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Collaborative Teams Succeed (and Fail) Together

By William S. (Bill) Bunch

In my previous IEEE-USA InSight article, “Effective Communication Skills Vital for New and Emerging Leaders,” I discussed how your communication style will be important to building rapport with various team members. In this article, I will expand on the idea that engineers are part of broader, multi-disciplined collaborative teams, and how this involvement could very well lead to maximizing the overall quality of the design. This concept may not seem obvious at first, since engineers often think of themselves as a self-reliant group. But it is that mindset that may prevent the design from attaining its optimal configuration. I often refer to this as “Team Awareness,” or being aware that you are part of a larger team whose common goal is to produce a quality product for a customer.

The first thing an engineer must realize is that it indeed does take a team to design, produce and deliver a product. I came to believe that everyone from the company vice president to the assembler was equally important, and as such, each team member should be treated with respect and recognized for the skill they possess and utilize. In the end, everyone has the same goal, but contributes various but equally important things consistent with their role. The team will celebrate the successes and share in the failures.

It is true that the design engineer will spend the bulk of their time working with their peers. Having said that, even your colleagues will be a diverse group with a wide variety of technical disciplines, abilities and probably niche skills. Each engineer will also have their own individualized assigned tasks. Since each designer will be working largely independently, the tendency is for each engineer to be totally self-reliant and perform their work in isolation. That’s of course ok to a degree. You want people to feel ownership of their tasks. It is very important to keep in mind however that the eventual success of your design will likely be dependent on the success of another colleague’s work product. And vice versa – the success of your colleague’s work will likely depend on the success of your work product. Put another way, everyone should be equally invested in the other’s success.

Undoubtedly, you have  heard about how important collaboration is. The field of engineering is certainly no exception. Collaboration isn’t just a buzz word – it is vitally important and, in fact, essential. What does get lost, sometimes, is the notion that collaboration goes beyond just “engineer to engineer” collaboration. Your team will also include people with skills and expertise in areas seemingly unrelated to the products’ design. You should realize that your design could benefit from collaboration with folks outside of the immediate engineering team. Everyone’s individual work and/or life experiences gives birth to ideas. In other words, everyone has a bit of engineer in them, regardless of the college degree they may or may not have.

Along these lines, the designer often must reconcile many different considerations. The procurement representative might have an idea that reduces product unit cost; the technician may contribute something that helps improve the design’s manufacturability; the test engineer may offer ideas that would reduce test time; the reliability engineer may have you incorporate attributes into the design that help extend the life cycle of the product; the planner may have an idea that reduces design cycle time; and so on. The first job I had after receiving my degree was for a power company. During my first few weeks on the job I remember thinking how ridiculous it was that some line crew members knew more about my job than I did. For goodness sake I had an engineering degree! I knew calculus and what force vectors were. Shoot, I even knew what the “k” stood for in kV! Looking back on it now I think about how close-minded I was. Thank goodness time, experience and perspective reversed that way of thinking.

In the event that you are a leader overseeing the execution of multiple designs, your role becomes more of a facilitator to ensure that the exchange of these collaborative ideas occurs. This could be done in many ways, for example:

  • Conduct periodic design status meetings with the cognizant stakeholders present
  • Coordinate peer reviews primarily with the engineering staff that provide a forum for other team members to share and exchange technical ideas and experiences (this also helps ensure the mosaic of their respective work products integrate with one another)
  • Stay one step ahead of the designers and reach out to those people you know will need to contribute, and encourage them to proactively contact your designer. Encourage your designer to contact them. And follow up to make sure it happened.

The idea is to facilitate the discussion. One invaluable by-product of soliciting others’ input is noteworthy – doing so will make them feel more integrated into the development of the product, which leads to them having a greater sense of product ownership. This, in turn, leads to greater team unity, cohesiveness and pride. Those are obviously good things, but it will also certainly pay dividends if or when the team runs into adversity.

One last thing. It is rare that difficulties aren’t encountered somewhere along the way. Quite frankly it is more a question of how significant and challenging the issue is rather than if one is encountered. When that time comes, if the failure or problem appears to be outside your immediate area of responsibility, it is almost human nature, as a means of self-protection, to point the finger at someone else. Try very hard to resist that tendency. That type of tribal turf protection is not productive and could lead to division and animosity. Stay engaged in the problem-solving process and learn from the experience. You may even be able to offer up an alternative solution that is within your span of control. Either way, you will find that the shared responsibility for overcoming adversity, navigating around obstacles and solving hard technical problems will lead to a more tightly integrated team and make the eventual success you do achieve even more rewarding.

William S. (Bill) Bunch is a recently retired electrical engineer, having spent the bulk of his professional career working for a global aerospace and defense company in the design, test, integration, fabrication and delivery of systems used by the U.S. military. Bill enjoys sharing his knowledge and experience particularly to early career and aspiring engineers. He is currently a volunteer mentor in the Horizon Scholar Program which strives to increase college access and professional opportunities to low income students in grades 9-12.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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