Sunday, August 02, 2015

"I See the Problem"—Or Do You?

Apologies in advance to those who have heard the following joke, but it illustrates an issue that can get engineering types into trouble—not technical trouble, but trouble in an organization or setting in which more skills are called for than technical ones.

During the French Revolution, when the guillotine was busily employed in purging the body politic of undesirable elements, the time came one morning to execute three enemies of the revolution:  a priest, a nobleman, and an engineer.  A large crowd gathered to watch the execution.  First, the priest was led forward.  He was given a last chance to recant from his faith.  He refused.  The executioner pulled the rope that lifted the deadly blade up to the top of the guillotine.  The priest's neck was placed in the bloody slot—the basket to catch his head was readied—and the signal was given to release the blade.  The blade began to fall—and halfway down, it jammed!  Instantly the crowd shouted "A miracle!  Release him!"  As skeptical as the revolution's leaders were of miracles, they were equally afraid of having the crowd turn against them, so they let the priest go.

Next, the nobleman was led forward.  Accused of exploiting the poor, he remained proud and unrepentant.  Again the blade was raised to the top, again the neck was laid bare to the path of the deadly knife, again the signal was given—and again, the blade jammed halfway down!  "A miracle!" cried the crowd.  So the nobleman was released too.

Finally, the engineer came forward.  His crime?  Helping the old regime stay in power through his apparently magical arts.  He made an odd request.  Instead of being placed face-down like the others, he asked to be placed face-up so he could see what was coming.  It seemed a harmless if perverse request, so it was granted.  For the third time that morning, the blade was raised to the top, the engineer took his position facing the instrument of his doom, and the signal was given.  Midway in its fall, the blade jammed yet a third time!  Above the cry of the crowd came the voice of the engineer:  "I see the problem!!"

This story came to mind as I considered the results of a little 24-question test I took to find out what my leadership strengths and weaknesses are.  You might wonder why engineers need to be concerned about leadership at all.  As we have mentioned from time to time in this space, most engineers who don't leave the engineering field altogether eventually become managers of one sort or another, and good management requires leadership skills.  And even the lowliest engineers in an organization deal with non-experts who look to the engineer as a technically informed person, and one way to describe such a relationship is that of leader to follower.

Given that engineers need to lead, it's a good idea to know what leadership pitfalls await the kind of personality who typically becomes an engineer.  For what it's worth, you can consider the point of view taken by one Gary Salton, who sent me a notice about the results of some research his consulting firm has performed recently.  All I know about Mr. Salton is what he sent me and some background information on Wikipedia, but I think he has at least one good point:  if you tend to approach life with only one set of skills, you should be aware that you may get into trouble when you deal with others who use different kinds of skills.  Specifically, analyzing problems is not the only way to deal with life.

Salton has developed a sociological analysis of organizations that he calls "I Opt," which is short for "input-output processing template."  Basically, he treats individuals in organizations in terms of their inputs and outputs and the type of processing they do best.  He seems to think that most people can be classified in terms of four types:  Logical Processors, Reactive Stimulators, Relational Innovators, and Hypothetical Analyzers.  He has developed a free online test that anyone who can read English can take, and it spits out a good-size Word document that is a customized report on your leadership strengths and weaknesses based on how you score in each of the four types.  According to my report, and material on Mr. Salton's website, I am a rather typical engineer in that I scored highest in the Hypothetical Analyzer category. 

That makes sense, because engineers spend lots of time studying complex problems and imagining how a proposed solution would work in the context of real-world situations.  The proposed solution is the hypothesis, and the analysis consists of checking to see if the solution will work by using theoretical and computational tools, or by building prototypes and testing them.  In a report Salton recently released, he says these are appropriate activities for engineering organizations.

But one of the hazards this personality type faces is over-investment in analysis.  This warning rings true to me.  Looking back on my career, I can recall several times when I was attracted to a problem, not because a lot of people urgently needed a solution for it, but simply because it looked fun to analyze.  Consequently, several of my projects that I invested months or years of work in were stillborn, in the sense that once I was finished, nobody cared.  In the case of the hapless engineer who analyzed the guillotine, figuring out the solution to that problem was the last thing he wanted to do—and maybe it was.

Salton's I Opt concept is in the sociological tradition of organizational analysis that goes back at least to Rensis Likert, the fellow who back in the 1930s developed the five-point Likert scale that goes from "strongly agree" to "agree" to "neutral" to "disagree" to "strongly disagree."  In his work, Salton tries to objectify information about human organizations, and because humans are unique, such knowledge can never be exhaustive.  But in pointing out a type of blind spot that engineering personalities are prone to, Salton has made one good point, a point with which I strongly agree.

Sources:  Gary Salton's "I Opt" leadership test can be found on his website at, as can a report at describing the results of a study of over 4,000 engineers that shows the important differences in leadership style compared to a larger sample of other professionals.  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on Rensis Likert and organizational engineering.

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