Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"The Devil's Excrement"

The words are from the former Venezuelan oil minister Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo. Alfonzo is considered to be the father of OPEC. Our insatiable need for oil has brought us global warming, Islamic fundamentalism, and environmental depredation. It has turned the United States and China into greedy irresponsible addicts that can't see beyond their next fix.

We can't be rid of the stuff soon enough. But what comes next? In an article in the September/October 2009 issue of Foreign Policy, author Michael Grunwald outlines and discusses the seven myths of alternative energy:
  1. "We Need to Do Everything Possible to Promote Alternative Energy. Not exactly. It's certainly clear that fossil fuels are mangling the climate and that the status quo is unsustainable. There is now a broad scientific consensus that the world needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than 25 percent by 2020 - and more than 80 percent by 2050. Even if the planet didn't depend on it, breaking our addictions to oil and coal would also reduce global reliance on petrothugs and vulnerability to energy-price spikes. There are financial, political, and technical pressures as well as time constraints that will force tough choices; solutions will need to achieve the biggest emissions reductions for the least money in the shortest time. We can still choose a truly alternative path. But we'd better hurry.
  2. Renewable Fuels Are the Cure for Our Addiction to Oil. Unfortunately not. Renewable fuels sound great in theory, and agricultural lobbyists have persuaded European countries and the United States to enact remarkably ambitious biofuels mandates to promote farm-grown alternatives to gasoline. But so far in the real world, the cures - mostly ethanol derived from corn in the United States or biodiesel derived from palm oil, soybeans, and rapeseed in Europe - have been significantly worse than the disease.
  3. If Today's Biofuels Aren't the Answer, Tomorrow's Biofuels Will Be. Doubtful. The latest U.S. rules, while continuing lavish support for corn ethanol, include enormous new mandates to jump-start second generation biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol derived from switchgrass. In theory, they would be less destructive than corn ethanol, which relies on tractors, petroleum-based fertilizers, and distilleries that emit way top much carbon. Even first-generation ethanol derived from sugar cane - which already provides half of Brazil's transportation fuel - is considerably greener than corn ethanol. But recent studies suggest that any biofuels requiring good agricultural land would still be worse than gasoline for global warming. Less of a disaster than corn ethanol is still a disaster.
  4. Nuclear Power Is the Cure for Our Addiction to Coal. Nope. Atomic energy is emissions free, so a slew of politicians and even some environmentalists have embraced it as a clean alternative to coal and natural gas that can generate power when there's no sun or wind. But nuclear power cannot fix the climate crisis. The first reason is timing: The West needs major cuts in emissions within a decade, and the first new U.S. reactor is only scheduled for 2017 - unless it gets delayed like every U.S. reactor before it. The bigger problem is cost - nearly three times as much as wind.
  5. There Is No Silver Bullet to the Energy Crisis. Probably not. But some bullets are a lot better than others; we ought to give them our best shot before we commit to evidently inferior bullets. And one renewable energy resource is the cleanest, cheapest, and most abundant of them all. It doesn't induce deforestation or require elaborate security. It doesn't depend on the weather. And it won't take years to build or bring to market; it's already universally available - it's called efficiency.
  6. We Need a Technological Revolution to Save the World. Maybe. In the long term, it's hard to imagine how (without major advances) we can reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050 while the global population increases and the developing world develops. So a clean-tech Apollo program modeled on the Manhattan Project makes sense. At some point, after we've milked efficiency for all the megawatts and megabarrels we can, we might need something new. If somebody comes up with a better idea by 2020, great! For now, we already have all the technology we need to start reducing consumption, and focus on the solutions that get the best emissions bang for the buck.
  7. Ultimately, We'll Need to Change Our Behaviors to Save the World. Probably. These days it's politically incorrect to suggest that going green will require even the slightest adjustment to our way of life, but let's face it: Jimmy Carter was right. It wouldn't kill you to turn down the heat and put on a sweater. Efficiency is a miracle drug, but conservation is even better; a Prius saves gas, a Prius sitting in the driveway while you ride your bike uses no gas. Even energy-efficient dryers use more power than clotheslines."

Great question - But what comes next?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Law 4 - Always Say Less Than Necessary

From the book The 48 Laws of Power (1998) by Robert Greene. As Greene writes, "When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear, and the less in control. Even if you are saying something banal, it will seem original if you make it vague, open-ended, and sphinx-like. Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less. The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish."

One of the oft-told stories regarding Henry Kissinger - involved a report that Winston Lord had worked on for days. After giving it to Kissinger, he got it back with the notation, "Is this the best you can do?" Lord rewrote and polished and finally resubmitted it; back it came with the same curt question. After redrafting it one more time - and once again getting the same question from Kissinger - Lord snapped, "Damn it, yes it's the best I can do." To which Kissinger replied: "Fine, then I guess I'll read it this time."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Critical Thinking

Engineers need to be challenged not only to think ethically and analytically about technology in society and about the profession's construction, but also to engage in critical thinking. Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following:
  • understand the logical connection between ideas
  • identify, construct and evaluate arguments
  • detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
  • solve problems systematically
  • identify the relevance and importance of ideas
  • reflect on the justification of one's own beliefs and values

Critical thinking is not a matter of accumulating information. A person with a good memory and who know a lot of facts is not necessarily good at critical thinking. A critical thinker is able to deduce consequences from what he or she knows, how to make use of information to solve problems, and seek relevant sources of information to inform himself or herself.

Critical thinking should not be confused with being argumentative or being critical of other people. Although critical thinking skills can be used in exposing fallacies and bad reasoning, critical thinking can also play an important role in cooperative reasoning and constructive tasks. Critical thinking can help us acquire knowledge, improve our theories, and strength arguments. We can use critical thinking to enhance work processes and improve social institutions.

Good critical thinking might be seen as the foundation of science and a liberal democratic society. Science requires the critical use of reason in experimentation and theory confirmation. The proper functioning of a liberal democracy requires citizens who can think critically about social issues to inform their judgments about proper governance and to overcome biases and prejudice.

