Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Why do Managers behave like idiots and why are Engineers so obstructive ?

All engineers have anecdotes about when one or other manager behaves in an idiotic manner, making decisions that are obviously stupid. Often, the more senior the manager the more frequent the bad decisions and the more serious the outcome.

Alongside this, all managers know that getting engineers to do something new or different can be frustrating to the point of apoplexy. Engineers seem to have an innate desire (and skill) for finding objections and reasons why a proposal will not work.

I suggest that both of these problems are caused by the different environments and needs of managers and engineers. My starting point is to acknowledge that both managers and engineers tend to be highly intelligent and highly motivated – neither group is stupid or deliberately obstructive.

Managers have two problems that are relevant. The first is the scope of information that they need to handle. The second is the effect of friction in any organisation.

By information scope, I mean the range of information for which a manager is responsible. Even a quite junior manager is likely to responsible for a number of projects and the more senior the manager the wider the breadth of the organisation that they are supposed to know all about. This means that a manager cannot possibly know everything about all the projects etc. under their control. This does not stop more senior managers expecting instant answers to random and detailed questions. When necessary, a manager can learn all about one area (and engineers may be surprised at the speed at which a good manager can filter and absorb information) but they cannot learn everything and maintain that knowledge.

The information scope problem means that a manager will tend to have to make decisions based on partial information. The more senior managers get their information from their subordinates so their information is second-hand as well as partial.

The concept of friction comes from Clausewitz and refers in this case to all the factors that make even the simplest organisation task difficult. Clausewitz ascribed friction to the physical danger of war and the physical challenges. Most organisations do not have this level of danger but communications difficulties, conflicting priorities and natural resistance to change all make it unexpectedly difficult to carry out projects or to make changes. This means that any successful manager has to be a highly motivated problem solver. One aspect of such behaviour is an ability not to be put off by minor obstacles. If a manager stops to re-think the plan whenever somebody objects then they will never succeed. In contrast, if they ignore or override objections they may hit problems but they have a better overall chance of success. Of course, the really good managers have to decide which objections are serious and which can be safely ignored.

One side effect of the information scope and friction problems is that managers have to be able to look at the big picture without getting bogged down in minor details. Oh, and they are commonly under time pressure which can make them impatient with unnecessary details.

Turning to obstructive engineers, we can see that a good engineer needs to care about detail and needs to learn everything relevant about their subject or immediate problem. As engineers tend to work directly on their problem, they may be less affected by organisational friction (apart from the friction in getting budget or resources) – they tend to be hands-on.

When engineers discuss technical problems, they need to have a shared knowledge base that can be detailed. Therefore, they may have to provide a large amount of background information in order to present a problem or ask a question.

If an engineer ignores an inconvenient problem for reasons of expediency then the problem is unlikely to go away. It is more likely to return when least expected but bigger and uglier than before. Therefore, engineers tend to focus on problems as they find them and are uncomfortable moving on until they are convinced that the problem is solved (or at least can be solved for a reasonable cost).

To a busy manager, engineers are people who keep bringing up problems, describe them in a long-winded way and need constant ‘motivation’ to keep them moving forwards.

To a conscientious engineer, managers are ignorant people who don’t have the patience to understand what is really going on and who prefer to deal with problems by ignoring them.

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