Great teams are creative and collaborative. You don’t need an engineering blog to tell you that. In fact, if you’re like me, your social media sites are full of management consultants who make that very point everyday —eager to sell you a book or two-day seminar.
Yet, even when you follow management best practices, collaboration and creativity can still get stuck. Why? Because you don’t manage teachers and lawyers. You manage engineers, and they have different motivations and needs.
I’m not saying you’re the problem—a number of forces can shut down collaboration and innovation on a good engineering team. But, before you sign on with another consultant, make sure you’re not making any of these engineering management mistakes:
- Your collaboration processes are too structured. Production lines are repetitive and predictable, so you can closely define the workflow and the communication processes. Not so when it comes to new product development. The experts say that when engineers collaborate, nobody can predict who might be involved, when, where, in what context, with what technologies. In highly collaborative and successful teams, researchers find that team members enlist multiple tools—email, text messaging, wikis, PDM, etc. They also gather valuable information in the hallways and on the phone. If you’re loading them down with formal requirements and structured interactions, it won’t work. Make sure the tools and processes you’ve rolled out are easy to use, widely available, and support multiple streams of collaboration.
- Your team transitions are haphazard. In a fascinating comparison of a highly effective NASA team versus struggling engineering school project teams, a researcher found that the way each managed transitions mattered deeply. When the NASA team added staff, they brought in folks that filled existing expertise gaps, provided extensive training in the project, and set up face-to-face meetings for staff that worked in other geographies. The student team, however, struggled with leadership and ownership when new members joined. There was little attention to integrating the new talent. And the teams muddled through their projects without really collaborating. The exception? One student team that shifted leadership during the course of the project according to each member’s expertise. The lesson? Whenever possible, make sure your team recognizes the talents new team members bring, provide good training, and offer social support. That way, the team more quickly adapts to the change and includes even the newest additions in their collaboration efforts.
- Innovation is too narrowly defined. We tend to think of innovation as something that applies to products or services—that elusive better mousetrap or faster fast food. There’s more to it. Innovation and creative thinking can also uncover new markets for old products, redefine processes, or suggest new resources—like crowd funding or a novel material. If you’re not rewarding all kinds of innovation from your engineers, you might be discouraging transformational ideas.
- You’re not recognizing true creativity. I’ll tell you the truth. I wouldn’t have guessed a blue LED was such a big deal. Why? I don’t have domain expertise. I didn’t know we didn’t already have them, or that they were more difficult to build than the green and red ones. Now the people who invented them are collecting Nobel prizes. Truly breakthrough work is hard to identify when it first surfaces, says Harvard Business School Amabile . If you don’t have domain expertise, you may be rejecting great ideas and not even know it. That’s not only a loss to your team, it’s also demotivating to your best people. It may not be possible to be an expert in everything—materials, FEA, CAD, injection molding, 5-axis CNC machining, and so on—but do your best to keep up to date or find other people who can give you insight when you need it.
- You’re not talking to your young people. There’s a website in which a college student advises his fellow aspiring mechanical engineers: “Don’t try and be idealistic or change the world right out of the gate. Build your reputation … and gain credibility.” Too many novice engineers think that way. As such, they are often intimidated and afraid to speak up. Check in with your newer team members occasionally to see what they’re thinking and what they know. Sometimes they have solutions nobody else thought of.
Every class of technology undergoes an era of innovation and disruption. For PDM systems, we’re in such an era today. Lifecycle Insights' Principal Analyst Chad Jackson put together the perfect buyer's guide to help you weigh your options.