Why should engineers study critical thinking? Five reasons:

  1. Critical thinking is a domain-general thinking skill. The ability to think clearly and rationally is important whatever we choose to do. If you work in education, research, government, management or consulting, then critical thinking is obviously important. But critical thinking skills are not restricted to a particular subject area. Being able to think well and solve problems systematically is an asset for any career.
  2. Critical thinking is very important in the new knowledge economy. The global knowledge economy is driven by information and technology. One has to be able to deal with changes quickly and effectively. The new economy places increasing demands on flexible intellectual skills, and the ability to analyse information and integrate diverse sources of knowledge in solving problems. Good critical thinking promotes such thinking skills, and is very important in the fast-changing workplace.
  3. Critical thinking enhances language and presentation skills. Thinking clearly and systematically can improve the way we express our ideas. In learning how to analyse the logical structure of texts, critical thinking also improves comprehensive abilities.
  4. Critical thinking promotes creativity. To come up with a creative solution to a problem involves not just having new ideas. It must also be the case that the new ideas being generated are useful and relevant to the task at hand. Critical thinking plays a crucial role in evaluating new ideas, selecting the best ones and modifying them if necessary.
  5. Critical thinking is crucial for self-reflection. In order to live a meaningful life and to structure our lives accordingly, we need to justify and reflect on our values and decisions. Critical thinking provides the tools for this process of self-evaluation.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Author Myra Janco Daniels has outlined her secrets of rutbusting in her new book Secrets of a Rutbuster (2009).
  • Savor the adventure of being different. Seek a path to follow, not a place to be. Keep a "what's next" mindset.
  • Master the art of giving. Words of encouragement and sharing your knowledge show people you care and pave the way for repayment.
  • Surround yourself with teachers. Associate with those who know things you don't, have skills you don't and have walked paths you've yet to find.
  • Find what you love - and do it. You do your best work when you "do what you are."
  • Take intelligent risks. Rut-bound people see risk as a disruption of routine. Creative people take calculated risks that extend their comfort zones.
  • Go back to school. Rutbusters ascribe to lifelong learning to prevent career plateaus.
  • Redefine failure. See it as the price for learning what doesn't work.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Engineering Has Not Followed Suit

In Engineering and Social Justice (2008), engineering professor Donna Riley raises several important and interesting issues:

"The profession of law has a field of public interest, in which the aim is an ideal of social justice, in which the poor are represented as skillfully as the rich, the environment is defended, and rights are extended to those who are not treated justly under current law. The medical profession has it cohort concerned with social justice that establishes clinics to extend access to health care, and public health practitioners make clear the connections between social justice and health problems, advocating fundamental change. How is that the profession of engineering has not followed suit? Why is it so difficult to find communities of engineers interested in social justice? In writing this book, I have come across many more examples of engineers working for social justice than I Imagined existed. Why do we remain so isolated from one another?"

Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas

In Julius Caesar's The Gallic Wars (58 BC), an excellent description is provided regarding the construction of a timber bridge across the Rhine:

"Even though he was confronted by the greatest difficultly for making a bridge because of the river's width, swiftness, and depth, nevertheless be decided that he had to make the effort or else not lead his army across. He used the following method for the bridge. At intervals of 2 feet, he joined pairs of timbers that were 1.5 feet thick, sharpened a bit at their bases, and measured for the depth of the river. Having lowered these into the river with machines, he fixed and rammed them down using pile drivers, not quite perpendicular in the manner of piles, but leaning forward and sloping so that they inclined with the natural flow of the river. In addition, he planned two piles opposite these at an interval of 40 feet downstream, fastened together in the same manner but turned into the force and flow of the river. These two rows were kept firmly apart by inserting into their tops beams 2 feet thick, which were the same length as the distance between the piles, and that were supported with pairs of braces at the outer side of each pile. As a result of this combination of holding apart and clamping together, so great was the stability of the work and its character that the greater the force of the water rushing against it, the more tightly its parts held fastened together. These beams were interconnected by timbers laid at right angles, and then these were floored over with long poles and wickerwork. In addition, piles were driven at an angle into the water on the downstream side, which were thrust out underneath like a buttress and joined with the entire structure to take the force of the river. Similarly others were emplaced a little bit above the bridge so that if tree trunks or vessels were sent by the barbarians to knock down the structure, the force of those objects might be diminished by these defenses and prevent the bridge from suffering harm.

Ten days after the timber began to be collected the bridge was completed and the army was led across."

Caesar (i.e., his engineers) built the bridge not because it was militarily necessary but because he thought it would overawe the enemy with Roman might and ingenuity. This was more than engineering, which has purely pragmatic ends; it was an act of signification. As if to emphasize the fact, he burned his work of art eighteen days later after an aimless foray into Germany.

Harper's Index

From the October 2009 edition of Harper's on page 13:

Portion of China's stimulus spending that will go toward infrastructure projects: 2/5

Portion of US spending that will: 1/8

Chance a US household that owns a Prius also owns a SUV: 1 in 3

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Coordinating the Cast and Crew

Being a manager is like being a movie or theater director. Both have several common themes - don't have the "actors" over study is an example. Too much information clouds the imagination. Let the actors do what they were hired to do. Another is the goal of identifying the "story's" compelling questions. Every play or movie, like every work situation deals with a basic question that keeps the audience - your employees - engaged. Finally, work from your strength. Find out how you work best. When on an unfamiliar stage, rely on the strength of others.

Your know-how in judging, selecting, and developing "actors" doesn't automatically improve just because you hire and fire the cast. Managers, like the director, need to understand the importance of reflecting on their accuracy in crystallizing what a person is good at, what his or her potential is, and what he or she needs to improve. Managing, like directing, is about casting. Talent in the wrong roles won't lead to top-notch performance. It is important to make time to know the strengths and weaknesses of the players before assigning them their roles.

Ram Charam, author of Know-How: The 8 Skills That Separate People Who Perform From Those Who Don't (2007), highlights his insight and tools for spotting future leaders that might be "cast" in your organization's next "play or production":
  • They consistently deliver ambitious results.
  • They continuously demonstrate growth, adaptability, and learning better and faster than their excellently performing peers.
  • They seize the opportunity for challenging, bigger assignments, thereby expanding capability and capacity and improving judgment.
  • They have the ability to think through the business and take leaps of imagination to grow the business.
  • They are driven to take things to the next level.
  • Their powers of observation are very acute, forming judgments of people by focusing on their decisions, behaviors, and actions, rather than relying on initial reactions and gut instincts; they can mentally detect and construct the "DNA" of a person.
  • They come to the point succinctly, are clear thinkers, and have the courage to state a point-of-view even though listeners may react adversely.
  • They ask incisive questions that open minds and incite the imagination.
  • They perceptively judge their own reports, have the courage to give them honest feedback so the direct reports grow; they dig cause and effect if a direct report is failing.
  • They know the non-negotiable criteria of the the job of their direct reports and match the job with the person; if there is a mismatch they deal with it promptly.
  • They are able to spot talent and see the "God's gift" of other individuals.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Tom West + Paul Farmer

Pulitzer Price-winning author Tracy Kidder has written about two individuals that are important to engineers. The Soul of a New Machine was written in 1981. The book traces a team of engineers led by Tom West of Data General as they design and build a new computer over an eight month period. The book won the Pulitzer Price for general non-fiction in 1982.

