This is a guest blog by Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA, PMP, CSEP
Engineering, much like other kinds of knowledge work, is fundamentally about making decisions. While factories produce physical devices, engineering teams produce decisions — decisions on how products and services will be designed, implemented, maintained, and retired. Decision-making is at the very core of what we do.
It’s surprising, then, that we have so much trouble actually making decisions within engineering teams. We’ve all been part of meetings where problems were discussed, positions were defended, and at the end, no real decision was made. For many (myself included), it can be one of the most frustrating parts of working in engineering.
In this post, I’ll offer some concrete strategies on how to bring a group of engineers together and actually make decisions.
Make Sure Everyone Knows That a Decision Needs To Be Made Beforehand
One of the easiest issues to solve is to ensure that it’s clear from the get-go that a decision is required. Often, the decision-making process fails before it has even begun because it’s not made clear upfront that a decision needs to be made.
As an engineering leader, it’s important both to recognize when a decision needs to be made, what the specific issue at hand is, and to inform relevant stakeholders that they need to be prepared to help make a decision.
This gives both you and your team the opportunity to gather information and prepare to participate in a meaningful discussion. Without this advanced warning, many engineers feel like they’re being ambushed when presented with the sudden need to make a decision — they’re not given the time they need to use their analytical minds to come to a reasoned position.
Get the Right People in the Room
You can only make a decision on a topic when you have the right people participating in the decision-making process. Whenever you make a decision as a group, you need three groups of people represented:
- People with the relevant information
- Stakeholders affected by the decision
- People with the authority to make the decision
If you lack the information required to make a decision, you either won’t be able to get to a decision, or you’ll make a bad decision. If you don’t consult stakeholders, you won’t understand the implications of your decision. Finally, if you miss inviting people with the authority to make the decision, any call you make as a team will be subject to change and likely won’t stand up to being challenged.
Vote First, Discuss After
When meeting to discuss a decision, it is useful to first vote on a proposition and discuss the results after the vote.
This approach avoids the problems associated with the first person who speaks up-anchoring the discussion. Often, the first idea or position proposed within the group becomes the foundation for the remainder of the conversation. After a few people agree with that first proposal, it gets harder and harder for dissenters to voice their opposition, leading to groupthink and poor decisions.
By voting first, all views are able to be presented simultaneously. This makes it clear what the majority believes and where dissent lies. The discussion can then be framed around why there’s dissent and what thinking may have led to that position. This can help to broaden a group’s thinking and encourage thoughtful debate and discussion.
Making everyone happy is a fool’s errand. It is rare that consensus is actually required, and it’s even healthy for people to disagree. What’s important is that a leader truly listens to all voices around the table, weighs the evidence presented, and makes a clear and firm decision.
Far too much effort is placed on getting people to agree to a decision when that effort would be better spent on alignment after a decision is made. Alignment is achieved when people feel like their voices were heard, and can see the thinking behind a decision, even if they disagree with it. When a team is aligned, they can support a decision — even if some folks disagree with it.
Accept That You May Be Wrong
It’s important to recognize that whatever decision you make may be wrong. Nobody is guaranteed success. This being the case, it’s important to position decisions as experiments and to plan for a revisiting of the decision to see if adjustments are required. If there’s a chance you may be wrong, it’s best to acknowledge that risk and plan for it.
Not only will this lead to better progress in the long run, but it will also help to align your team around a decision even if they disagree with it.
Think about important decisions that you or your team need to make. For the next decision that you try to come to a conclusion on, try implementing one or two of these suggestions and see how that affects the speed and quality of your decision-making. As you practice, you’ll see that you come to faster, better decisions and that it’s easier to align your team, leading to more engaged engineers and better project outcomes.
About the Author:
Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA, PMP, CSEP, is a recognized expert in engineering management, productivity, and leadership. He is also the host of the popular Engineering & Leadership Podcast, a show dedicated to helping engineering leaders thrive. Download his free Engineering Leadership e-book, Engineering Leadership 101 – Practical Insights for Becoming an Engineering Leader at Any Stage, to grow your leadership skills today.
We would love to hear any questions you might have or stories you might share about how to get a group of engineers to actually make decisions .
Please leave your comments, feedback or questions in the section below.
To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success