on July 1st, 2014

Dear Colleagues,

You’ve just won a great contract but have to work in a team. And no matter how outgoing and extroverted you are as an engineer, you don’t necessarily have good team interaction skills. Engineering projects are increasingly complex and need a team to succeed. Especially today.

Often, teams are brought together for a specific project and operate out of different offices and then break up once the project has been completed. Web based collaborative techniques (such as web conferencing) are making the interface between different groups seamless and one of the buzzwords today is the virtual team. It is rare today to see one engineer developing a product and getting it to market on her own. If one has an outstanding team with a bunch of design engineers with different skill sets working together from around the world, one has a higher probability of getting a high quality innovative product to market quickly.

A few suggested ways to make your engineering team really work well:

Ensure outstanding leadership of the team. This is surely the most important (and often neglected area). Not only a traditional leader but someone who is enthusiastic, ensures everyone in the team knows everyone else, glues everyone together, extracts every ounce of ability from the team members and gives an overall vision of where the team is heading. And can handle the frequent setbacks. This leader has to mediate the inevitable disputes that will arise with a wise long term approach. Finally, some careful management is required to help the team navigate the trade-off between: as a team “you sink or swim together” against “every team member must be held accountable for their tasks”.

Drive deadlines hard. It is important to highlight deadlines well before they occur and ensure that they are met. Provide support when needed to meet the deadlines.

Plan practically and hard. Detailed useful practical plans which everyone has ownership of examining resources (watch out for writing software!) are essential.

Prioritize and compromise. All plans for the individual groups must fit together. Where problems with resources arise, priorities must be quickly revised and compromises made.

Educate, train and keep improving. Team members (and the leader) should identify the strengths and weaknesses of everyone and provide mutual support. Identify resources each person brings to the team and use these. Keep improving the team member’s skills and know-how and functioning as a team.

Communicate aggressively. Ensure everyone across the group is aware of what is happening – no matter how painful. Break down the silo mentality and ensure everyone communicates openly and often about how their particular part of the project is developing. Social interaction between team members is vital to success.
Involve the client. No matter whether the client is an internal company member or an outside party, it is important that they see how the project is taking shape. And are involved in the inevitable design compromises. Due to contractual issues, they may be less enthused with giving any tacit support, but listening carefully to them can be helpful.

Don’t take short cuts which compromise quality. Obviously, one should always look for improved ways of doing a job. But in the drive to finish the job as quickly as possible, often short cuts may be taken, which can seriously undermine the quality or final product performance. It is best to do the hard yards and face up to these issues as soon as possible.

Think of the other person before yourself.  Try and understand the difficulties and challenges the other team members have. And provide them with unsolicited support. As in a good partnership, look after them.

Cut out the rot quickly. When things go wrong or a team member is not playing ball; face up to the particular problem and deal with it quickly. Don’t delay otherwise the problems spreads and impacts on everyone else. The leader needs to counsel the disaffected team member, get them back on track or move them onto other activities.

Nurture your team. As both a leader and team member look after your team. With education/support and training. Help with problem solving difficulties. And whilst avoiding the “jolly hockey sticks” mentality, build up the esprit de corps and morale with positive activities. A team is a delicate rose and needs constant attention.

Face up to contractual issues quickly. If there is a variation developing because of some team development or a client change request; ensure that the change in direction is highlighted to everyone immediately and the client is also apprised of the costs or project change as soon as possible.

Measure – measure – measure. Whether you are the leader or a team member, track your progress in the project in terms of costs and time and obviously the real progress of the product or project.

A great positive team experience, means that you will be even better shape for the next team project.

Two great quotations this week:

To succeed as a team is to hold all of the members accountable for their expertise.
Mitchell Caplan, CEO, E*Trade Group Inc.

Players win games, teams win championships. Bill Taylor

Thanks to Catherine S. McGowan of the IEEE for her interesting article  which served as a timely inspiration for me.

Yours in engineering learning,


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