The beauty of The Soul of a New Machine is the managerial force and personality of engineer and team leader Tom West. Described by sailing friends as " . . . a good man in a storm," West constantly struggles against obstacles: the technical challenges themselves, an impossible schedule, lack of resources, and neglect from the company's top management. The book is not primarily a technical book, but a management book and a human story, and has held up well in the 30-years since its publication. Engineering management and the way leading-edge projects are tackled has not changed much in the past thirty years, and because the book focuses on these aspects, it has aged well.

The book illustrates the interface between great leadership and the passion of a team. It's about the antithesis of the 9-5, where the pay is horrible, you couldn't care less - you will still work overtime. This pure struggle, the essence of the engineering profession, is what makes the book so great. It's the most archetypal element of a career or profession, the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that only something you put your soul and your sweat and blood into, can give you. As Kidder writes:

"But it seems more accurate to say that a group of engineers got excited about building a computer. Whether it arose by corporate bungling or by design, the opportunity had to be grasped. In this sense, the initiative belonged entirely to West and the members of his team. What's more, they did the work, both with uncommon spirit and for reasons that, in a most frankly commercial setting seemed remarkably pure."

With Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003), Kidder follows the work of Paul Farmer. Dr. Farmer is specialist in infectious diseases and attending physician at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Farmer created a charitable foundation called Partners in Health in the 1980s with the goal of redressing the "steep gradient of inequality" in medical service to the desperately poor. His work establishing a complex of public health facilities on the central plateau of Haiti forms the keystone to efforts that now encompass initiatives on three continents. Through the Institute for Health and Social Justice (the research and education division of Partners in Health) and his associate Jim Yong Kim, he started a movement to lower prices for second-line drugs necessary to treat resistant tuberculosis and successfully lobbied the World Health Organization for changes in treatment recommendations for tuberculosis. For his efforts, Farmer has received a MacArthur Award. All of this from an individual that had a childhood that included living in a bus and on a leaky boat.

Our collective future is ultimately a race between good innovation and bad innovation - driven by the creative thinking of just a few individuals. It is a technology race led by men and women like Tom West. It is a medical and health care race led by men and women like Dr. Paul Farmer. Separate races led by separate leaders, teams, attitudes and cultures. What happens when you combine the minds and passions of people like West and Farmer on common problems? What would a Kidder story read like with both men at the center of a common storm or movement? How can West help with improving our health care delivery system along with issues in the developing world? How can West become a partner with Farmer? What happens when the ideas of social justice and collective responsibility advocated by Farmer are applied to the engineering problems and the world of Tom West?

Diversity of input helps with the quality of the output. We have all underestimated the cracks, faults, and tensions of our own economic, health, political, energy, educational, etc. systems. The poor quality of our inputs have reduced the quality of our ideas and thinking. Many of our best minds, blinded by optimism and confusion, are using out-of-date and unrealistic models of the world. But West and Farmer represent the two forces that made American formidable - capitalist energy and democratic liberalism. Our unbounded faith in heroic individualism and the obligations of mutual community - Kidder needs to be given the opportunity to write the story of Tom West + Paul Farmer.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Professional Knowledge

Intellect is knowing or understanding: the capacity to create knowledge, the capacity for rational or highly developed use of intelligence. The knowledge of an organization or enterprise - in order of increasing importance - encompasses (1.) cognitive knowledge (or know what), the rules and facts of a discipline; (2.) advanced skills (know how), the capacity to perform a task sufficiently well to compete effectively; (3.) system understanding (know why), understanding the interrelationships and pacing rates of influence among key variables; (4.) motivated creativity, discovery, or invention (care why), the capacity to interrelate two or more disciplines to create totally new effects; (5.) intuition and synthesis (perceive how and why), the capacity to understand or predict relationships that are not directly measurable. A primary locus of such knowledge is clearly inside the organization's human brains. But the first three levels can also exist in the company's software, systems, databases, shares experiences, or operating technologies. If properly nurtured, intellect in each form is both highly leverageable and protectable. Cognitive knowledge is essential, but usually far from sufficient for economic success. Many may know the rules for performance - on a football field, piano, laboratory bench, or accounting ledger - but lack the higher skills necessary to make money at it in competition.

Some people may possess advanced skills but lack system understanding. They can perform selected tasks well but do not fully understand how their actions affect other elements of the organization or how to improve the total entity's effectiveness. Similarly, some people many possess both the knowledge to perform a task and the advanced skills to complete, but lack the will, motivation, or adaptability for success. Highly motivated and creative groups often outperform others with greater physical or fiscal endowments, as do those with finely honed intuitions, especially in the arts. Intuition many be the highest form of trained intellect: the capacity to integrate uncodifiable knowledge about many subtle and complex interactions one never encountered in the same way before.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sustainability and the Status Quo

The U.S. National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 declared as its goal a national policy to "create and maintain conditions under which [humans] and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans." Forty years later the word "sustainability" is an ever present fixture of a global environmental culture. Individuals and organizations have embraced sustainability as a new way to think about the age-old concern ensuring that our children and grandchildren inherit a tomorrow that is at least as good as today, preferably better. Sustainability is presented as multifaceted - economic prosperity, environmental progress, and community concerns are all aspects of sustainability. Most observers recognize that global climate change and land development are significant environmental issues that demonstrate the need to think about sustainability.

A narrow sense of sustainability is a focus on residential and commercial buildings. Clearly buildings of all types and functions are an issue - the construction and operation of buildings consumes as much as 40 percent of the energy used in the United States today. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) has become the sustainability standard in the U.S. - some 6,000 projects have been certified in the United States in the last 10-years. LEED is fundamentally a weighted-point system that provides a calculations of a building's total environmental impact - factoring in everything from annual energy consumption to how and where building materials are manufactured.

Both a suburban office in Southlake, Texas and an urban high-rise office building in Dallas can receive a high score. This raises a broader issue of sustainability - which project or building is better? What defines better? The office complex where employees work in sprawling buildings and drive between them or the compact high-rise with the inherently energy efficient elevator and a walk to lunch?

