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Five Ways Good Engineering Leads to Bad Mangement
The Thinking Organization
Being Rational About Irrationality
Taking Chances
A Theater of Symbols


Organizational Design
Personal Effectivness
Team productvity
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Thinking Teams Blog

Five Ways Good Engineering Leads to Bad Mangement

Engineers can make great managers. They have highly-developed problem solving skills, and they have mastered knowledge needed to lead technology-based organizations. But the road from engineering to management can be surprisingly rocky. Management requires ways of behaving and thinking that can seem contrary to hard-learned engineering values. This can lead to teams of engineers, frustrated by managers who can’t manage, and newly-promoted managers who find themselves in positions of bewildering stress.

The Thinking Organization

This pyramid summarizes the Thinking Teams view of a successful organization, effectively moving toward its goals, powered by collaborating teams of wholehearted individuals. The pyramid builds from foundational elements; its layers show focus areas for organizational improvement and growth. 

          Starting from the base: 

  1. Self-Aware, Productive Individuals– a wonderful alignment happens when an organization enables its members to participate in a way that connects with their full selves, not just the conscious tip of the mind's iceberg (

Being Rational About Irrationality

People thinking together can achieve remarkable results. 2012 saw the discovery of the Higgs boson using the 17-mile-long Large Hadron Collider; the successful lowering of  the NASA Curiosity Lander to the surface of Mars by its sky crane (verified 14 minutes later when its radio signals finally reached earth); and Apple reaching a market capitalization of $375B, placing it first among technology companies. Human rationality made all these things possible. 

Of course, humans aren't always rational.

Taking Chances

 “Part of the $10M I spent on gambling, part on booze, and part on women. The rest I spent foolishly.” – attributed to George Raft 

Maybe George was onto something, at least the gambling part. Taking a chance on an uncertain outcome is often considered foolhardy or even immoral, yet chance-taking is at the core of life. Everything about our biology is built to capitalize on chance events, from the connection-rich carbon atoms we’re made of, to the way our DNA lets the occasional mutation squeak by, to the way sexual reproduction rolls the genetic dice.

A Theater of Symbols

In 1997 Scott Adams, creator of the cartoon Dilbert, put on a disguise and played management consultant at the real company, Logitech. With the cooperation of a company official who was in on the joke, Adams spent over an hour leading a group of senior managers to create a new mission statement, full of relatively content-free phrases such as “emerging, mission-inclusive markets”, “explore new paradigms”, and “filter and communicate and evangelize the findings”. 

Like most jokes, this one is funny because it is both absurd and true-to-life, just like the Dilbert comics.

Clean Politics?

For a long time I thought business politics was a dirty word. I guess I wasn't alone – this is from Wikipedia: “…. organizational politics are by definition: The pursuit of individual agendas and self-interest without regard to their effect on the organization’s efforts to achieve its goals…. See also Coworker backstabbing, Cronyism, Gaming the system, Nepotism, One-upmanship, Psychological manipulation, Workplace bullying …”. What a doctrine of dirty deeds! 

But the thing that really bugged me was people crying “politics” as a cop-out.

The 26 Hour-a-Day Manager

This is no shortage of advice on how to be a good manager. Right now I’m looking at a management textbook with over 500 references, and for each of those books and articles, you could probably find hundreds more saying basically the same thing. Why are management themes so frequently recycled? I think it’s because the problem isn’t in theknowing, it’s in thedoing. We know enough to construct an impossibly long to-do list of things a good manager should do. We start down our list of good intentions, and then find our actions dictated by the curve balls life decides to pitch our way.

Happy Cogs

The notion of an organization as a “factory” can make people frown. You know the story – dull, repetitive tasks; exploited workers; de-humanized cogs in a machine. This is what organizations get when they forget they are made up of people. But just the same, all organizations share a factory-like need to guide and coordinate human talents.

During my first years studying engineering in college, I worked in a factory that made trucks. I noticed a parallel: both factories and electrical circuits need a design that works in spite of variable and somewhat unpredictable components.

Corrective Lenses

In a sense, an organization is a big project. Like any project it needs a balance of structure and flexibility; it needs a healthy respect for the unknown, an infrastructure that fits, and courageous openness. However, an organization is more than just a project – it is an enabling environment. Lots of words are written about how to make organizations work, but I want to start by asking “Why do organizations fail?”. We have lots of examples of that – financial meltdowns, shuttle disasters, broken healthcare systems, car recalls.

Bendable Concrete

We often talk about life in blacks and whites, but life is lived in grays. Take the opposites “rigid” and “flexible”. The most rigid, unforgiving thing I can think of is concrete, and now there is “bendable concrete”*! Project leaders trying to enforce The Plan may see a black and white choice between order and chaos. What’s really needed is an agile shade of gray. 

Balancing project structure and flexibility is a fine art. Too little structure gives us the Wild West, unmet commitments, and a team limited to what can be achieved by the fittest survivor.
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