If there’s one thing that Sridhar Ramanathan wants engineering professionals to know, it’s this: communication skills are absolutely vital — when you want to create richer, better solutions to real-world challenges.
“Often, you will need to share your thinking and conclusions with your employers, or with a group of colleagues,” explains the San Francisco-based consultant, who is managing director and co-founder of Aventi Group, a high-tech product-marketing firm. “You might also need to engage in critical thinking, where both oral and written communications are essential to group effectiveness,” he continues. “Mastering key essentials of communicating effectively will help you go a long way in advancing the group’s critical thinking.”
Ramanathan’s valuable new e-book, Critical Thinking for Engineers – Book 2: Communication Skills, is the second volume in a series about critical thinking strategies that enable engineers to deliver the most effective and innovative solutions. IEEE-USA is introducing the e-book this month for $2.99 for members and $4.99 for non-members.
Book 1 in the series, published earlier this summer, focuses on analytical skills, and is available for the same member and non-member price.
In this new e-book in the series, Ramanathan discusses the eight key elements that he believes are crucial for engineers to master or — at the very least — be aware of when participating on problem-solving, or similar, teams:
- Asking important questions
- Active listening
- Expressing opinions and ideas
- Written communication
- Running a team meeting
- Collaborating on a project
- Managing conflict
“Each element plays a vital role in engineers working successfully as part of a team, department, or larger organization,” he says.
In a chapter about asking the right questions, Ramanathan cites a Harvard Business Review article. It asserts that “questioning is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in organizations: it fuels innovation and performance improvement, builds rapport and trust among team members. And it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards.”
He explores several tactics to use with fellow engineers and management, when discussing an engineering problem. For example, he recommends always using a friendly tone to prompt better responses.
“Ask questions from a place of genuine curiosity and exploration,” he writes. “You’ll find people will open up, and bring more of their full creativity to the exercise.” He points out that asking a question with a cynical, judgmental, or even accusatory tone immediately sets up an ineffective team dynamic — defensive, rather than expansive and productive.”
Ramanathan also recommends asking open-ended questions. He notes the broader the line of thinking and discussion, the more likely the team will devise a breakthrough, elegant solution.
Questions that encourage expansive thinking include: “What new possibilities are we opening up?” and “Why is this important to address?”
He also suggests digging deeper, before moving on to another solution or topic.
“Clarify and confirm assumptions that will affect engineering decisions,” he writes. “Often, this step of checking assumptions will flag differing assumptions and disconnects among team members,” he continues. “If undetected, they can lead to wasted cycles downstream due to re-work, missed deadlines and incomplete solutions.”
In another chapter, Ramanathan discusses how to more effectively express opinions and ideas. “In a world where the competition for your brain’s attention is fiercer than at any time in history, you need to do more than just rely on good ideas to speak for themselves,” he writes. “You must do more to be heard.”
For example, he suggests physically leaning in at the conference room table, or in the video conference call, so your face and body are more visible. “Body language accounts for a huge percentage of communications, so when you lean in it sets a cue to others that you’re taking the floor,” he says.
He recommends speaking up with short, declarative statements, and summarizing your key points at the end. He urges avoiding weak opening statements that start with, “I was just thinking,” or “Maybe we should.”
Ramanathan advises starting with the key point, and then adding in justification and explanation — only as needed.
The author strongly believes in the power of the written word, and he urges engineers to learn to write clearly and accurately. To underscore the importance of writing skills, he cites the 1999 NASA Mars Climate Orbiter, which burned up in the Martian atmosphere. The failure occurred because scientists did not convert units from Imperial to metric, mistakenly assuming that onboard software would calculate pounds of force — rather than the metric unit of Newtons.
Among the best practices Ramanathan cites of engineering writing is to understand and write for a clear purpose — such as writing to inform, persuade, describe, justif,y or defend.
“Knowing why you’re writing will help you adjust your style and content length to achieve the specific purpose,” he emphasizes.
Ramanathan also advises simplifying the complex. “It takes effort to write concisely, clearly and in the most impactful way possible,” he observes.
Sridhar Ramanathan has 30 years of experience in technology companies, ranging from startups to blue-chip firms. As managing director and co-founder of Aventi Group, he has been instrumental in leading many high-tech organizations through high-growth phases. Prior to co-starting Aventi Group, he was the marketing executive for Hewlett-Packard’s Managed Services business. Ramanathan has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, and a B.S. in Engineering Physics from the University of California, Berkeley.
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.