The narrowness of the sustainability discussions and ratings flow down to the individual level. Does "greening" my residence in the suburbs coupled with a 60-mile commute at 18-mph fundamentally impact my carbon footprint? Do my "little ideas" of energy efficiency have an impact on the big problems? Does the addition of "green accessories" (Innovation by addition) change the fact that my single family house has more external walls and roof - and hence more heating loads in the winter and cooling loads in the summer - than a comparable apartment in a multi-family building located in an urban environment. Nifty things like bamboo flooring, solar arrays, and rainwater-collection systems don't change the basic equation.

Witold Rybczynski, Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania addresses this same issue with the following comments:

"Putting solar panels on the roof doesn't change the essential fact that by any sensible measure, spread-out, low-rise buildings with more foundations, walls, and roofs, have a larger carbon-footprint than a high-rise office tower - even when the high-rise has no green features at all. The problem in the sustainability campaign is that a basic truth has been lost, or at least concealed. Rather than trying to change behavior to actually reduce carbon emissions, politicians and entrepreneurs have sold greening to the public as a kind of accessorizing. Keep doing what you're doing, goes the message. Just add a solar panel, a wind turbine, a hybrid engine, whatever. But a solar-heated house in the burbs is still a house in the burbs, and if you have to drive to it, even in a Prius, it's hardly green."

An important axiom for consideration in the Sustainability Age might be "Density is Green." Elevators are green, public transit is green, walkability is green, urban amenities are green. Historically the professions of engineering and architecture have been about protecting and promoting the cultural and development status quo of suburban America. This needs to change - the status quo is not green.

Clever People

Seven things you need to know about understanding clever people:
  1. They know their worth.
  2. They are organizationally savvy.
  3. They ignore corporate hierarchy.
  4. They expect instant access.
  5. They are well connected.
  6. They have a low boredom threshold.
  7. They won't thank you.

The A3 Report

The term "A3" is the international designation for 11" x 17" paper. The A3 Report process and methodology is utilized by the Toyota Motor Corporation to solve problems and focus the organization on structured learning opportunities. One way to describe the A3 Report is as "standardized storytelling," which refers to the ability of A3s to communicate both facts and meaning in a commonly understood format. Like all stories, the A3 has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Because of the format standardization, readers can focus easily on what is contained in the story. It becomes the basis for reaching a shared understanding.

A sample A3 is attached - it is deceptively simple. The report consists of a sequence of seven boxes. The A3s author or problem-solver attempts to: (1.) establish the business context and importance of a specific problem or issue; (2.) describe the current conditions of the problem; (3.) identify the desired outcome; (4.) analyze the situations to establish causality; (5.) propose countermeasures; (6.) prescribe an action plan for getting it done; and (7.) map out the follow-up process. Every report starts with a "theme" or title. The theme indicates the problem being addressed and is fairly descriptive. The theme should focus on the problem and not advocate a particular solution.

Current conditions are always based on facts derived from the gemba - the place where the work takes place. Real facts about the real work are derived from careful investigation on the part of the author. Visual methods are utilized to share information and thinking. This helps condense key facts into meaningful visual shorthand - storytelling tools that help pack a great deal of data into an elegant presentation. It is important to fully understand the cause of problems in the current condition diagram. One technique of root cause analysis is the "Five Why's Method." The problem-solver simply asks a why question approximately five times in series. Experience has shown that stopping at two or three whys usually means the inquiry has not gone deep enough.

Now that the problem-solver has a keen understanding of how the work currently gets done and how has a good grasp of the root cause(s) of the problems experienced with the system, one is now ready to consider how the system might be improved. Toyota calls the improvements countermeasures (rather than solutions) because it implies that (a) we are countering a specific problem, and (b) it is what we will use now until we discover an even better countermeasure. The A3s process explores a set of potential countermeasures rather than just one solution. By examining a range of potential choices, individuals uncover a broader and more meaningful basis for a dialogue analysis and agreement. Note that effective countermeasures can be produced only by speaking with everyone who touches the work. And so producing a viable plan requires meaningful input from everyone.

The implementation plan outlines the steps that must be accomplished in order to realize the target condition. The author lists the steps, when they need to be done, who is responsible. Since implementation is an activity, it should conform to the activity design principle (i.e., specify the content, sequence, timing, and outcome). Producing a realistic plan through the A3 process shifts the basis of decision making from formal authority to ownership of the problem itself. By developing a mastery of the issue at hand and involving the players in the process, the A3 author earns the authority to propose and move forward an effective plan. Every action plan includes a schedule or reflection, to identify problems, develop new countermeasures and communicate improvements to the rest of the organization. A3s are part of a learning cycle of continuous improvement - which is why a key Toyota saying is, "No problem is a problem." The ultimate goal of A3s is not just to solve the problem at hand, but to make the process of problem solving transparent and teachable in a manner that creates an organization full of thinking, learning problem solvers.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Three Traps of Innovation

Famed management guru Peter Drucker, in one of his last books Management Challenges for the 21st Century (1999) discusses the three traps to avoid which change leaders fall again and again:
  1. "The first trap is an innovation opportunity that is not in tune with the strategic realities discussed . . . [these strategic realities are referred to Drucker as the five certainties - (1.) The collapsing birthrate in the developing world, (2.) Shifts in the distribution of disposable income, (3.) Defining performance, (4.) Global competitiveness, and (5.) The growing incongruence between economic globalization and political splintering]. It is most unlikely to work. The only innovation likely to succeed is one that fits these major realities - of demographics, of changes in the distribution of income, of the way the institution itself and its customers define "performance," of global competitiveness or of political and economic realities. But the "misfit" opportunity often looks very tempting - precisely because it looks truly "innovative." But even if not resulting in failure - as it usually does - it always requires extraordinarily wasteful amounts of effort, money, and time.
  2. The second trap is to confuse "novelty" with "innovation." The test of innovation is that it creates value. A novelty only creates amusement. Yet, again and again, managements decide to innovate for no other reason than they are bored doing the same thing or making the same product day in and day out. The test of an innovation - as is also the test of "quality" - is not: "Do we like it?" It is: "Do customers want it and will they pay for it?"
  3. And the third trap: confusing motion with action. Typically when a product, service, or process no longer produces results and should be abandoned or changed radically, management "reorganizes." To to sure, reorganization is often needed. But it comes after the action, that is, after the "what" and the "how" have been faced up to. By itself reorganization is just "motion" and no substitute for action."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Russian writer, essayist, philosopher - and engineer. The author of Crime and Punishment (1866) - is a masterpiece of Russian and world fiction, as captivating as it is, in the end, mysterious. The Brothers Karamazov (1880) is the compelling story of what happens to a family when their morally corrupting father is murdered by one of his four sons. Dostoevsky is a graduate of the Military Engineering Academy at St. Petersburg. He was commissioned in 1841.

