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Talking to myself at 20 (Part 2)

…a continuation of the earlier post about what I’m going to tell a class of undergraduate system engineers)

Let’s talk about people first.

Immanuel Kant had a great quote that you should memorize: “Of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing is ever made.” (Idea for a General History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose)

He’s right. No one is perfect, and nothing any person makes is perfect. When we start doing things that involve more than one person, the imperfections multiply.

Even if it’s one maker and one customer

• The customer doesn’t always know exactly what they want
• The customer can’t always articulate what they want
• The maker doesn’t always understand what the customer wants
• The maker can’t always make the materials do what the customer wants
• The maker can run out of time or resources

etc. etc.

Now let’s have a customer who is a set of stakeholders from around an organization, who have their own perceptions, interests, desires, and capabilities.

The team of makers is suddenly 10 or 100 or more people with their own internal communication issues, differing ideas about what the customer wants and visions of what the solution looks like.

Welcome to Dilbert’s world.

And as much as we all wince as we say that, or when we encounter the officious middle-manager who wants our TPS reports on time, the reality is that no organization is immune to human issues.

I’ve been involved in a three-person startup, and I’ve worked for 30,000 employee companies, and in every case all the technical knowledge I might have had was useless unless I could get the people aligned.

For me, there are two ways to do it – you’ll discover your own.

First, and foremost I work hard to keep the idea “Who knows – I might learn something!” in my mind when I’m talking to people. I think I’m pretty smart. But I know for a fact that in a room with ten other people, there are a lot of things that they know that I don’t, and worse – things I think I know that they really do.
When I can keep that thought in my mind, I can actually listen to people rather than hear them speak and plan my convincing reply. It’s a matter of respect. And no, just because you give it, you won’t always get it. But you know what – a lot of times you will.

The other is to remember something I’ve read about soldiers. The Army is often stupid and wasteful – even of its soldier’s lives. Their willingness to act on behalf of the Army erodes as they see that stupidity – just as yours will when you get frustrated by the machinations of whoever you are working with. But they press on anyway, and when they do, they say, over and over, that they do if for the soldiers next to them.

If you can bottle that, and drink it from time to time you’ll be able to help create a team that does well so that the entire team does well. You’re doing what you do, and trying hard to do it well, for the people you sit with, meet with, and go to lunch with every day.

Because at the end of the day, the one thing no one told me is that engineering is a team sport.

…to be continued, again…