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Righteous Indignation June 21, 2010

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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Whether you like it or not, your professional engineering career is specifically geared toward clients who likely do not understand the technical design process. You are, after all, the professional. It’s easy to develop the sense that were it not for your unique skills, your clients would surely not be able to accomplish their goals. But, as we’ve discussed before, engineering education and licensure are merely the price of admission. More experienced engineers can see through this temptation and manage to suppress the idea that their career is a divine right.

No matter your experience level, with regular client interactions comes the occasional conflict or misunderstanding. Whether related to the project scope, a particular deadline, or even a personal problem between team members, the project manager or a ranking corporate leader is faced with a decision. Does the engineer necessarily know best? Or is the customer always right?

Let’s take the common example of a project deliverable, which often involves the design team working without direct contact with the client representatives. Their goals and directives are filtered through the project manager or others higher up the ladder. This is where the manager’s skill at interpreting (and yes, guiding) the client’s wishes pays great dividends. But think for a moment about a time when this may not have happened quite the way it should. The milestone is reached on time and on budget, but the manager meets with the client only to find out the product isn’t quite right. Technically, the design may be correct, safe, and efficient, but the client asserts that it was not what he thought it was going to be.

I have seen many cases in which the manager or engineer countered with the righteous indignation that comes from thinking that his way is the only way. This is wrong. No matter how shocked you might be that clients have “misunderstood” your work, part of the professional’s job is to educate them to the extent possible and over-communicate the project goals. Any misunderstanding on the client’s part is usually attributable to an earlier failure to communicate on the manager’s part.

That said, there are times when it is appropriate to pull rank on the client and assert one’s authority as a professional. But when this happens, it is just as important to be mindful that you are — at least temporarily — not an engineer dealing with data and calculations. You are now a negotiator and a “change manager.” You must now wear a different hat, one that requires tact, understanding of psychological needs, and empathy — things not normally taught during an engineering degree. Your job now is to gently and artfully convince the client that your way is indeed the best way. Again however, engineering righteousness is not the path to success.

Whether the client or the professional is ultimately found to be “right,” it is almost never appropriate to begin a negotiation with resentment or anger. Though it may require extra time and effort, such a conflict often requires the engineer to take two steps back, revisit prior communication with the client, and discover — in the client’s own words — what the true project goals are. In the long run, it won’t matter who was right or wrong on a particular point. Even if you are “right,” a client who is treated as a remedial student rather than a project partner won’t be around long enough for you to say, “I told you so.”

— from Insider’s View, June 2010

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