Engineering and Political Risk

Political risk matters to engineers. Risk is the probability that an event will turn into a measurable loss or lead to an unattended consequence. It is composed of two factors, probability and impact. How likely is the risk to occur? If it does occur, how big an impact will it have? Engineers are trained to deal with risks associated with contracts and natural disasters - earthquakes, floods, droughts, etc. Engineering organizations are also experienced in dealing with economic risks, such as inflation or credit risk. Most people understand the risk from smoking, political risk is much harder to quantify, yet no less different nor important to engineers than other forms of risk.

Globalization allows engineers to complete projects all over the world. From electronic equipment plants in China to highways in Turkey - the outlook and definition of political stability is a dynamic target for projects in distance countries. The political, social, economic, and foreign policy profile of a country (especially in the developing world) can change quickly and dramatically. Types of political risks that engineers and engineering organizations face can include the following:
  1. Geopolitical - international wars, great power shifts, and economic sanctions/embargoes.
  2. Global energy - politically decided supply and demand issues.
  3. Terrorism - destruction of property and kidnapping/hijackings.
  4. Internal Political Strife - revolutions, civil wars, Coup d'etat, nationalism, and social unrest.
  5. Expropriations - confiscations of property and creeping expropriations.
  6. Breaches of Contract - government frustrations or reneging of contracts and wrongful calling of letters of credit.
  7. Capital Market Risks - currency controls, politically motivated credit defaults/market shits, and repatriation of profits.
  8. Subtle Discrimination and Favoritism - discriminatory taxation and corruption.
  9. Unknowns/Uncertainty - effects of global warming, effects of demographic changes, and political events that cannot be foreseen.

Three things that organizations can do when trying to deal with political risks - (1.) Keep an open mind on long-term risks. While most organizations short-term bias is understandable, not having planning for big events that can be either grave threats or great opportunities can pose significant risk. Over the past 50 years, major geopolitical changes have occurred at least once a decade, (2.) Structure your organization to be nimble and know your strengths in case of a major shock, and (3.) Consider buying political risk insurance.

You can also remember the words of British Prime Minster Benjamin Disraeli "As a general rule, the most successful man in life is the one who has the best information."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Era of Adapting Quickly

The supply and demand for time. There is an increased demand for time, but the face of a clock offers a static supply. Conflict - our inability to add more hours to the day, and the number of years in a lifetime is increasing only slightly. We end up with a culture that dictates we have to move faster if we do everything we want to - and can - do. Speed is the only way to get more time, more life. Technology has allowed us to speed up. Culture, business, and individual experience are undergoing major shifts in the Age of Speed. Speed and change have become the same - change, flexibility, and lifelong learning have become the buzzwords of the speed experience.

Running concurrent to the Age of Speed is the Age of Surprise. Surprise has been deeply embedded in the core of our political, economic, and technological systems. The advance of globalization has created an interconnected world, one in which the boundaries that once separated domestic from international problems have eroded. Our recent financial meltdown and global recession illustrates how shocking declines in housing markets and financial gridlock have surprised even the most skilled and knowledgeable experts. The run up in energy prices two years ago points at the tight energy supply-demand constraints in the Age of Surprise. One global miscalculation or terrorist attack in the Age of Surprise can have monumental consequences in the price of energy resources. Technology advances surprise the entire global community daily - from applications on the latest iPhone to 150,000,000 individuals on Facebook to virtual design technology - The Age of Surprise is about exponential advances in innovation and technology.

When the Age of Speed intersects with the Age of Surprise, we are forced to recognize our entrance to the Era of Adapting Quickly. Management in the Era of Adapting Quickly requires a dynamic world view that includes a combination of flexibility, creativity, and demonstrated expert knowledge. In the long term, organizations must plan for a broad range of future scenarios. Planners must understand that many of the risks we face in the Age of Surprise do not follow a normal distribution, but one that is highly skewed. Really unexpected things happen far more often than our usual statistical models would indicate. Reducing the time (it is the Age of Speed!!) and costs of response to events in the Era of Adapting Quickly can substantially lower the risks associated with them. Flexibility in strategy can help an organization respond more nimbly when unforeseen trends or events emerge. Being organizationally agile is also import in this new era. The ability to detect opportunities in your environment, the willingness to take risks for the sake of speed, and the responsiveness to changes in your environment are all critical attributes in the Era of Adapting Quickly.

Consider a major change in your life or work in the past year. How did you respond to the change? Did it overwhelm you and halt your progress or did it surprise you and slow you down for a period of time? Were you able to quickly integrate the change into your life and make it work to your advantage? How would you respond differently in hindsight? How can you respond differently to change in the future?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Brain Time, Body Time, Butt Time

Reflections on how to view the time cycle of a day:
  • Brain Time - Even if you're not a morning person, you're most likely to grasp new concepts and understand complicated details between 9 am and noon, when short-term memory and mental activities peak.
  • Body Time - Use the time from 12:30 pm to 2:30 pm to work with your hands, move things around, and use your strength and adaptability. Spend this time being active, taking information in through movement and touch.
  • Butt Time - The afternoon lull arrives around 2:30 pm, when you're neither quick to think, nor smooth to move. General George Marshall made the observation that "no one ever had an original idea after three o'clock in the afternoon." Use this time to talk with other people, hear different perspectives, and integrate into your thoughts how their responses impact your work.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Engineering and Voltaire

Francois-Marie Arovet Voltaire was a French writer and philosopher. His writings covered religious and political systems as well as scientific research and French culture. His often quoted “The perfect is the enemy of the good” commentary impacts many aspects of engineering and project management. In some respects it symbolizes many of the conflicts and paradoxes that all professionals face and that many individuals face in everyday life.

Engineering is fundamentally the delicate balancing of constraints – time, money, labor, materials, performance, etc. It is the perfectionism of highly educated and skilled individuals counterbalanced in a world of imperfect information, imperfect budgets, imperfect time frames, and imperfect practices and philosophies. It is the professional who constantly monitors his or her own work and tries to improve it, that is, to make it better, even if it is good or good enough. It is the will of the individual versus the goals, attitudes, and motives of a larger team, group, or organization.

