs of stress or other unusual outcomes on an existing bridge may be a signal that a new longer bridge with that same design may have an undetected failure point.
  • How do we develop our own mastery? Teams that are rightly proud of their expertise should be seeking to develop a culture of ongoing improvement and gradual development of mastery. This learning culture requires people to seek feedback and coaching from others, to study the work of others and to be challenged by others to learn and work in new ways.

If your organisation can benefit from a more agile, customer-centred and collaborative work, then consider leveraging the practice of working out loud to help nudge those changes.


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