My 17-year-old daughter has decided to become an engineer, but she had no idea which engineering discipline to choose. Since I have connections in the profession, I began setting up appointments for her to meet with different kinds of engineers to see which discipline appealed to her most.
started with the two that I'm most familiar with—civil and
environmental. These engineers did a great job selling their specialty,
but none really connected with my daughter. Then one of my clients
arranged for her to tour the mechanical engineering department at
Virginia Tech. The light came on. She came back with an unexpected
amount of enthusiasm (after all, like many engineers, she had been
mainly drawn to the profession because she was good at math).
was it that caught her attention? Well, the robotics laboratory was
fascinating, of course. But the attraction went deeper. When she visited
the previous engineering offices, they inevitably pulled out plan sets
to show her their work. They designed things that others built. In the mechanical engineering lab, students designed, built, tested, and refined their work products. It was much more hands-on.
I'm not going to suggest that one field of engineering is better than
another. That is a personal preference, and all engineering disciplines
do valuable work. But I'm convinced there is added benefit in being
closely connected with the desired end result. Ultimately, that's what
engineers are hired to deliver. Does that mean that engineers must build
what they design in order to be more valuable? No, but I do think many engineers could take a more active role in envisioning and shaping the final outcome.
have several engineer friends who work in manufacturing. In talking to
them about their work, the customer is typically a prominent part of the
conversation. This is particularly true among those who make products for other businesses. They have a keen understanding of how their products help their customers succeed.
the engineers I work with in the AEC industry, not so much. Many of
them seem disconnected from the ultimate project outcomes. Why is the
client doing this? What is the business result that is needed? When I
pose these questions, I'm often disappointed how little many engineers
in our business understand the answers.
problem isn't limited to the engineers, by the way. Architects can also
be prone to overlooking the client's desired end results. A common
client complaint is that many architects seem to favor form over
function, emphasizing aesthetic design values over practical priorities
(such as staying within the client's budget!). One of my favorite
architects once told me that his first responsibility was to create
spaces that maximize functionality. Aesthetics take precedent, he said,
only when the client has designated that as a critical function of the
how can we do a better job connecting our work with the outcomes that
ultimately drive our projects? If you follow this blog, you no doubt
recognize that I've touched on this general theme before. I keep
revisiting it because I keep seeing evidence that it is needed. So here
are a few recommendations on how to make your work more results oriented:
Uncover the strategic drivers behind your projects. A/E projects typically help clients achieve strategic business or mission goals.
Do you know what those are? Can you describe specifically how your
design or solution will enable the client to fulfill those goals?
Don't overlook the human dimension of your solutions. People
are always the primary benefactors of your projects. Yet many technical
professionals tend to be more focused on the technical aspects of the
work than how people are affected. When working on a technical problem, be sure to consider the human consequences. Your solution should explicitly address both the problem and how it impacts people.
Learn to describe your work in terms of its ultimate outcomes. I often point to our project descriptions
as evidence that improvement is needed in this area. What do they
describe? Typically the tasks performed. Sometimes the technical
problem. Rarely do I read, in specific terms, of how the project helped
the client be successful. The same is often true in our conversations
with existing or prospective clients.
Promote greater cross-disciplinary collaboration. One of the most common project delivery problems I encounter is inadequate coordination between disciplines. This is a primary cause of design-related construction claims. But true collaboration
across disciplines goes deeper than merely avoiding mistakes. It
leverages the different perspectives and strengths of each discipline to
deliver a more encompassing, higher value solution—one that looks
beyond the details of project execution to achieving the project's
Follow the project all the way through. Sometimes A/E firms are contracted through construction and even start-up. That enables you to have a more direct role in ensuring the project's ultimate success. But what if the contract ends with the completed design? I urge that you keep in contact with the client, offering advice and answering questions, helping the finished project achieve its stated goals. It's not all that uncommon that design-related problems occur during construction or operation that the design firm is not made aware of. It's best to monitor project progress to the end to be in a position to help and perhaps learn from your mistakes.
most valuable thing we do in our industry is not engineering and
architecture, but helping clients realize their dreams and ambitions. We
solve problems that hamper their business performance and create
facilities that enable their success. When we get closer to the desired
end results, the perceived value of our work increases. Agree or
disagree? Do you have other suggestions for how our profession can be
more directly involved in delivering business results?