The conflict really starts in the first grade as a little ditty – “Good, better, best, never let it rest, till your good is better, and your better's best.” It continues with high school history with Clausewitz’s statement that “The greatest enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan.” Or Patton in 1944, “The best is the enemy of the good.” It is followed by the music teacher or football coach that loudly proclaims “Good enough promotes meritocracy by reducing desire for the best” as your day comes to an end. Standards are announced and set. Yes they are set – but never defined. A sliding scale of subjective interpretations becomes the norm. No definition, no meaning, no reflective comparisons – just a ranked order – terrible, poor, mediocre, fair, good, great, superb, perfect. What is the difference between good and great? How does one reconcile a lifetime of mixed messages and angst over a poorly defined sliding scale of performance expectations?

The guiding light in life is constraint acceptance and management – not just for the professional portions of a life. The reason Tiger Woods made the jumps from fair to good to great to superb was the elimination of time constraints. Golf had no other competition. Intense practice and preparation without the conflict of time has the potential to produce perfection. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success (2008) makes the same point regarding the Beatles. Before they performed in the United States in 1964, the group had played live over 1,200 times during a year and a half period. Clearly time was not a constraining factor.

Time is a central constraint for all professionals. The accountant during tax season. The surgeon six hours into a difficult procedure. The attorney with a death row client. The engineer trying to get a bridge back operational. The fundamental canon for all is “Do No Harm.” It is not “Do No Harm, and-by-the-way-make-it-perfect-as-if-time-did-not-matter-and-I-actually-had-Divine-guidance-on-what-perfect-actually-is.” Voltaire was correct – we will always have internal conflicts and struggles with good versus perfect. Engineering is a process that never becomes absolutely perfect. It is the nature of being a professional and time will not make it any better.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Altshuller and Innovation

Genrich Altshuller was a Russian and Jewish engineer, scientist, journalist, and writer. He is the father of what in English is called the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TIPS). Working as a clerk in a patent office, Altshuller embarked on finding generic rules that would explain the creation of new, inventive, and patentable ideas. During one of Joseph Stalin’s purges he was imprisoned for political reasons and continued his studies with his fellow inmates while in the labor camp. Altshuller died in 1998.

Today, TIPS (known in Russia as TRIZ) is a methodology, tool set, knowledge base, and model-based technology for generating innovative ideas and solutions for problem solving. The process provides tools and methods for us in problem formulation, system analysis, failure analysis, and patterns of systems evolution (both “as-is” and “could-be”). The techniques developed by Altshuller differ from more common innovation techniques, such as brainstorming. Traditionally, brainstorming revolves around the false premise that to get good ideas, a group must generate a large list for which to cherry-pick. But researchers have shown repeatedly that individuals working alone generate more ideas than groups acting in concert. Among the problems are these: throwing in an idea for public consideration generates fear of failure and engineers looking to advance their own interests often keep their best ideas to themselves.

Altshuller looked at the process differently. Instead of identifying a problem and then seeking solutions, he suggested turning the process around: breakdown successful products and processes into separate components and then study those parts to find other potential uses. The cornerstone of Altshuller’s work was his “40 Principles of Invention.” His most important observation is, “Inventing is the removal of a technical contradiction with the help of certain principles.” To develop a method for inventing and innovation, he argued, one must scan a large number of inventions, identify the contradictions underlying them and formulate the principle used by the inventor for their removal.

A leading practitioner of Altshullers’ ideas is an Israeli company called Systematic Innovative Thinking ( The company, which was founded in 1996, is privately owned and based in Tel Aviv. The firm has a team of 40 facilitators that focuses on projects in five major areas: Problem Solving, New Product Development, Marketing Communications and Advertising, Strategy, and Conflict Resolution. One of the “Thinking Tools” that the firm employs is called Subtraction.

Ask a co-worker next time at lunch to give you three quick suggestions for an improved alarm clock. Your co-worker will probably come up with ideas like these: introduce color or glow in the dark effects, have the clock emit a pleasant scent when it rings, create a larger and easier-to-push off-button, add an additional screen with pastoral scenes or smoothing music to help ease you into the morning. What do all of these ideas have in common? They all involve adding something to the original. Addition is the easiest way to modify a product – it’s so intuitive, in fact, that we usually don’t stop to consider the alternatives. But is more always better? Do added features always mean added value for clients? Consider how many functions your DVD player has (approximately 578). But how many do you actually use? One – Two? The DVD development process keeps adding features because that’s what we tend to think improvement and innovation are all about. But instead of the obvious approach, Subtraction might lead to a truly innovative product.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Five Dimensions of Success

Provided below is project management success criteria for five dimensions:
  1. Project Efficiency - Meeting time and budget goals.
  2. Impact on the Customer - Meeting requirements and achieving customer satisfaction, benefits, and loyalty.
  3. Impact on the Team - Satisfaction, retention, and personal growth.
  4. Business Results - Return on investment, market share, and growth.
  5. Preparation for the Future - New technologies, new markets, and new capabilities.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Engineering and Health Care Reform

Engineering is in competition with the health care industry. As a nation, we now spend 18 percent of our GDP on health care. In 1966, Medicare and Medicaid made up one percent of total government spending; now that figure is 20 percent, and quickly rising. The federal government spends 87 times more on health care than on our water supply.

Competition - in the form of a giant vacuum cleaner that keeps gobbling up capital and natural resources. It is seen as an island that doesn't touch or affect the rest of the economy. It is a competitor such that health care demand has no natural limits. It is a beast of immense size and power.

Columnist David Brooks of the New York Times makes the point that many industries have an interest in making sure health care spending rises to 20 percent of GDP, and then 22 and then 24. The engineering community is not one of them. There are statistics and then there are trends - and the competition trend line between engineering and health care is not looking good. The current health care system is outrageously expensive, dysfunctional, and economically corrupt - every percent increase in health care GDP takes money away from highways, water treatment, national defense, the new family car, etc. It directly displaces engineering opportunities at an alarming and ever increasing rate.

David Goldhill in his The Atlantic article "What Washington Doesn't Get About Health Care: Here's How to Fix It" does a first class job writing about the inadequacies of our current system. The story is a tale of Goldhill's 83-year old father and his five-week stay in ICU. For Goldhill, the cost issue is just one side of the story. The other side is the poor performance of our system. Goldhill writes:

"I'm a businessman, and in no sense a health-care expert. But the persistence of bad industry practices - from long lines at the doctor's office to ever-rising prices to astonishing numbers of preventable deaths - seems beyond all normal logic, and must have an underlying cause. There needs to be a business reason why an industry, year in and year out, would be able to get away with poor customer service, unaffordable prices, and uneven results - a reason my father and so many others are unnecessarily killed."

Brooks addresses this head on, " . . . did Barack Obama really get elected so he could pass the Status Quo Sanctification and Extension Act." Goldhill further writes:

"How would the health-care reform that's now taking shape solve these core problems? The Obama administration and Congress are still working out the details, but it looks like this generation of "comprehensive" reform will not address the underlying issues, any more than previous efforts did. Instead it will put yet more patches on the walls of an edifice that is fundamentally unsound - and then build that edifice higher."

David Goldhill's father was working at his job the day he entered the hospital. Within 36 hours, he had developed sepsis. He died five weeks later. The hospital bill came to $636,687.75

The Personality Profile of a Designer

Famed design firm IDEO CEO Tim Brown has developed a list of key characteristics that one should look for in design thinkers:
  1. Empathy - They can imagine the world from multiple perspectives - those of colleagues, clients, end users, and customers (current and prospective). By taking a "people first" approach, design thinkers can imagine solutions that are inherently desirable and meet explicit or latent needs. Great design thinkers observe the world in minute detail. They notice things others do not and use their insights to inspire innovation.
  2. Integrative Thinking - They not only rely on analytical processes (those that produce either/or choices) but also exhibit the ability to see all the salient - and sometimes contradictory - aspects of a confounding problem and create novel solutions that go beyond and dramatically improve on existing alternatives.
  3. Optimism - They assume that no matter how challenging the constraints of a given problem, at least one potential solution is better than the existing alternatives.
  4. Experimentalism - Significant innovations don't come from the incremental tweaks. Design thinkers pose questions and explore constraints in creative ways that proceed in entirely new directions.
  5. Collaboration - The increasing complexity of products, services, and experiences has replaced the myth of the lone creative genius with the reality of the enthusiastic interdisciplinary collaborator. The best design thinkers don't simply work alongside other disciplines; many of them have significant experience in more than one.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Engineering and the Beatles

Engineering likes the Taxman (and the Beatles). We need to help governments find new ways of raising and supporting taxes. Engineers need to review the lyrics of the Beatles' Taxman:

If you drive a car, I'll tax the street
If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat
If you get to cold, I"ll tax your heat
If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet

Civil engineering is intimately linked to the viability of the Highway Trust Fund. The fund was founded by the 1956 Highway Revenue Act. The Highway Trust Fund is unique in that it is funded by the users, namely those who travel on the highways. It is modeled on the Social Security Trust Fund, where money goes to the general treasury but is credited to the fund. In September 2008 the fund was depleted of funds and required a transfer of $8 billion from general revenue funds, by act of Congress. Currently the fund in projected to run out in 2009. As addressed by the GAO, "The highway Trust Fund balance is gradually being depleted because estimated outlays of the Highway Account exceed estimated revenues . . ." The Trust Fund faces forces and disruptive technologies on both sides of the revenue and expense equation. Our aging highway infrastructure assets and new mobility requirements place upward pressures on the expense side. Conservation and a severe global recession has placed downward pressure on the revenue side.

Potentially more disruptive to the current highway funding tax mechanism is changing technology. You have very smart people, like ex-Intel Andrew Grove, arguing that oil and cars are heading for a divorce. Grove regards electricity as the most promising replacement fuel, and thinks battery technology has the potential to produce an Intel-like company as the industry develops. Disruptive technologies that impact the Trust Fund will need engineers that can develop and support new strategies for the Taxman.

Our recent bust in tax revenues has impacted large groups of engineers. In particular is the real estate bubble - both Britain and the United States raise a higher proportion of their revenues from taxes on property than other countries. We are also facing a global economy in which it is easier to tax the static versus the mobile. Economist have noted that "revenue windfalls during asset-price boom periods are often misread as durable improvements in the underlying budget position." We have been highly dependent on the financial industry for tax revenue. In the good years, bumper bank profits inflated both corporation tax receipts and the income tax take from bonuses. The credit crunch has slashed the revenue from both. An unhappy Taxman makes for unhappy engineers.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes made the comment, "I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization." And what civilization buys - we design and build. The road and highways. The public library. The tank and jet fighter. The new public high school. We like the Taxman - he needs our input, support, and wisdom.

The Myth of Specialization

Engineering students showing T-shaped breath and depth that comes from a holistic approach to their profession during their undergraduate and professional development years - mastering core fundamentals as well as gaining an understanding of areas such as business, foreign culture, humanities, and social science - will be truly competitive in the 21st century. They will be able to acquire highly technical, highly specialized skill in postgraduate study, just as surgeons are trained after a solid grounding in more general medicine. World leaders such as IBM have already appreciated the value of T-shaped thinking with both management investments as well as their deployment of "services" markets that deliver technologies contextualized and customized to the social, economic, environmental, and business needs of individual clients.

More importantly, if we continue training and focusing the majority of engineering students and young professionals in narrowly prescribed technological formats, we will potentially create a resource not for global engineering leadership, but simply another global commodity, traded by markets at its lowest value and dependent upon the economic whims of any engineering employer. However, if we train our future professionals to be proficient in engineering thought, as T-shaped and holistic thinkers with fundamentals strongly in place as well as the skills to reason, learn, and innovate beyond traditional disciplines, we will have created a truly competitive and value-added engineer. This paradigm shift will require engineers pursuing highly specialized fields to gain additional skills in the first few years of practice, similar to the legal or medical professions. It will also allow engineering-trained individuals to bring their skill and acumen to professions ranging from law to finance and policy - all of which should, in fact, be infused with our professional expertise. The holistic engineer is, therefore, the most competitive employee of all

Friday, September 4, 2009

History is about . . .

. . . remembering the past, but it is also about choosing to forget. Pick up any book on project management and you will read stories of project failures. Some of the stories focus on managerial issues and problems. Some will focus on the technical aspects and failures. Finally, some will be a combination of both. The same stories, histories, and lists show, however, that the root causes of these failures are similar and often identical. So why don't we learn lessons on previous projects? Why do we fail to appreciate that the best path toward the future maybe through the past.

Principal causes of project and program failures will include the following:
  1. Inadequate planning in the broadest sense without contingency or risk mitigation.
  2. Underestimation of the scope of the work.
  3. Underestimation of the technical difficulties.
  4. Unexpected variations and design changes.
  5. Additional costs due to delay or the acceleration measures to recover delays or meet a fixed completion date.
  6. Unexpectedly high inflation.
  7. Unclear ownership.
  8. Failure to appreciate the organizational complexity of the project or program.
  9. Failure to appreciate the degree of novelty to those involved.
  10. Failure to allow for changing external regulatory or environmental requirements.
  11. Unsuitable contractual arrangements or strategies.
  12. Inappropriate allocation of risk and responsibility in the contractual arrangements.
  13. Failure to take the user's views into consideration.
  14. Use of inexperienced, incompetent or unsuitable resources and poor allocation of responsibilities.
  15. Discontinuities in project development.
  16. Systemic over-optimism.
  17. Lack of accountability for estimates, schedules, and management.

It is typically never just one of the above elements - it is a combination. The exception would be systemic optimism. If one looks at the list in terms of managerial versus technical, it is clear that the bulk of the issues are soft problems. They involve people and organizational risks.

Proper information exchange and education appear to be key. It is important to view the initial project planning process and function for projects and programs as an opportunity for learning and reinvention rather than as prediction or control. It is equally important to view the education opportunities with the correct attitude. The challenge of education and learning is not to prepare a person for success, but to prepare him or her for failure - where the focus is on lifetime learning and continuous improvement.

Typical constraints to project knowledge exchange and learning exercises include the following:

  1. We don't embark on a new task or project expecting to fail. We assume that other people's problems won't apply to us.
  2. We don't know what we don't know. People need to look for additional knowledge but don't realize that they lack it. We need to acknowledge that we could benefit from seeking assistance.
  3. We need time to seek out additional knowledge, but frequently the timescales for our projects mitigate against it.
  4. We need to believe that any effort will be rewarded - the confusion of effort versus results.
  5. We need to be incentivized to seek out additional knowledge.
  6. If we find information, we must be able to put it to a context that is relevant to us.
  7. We might be embarrassed by our new found knowledge. What if it contradicts our previous experience and actions?
  8. We need to have the power to utilize our new found knowledge.
  9. We need to think we have the power to make a difference.

The lost art of writing also comes into play. Projects are stories. They have a beginning and an ending, and in between lies their story. Project stories can be told and lessons can be learned - with the understanding that the cheapest ink is better than memory.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Six Ways We See

The vision thing. What is it? A vivid mental image. The ability to see. The perceptual experience of seeing. A product of the imagination - the formation of a mental image of something that is not perceived as real and is not presented to the senses. A mystical experience. Vision - the most important of all the senses for an engineer. The six ways engineers see the world:
  1. We see objects - the who and the what.
  2. We see quantities - the how many and how much.
  3. We see position in space - the where.
  4. We see position in time - the when.
  5. We see influence and cause and effect - the how.
  6. We see all of this come together and "know" something about our environment - the why.

The vision thing is important to engineering. It goes to the heart of the Buddhist masters concept of vision - right view, right intentions, right action. If you're not seeing the world properly, if you don't get the vision thing, you have little hope of any sort of productive insight or important discovery.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Everything in your life ends up in your act

An interesting line from comedian Aaron Freeman. You are all that you can do, and all that you can do is mirrored in what you create. The important point is that the wider your range of knowledge and feelings, the greater your range of imagination possibilities and the more synthetic and important your work will be. Famed bridge designer Charles Steinmetz encouraged his engineering students at Union College in Schenectady, New York, "to study Greek, Latin, history, philosophy, and other subjects offered in the Liberal Arts College. The classics open the world of art and literature to the student. A neglect of them is one of the most serious mistakes. Technical training alone is not enough to fit a man for an interesting and useful life."

The point of engineering education must be to create whole people who, through their wholeness, can focus the accumulated wisdom of human experience into patches of splendor and excellence. The nation needs engineering polymaths and pioneers who know that imagination thrives when passion joins with reason, when illusions link to reality, when intuition couples with intellect, when the heart units with the mind, when knowledge gained in one discipline opens the door to all the rest.

Robert Frost in his poem Two Tramps in Mud Time points out the greatest joy and greatest resource of the individual and of humankind, is the fusing of emotion, intellect, and purpose into one universal imagination:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight
Only when love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and future's sakes.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Engineering and Civilized Conversation

It’s the Swiss Army knife of social skills that engineers can learn to use. Conversation, more pointedly, civilized conversation. Engineers can take it with them wherever they go, and they’ll be equipped to turn a seatmate into a confident, and interviewer into an employer, and an acquaintance into a friend.

For a profession dominated by the aloof and introverted – conversation is less about talent and more about craft, art, and practice. In the book The Art of Civilized Conversation: A Guide to Expressing Yourself with Style and Grace (2004), author Margaret Shepherd makes the following points:

“Conversation lets you be an artist every time you open your mouth – or shut it. As Robert Stevenson said, “The most important art is to omit”; the key to being a master conversationalist is to listen at least as much as you talk. Just as the other arts include pauses in dramatic play, white margins around the printed text, and space between a singer’s phases, conversation is about silences as well as about words.

In addition to listening well, the other simple principles of civilized conversation – don’t ramble, don’t gossip, don’t bore, and disagree carefully – are not arbitrary demands of etiquette; rather, they are based on caring about yourself and about others. Etiquette and manners are not out-of-date rules. Instead they are generally accepted guidelines for making everyone comfortable enough to connect.

Good conversation is classy, humane, practical, universal, and when well done, seemingly effortless. It can also be defined by what it is not – civilized conversation is not the same as reciting, confessing, negotiating, scolding, or interviewing. It does not involve notifying, debating, or issuing orders, nor does it include baiting, shouting, hurling personal insults, contracting, grandstanding, or interrupting. It does not require a referee. It is most surely not what people hear on many television and radio talk shows: that is performance art of particular emptiness, and worst example of how to converse.”

Shepherd further defines her ten rules for civilized conversation:
  1. Tell the Truth
  2. Don't Ramble
  3. Don't Interrupt
  4. Ask Questions and Listen to the Answers
  5. Don't Take Advantage of People
  6. Don't Dwell on Appearances
  7. Don't Touch Taboo Topics
  8. Disagree in a Civilized Fashion
  9. Don't Be a Bore
  10. Don't Gossip